Seen (& Heard) at the Public Theatre
: I feel cheated. I was late to jump on the theatre bandwagon in general and the Elaine Stritch bandwagon in particular; I didn't get to see this diamond in the gruff in Pal Joey, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Company, Bus Stop, Show Boat, or even the ill-fated revival of The Women, which also starred Gloria Swanson and Marge Champion. OK, I was a mite young to catch some of these performances--wasn't even born yet for some of them--but there's just no excuse for missing La Stritch in A Delicate Balance a few years back. I had to be satisfied with her occasional movie appearances and her Emmy Award-winning guest-star turn as a feisty lawyer on Law and Order.
Until now: Stritch fans, even the Jane-come-latelies, can see the gravel-voiced actress recount stories, sing songs, and strut around the stage at the Public Theatre's Newman Theatre in At Liberty, her one-woman show "constructed by" John Lahr and "reconstructed by" Stritch. In the two-hour, 40-minute show, Stritch covers a lot of emotional and chronological ground. She discusses her hits and flops, the men she dated and the men she did not (Ben Gazzara, Gig Young, and Marlon Brando are in one column, Rock Hudson is in the other), her first drink at age 13, and her last drink right before a diabetic coma nearly killed her. She also belts out some of her showstopper hits, such as "Why Do the Wrong People Travel," "This Is All Very New to Me," the hilarious "Zip," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "The Little Things You Do Together," and "I'm Still Here."
There are salty stories, survivor stories, touching and funny stories, and plenty of self-mockery interspersed between the songs in At Liberty. Acme Sound Partners designed the sound, which is splendid; when Stritch sings, her voice is clearly heard over the orchestra, something that seems a rarity these days. Riccardo Hernandez is billed as the scenic designer; the only scenic element is a tall bar chair that Stritch moves around the bare stage. Similarly, Paul Tazewell's costume design is basic: a large white dress shirt, black tights and heels, and a pearl necklace.
What really shines is the lighting design by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer. The veteran team used psychedelic colors--violet and quite a bit of pink and green--to good effect; one impressive look features a four-pointed "star" of Stritch shadows radiating from the aforementioned tall chair.
The indefatigable 76-year-old seems, as Lighting Dimensions editor David Barbour noted, to gain strength and energy as the show goes on, literally jumping up and down during the chorus of "I'm Still Here" and bringing down the house with her drop-dead imitations of Richard Burton, Noel Coward, Ed Sullivan, and Judy Garland after a night of revelry. The audience is with her the whole way. At Liberty runs through December 30; get a ticket and hop on the bandwagon, cause it's a fabulous ride.
Seen on Broadway: I attended the Broadway revival of Noises Off with some trepidation, having considered the 1985 version to be the perfect production. However, the current revival of Michael Frayn's farce-to-end-all-farces, which was originally produced at the Royal National Theatre and then transferred to the West End, stacks up very well indeed. The starry cast has the true grit to navigate Frayn's torture test of a script, in which we see one act of a tatty touring English sex farce performed three times by a cast subjected to ever-mounting disarray. Patti LuPone is very funny as the cockney diva who faces each mishap with bitter resignation. Peter Gallagher has a magnificent slow burn as the frustrated director, whose sexual indiscretions ignite much of the mayhem. Faith Prince has some of the evening's biggest laughs as the company's official peacemaker, and Katie Finneran does her patented dumb-blonde routine to a turn as a myopic bombshell. Others include Richard Easton as the house dipsomaniac, Edward Hibbert as a character man who faints at the sight of blood, and Thomas McCarthy as LuPone's violently jealous lover. (The production features a delightful set and costumes by Robert Jones and thoroughly professional lighting by Tim Mitchell). Noises Off is a brilliant achievement and a riot, to boot. How often can you say that about the same play?
Seen at the Movies: What can one say about a movie as cruddy looking as Shallow Hal? Since Russell Carpenter, who shot Titanic in addition to many other distinguished films, is on camera, the fault can't be said to lie with the cinematographer. Instead, I think the comedy's flat framing and lighting are directly due to filmmakers' Peter and Bobby Farrelly's paucity of visual imagination (when gross-out gags aren't involved). Shallow Hal features Jack Black in the title role, a less-than-studly guy whose standards for the opposite sex are impossibly high. After self-help guru Tony Robbins puts a hex on him, Hal can see only inner beauty, and thus falls for Gwyneth Paltrow, who looks radiant to him (and usually to us) but grotesquely obese to everyone else. The fat suit and makeup effects by Tony Gardner are frighteningly persuasive, but Paltrow gets the lion's share of credit for projecting her character's inner glow, whether fat or thin. Otherwise, the movie is disappointingly draggy and low on belly laughs. Increasingly, it seems like the Farrellys shot their, er, wad, on There's Something About Mary.
Heist is the properly generic title for the latest David Mamet picture: the plotting is so mechanical that the writer-director seems to be aiming for an abstracted genre movie. The only thing distinguishing this tale of crooks who live to turn the tables on each other is the frequently pungent dialogue and the cast, which includes Gene Hackman, Danny DeVito, and Delroy Lindo, and is comparatively lively for a Mamet movie. DP Robert Elswit and production designer David Wasco do what they can with the glum Montreal locations, which fill in for glum New York and Boston settings. Brown and gun-metal-gray are the featured colors in the monochromatic palette, which is also adhered to by Renee April's costume design.
Seen on the Disney Wonder, during LDI's Backstage At Sea cruise: The newest show aboard the Disney Wonder is "Who Wants To Be A Mouseketeer," based on the successful ABC television show, which has already inspired an attraction at Disney's MGM Studios in Orlando. The shipboard version features questions based on Disney trivia with players pulled from the audience of cruise-goers. The lighting for the show was designed by Orlando-based freelance LD Richard Dunn, when "Mouseketeer" opened last year on the Disney Magic. As the show went through its final rehearsal period aboard the Wonder, prior to a Friday, November 9 opening, Dunn was back to relight the show, with LD Bill Ferrera of Walt Disney Entertainment on board to help as well.
The production team for the show was headed up by Rhys Williams and his staff from the Charleston, South Carolina-based Technical Theatre Solutions. Williams coordinated the load-in of the set, which features two large wooden sets of mouse ears (the ubiquitous Disney ears) painted to look like stainless steel. They are accented with fiber-optic rope along the front of the ears, and Mickey cutouts along the sides of the set elements are illuminated from the interior.
The lighting design takes advantage of the High End Systems Cyberlights and Studio Colors in the house rig on the Wonder, with breakup patterns sweeping the stage as the questions are answered. There are also three possible lifeline options: three panelists on stage; the audience; and the 50/50 option of taking away two wrong answers. "The idea was to copy what you see on TV," says Ferrera, who adds that the lighting is divided into different focus groups for the lifelines on stage, the audience, correct answers, and wrong answers. "There are 15 focused pre-sets with cue strings for the various questions for each guest."
The board operator for the show actually sits at Disney's LCU show control console, rather than at the ETC Obsession console in the booth, as he has other things to trigger, including video. The LCU triggers cues via MIDI, which in turn triggers the Obsession. A total of eight technicians run the show: in addition to the show control/lighting operator, there are two other techs in the control booth, one for audio and one for scenic automation. The crew also includes an audio assist technician on stage, and four stagehands, including a pyro lead. There are also two followspot operators pulled from the ship's crew and four other crew members who help with the nightly changeovers. The shows on the Wonder play in rotating rep, with a different production on stage each night. Ferrera is currently "building" a WYSIWYG model of the theatre with Steve Bodziock, also of the Walt Disney Entertainment design services lighting department, so that changes can be made on land or on the ship on days when it is in port.
Heard on the Street: We've been playing our favorite game around here, trying to predict the future of the Broadway season. As this column reveals, Elaine Stritch has had the triumph of her life in her new one-woman show at the Public Theatre. As Stritch makes very clear in the show, she's been waiting half a century to win the Tony. Elaine Stritch: At Liberty is currently scheduled to run Off Broadway until December 30. I predict she will take two months off to rest and recuperate, then do a six-to-eight-week engagement on Broadway, which will allow her to win that long-coveted Tony. The Booth Theatre would be ideal, although apparently Bea Arthur has booked it for her one-woman show, which has not received good reviews on the road. Both ladies, by the way, are 76.…Whither the fate of Dracula the Musical? The new Frank Wildhorn musical epic, with book and lyrics by Christopher Hampton and Don Black, opened at La Jolla Playhouse to not-great reviews. However, the production does have a claim on the currently empty Broadway Theatre, where Blast! recently played. I predict we'll see Dracula on Broadway in April for the following reasons: 1) Frank Wildhorn shows tend to fly in the face of the critics; 2) The theatre is already booked; 3) If the producers wait until next year, they may have to deal with the Austrian musical, Dance of the Vampires, which postponed from this season. The physical production of Dracula the Musical is supposed to be an absolute knockout, by the way, with scenery by John Arnone, lighting by Howell Binkley, projections by Michael Clark, and costumes by Catherine Zuber…Slowly but surely, American film production is gearing up again. Universal Pictures' The Life of David Gale, about a death-penalty opponent (Kevin Spacey) who finds himself on Death Row, is shooting in Austin, Texas, under Alan Parker's direction. Frequent Parker collaborators like DP Michael Seresin and production designer Geoffrey Kirkland are on tap for the drama. The costume designer is Renee Ehrlich Kalfus…In Philadelphia, M. Night Shyamalan's Signs is in production, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix. This science-fiction thriller about Chariots of the Gods?-style crop circles that appear on a Pennsylvania farm is shot by Shyamalan's Sixth Sense DP Tak Fujimoto, with production design by Larry Fulton…Luminaria, a new show on the lagoon at Disney's California Adventure, will open next week, and play through the holidays. According to Walt Disney Imagineering's Tom LaDuke, the nighttime spectacular is "a very complicated water show, with amazing pyrotechnics, projections, and all kinds of special effects."