Seen and Heard on a Not-So-Silent Night:

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s Christmas Eve & Other Stories tour made its way into the Beacon Theatre in NYC the week before Christmas. TSO gives a hard-rock take on Christmas classics, and original music they have composed, wrapping it all in a moving story of the littlest angel’s search for the one moment that truly represents the good of Christmas. If it sounds like A Charlie Brown Christmas kind of evening, you’re right, and TSO reminds us why that’s a classic! The music is incredible, the story as narrated by Tim Cain’s low, soothing voice transports you, and as TSO weaves you through the angel’s search you relax and let go of the chaos of the holidays, the shopping, the crowds, and the dread of the travel needed to get to the family dinner. TSO’s hard-rock edge to the idea of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All" gives what could be just another run-of-the-mill Christmas cliché-filled show an urgency that makes you listen and moves you to tears. The production swings from high energy to breathtakingly still moments as TSO offers its Christmas Eve story in the first half of the evening and then switches to a hard-rock concert of classic music for the second half.

The theatre of the first half of the evening is flawless as Bryan Hartley’s lighting and set design accomplishes the difficult task of giving a rock concert edge while serving the story. The lighting rig uses quite a few PAR cans, over 70 moving lights, and a beautifully controlled star drop to visually reinforce the emotional journey the music takes the audience on. Hartley uses fog--lots of fog--so the beams of color become the ever-changing set and, in the case of the angel, the costume for the singer is represented with beams of light. Also well used was a YAG laser for some truly spectacular effects. Hartley’s lighting is as good as it gets for raw rock power, with audience-blinding sweeps and a fast-moving, ever-changing color palette. The evening as a whole is hard to describe: The audience is taken from a powerful, moving, and quiet story to an incredible celebration of the raw joy of music, but TSO pulls it all together much like an orchestral Cirque du Soleil.


Trans-Siberian Orchestra photos: Bryan Hartley and Laura Kaye

The shocking surprise of the evening came in the encore when Trans-Siberian, not known for guest artist appearances, was joined onstage by Joan Jett with her famous rendition of "The Little Drummer Boy." She looked great, sounded great, and it was a wonderful final stocking-stuffer to a wonderful holiday evening. The Trans-Siberian Orchestra is currently working on a non-holiday production of its original musical story, Beethoven’s Last Night. On another note, Hartley is off to Australia to light KISS with the Melbourne Orchestra. --Kathy Eddy

Seen at the Movies: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind provides proof that a bizarre true-life story does not, in and of itself, an interesting movie make. George Clooney’s directorial debut is adapted from infamous Dating Game and Gong Show creator Chuck Barris’ autobiography, in which he claims to have been an assassin for the CIA. The weirdest scenes in the movie show Barris chaperoning Dating Game contestants in wintertime Helsinki and West Berlin, grim vacation spots selected to correspond with his cloak-and-dagger assignments. But Clooney and screenwriter Charlie Kaufman haven’t imagined an involving way into this material. As portrayed by Sam Rockwell, Barris remains an enigma, and not a particularly fascinating one. Do the filmmakers believe his assertions? Difficult to tell—the whole movie is stylized in a vaguely cartoonish manner, but it’s unfunny and heavy-spirited.

Cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel is the real star of the show here. For about half the movie, I was kept engaged by the DP’s stylistic flourishes, which were partly accomplished with the assistance of digital intermediate, the new industry buzz. Many of the early scenes with Barris and his girlfriend (Drew Barrymore) have a hand-tinted look, which is amazing to see used so consistently on moving pictures. Scenes with Barris and his CIA contact (played by Clooney, who sports a disfiguring moustache), and of the character’s secret-agent antics, are done in high-noir style. A series of talking-head interviews are shot with a blistering color infrared, and childhood flashbacks are done in black-and-white infrared. Production designer James Bissell does amusing recreations of game-show sets, and costume designer Renee April throws some hilarious dragon-lady costumes into the period mix for Julia Roberts, who appears as a Mata Hari-like figure. All in all, though, if you want to see a 1960s-set believe-it-or-not story, you’re advised to catch Catch Me If You Can.


Confessions of a Dangerous Mind photos: Takashi Seida/Miramax Films

Another movie star’s directorial debut is far worse. Sonny, directed by Nicolas Cage for heaven knows what perverse reason, is an embarrassment about a male prostitute (James Franco) trying to escape the clutches of his madam mama (Brenda Blethyn: ghastly) and make a clean life with fellow hooker Mena Suvari. The setting is New Orleans, which DP Barry Markowitz, production designer Monroe Kelly, and costume designer Shawn Holly Cookson render colorfully.


The Son photo: New Yorker Films 2002

Please don’t confuse Sonny with The Son, directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (La Promesse, Rosetta). The Dardennes’ latest examination of working-class lives focuses on a carpenter (the excellent Olivier Gourmet) who takes on a troubled adolescent boy as an apprentice. There’s a secret bond between the two characters which is gradually revealed, and which then creates an agonizing feeling of suspense. Part of what makes the movie so unnerving is DP Alain Marcoen’s shooting style, which is handheld, very close-up, and often obscures faces; the viewer becomes intimately acquainted with the back of Gourmet’s head. I could make a joke and say The Son is the best movie of 2003 so far but, come December, I don’t expect to have seen many films that are better.--John Calhoun

Seen Off Broadway: Art, Life & Show-Biz: A Non-Fiction Play, at P.S. 122, is a fascinating if flawed exercise in documentary theatre constructed out of interviews with actresses Helen Gallagher, Lola Pashalinski, and Valda Setterfield. It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely trio: Gallagher is a two-time Tony winner and doyenne of the late, lamented ABC soap Ryan’s Hope. Pashalinski is the portly, wisecracking character actress best known for her (frequently nude) appearances with Charles Ludlman’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. Setterfield, born in England, danced for years with Merce Cunningham, then partnered with her husband, choreographer David Gordon; more recently, she has taken on dramatic roles in theatre and film. Writer/director Ain Gordon (Setterfield’s son) has pieced together his interviews with all three ladies to create a biographical essay exploring the twists of fate that shaped their careers. At first, Gordon is an intrusive presence, talking about himself, announcing his themes, and generally making himself redundant. Gradually, he takes a back seat to his trio of spellbinders, each of whom has plenty to say. Setterfield is uproarious imitating the hysterical dance teacher Marie Rambert and chilling as she describes the auto accident that changed the course of her career. Pashalinski provides a vivid account of what Der Rosenkavalier, with its trousers role, meant to her as a teenage lesbian. Gallagher offers a detailed study in Broadway politics (her take on Jerome Robbins: "Mean. Evil. But I loved him!") and bluntly discusses the musical flops (Hazel Flagg and Portofino) that derailed her career. Interestingly, Gordon explores many hidden connections between his subjects and, at the end, one realizes just how much they have in common. Nevertheless, I suspect he doesn’t fully appreciate the gold mine of material at his disposal. A more fully-realized piece, with more of the ladies and less of his editorializing, would make a stronger impact.

This is hardly a design show, and Agnieszka Kunska’s lighting is a rather simple affair. The projections, by Gordon and Darren Chilton, a vivid collection of production photos and résumé shots, are fascinating to see. But the ladies are the thing here—funny, fearless, and honest. Anyone interested in the history of modern American theatre will want to partake of their wit and wisdom (and to study their sharply contrasting performance styles). Still, the piece wants further development; as richly entertaining as it is, Art, Life & Show-Biz remains a rough sketch for a potentially great evening in the theatre.

As Pashalinski says, "The show must go on—except when you can stop it." Gordon’s showstoppers could use a better show to stop. --David Barbour

Heard from Industry Friends: A few wishes, resolutions, and hopes for the New Year:

For the coming year, I wish our entire industry, but most of all my personal friends and long-time associates, good fortune. I offer them hope, strength, and my support throughout the year, and trust they will make good decisions about business and whom they choose to work with. Here is my personal goal and focus: I choose to only work with clients and partners who are honest, diligent, hard-working, and supportive to our efforts. We are all too talented to waste our time and energy on a failing cause. As someone said to me earlier this year, life is too long (not too short) to deal with idiots. --Chris Conte, Electrosonic

Resolutions:
- invent useful products
- increase profitability
- visit every CTI distributor
- take a vacation that doesn't include a trade show!
Hopes: lots of new hit musicals
Predictions: A very good 2003 for most of our industry --Gary Fails, City Theatrical

May this year continue to bring a refinement of lighting design and admiration of great lighting. For example: To appreciate James Turrell’s work, now on display in Pittsburgh, you must make yourself "emotionally available and observant" to see the delicate differences in color and intensity. As more and more people allow themselves to be receptive to this kind of art they become more critical of bad lighting and appreciative of the beauty found in great lighting. --Paul Gregory, Focus Lighting

First of all, best wishes to all of my friends and colleagues for an exciting new year! The one thing I swear that I'm actually going to manage this year is to *not* work through most of the weekends! And to take at least two projects just for the sheer fun of it. Wait....the *two* things I'm going to manage for this year are. . . . Now I get to start the year traveling out of the country again. Is there anything cooler than working in an industry that has almost no borders? --Michael Finney, Thinkwell Design

I guess my wish for us in 2003 is that "We should all love what we do and be able to do what we love . . . and make money." --Marsha Stern, Marsha Stern Lighting Design

May the New Year bring great things. --Christina Giannelli