Seen at the Movies:

The week-by-week march of the summer blockbusters begins with Van Helsing, a $150 million monster mash update from Universal Pictures and Mummy writer-director Stephen Sommers. I know Hollywood sets new standards of artistic corruption about 52 times a year, but this exhausting exploitation of Universal’s great horror film legacy really takes the cake. Sommers and the other creators of Van Helsing give no evidence of knowing or caring about the human terrors at the heart of the genre. In fact, there’s nothing recognizably human about this movie. There’s nothing scary about it either, except for the colossal (and colossally well funded) stupidity it represents.


Van Helsing Photo: Industrial Light and Magic

Hugh Jackman, who would be well advised to stick to the X-Men franchise or re-up on his Boy From Oz contract rather than commit to more Van Helsing sagas, plays a much younger and sexier version of Bram Stoker’s vampire hunter, here presented as an amnesiac superhero working in the Vatican’s employ. He is first seen in Paris, chasing down Mr. Hyde, whose apparent injection of digital steroids provides a preview of the overscaled monsters to come. Soon he’s dispatched to a village in Transylvania, where several generations of a cursed family have been attempting to kill Count Dracula (Richard Roxburgh) and his three brides. Since her brother has become a werewolf, fetching Anna Valerious (Kate Beckinsale) is the lone member of the family left to carry the stake, and Van Helsing arrives just in time to help her ward off attacks by the fanged flying brides, and later by their bat-baby progeny. They also charge themselves with protecting the Frankenstein Monster (Shuler Hensley), who is being sought by Dracula to further his nefarious ends.

I never thought anything would make me pine for a late-cycle Universal horror entry like Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman, but Sommers has turned the trick. The unpretentious cheesiness of yesteryear’s B product is vastly preferable to today’s mega-budgeted equivalent. The monsters here are ridiculously huge and indestructible, and the survival of Jackman and Beckinsale’s characters in the face of their onslaughts rivals that of Wile E. Coyote, as he is run over by yet another semi truck. Only Hensley’s Frankenstein Monster, with ingenious makeup by Greg Cannom and Keith VanderLaan of Captive Audience Productions that respects the spirit of the original, comes through on any sort of emotional level. There is also a fun prologue re-enactment of the final moments of the 1931 Frankenstein, shot in loving black and white by DP Allen Daviau; elsewhere, the cinematographer seems to be providing nothing more than admittedly complex yeoman service to accommodate Industrial Light and Magic’s non-stop digital creations, animations, and enhancements. The physical world of the film, created in the Czech Republic as well as Hollywood, is a bit of a historical and architectural hodgepodge as designed by Allan Cameron, but it’s handsome enough. Costume designer Gabriella Pescucci comes through with cool looks for Jackman and Beckinsale, whose corsets and dollops of embroidery suggest a felicitous meeting of Mittel Europe and the Wild West.

But all of this craft is in the service of an illiterate video game. As nonsensical as the old monster movies could be, what Sommers gives us is incoherent. How are Dracula’s offspring created and why is the Frankestein Monster the only medium through which they can be given life? Are we supposed to be able to make sense of Van Helsing’s mysterious background, including references to his activities at Masada? If not, I guess the sequel will reveal all. Let’s hold our collective breath in anticipation.--John Calhoun

Seen on Broadway: Wicked excepted, this season’s musicals have either been minimally designed (Fiddler on the Roof) or on the scrawny side (The Boy from Oz). Assessing the situation, set and costume designer Mark Thompson and lighting designer Hugh Vanstone decided to throw English reserve aside and go all-out for the West End import of the Andrew Lloyd Webber presentation Bombay Dreams. And I do mean, all out. Everything but the kitchen sink is up there at the Broadway Theatre, and come to think of it there may have been one tucked away in the cubbyholes of the awesome slum set piece, a raging monster of stagecraft that descends as the plot requires. [I feared for the actors every time that thing dropped down, Pit and the Pendulum-style, but Thompson and the automation team have it well under control, I hope.]


Bombay Dreams Photo: Joan Marcus

Directed by Steven Pimlott, this is not a subtle production. Its emotions are as primary as the colors of Thompson’s many, many fabulous Indian ensembles and Vanstone’s white-hot lights, a mad whirl of voluptuousness that compensates for a beige-dull book (rewritten since London) and bland lyrics. The designers take their cues from the music, by Bollywood bigwig A R Rahman, who supplies a distinctive score with an appealing native flavor. The picture here supplies just part of the story. Imagine everything in constant motion, coming from all sides of the stage at all times, mostly in pinks and reds and greens and golds: A film set, an exotic bedroom, apartments, mansions, a wedding party, a chorus line of transvestite eunuchs, elephantine décor in a ganesh procession, gongs, miniature cityscapes— I gave up trying to catalog it, and happily gave in, despite reservations about the largely witless and by-the-numbers storyline and the irony of $14 million lavished on slums. [Note, though, that another import, Jumpers, got there first with the girl-in-the-crescent moon imagery.]

Like most audiences, I surrendered during the "Shakalaka Baby" number, a relentless and hilarious film-musical-within-the-play-musical number complete with fantastic water jets. The hero, Akaash (Manu Narayan), an "untouchable," has come to India’s "Bollywood" film factory to find his fortune and save his home, the Paradise Slum, which is being razed to make way for a 25-screen cineplex. [I wish the show had done more with its sub-theme of how movies both fuel and tyrannize our hopes and dreams, but, like I said, not subtle.] In an improbable Bollywood-style coincidence he winds up starring in the lavish Diamond in the Rough, alongside its preening and duplicitous bad girl star, Rani (Ayesha Dharker). This delightfully choreographed sequence is funnily lip-synced by sound designer Mick Potter (shame he couldn’t do anything about the tendrils of mics stuck like snakes in the heads of the performers). It keeps going and going, and as Act I had a ways to proceed and Act II was far off I wondered how the designers might top themselves. I’m not sure they did, which is the secret to their craft; they know just when to pull back, on the knife-edge of tastelessness. And there are, yes, subtle moments tucked away in the gigantic whole, like a lighting-generated monsoon that plays in the distance during a ballad, "How Many Stars?" between Akaash and the documentarian he truly loves, Priya (Anisha Nagarajan). You may not necessarily see it rumbling in the background, but you feel it, along with the music. The design work here proves that in capable, controlling hands, nothing succeeds like excess.

From Bombay to Chicago: It’s misleading to call the first-ever Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun a vanity production, given that its driving force, hip-hop impresario Sean ("P.Diddy") Combs, delivers a lead performance of near-catatonic modesty in his stage debut. [Expectedly, he’s no Sidney Poitier, who created the role on stage and screen, but unexpectedly he’s also a lot less than his swaggering self.] Fortunately, Kenny Leon has directed the play with greater sensitivity and assurance than his star can muster, and the game but inexperienced Combs is surrounded by a trio of great ladies: Phylicia Rashad, at a career peak, the always splendid Audra McDonald, and a powerhouse of determination in Sanaa Lathan. Let’s add one more to that stellar roster, the playwright herself, Lorraine Hansberry, who 45 years ago got so far in her examination of poverty, racism, and assimilation, and did it so gracefully, with abundant warmth and humor and no cynicism or bitterness. [If only contemporary hip-hoppers could learn from her example in their music...]


A Raisin In The Sun Photo: Joan Marcus

Set in a cramped Windy City tenement in the 1950s, A Raisin in the Sun is the story of the Younger family. A $10,000 check from a life insurance policy is the ticket out, but the family members fall out over how to spend the windfall. Walter Lee (Combs) would like to buy a share in a liquor store; his sister, Bene (Lathan), has her eye on medical school; and, unknown to them both, their mother, Lena (Rashad) plans to purchase a small house in the white suburbs. Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (McDonald), is torn in different directions. One look at Thomas Lynch’s naturalistic but expressively corroded set and you know exactly why most of the family would like to pack up and depart; that said, Lynch is careful to leave in a few homey, lived-in elements (like the well-worn couch/bed) that root the Youngers in place. Paul Tazewell’s postwar dress sense is unerring, with a few touches of Africana in a subplot about Bene’s relationship with a natty Nigerian (Teagle F. Bougere)—though Combs shambles around da house as if we were in a music video and looks uncomfortable outside of his usual baggy bling-bling clothes.

LD Brian MacDevitt quite literally shines in the play’s final moment, when a burst of sunlight cuts through the lights-in-the-daytime moroseness of the apartment, and straight into the hearts of the audience besides. It’s hard to believe that A Raisin in the Sun, a multi-faceted and quite beautiful play now at the Royale Theatre, was in more militant times accused of Uncle Tom-ism, but a great lady has found her way back to New York in mostly fine fettle.

From hunger: Andre De Shields goes ape in Prymate, the last, remaindered entry in a so-so Broadway season. He plays Graham, an aging, sickly gorilla living in "the wilderness of Southwestern New Mexico" (as the Playbill puts it) with his caretaker, the reclusive scientist Esther (Phyllis Frelich). Esther, who is deaf, and Graham communicate through sign language, and the first few soundless minutes, observing their daily routine, are quietly intriguing. The monkeyshines begin when Avrum, a manipulative AIDS researcher (and Esther’s ex-lover), and the interpreter he’s hired, Allison, show up, and start speaking the unspeakable lines playwright Mark Medoff (Children of a Lesser God) has stuck them with. Avrum (James Naughton) would like to inject Graham with the AIDS virus, to test some Nobel-worthy theories he has; a bug-eyed and frazzled Esther objects, strenuously; Allison (hard-working but essentially vacuous soap star Heather Tom) translates, interjects, referees; Graham slinks around. There is a lot of pointless and unfunny sex talk and sex signing ("Do you think every scientific decision I make is based on my penis?" asks Avrum, enacted with obvious embarrassment by Naughton, who seems like he’s trying to forget his lame lines and makes Sean Combs look like Spencer Tracy here) and some high-school level symbolism. Then follows a closing round of jaw-droppingly silly confrontations as Graham expresses his hot monkey love for Allison, who has her own serio-positive secrets and unleashes her inner primate (just what the heck is a "prymate," anyway?) on the deceiving Avrum.


Anything Else pictured from left are James Naughton, Heather Tom, Phyllis Frelich, and Andre De Shields. Photo: Paul Kolnik

I would have laughed at the Dance of the Vampires-level catastrophe unfolding before my eyes, but felt sympathy for the actors (only De Shields retains his dignity in a nicely observed performance), who played to an audience smaller than the number of people on the bus I took to the Longacre Theatre. Mostly, I was appalled by Medoff’s dramaturgy; not only does he use AIDS in the crassest way possible, but he contrives at least three "suspense" scenes that require Frelich, his so-called muse, to have her back turned to the other characters, so she can neither see (nor, of course, hear) them until it’s almost too late. Shameless. [The director, Edwin Sherin, should have his lengthy Playbill bio chopped by a full column as punishment for trussing up this turkey.]

I’ll spare the designers any further humiliation—Prymate is a seriously endangered species, and their work will soon be forgotten—but I have to mention the peculiar set, by Frelich’s husband Robert Steinberg. It’s a New Mexican-ish grotto with only the vaguest roofing, impractical and unlivable for anyone except characters in a terrible play, with steps that do not exist in nature and could not be easily crafted by an aging recluse and her gorilla pal. And, oh, yes, its foam rubber rockwork clearly bounces whenever someone treads a little too hard on it. Once Prymate is done with this chintzy set, may I suggest that the producers cut their losses by selling it to the Chevy’s a few blocks away, as a themed prop? --Robert Cashill

Off-Broadway: The off-Broadway musical Bare, set at a coed Catholic boarding school, revolves around the love story between bookish Peter and closeted jock Jason. The potential for melodrama is fully realized. Also fully realized is an astonishing amount of character development from virtually all of the 15 actors onstage, strictly through song in this sung-through show. All the stereotypes are there: the jock, the bookworm, the party girl, the brooding loaner, the fat girl, the wacky dude, as well as the stern priest, rocking nun, and standoffish mom.

Designed by David Gallo, the set may seem stark but for the musical dramedy presented onstage, it is ideal. Anything more would be overdone. Anything less would be lacking. Two spiral staircases provide ample opportunity for character exits and entrances as well as a finale graduation ceremony. The big black box space at the American Theatre of Actors seems ideal for the show that enjoyed a cult following during a run in California and, judging from the audience noise during the performance I saw, will likely have one on this coast as well. The second level provides a home for the band (conducted by composer Damon Intrabartolo) as well as for staging areas providing access for the characters "looking down" on the action center stage. The focal point of the entire set, however, is a massive circular stained-glass window upstage that looms over the proceedings. You can't look at any of the action going on without seeing this blue and gold monolith. As it is level with the second tier, the window serves as a striking backdrop for a number of group and solo numbers and provides an underlying notion that God is watching everything.

The majority of the costumes by David Woolard don't stray too far from typical Catholic school garb but the designer really gets to strut his stuff during dream sequences, and there are plenty of those thanks to Peter's active imagination. One dream highlights Sister Chantelle (Romelda Benjamin) who shows up clad like a harem vixen in the guise of the Virgin Mary with two angelic backup singers, complete with halos and wings. The second act opens up with a gay wedding (the school is in Massachusetts) that puts the supporting players in revealing choral robes, and hot pants and from the looks of it, Catholic school students are on low-carb diets and do plenty of crunches! The robes flow freely as the cast sings and dances for the rollicking number. This adaptation of solemn religious frocks works extremely well with the show's overriding theme of acceptance with a dash of religion.


It's graduation day for the students in Bare. Photo: Joan Marcus

All of the actors are equipped with head mics and Dominic Sack's sound design triumphantly fills the tall space with a score that could come dangerously close to being too loud and rambunctious. The pop/rock/soul gospel tunes sound exquisite in a space that could have been a nightmare for a less talented designer. After all, it is a big, big room converted to a theatre so it likely wasn't built to modern acoustical standards. No matter, the sound is ample but not overblown from the belters on stage and the musicians split in half on the second level.

The lighting rig above the stage is misleading because at first glance it appears rather simple. But LD Mike Baldassari has a number of tricks up his sleeve. When the characters are singing their solos they are effortlessly highlighted without being in a typical "spotlight." The narrow focus emphasizes the characters' emotions without blanching them to the back wall in white light. For a rave scene the actors are equipped with various glow-in-the-dark accessories that work extremely well in relaying the manic action on stage with only a smattering of ambient light. Likewise, the LD used a number of standard fluorescent tubes to create crosses in front of the two bandstands. Never have fluorescent tubes looked so inspiring!--Mark A. Newman