Seen and Heard at the Movies: Bolstered by a great title performance from Jamie Foxx, Taylor Hackford’s Ray is a first-rate musical biography of Ray Charles. The film, which charts the singer’s life and career from the 1940s to superstardom (and heroin addiction) in the 1960s, flashing back to his childhood in the rural South, is marred by a conventional tendency to connect the psychological dots, as well as by overlength and a slackening of momentum in the final half-hour. But for the most part, that momentum is fairly propulsive, riding on waves of Charles’ great R&B, pop, and country music. And Foxx, who captures the singer’s speech and gestural patterns perfectly, but also embodies his spirit, his charm, the self-containment that could translate into remoteness, and the unapologetically driven quality that extended into his relationships with women and with drugs, into business dealings, and most of all into the music, carries all before him.
Shot on a budget—incredibly, Charles’ story is seen as of questionable commercial viability—Ray makes the most of archival footage and of locations in and around New Orleans, where production was centered. To capture the energy of Ray’s life and music, DP Pawel Edelman shoots in a highly mobile style, and the concert scenes, which boast theatrical lighting by vet Bill Klages, can work up a thrilling head of steam. The film’s color scheme—muted during Ray’s blind adulthood, and distinguished by a vivid, hyperreal palette in the flashbacks to his sighted childhood—is conceptually a bit obvious, but it works very well. Production designer Stephen Altman works wonders creating the film’s variety of clubs and concert halls, the seedy hotel rooms and sumptuous Beverly Hills homes, the New York offices and north Florida shacks, almost entirely in practical settings. And Sharen Davis’ costumes punch through the largely monochromatic palette to convey the African-American music world’s flash and color.
Roger Michell’s Enduring Love, from a novel by Ian McEwan, has a great opening. A couple (Daniel Craig and Samantha Morton) is enjoying a picnic in a lovely pastoral setting, when suddenly a runaway passenger balloon enters the frame, carrying a terrified child. Several passersby materialize to try to ground the balloon, and one hangs on as it rises, only to fall to his death a few moments later. This sequence, shot (by Haris Zambarloukos) and edited to achieve the sickening sense of disorientation one may feel during an actual accident, is hard to top, and the movie begins an almost immediate descent into mediocrity. One of the passersby (played by Rhys Ifans, that specialist in disheveled dysfunction) becomes obsessed with Craig’s character, who is clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder but refuses to get help. One keeps waiting for something interesting to develop between the two men, but Ifans’ character devolves into a routine movie stalker, and the film just plops to earth.
I expected to get some big laughs from Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s puppet action movie Team America: World Police, but I didn’t necessarily expect to appreciate its beautifully detailed design. After all, clever as it is, South Park isn’t actually known for visual depth and dimension. But Team America enlisted design architect David Rockwell as visual consultant, and the movie’s representations of everything from Paris, Cairo, and New York to North Korea and Mt. Rushmore have a whimsical, classy themepark quality that is Rockwell’s trademark. (Obviously, production designer Jim Dultz shouldn’t be slighted here.) The movie’s parodistic mayhem is captured in widescreen glory by DP Bill Pope, and you almost believe these string marionettes (created by Chiodo Bros. Productions) inhabit an actual alternate universe. Too bad the movie doesn’t have a coherent point of view—Parker and Stone skewer their action heroes’ blithe willingness to mow down innocent onlookers and such cultural monuments as the Eiffel Tower and the Egyptian pyramids in their pursuit of terrorists, but they reserve their most gleeful salvos for Alec Baldwin, Susan Sarandon, and other liberal actors who dare to speak their mind. Yet the movie is intermittently hilarious, and Parker’s songs—including "Everybody Has AIDS" and "America, Fuck Yeah"—are brilliant: the closest thing to genuine satire Team America has to offer.--John Calhoun
Seen on Broadway: As ETS-LDI rocked Las Vegas, the fall theater season rolled on in New York. Our overview begins with a quick spin through Brooklyn The Musical, the worst thing to befall the borough since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. I won’t bore you with the plot specifics, which concern a Parisian orphan named Brooklyn, who finds a community among street singers living beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, one of whom is her long-lost dad, a smack-addicted Vietnam veteran. Suffice it to say that five whale-lunged performers (including Kevin Anderson, who needs a CSI or Law & Order spinoff, pronto) deserve better than to bray sub-American Idol rock-gospel fusion ballads, one more mind-numbingly cheerful, uplifting, and positive than the last, and that a rich sound design by Jonathan Deans and Peter Hylenski gives you no choice but to absorb every cotton-candied lyric. Sample: "Let the melody carry you/Leave all your fears behind/And float across the rainbow sky/To ‘Once Upon a Time.’ Now imagine 16 more songs just like it.
The stagecraft is largely irreproachable. Ray Klausen’s DUMBO set, which the characters rearrange into the Eiffel Tower and other locales, is fun to look at as you avert your eyes from the central action, if too gritty for the tinsel songs, which relentlessly soft-pedal homelessness and addiction like so many greeting cards beating you about the ears. Michael Gilliam’s lighting adds another layer of gloss to an already unsubtle production. And you leave humming the amusingly makeshift "Salvation Armani" costumes of Tobin Ost, who excels with the show’s villainess, Miss Paradice (pictured)—who, at one point, comes out with a headdress made up of Doritos bags and a coat with microphone-stuffed sleeves. His trash has style, something that cannot be said for Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson’s music, lyrics, and book.
Jeff Calhoun directs, and is one of many producers, for what will be a short stay at the Plymouth. Brooklyn is the last new musical to open on Broadway this year; it, and the hopeless Dracula, make a strong case for an all-revivals season.
Speaking of revivals, Craig Lucas’ Reckless has made its Broadway debut at the Biltmore, in a Manhattan Theatre Club and Second Stage Theatre co-production. It’s also heavy on whimsy, but before the second-act pall sets in there are a few ghoulishly or satirically inspired touches to enjoy, and another finely frazzled performance from Mary-Louise Parker to relish. She plays Rachel, whose sunny-side life is frayed when her husband announces, on Christmas Eve, that he’s taken a contract out on her life. This sends her scurrying into the arms of strangers—a couple, played by Michael O’ Keefe and Rosie Perez, who have their own identity crises to sort out—and a succession of doctors, all portrayed by Debra Monk.
Sound designer David Van Tieghem, LD Christopher Akerlind, and costume designer Michael Krass all contribute, artfully, to the neurotic Yuletide ambiance of the show. Director Mark Brokaw, however, may have encouraged Allen Moyer to nip a little too much on the eggnog of inspiration. His themed setpieces are fun—I particularly liked the window with the gently cascading snowfall—but there are more stagehands to position them than there are actors, and lost time in comedy is dead time.
Seen Off Broadway: In an odd quirk there are not one but Off Broadway shows now running about former US Attorney Generals. In a touching valedictory performance, Fritz Weaver lays down the law at the Promenade as Francis Biddle, FDR’s attorney general, in Joanna McClelland Glass’s Trying, which is based on her experiences as Biddle’s young secretary in 1967-98, his twilight year. It’s familiar stuff, with the expected generation gap conflicts between the crankily patrician Biddle and the quietly determined Sarah (Kati Brazda) as they struggle to put his home office in order and finish his autobiography. But under Sandy Shinner’s direction it’s fairly unsentimental, with enough humor to excuse the repetitiveness of the action, and the no-nonsense performances sparkle. As does the straightforward, naturalistic design: the cluttered, lived-in set, yielding to Sarah’s discipline, from Jeff Bauer; Jacqueline Reid’s subtly changing early morning lighting, and a smooth sound design from Andrew Hopson. My one quibble is with Carolyn Cristofani’s costumes—some of Sarah’s skirts, I think, show a little more leg than a proper blueblood like Biddle might approve of.
Biddle would have been flabbergasted by Martha "Moutha" Mitchell, whose loose lips helped sink the ship of state under Nixon. John Jeter’s solo show about Mitchell, whose husband, disgraced AG John Mitchell, tried to keep her under lock and key, is Dirty Tricks, and he’s lucky that his dramatic debut has come wrapped in Ivey—Judith Ivey, to be exact. She’s a hellion in a rose-colored slip, alternately fierce and fragile, as Mitchell, and this thin show, which hits all the usual well-worn bio-play bases, is inconceivable without her grande dame romping.
Credit, too, to performer/director Margaret Whitton, who has marshaled a superb and surprisingly intricate design at the Public’s Anspacher. Neil Patel’s dilapidated Fifth Avenue apartment set, from which Mitchell (clad, in pink, by Joseph G. Aulisi, with hair and wigs by Paul Huntley) rails on the eve of Nixon’s resignation, recedes into haunted dark corners as Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting falls away, and Sage Marie Carter’s spooky projections of Watergate figures loom large in Martha’s consciousness [Fitz Patton’s sound design helps root the show as Mitchell reels off her biographical particulars.] A hot central performance and this coolly measured design add zest to an otherwise lukewarm venture.
For something completely different this fall, head over to the Union Square Theatre, where Russian clown Slava Polunin and his entourage of floppy-footed mirthmakers are rampaging through Slava’s Snowshow, which has already visited 80 countries. Allow me to get autobiographical. My younger sister hates clowns, but wanted to see the show, thinking it would be "cool," like De La Guarda. [It is, and it isn’t; the "interactive" setpieces, where you’re covered with Silly String spider webs and blasted with confetti, bubbles, and enormous balloons, are a riot; the other, Beckettian segments, with telephones and globes used to underline our aloneness and connectedness, are not, though there is one inspired bit with an "invisible" man.] Intuiting her discomfort, one clown walked atop the seats and grabbed her by her boots, trying to drag her onstage (losing one of her socks, and nearly one of the boots, in the process). Time will tell whether this increased, or shocked into subsiding, her coulrophobia. [I just laughed.] Still, she rallied to enjoy the climatic, wind machine-driven "snowshow," which left me picking confetti off the floor of my apartment for nearly an hour. Slava, and Victor Plotkinov, are credited with the in-your-face, benignly sadistic design, which also has some sweetly magical moments, like the one pictured. If you don’t mind some heavy-duty, gale-force clowning around, Slava’s Snowshow might make you look forward to winter.--Robert Cashill
Seen in Brooklyn: Ralph Lemon is a curious choreographer. At least I found his latest piece, Come Home Charly Patton to be a bit curious. Seen as part of BAM’s annual Next Wave Festival, this piece is the final segment in Lemon’s Geography Trilogy, and I recall finding the first two sections much more accessible. Lemon researched Come Home Charly Patton by taking trips to the American South and investigating some unfortunate "landmarks" of black culture, from lynching to the fight for civil rights, and at the same time tracing the roots of Delta blues. I found the piece captivating at moments, yet frustrating in that the story line seems fragmented and there is not enough dancing for my taste. I felt as if the talented ensemble of performers (five plus Lemon) were just waiting for a musical cue that would let them burst into some incredible dancing. This almost happens a few times, but not quite.
Visually the piece is very interesting, with Lemon credited with visual design, collaborating with associate scenic designer R. Eric Stone, lighting designer Roderick Murray, sound designer Lucas Indelicato, video designer Mike Taylor, and costume designer Anne C. de Velder. Lemon’s use of video helps explain the story somewhat, and an animated head of author James Baldwin serves as a commentator of sorts. Documentary footage was shot by Lemon and his daughter Chelsea Lemon Fetzer and helps set the mood for the evening. Scenic elements include plywood panels with floral wallpaper that are moved about the stage, while a scene in an attic is illustrated with two ladders that descend in a plywood "house," with white light illuminating the ladders. Water from a fire hose douses Lemon as he recalls a civil rights demonstration in the 60s. All of these are strong images. While I wish the piece had been shaped a little differently, it cannot be dismissed. I respect Lemon for his departure from abstract modern dance, to take this personal journey of discovery. One that makes the audience ask questions to which there are not easy answers. Perhaps now that this trilogy is completed, Lemon will let a little more "pure dance" back into his work. At least for a little while.-- Ellen Lampert-Gréaux