Seen on Broadway: For anyone who actually misses the angst of middle school, head over to Circle in the Square for the Broadway transfer of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee by William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin, and directed masterfully by James Lapine. After a sold-out run at the Second Stage Theatre, the show made the transfer seamlessly to the often unwieldy space, turning it into—as one of the spellers says—"an underground gymnasium." The entire original cast is intact and they seem to relish their new space in the Circle’s thrusting stage that takes the action out into and around the audience…just like a real spelling bee in a real gymnasium.
The winning cast is one of the best ensembles in recent memory and they all have their moment to shine: whether it’s the sudden burst of puberty by last year’s champ, Chip Tolentino (Jose Llana); the multi-lingual overachiever Marcy Park (Deborah S. Craig) who suddenly stops trying; the hippy kid Leaf Coneybear (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) who realizes he’s smarter than his family thinks he is; the politically activated Logan Schwarzengruber (Sarah Saltzberg) with two daddies; the insecure Olive (Celia Keenan-Bolger) who’s best friend is her dictionary; or the unfortunately named Will Barfee (Dan Fogler) who had to leave last year’s competition due to a bad allergic reaction, all the actors more than gamely score, while never seeming uneasy playing children. Bee emcee Rona Lee Peretti (Lisa Howard), vice principal Doug Panch (Jay Reiss), and hoodlum-turned-counselor Mitch Mahoney (Derrick Baskin) are also on hand to make sure the Bee proceeds as planned and work well in the sometimes thankless roles of adults in a kids’ world.
The design team is also at the head of the class, repeating their creative roles they scored so well with off-Broadway. Natasha Katz’s lighting works wonderfully in the space and seems even richer than it did off-Broadway. The sound by Dan Moses Schreier ably fills the theatre as he meticulously balances the sound during the Bee and the fantasy sequences, moving from a hint of reverb to reverb seamlessly. Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt had to basically take his original scewed gymnasium set and elongate it, thus giving the actors a bigger playground. In the new setting his designs add even more whimsy to the show. The costumes by Jennifer Caprio are the only design element that remain unchanged, but they still work as well as they did before in hiding the adult actors’ physiques and squaring them off like that of typical kids. Her creation for Leaf Coneybear is especially inspiring as is, coincidentally, her costume for Jesus who now appears to Marcy Park in the audience, rather than from behind the upstage curtain as he did off-Broadway. (The lighting equipment was supplied by PRG. The audio equipment came from Masque Sound.)
Spelling Bee is one of the most charming shows Broadway has welcomed in many seasons. It would be a shame for any serious theatre aficionado to be marked absent from the Circle in the Square Theatre!---Mark Newman
Seen at Lincoln Center New York City Ballet opened its spring season with an ambitious schedule featuring five premieres. These new works include the company premiereof Distant Cries, choreographed by Edwaard Liang with lighting by Mark Stanley, the company’s resident lighting director (who also lit Peter Martin’s new work, Tala Gaisma which was on the program I saw). A very short piece, Distant Cries, is set to music by Tomaso Albinoni and features two principal dancers, Wendy Whelan and Peter Boal (the piece premiered in March with Boal’s own company at The Joyce). The lighting also plays a major role as Whelan starts dancing on a darkened stage and as the lights come up, you see Boal standing in the shadows upstage. He joins her for a duet, before disappearing upstage into the darkness again, leaving her alone, as if she conjured him from her memory to relive a few moments together. A lovely little ballet.
A world premiere, Christopher Wheeldon’s new piece, An American In Paris is a larger, very lively ballet set to music by, you guessed it, George Gershwin, and based on the Vincente Minelli film of the same name, featuring Gene Kelly. The design features a series of colorful scrims, somewhat abstract, somewhat cubist, by set designer Adrianne Lobel. The scrims evoke street scenes and monuments, such as the Eiffel Tower, in Paris while the 1950s-inspired costumes by Holly Hayes run the gamut from perky little berets and French police uniforms to sultry dresses and the yellow winner’s jersey from the Tour de France bicycle race, with principal dancer Damian Woetzel dressed distinctively as an American as he flirts with two women, one with the bohemian look of an artiste, perhaps, the other more demure in a pink dress and hat. Natasha Katz created the lighting, carrying the action from behind to in front of the scrims and washing the stage with light as the hustle and bustle of Parisian street life whirls by. This is a fun piece, and a chance to see the members of the New York City Ballet do something a little jazzier.---Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Seen at the Movies: If any movie duo in recent memory deserves to have their own franchise, it is definitely Steve Zahn and Matthew McConaughey currently starring in Sahara, a theme park ride of a movie. The duo’s onscreen chemistry is nothing short of magnetic and they play off each other with ease; you could see these guys hanging out together off-camera having beers, playing bongos, whatever. Based on the novel of the same name by prolific author Clive Cussler, this is the first time his hero Dirk Pitt (played by McConaughey) has been portrayed since Richard Jordan played him in 1980’s Raise the Titanic, a movie so bad to make one appreciate Beyond the Poseidon Adventure!
Although I haven’t read the novel on which it is based, I find it hard to believe that fans of Cussler’s work would be disappointed by the rapid-fire version directed by Brett Eisner that gives Indiana Jones a run for his money. DP Seamus McGarvey does a spectacular job of taking the audience on a tour de force through various African locales; the viewer really gets a taste of what this mysterious part of the world feels like. The characters always found themselves with available costumes—courtesy of Anna Sheppard--much like a Hope & Crosby road picture, but it only added to the fun. Allen Cameron’s production design was almost bi-polar as we found our adventurers on the backs of camels in one scene, to a high-end yacht, to a very polished factory in the middle of the desert. Sahara is an all-around fun adventure and—parents rejoice—it is suitable for the whole family.
Either you love Martin Short’s Jiminy Glick character or you don’t. Fortunately for me, I do, and I enjoyed Jiminy Glick in Lalawood, yet another TV character who crosses the line from TV cult to big screen boob. The story has Jiminy attending the Toronto Film Festival with wife Dixie (Jan Hooks) and his twins, Matthew and Modine. Jiminy quickly becomes immersed in a murder mystery and mayhem ensues, as only it can around this clueless celebrity hound. Much of the film was improvised (the script was only 40 pages) and what works well for director Christopher Guest doesn’t so much for director Vadim Jean, despite a game cast including Guest company member John Michael Higgins, Janeane Garofalo, Linda Cardellini, and Elizabeth Perkins. The cinematography by Mike Fox switched from film noir to pedestrian very ably and the sets by Tony Devenyi were fine, though most of the film takes place on the premises of a couple of hotels, one classy, one not so much. The costumes of Lorraine Carson were fine with white trash punctuations for Dixie’s garb and suitable elegance for the "movie stars" Jiminy stumbles over time and again.
Seen at the Movies: Ridley Scott’s Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven is certainly spectacular, featuring as it does a vivid recreation of 12th-century Jerusalem by production designer Arthur Max, CGI-heavy battle scenes to rival those in The Lord of the Rings films, and the kind of flashy cinematic sweep Scott brought to his Academy Award-winning Gladiator. What the film doesn’t have is the key element to Gladiator’s success—a human yet fittingly larger-than-life hero at the center of the spectacle. Instead, we’re offered Orlando Bloom as the boyishly blank-faced Balian, a poor French blacksmith who somehow finds himself leading an army in its defense of Jerusalem, which comes under siege by Saracen general Saladin’s forces. At the beginning of the movie, knight and baron Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) introduces himself as Balian’s father and is killed in short order, leaving the protagonist to take up his predecessor’s sword in the Holy Land. Everyone keeps talking about what a great leader, soldier, and strategist Balian is, but the audience has no way of knowing how he came by any of these skills—Scott and screenwriter William Monahan seem to think saying it makes it so. And Bloom, who was a perfect Legolas in Lord of the Rings, is thoroughly incapable of picking up the screenplay’s slack. His casting seems a blatant sop to teenyboppers everywhere.
The film, which is actually set between the Second and Third Crusades, also suffers from its determination to offend neither Muslim nor Christian, ascribing very modern-sounding enlightened sentiments to every character except scenery-chewing villains Marton Csokas and Brendan Gleeson. All of this makes Kingdom of Heaven come across as a very bland experience, despite such capable cast members as Jeremy Irons and Edward Norton. (Norton’s entire performance as Jerusalem’s King Baldwin IV is played behind a silver mask designed to hide the king’s disfiguring leprosy.) The film is never exactly boring, though it has a lurching, abbreviated quality. There’s always something to look at—DP John Mathieson has the trademark Scott style, combining diffused and sculpted light, down pat, and costume designer Janty Yates gives the one major female character, played by Eva Green, some really fun headdresses and harem pants to wear. Max’s sets, created on location in Spain and Morocco, are of course enhanced and extended by digital work supervised by Wesley Sewell but still, their massiveness is very impressive. The image of Jerusalem standing as a dusty stone fortress in the desert against thousands of invading Saracens is the kind of thing movies were invented for.
Crash is a powerful, in-your-face slice of multicultural L.A. life that insistently settles on racial intolerance as its subject. I say insistent because there is not a moment in the film when writer-director Paul Haggis isn’t driving home his point: that every one of the many characters, from working-class white cop Matt Dillon and African-American upper-middle-class couple Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton to the assorted Persians, Hispanics, and Koreans that fill out the cast, harbors some degree of racism, or least racial preconceptions and distrust. Haggis deserves credit for not pulling any punches, but I think Crash would be more effective if he allowed his characters more room to breathe. Part of the problem is the sheer number of them—Don Cheadle, cast as a detective, comes closest to occupying a central role, while people like Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock put in what amount to cameo appearances, and characters played by Ryan Philippe, Jennifer Esposito, and Larenz Tate seem to demand greater shading. Former ace camera operator J. Michael Muro is director of photography, and he does vibrant work, especially in capturing the heart of the city in its traffic. The contributions of production designer Laurence Bennett and costume designer Linda Bass are indispensable in conveying the range of socioeconomic worlds on view.
Writer-director Gregg Araki (The Living End) shows a very welcome new maturity in Mysterious Skin, the strong, compassionate story of two troubled teenagers in small-town Kansas. Brian (Brady Corbet) and Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), barely know each other, but each has found his own way of dealing with childhood sexual abuse: Brian has convinced himself he was abducted by aliens, while Neil has become a numbed-out hustler. Araki captures perhaps better than anyone before the kind of conflicted responses too-early sexual experiences can produce, particularly when the victim has feelings for his abuser, who may be genuinely seductive. There’s a slightly dreamlike aura to the film and to DP Steve Gainer’s images, which feels totally appropriate, and which matches the preternatural quality of Gordon-Levitt’s performance in particular. The excellent supporting cast includes Michelle Trachtenberg, Elisabeth Shue, and Mary Lynn Rajskub. The production design, by Devorah Herbert, brings out the idiosyncratic details of tract housing, and costume designer Alix Hester does a good job of establishing the divergent characters of Brian, with his button-down shirts and big nerdy glasses, and Neil, who favors skimpy tees that hug his chicken-like body.--John Calhoun