Seen on Broadway:

Australian director Baz Luhrmann has made a stunning debut on Broadway with, of all things, an opera. His updated version of Puccini's La Bohème, set in the Paris of the 1950s, is taking Broadway by storm (in spite of the fact that it is sung in Italian with English sur-titles). Two things make this production a four-star winner. The first is the design. How could you go wrong with decor and costumes by "Mrs Baz," the extremely talented, two-time Academy Award-winner (for Luhrmann's film Moulin Rouge) Catherine Martin, and lighting by fellow Aussie Nigel Levings, who has designed the lights for all of Luhrmann's operas. This production began life at the Australian Opera and premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 1990. The current version premiered in San Francisco's Curran Theatre before moving to the Broadway Theatre in NYC where it opened on December 8, 2002. The design concept pulls in a romantic notion of Pairs, inspired by many famous photographers of the period (a concept Luhrmann repeated in Moulin Rouge). From the starkness of the cold garret where Rudolfo meets Mimi to the sumptuousness of the Café Momus with all the swirling color and excitement of the Left Bank of Paris on Christmas Eve 1957, the decor is nothing short of fabulous. The attic set is on a wagon that moves around the stage, with stagehands serving as human lighting positions, crouching at the corner with footlights, or lights that flicker in red to create flames in a stove. In contrast, the Café Momus scene envelops the entire stage and even the side boxes where little vignettes are taking place. Paris street signs are projected onto the side walls, and lights flicker in curtained windows. "The lighting," says Levings, "evokes the black-and-white photographs of Paris in the 1950s, and also follows the emotions in the music." A canopy of light bulbs comes out over the audience, pulling them into the high-pitched action as well. The costumes are perfectly period, with wigs and shoes to match. And the second thing that makes this production a winner? The singing! With young opera singers from around the globe, La Bohème is not only a great piece of stage direction and design, but also a showcase for the next generation of opera stars. The sound design by Acme Sound Partners lets the voices shine through loud and clear. This is a must-see, and a perfect way to get into the holiday spirit! --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

La Bohème. Photo: Sue Adler.

Seen Off Broadway: What Didn't Happen, now at Playwrights Horizons, is Christopher Shinn's alternately gloomy and gripping take on the writing life. Set at a cottage in upstate New York, the play features Matt McGrath as a young writer at two stages of his career. In 1999, fleeing his jobs as script supervisor on a TV series, he is holed up with his troubled, reclusive daughter, and is struggling to save a disintegrating affair with a colleague (Suzanne Cryer). In 1993, he is a graduate student in a failing marriage, working as a handyman for a famous novelist (Stephen Skybell). The two plots follow parallel lines, as both Skybell and McGrath, each for his own reasons, wreck their personal lives in pursuit of their muses. This dramatic structure allows Shinn to make a number of trenchant points about culture, politics, relationships, and declining American values in the Clinton years; basically, though, I'm split down the middle on this one: Shinn is a terrifically intelligent writer, with a real gift for creating tension (just watch Chris Noth and Annalee Jefferies, as, respectively, Skybell's best friend and lover, try to figure out what McGrath is up to, without ever actually saying so). But Shinn also suffers from an excess of earnestness; there's a long stretch in the first act when the characters, debating culture and politics, sound like those dreadful talking heads on one of C-Span's book-chat shows. Still, a writer this good is not to be dismissed, and this piece represents a quantum leap in complexity and ambition over his previous works (Some People, Four). And, under Michael Wilson's direction, the play is often very moving indeed. McGrath is first-rate, managing to both needy and menacing at the same time, and there is also fine worth from Noth and Jefferies; the former is practically unrecognizable as a soused, self-hating novelist with a William F. Buckley accent.

What Didn't Happen. Photo: Joan Marcus.

The production is a model of meticulous design. Jeff Cowie's setting depicts the cottage exterior and surrounding ground, and also offers a look inside at times as well. It's a beautiful piece of naturalistic design. David C. Woolard's costumes are remarkably observant, filled with details that reveal the characters different classes and ages. Howell Binkley's lighting discreetly uses Pointilist splashes of color to underscore the onstage mood. John Gromada's music and sound design mixes effects with some effective music. What Didn't Happen is a tough one to pin down: I'll probably change my mind about it several more times this week; still, it's good that Playwrights Horizons is supporting Shinn's work.

Class Mothers '68 is a modest collection of character sketches designed to show off the abundant technical gifts of leading lady Priscilla Lopez. In a series of short monologues, Lopez plays six different mothers of graduates from a New York-area prep school (in, of course, 1968). They're a broadly conceived bunch: the bossy one, who has built a living-room shrine to her son's achievements; the Hispanic one, who has struggled to give her children a top-drawer education; the boozy one, who keeps a stable of boyfriends and holds late-night cocktail parties with her son; the bohemian one, who is cowed by her tyrannical husband, a painter; the German refugee, who worries that her son is gay; and the manic divorcee, who is directing them all in an amateur show. Eric H. Weinberger's script is filled with mostly unremarkable observations, and the sketches don't build dramatically, but Lopez is a wonder, never leaving the stage for a second, imbuing each character with warmth and complexity. She also pulls off a mini-tour-de-force at the finale, when, at the talent show, she appears, popping out from behind a rain curtain, as all six ladies in as many minutes.

Class Mothers '68. Photos: Jean-Marie Guyaux.

She is certainly aided by Daniel Lawson's costumes; not only are they accurate, but there are cunningly conceived to allow the star to make her changes in full view of the audience (Bobby H. Grayson's hair designs are also very amusing, especially that wig hidden inside a saucepan). Beowulf Borritt has been given the impossible job of creating six fully realized sets on an Off Broadway budget; using three periaktoi, he nearly pulls it off, although one or two are a bit underdressed. Still, it's a very game effort and some of the settings are remarkably detailed. Michael Gottlieb's lighting includes some rather blatant and unmotivated cues, which makes me wonder if director Jeremy Dobrish was trying for a certain stylization that hasn't been fully realized. Jill C. DuBoff's sound design includes a veritable hit parade of late-60s tunes. I've always considered Lopez one of the more underused names in New York's talent pool; if Class Mothers' 68 isn't a vehicle fully worthy of her talents, the lady herself is first-class all the way.

You can divide the world into people who like Man of La Mancha and those who can't tolerate it for a second. I've always voted independently on this issue, rather liking the score (even, yes, "The Impossible Dream"), while finding the book rather stiff and platitudinous. Unfortunately, the current Broadway revival is a dull affair. The problem, I suspect, lies in the stars: Brian Stokes Mitchell, as Miguel Cervantes, who impersonates his creation Don Quixote, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as the kitchen slut Aldonza, who becomes his lady fair, are extremely fine actors, yet their instincts are far too tasteful for this sentimental, melodramatic material; what's really required is a pair of shameless hams (check out the original cast album to hear what I mean). Mitchell, of course, sings the role gloriously; Mastrantonio's sweet soprano is not ideal for her role, which requires a fair amount of chesty belting tones. She's also not that believable alternately slapping and bedding the members of the male chorus. Ernie Sabella is a fine Sancho Panza and there is also good work from Mark Jacoby and Stephen Bogardus and Quixote's antagonists.

Man of La Mancha. Photo: Joan Marcus.

On the other hand, this production is interesting for readers of this website, as it is the first major revival to do away with Howard Bay's original design. Paul Brown's new set is a stunner, a towering rusted steel prison dominated by a twisting staircase. The prison wall breaks open to suggest other locations as well. It's a highly imaginative concept that serves the show very well indeed. Brown's costumes are also fine. Paul Gallo's lighting is especially adept at making transitions from the framing scenes in prison from the Don Quixote sequences. Tony Meola's sound design has a very natural quality. Based on the reaction on the night I attended, there is still an audience for Man of La Mancha. Still, I'd rather see the production's stars in more suitable vehicles. --David Barbour

Seen at the Movies: Adaptation, written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze, is every bit as eccentric as the duo's last collaboration, Being John Malkovich. Assigned by Columbia Pictures to adapt New Yorker author Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief, about oddball Florida botanist John Laroche, Kaufman came up against a monumental writer's block--the material was not inherently dramatic, yet he couldn't bring himself to pump it up Hollywood-style. So he made himself and his struggle the subject of the script, throwing in the Orlean-Laroche story as a counterpoint. He also invented a twin brother, Donald Kaufman (who gets co-screenwriting credit on Adaptation), to stand for all the crass commercial instincts to which writers in the business can fall prey.

Adaptation. Photo: Columbia Pictures.

The resulting movie is one of the smartest ever about Hollywood, and about writers and self-loathing. Nicolas Cage plays the two Kaufmans, and such is his accomplishment (not to mention that of visual effects supervisor Gray Marshall and the artists at Digital Domain) that you forget this is not two actors, but one performing with himself. As Orlean, Meryl Streep is loose and funny, and she's never looked more beautiful (middle age, especially as costumed by Ann Roth, suits her). And Chris Cooper puts across the toothless yet charismatic Laroche in rip-roaring style. Jonze, working with Malkovich DP Lance Acord and production designer K.K. Barrett, presents the intricately bizarre material in straightforward fashion: visually, the movie is very plain, which is just fine.

What doesn't work (for me, anyway--there have been many disagreements about this) is the movie's resolution, which takes a sharp, cynical turn into a parody of Hollywood conventions that is no more satisfying than what it's mocking. Still, this is a remarkably intelligent film to emerge from a major studio.

I've seen every Star Trek movie with The Next Generation gang, but apart from the scenes with the Borg in First Contact, I couldn't tell you a thing about any of them. I never would long for William Shatner and company, but really--this is a colorless group. Even Patrick Stewart's stentorian tones can get pretty monotonous. So I wasn't expecting much of Star Trek: Nemesis, the latest--and rumored to be final--entry in this stage of the franchise. And not much is what director Stuart Baird delivers, in fairly painless fashion. There are threats from Romulans and Remans, and from clones of Picard and Data; there is lots of interstellar scuffling. The fate of the Enterprise, earth and the Federation are at stake, as usual.

Star Trek: Nemesis. Photo: Paramount Pictures.

Everything here is a known quantity, including the technical elements. Production designer Herman Zimmerman is an old hand from the series, and the few unfamiliar sets follow the neatly classical template. Bob Ringwood's costumes are a bit more lively, at least for the Picard clone, who wears a heavy, dark uniform with S&M boots and killer shoulder pads. Jeffrey L. Kimball is the able DP, and the unpretentious effects are supervised by Mark O. Forker. About the makeup, designed as usual by Michael Westmore: is it just me, or is it intentionally cheesy-looking, in retro-60s fashion? The Remans appear to be wearing gargoyle masks, and the Romulans look like their hands slipped when they were applying their eyebrow pencil. The interchangeable females on the Enterprise crew seem to be smeared with as much foundation as Data. There's something vaguely charming about all this, but I can't say I'm holding my breath for the next Star Trek opus.

On more modestly budgeted note, I've already written about two films that open today, Russian Ark and About Schmidt, which are both highly recommended. Another independent film, The Guys, is a worthy translation of Anne Nelson's post-9/11 play. Sigourney Weaver is the writer helping fire captain Anthony LaPaglia (in a superb performance) compose eulogies for several of his men who died in the World Trade Center. In a way, The Guys, which is directed by Jim Simpson, is not much of a movie, but its simplicity, directness, and honest emotion get to you. DP Maryse Alberti, shooting mostly in Susan Block's single apartment set, does an excellent job conveying the passage of time from morning to evening, and of finding endless variety in the two actors' faces. As much as anything, The Guys is about the practice of two very different professions--writing and firefighting--and how they come together under extraordinary circumstances.--John Calhoun