Seen at the Movies:

Joe Johnston’s Hidalgo, starring a fresh-from-Middle Earth Viggo Mortensen, promises to be an old-fashioned, uncomplicated adventure with nothing more pretentious than popcorn-movie aspirations. And it is, to some extent. Mortensen plays Frank Hopkins, a 19th-century American rough rider who brings his mustang of the title to Lawrence of Arabia country—and look who it is, Omar Sharif!—to participate in a Bedouin race across many miles of treacherous desert hands. Who do you think will win—scrappy little Hidalgo and his foursquare if hard-drinking rider, or one of those snooty, vaguely untrustworthy Arabs with their thoroughbreds? Hopkins, a certified tall-tale teller, passed off this story as truth, but apparently no record of any such race has ever been found. But I guess that doesn’t matter.

What does matter is the ways in which Hidalgo fails at its self-appointed mandate of providing simple entertainment. For one thing, at two hours and 15 minutes, the movie is much too long. For another, the recessive Mortensen is a strange choice of actor for man-of-action Hopkins; he floats right off the screen on the wisps of his laconic delivery, while Sharif, cast as a dignified, Western penny dreadful-loving sheik, soaks up the camera’s focus with his big brown eyes. (That said, the movie’s depiction of its Bedouin characters is continually troubling.) There is distracting spectacle galore—a daring rescue of the sheik’s daughter, sandstorms and locusts courtesy of ILM--but Johnston and company couldn’t come up with anything satisfyingly rousing for the climax, falling back on a cheesy Native American deus ex machina to assist Hidalgo in crossing the finish line.

Hidalgo Photo: ILM/Buena Vista Pictures

Shelly Johnson’s cinematography tries for handsome wide-screen splendor, but something is really off in the contrast levels, particularly during the opening, Great Plains sequences. Faces just disappear in the murk—it’s clear Mortensen is a self-effacing type, but this is ridiculous. Jeffrey Kurland’s costumes, from the ersatz Wild West duds of Buffalo Bill’s traveling show to the rich Bedouin fabrics, are colorful and fun. The sands of the Moroccan location are expertly arrayed, though I’m not sure one can thank production designer Barry Robison for that. The various painted ponies playing Hidalgo, it must be said, have more charisma than those cast as Seabiscuit.

I couldn’t face another movie version of a bad 70s TV show, but for those with the inclination, Todd Phillips’ Starsky & Hutch is said to have dizzyingly garish retro costumes by Louise Mingenbach and sets by Ed Verreaux. It’s also got Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, and Snoop Dogg as Huggy Bear, for what that’s worth. Proceed with caution.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: Fiddler on the Roof leaves you wanting to see Fiddler on the Roof. I don’t mean that as harshly as it sounds. However it’s staged, this musical theater classic has an indestructible appeal, and this 40th anniversary revival has been sturdily, even challengingly, coordinated by director David Leveaux, who left audiences gasping with last season’s thrillingly designed second take on Nine. But when, to borrow from Ben Brantley in The New York Times, the roof (as conceived by scenic designer Tom Pye, of Deborah Warner’s striking Medea) upstages the fiddler, something has gone amiss in Anatevka.

The original Fiddler and subsequent revivals, with a design inspired by Marc Chagall, was distinguished by Boris Aronson’s turntable set; Norman Jewison’s 1971 film version, which arrived as the Broadway show was winding down, was shot, grittily, in Croatia. Leveaux reduces the fantasy (save for the comical nightmare sequence) and the naturalism to brass tacks. Pye’s set, in a nod to a Russian of another kind, is Chekhovian, an open stage with a wood floor, patches of earth, and leaves fallen from a cluster of dominant birch trees. Furniture and props, excepting essentials like Tevye’s burdensome milk cart, are at a minimum. There is the roof, which descends to cap settings that are otherwise largely suggested. But it’s not all bleakness: The wonderful moon that appears at the beginning of the show can go straight to the Rose Center planetarium when Fiddler is done with it, and in a pleasing conceit the orchestra, attired in elements of Vickie Mortimer’s firmly rooted costumes, is seated and plays from upstage left. And did lighting designer Brian MacDevitt break into Lincoln Center and abscond with Natasha Katz’s lamps and lanterns from its spectacular Twelfth Night of 1998? If so, he has put them into magical use once more, and gives the cavernous Minskoff Theatre a gas-lit glow. "Sunrise, Sunset" is as expected an illumination highlight, as is the silhouetting of characters against the abstracted landscape as the musical reaches its teary conclusion. This is a faultlessly executed design, and Acme Sound Partners is blameless if their acoustics catch every catch in the throat of the show’s less experienced singers.

Fiddler At The Minskoff Photo: Carol Rosegg

And here we come to the problem of the show’s conception. I think the point that Leveaux is trying to hammer across is that the villagers, ultimately forced from their homes, are the village, and carry it within their hearts and souls. There is no need for a more warmly elaborate set or design. When a pogrom descends at the close of Act I, with the constabulary forces entering from behind a raised back panel at upstage right and the villagers fleeing in panic through the same opening, the violation strikes at that communal heart. It’s great theater —but I didn’t feel it in my bones. From the start of the show the characters seem vaguely depressed, more sunset than sunrise, and the conclusion is foregone from the outset. This staging depends wholly on the actors to transmit to us the sense of community, but Leveaux has failed to motivate them. Alfred Molina, a ham, has unwisely chosen to tone it down this one time as Tevye, and is an unpersuasive singer besides. Randy Graff, a fine musical performer, is ineffectual as Golde, as are most of her five daughters (the Hodel of Laura Michelle Kelly is an exception). The performers have scenes that work, but their work is far from seamless. The failure of this Fiddler: When Tevye says, at the end, that maybe Anatevka wasn’t so special after all, no one in the audience will feel like disagreeing with him.

While not a dud like the British-born Broadway revival of Oklahoma! (a staging that, to be fair, worked better on the West End and a subsequent DVD of that production) there is still a lack of soul here, as if no one realized that the music, comedy, and drama of the source are tightly interwoven. To paraphrase Tevye, Leveaux has pulled one thread, and this is the Fiddler —strong on concepts, weaker on realization—that this has led to. It has merit. But have your cast albums and DVDs ready for afterwards to supply what this break from "Tradition" is missing.--Robert Cashill

Seen off Broadway: The sound design of Scott Stauffer sets the tone for the evening as Big Bill, A.R. Gurney’s bio-play of "Big" Bill Tilden, the first genuine tennis star, gets underway. It is, simply, the sound of a tennis ball being volleyed, an effect suited not just for the subject at hand but also its treatment, as the narrative goes back and forth through time, from Tilden’s glory years in the 1920s to the sad close of his life in the early 1950s. The prideful Tilden clung to his amateur status, on the court (for much of his career he was too gentlemanly to accept professional-standing fees for his matches) and, unfortunately, off. Courteous and chivalrous to a fault, Tilden, a gay man, was blindsided by his courtroom convictions for consorting with underage boys, and after prison terms spent his final years broke and obscure in a boarding house. John Michael Higgins (best known for the Christopher Guest films Best in Show and A Mighty Wind, and for his keenly malicious turn in the superb Second Stage revival of Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice in 2000) plays Tilden as a man for whom everything—his stardom, his sideline careers as a writer and performer, his halting personal relationships—was a defensive pose, masking hidden anxieties that ultimately overwhelmed him.

Big Bill Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Rather than go the usual one-performer show route, Gurney surrounds Higgins with figures from Tilden’s life (including a procession of women, like the equally self-possessed opera diva Mary Garden, played by Higgins’ off-court wife, Margaret Welsh), and dramatizes key moments, most hilariously a bizarre interlude when the star double-faulted as Dracula in a predictably poorly received stage production. Still, the show falls between two stools, never quite satisfying on an A&E Biography level or as one of Gurney’s country club comedy-dramas, and its weakly celebratory ending feels tacked on and fraudulent after the harder-hitting courtroom and boarding houses scenes preceding it, which force Tilden into considering a greater self-awareness.

Whatever Gurney lobs at them, the behind-the-scenes talent assembled for this Lincoln Center Theater production at the Mitzi E. Newhouse comes back swinging. For Big Bill, John Lee Beatty, in a minimalist vein, has built a grass court and an ivy-covered wall, with a few wooden chairs strategically situated to evoke, beautifully, the 20’s milieu. Rui Rita’s lighting brings out the surface’s emerald hues, then retracts to a few shafts isolating Tilden in unhappier times. [A plaintive table and tablecloth are all that’s needed to show Tilden’s fall from grace, but Rita adds a few homey tones to the surrounding bleakness to show how boarding house life helps humanize the player.] And, clad in Jess Goldstein’s V-neck cotton sweaters, long white pants, and sneakers, Tilden is every inch the ace he yearned to be. Game, set, and match for the designers. --RC