Seen on Broadway:
Its 1982 Best Musical Tony Award notwithstanding, Nine has always had a bad rep, non-fans have always dismissed it as an empty exercise in style. Those critics will be hard-pressed to explain the stunning new revival produced by the Roundabout at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre. Tommy Tune’s original staging was a thing of beauty—in fact, Nine wouldn’t have happened without him. But, in this version, director David Leveaux has found a new level of substance in the material, based on Fellini’s film masterpiece 8 ½, about Guido, a burned-out movie director and the women in his life. Leveaux’s staging is appropriately surreal, creating a number of indelible images. More important, he makes us care deeply about where or not Guido will learn to grow up, save his marriage, and finish his film. That’s partly because he’s played by Antonio Banderas, whose onscreen charisma translates brilliantly to the stage (he also has a first-class singing voice). The supporting cast includes Jane Krakowski, making the greatest entrance this side of the Cirque du Soleil, as Guido’s luscious mistress; Laura Benanti, as his melancholy, straight-talking muse; and Chita Rivera, Broadway’s sexiest septuagenarian, as the overbearing French producer who wants him to make a musical; her sizzling tango with Banderas brings down the house. (The one disappointment is Mary Stuart Masterson, who seems ill at ease as Luisa, Guido’s put-upon wife). The sleek setting by Scott Pask, a Venetian spa rendered in glass, metal, and stone, is the canvas for a number of visually arresting effects by Gregory Meeh. Brian MacDevitt’s lighting works a very limited color palette to subtly suggest Guido’s varying states of minds. Vicki Mortimer’s 60’s-chic costumes, all in back and white, are a delight; the ladies look ready to drop into the Cannes Film Festival, circa 1966. (David Brian Brown’s period-perfect hair designs are a big help) .Jon Weston’s sound design is notable for its clear amplification, allowing one to hear the complex lyrics even when delivered by a cast loaded with real and assumed accents. This is, simply put, the best-designed musical of the season. Nine is still a Fellini-esque carnival, a city of women, a lush dreamscape in which an artist’s fantasies are taken to the most fantastic extremes. But, in this production, it also packs an emotional wallop. --David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: Next week, X2 arrives; two weeks after that, The Matrix Reloaded. Meanwhile, it’s the last week of April. The best the major studios can throw up is Identity, a sub-Ten Little Indians affair in which a group of travelers (including John Cusack, Ray Liotta, Amanda Peet, and Rebecca De Mornay) during a storm at a Nevada motel are picked off one by one. Could have been fun, but not much chance of that given a nonsensical script with a groaner of a twist. James Mangold directs, with DP Phedon Papamichael and production designer Mark Friedberg (a long way from Far from Heaven) do their best to provide a little bit of atmosphere. Costumes are by Arianne Phillips.
Identity. Photo: Suzanne Tenner/Columbia Pictures
Meanwhile, the indies and mini-majors like Miramax are taking advantage of the pre-summer window to release so-so product boasting at least a big name or two. People I Know, for example, stars Al Pacino as a washed-up New York publicist struggling to hold onto his one remaining important client, a movie star played by Ryan O’Neal. With an occasionally pungent but unsatisfying script by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, this one is a sub-Sweet Smell of Success, with director Dan Algrant allowing Pacino to pull out his hammy bag of tricks to periodically entertaining effect. Shot with impersonal polish by Peter Deming, People I Know is designed by Michael Shaw, with costumes by David Robinson.
People I Know. Photo: Miramax Films.
Dustin Hoffman is the biggest name on hand in James Foley’s Confidence, which also features Ed Burns, Rachel Weisz, and Andy Garcia. Hoffman has a showy supporting role as what the production notes call an “eccentric crime boss.” Sorry, Dustin, nice try, but no supporting actor Oscar this time. As the title indicates, this is yet another con film, and I don’t know my inability to follow the plots of most of these movies is a sign of my density or my indifference. This time, the stylishly impersonal cinematography is by Juan Ruiz-Anchia; Bill Arnold is production designer, and Michele Michel supplies the con artists’ flashy duds and Hoffman’s “eccentric” wardrobe.
Confidence. Photo: Lions Gate Films.
Perhaps a better option is to check out A Mighty Wind, from the Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show satiric clowns Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, et. al. This time the subject for mockumentary evisceration is 1960s folk music, and it brings out a gentler side to this ordinarily acidic crew. The whole thing is framed as a contemporary reunion concert, and some of the music is on-target for those who remember Hootenanny. On the other hand, with no mention of politics or the more ill-behaved or strident strains of the movement, the satire here is fairly toothless. The hilarious heights in A Mighty Wind are provided by the inspired improvisations of Fred Willard and Jennifer Coolidge, and it’s interesting that their characters don’t have much to do with the folk scene at all. Levy himself contributes an unexpectedly touching performance as a 60s casualty shipped in from the nuthouse for the reunion. Catherine O’Hara and the actor portray the former couple act Mitch and Mickey, and the pair brings a momentary note of conviction to the silly proceedings.--John Calhoun
A Mighty Wind: Suzanne Tenner/Castle Rock Entertainment.
Seen Off Broadway: At first glance, Dream a Little Dream: The Mamas and the Papas Musical looks like another tribute show in the Love, Janis/Hank Williams: Lost Highway mode. Actually, it’s something new—the first confessional musical. Denny Doherty, founding member (and one of two survivors) of the title group, takes the stage at the Village Theatre and dishes the dirt about their rise and fall. Spelling the true confessions are numbers from the group’s hit list, sung by Doherty and three singers who vaguely resemble bandmates John Phillips, Cass Elliot, and Michelle Phillips. Whatever he leaves out, Doherty spares nobody, including himself—we hear plenty about adultery, alcohol, drugs, lawsuits and other ugly facts of show business life. Perhaps his most interesting point: the group started to implode even before the release of its first album, thanks to Doherty’s affair with Michelle Phillips, who was still inconveniently married to John Phillips. (Cass Elliot emerges as the lone voice of sanity, offering bitter color commentary on the Denny-Michelle-John triangle that tears the group apart.). Doherty’s honesty is compelling and unsettling at the same time. It’s one thing to see this story on VH1: Behind the Music. It’s another thing altogether to get it straight from him in an Off Broadway theatre/nightclub. It’s like attending a 12-Step meeting where they serve cocktails. Furthermore, the musical numbers disappoint; Doherty makes reference to “Harvey,” the group’s name for the sound created by the unique blend of their voices. Let’s just say that Harvey is not appearing at the Village Theatre these days. Still, for Boomers looking to get their groove back will find this to be a fascinating, if slightly grisly, entertainment. Walt Spangler’s scenic design extends all over the theatre, including the faux-Peter Max murals in the bathrooms. Jan Hartley’s ultra-evocative projections is a photo album top 60s pop singers; there are also some fabulous shots of Greenwich Village back in the day, and film footage of the band. David C. Woolard provides the requisite groovy threads and Lucas J. Corrubia Jr.’s sound design includes a zesty tunestack of 60s hits for the preshow and intermission. I found Brian Nason’s lighting design, which employs virtually every color you can think of in its most saturated form, a little too much like a bad acid trip. In this case, less would have been more. If Dream a Little Dream catches on, will other bands follow suit, bearing it all in front of live audiences? If so, I nominate Fleetwood Mac—now that would be a show!
Dream a Little Dream. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Seen in Minneapolis: What happens when a young French-American theatre company tackles a Russian classic like Chekhov's The Seagull? Fortunately in the case of the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, MN, the result is a success. Directed and desgined by Dominique Serrand, artistic director of the company (who also appears in a small role as the Doctor), the production is a breath of fresh air, even for Chekhov aficionados. The translation by Paul Schmidt give the text a modern feel, as a group of friends and lovers gather at a country estate. The Russian characters here seem more alive than in many other Chekhovian productions where languishing outweighs action. The "found" theatre space where Jeune Lune performs is a transformed warehouse (theatre consultants Schuler and Shook worked on the project) with a large flat playing area in front of rows of seats on risers. The set for The Seagull includes the exterior walls of the estate house, a small stage for Konstantin's play to be performed. Center doors in the upstage wall open onto a vista of the nearby lake (unseen by the audience), and an upstage door leads into the house. There are also 46 real, and fairly substantial, birch trees suspended from the ceiling and free to move at the bottom. Several of the trees are attached to I-beams on wires that allow them to move forward and backward, and, in one beautifully dramatic moment, two of the actors lean against the trees in emotional frustration, each wrapped an arm around a tree, then walk foward toward the audience bringing the trees with them. The actors sometimes run and skip playfully through the trees; at other times, the trees seem to impede their very movement. The actors are in perpetual movement, making the action of the play more fast-paced than one might except in Chekhov, with continual comings and goings from inside to out, from the lake back to the house, and visits from the estate next door. The costumes are also updated, giving the play a timeless feel, although on the modern side. Lighting designer Marcus Dilliard creates beautiful moods, with shafts of light coming through the trees, highlighting their presence, and helping shift the action to different times of the day. The lighting rig is exposed over the set, and the actors can be seen offstage at times, waiting for their entrances. There is a casualness to the Jeune Lune venue that translates into an approach toward theatre that is youthful and refreshing. I'd like to see what they do with Shakespeare.--Ellen Lampert-Greaux
The Seagull. Photo: Michael Daniel.