This year’s Tony Awards broadcast was a breezy, fast-moving, wisecracking affair, helped immensely by Hugh Jackman, who made a charming, unpretentious host. The numbers from nominated shows looked good, especially those from Hairspray and Movin' Out; a particular highlight was Bernadette Peters’ sizzling rendition of "Rose’s Turn" from Gypsy, which should end any speculation that she isn’t vocally up to the role. The show’s opening, with Billy Joel singing "New York State of Mind" in the middle of Duffy Square, set just the right tone. It was also the gayest Tonys in several years, which is really saying something, with winner after winner gleefully outing themselves on national television. Among the highlights: Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, dressed to the nines, confessing to being "theatre geeks"; Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the Hairspray songwriting team, affirming their love on national TV and sealing it with a kiss; presenter Mike Wallace discussing his one Broadway credit in the 1954 art-world comedy Reclining Figure; presenter Barbara Walters amusingly squashing the rumor that she attended the original opening night of La Bohème in 1896; Frank Langella scooping up elderly Tony doyenne Isabelle Stevenson, Rhett Butler fashion, and carrying her offstage; award winner Michele Pawk terming herself a "geriatric Cinderella" and enthusing: "I have never ever in my life been more proud to be a member of this community. Men kissing each other onstage! Drag queens! Children! It's a perfect world--as it should be."
Not everything worked. A sequence with the cast of Def Poetry Jam performing in Duffy Square, was a bust, thanks to the poor sound reproduction. And the relegation of the design winners to an offline ceremony continues to outrage--this year, they were moved right off the broadcast. Then again, two of the winners Catherine Martin and Nigel Levings, of La Bohème, didn’t even show up, so we’ll leave out complaints on this matter for another year. Also deeply bemusing was the fact that nearly every commercial during the broadcast was for psychotropic drugs; clearly, CBS has weird ideas about the target audience for the Tony broadcast (Joe Mantello’s acceptance speech, in which he claimed to be on Xanax, made him sound like a pitchperson for the show’s sponsors). The ratings were predictably low, but, as Tony ceremonies go, this was better than most. --David Barbour
Seen at the Movies: New Zealander Niki Caro’s film Whale Rider is a lovely piece of contemporary folklore, stunningly shot by Leon Narbey in the coastal Maori community of Whangara, on the North Island. It centers on Pai, an adolescent girl who carries the bloodline of those who pass down her people’s traditions and legends. The problem is, only males are privy to the knowledge, and Pai’s twin brother died (along with their mother) in childbirth. Pai is ready to pick up the mantle of leader, but her grandfather Koro puts up a fierce resistance. The film, based on a novel by Witi Ihimaera, is, of course, a female empowerment tale, but it doesn’t push too hard on this; instead, it allows dynamic little tyro Keisha Castle-Hughes, who plays Pai, to carry the theme with implicit power. The other actors, including Rawiri Paratene as Koro, are excellent, too.
Like Castle-Hughes, Narbey doesn’t employ any showy effects to bowl us over. He lets the dramatic setting speak for itself, and allows the magic to emerge from the material, and from the ocean itself when the whales (some mixture of real and animatronic) appear. A sequence of the barnacle-covered creatures beached and expiring is really unforgettable. Production designer Grant Major, on holiday from The Lord of the Rings movies, does a fine job with the characters’ living spaces--modern with just a few traditional touches. Costume designer Kristy Cameron strikes a similar balance, as does Lisa Gerrard’s score, which is a real beaut. David Madigan’s sound mix is also an important component.
Until its last half-hour, Hollywood Homicide really isn’t as bad as its trailer makes it seem. It’s got the wobbly concept of partnered LAPD detectives (Harrison Ford and Josh Hartnett) who moonlight in other careers--the older man as a real estate agent, the younger as an actor. On their day job, they’re investigating a multiple homicide in the rap world, which is populated by a clichéd crew of thugs and wannabes. Director Ron Shelton at least gives the proceedings a loose-limbed style, and interesting people like Lena Olin and Gladys Knight keep turning up. The Hollywood locations are well shot by Barry Peterson--the film’s surface exudes that lazy, hazy LA feeling. In addition, production designer James D. Bissell has a real eye for the trashy Beverly Hills manse. But the movie’s uncertain blend of violent action and comedy comes a cropper during the final, extended chase scene, one of those numbing car-and-foot-and-brandished-gun pursuits which at one point finds Ford hijacking a little girl’s bicycle. Ghastly. And what’s with Hartnett’s hair? Does he have some gruesome scar on his forehead he’s trying to hide, or is this just the youngblood’s version of a combover?--John Calhoun
Seen Off Broadway: Aeschylus’ The Persians, the oldest play extant in Western literature, isn’t really ever revived and you’ll know why if you see the National Actors Theatre revival at Pace University. Ethan McSweeny’s staging is more than competent--it’s a dignified, well-spoken, thoughtful reading of the text. However, the play itself is a dry document from a lost world, unlike other Greek works, such as Medea or The Oresteia, which, with their powerful psychological insights, can still speak to modern audiences. The text is an after-the-fact recounting of a historical moment, in which the Persians invaded Greece and were soundly beaten. Ellen McLaughlin’s translation features a prologue touting the play as an eyewitness account of a historic battle--apparently, Aeschylus observed the hostilities himself--but that’s no substitute for richly drawn characters or a compelling narrative. The cast, including Roberta Maxwell and Len Cariou, do their best, but it’s a less than electric evening. The production’s design is notably stylish; James Noone’s setting features a circular thrust stage set against a background of exposed lighting rigs, backed by a tilted mirror, and grounded in blood-red sand. Kevin Adams’ lighting takes advantage of this scenic conception to deliver some dark, moodily effective looks. Jess Goldstein dresses the chorus in modern clothes, with Middle Eastern robes on top--the richly brocaded gold cape worn by Maxwell is particularly eye-grabbing. Michael Roth is billed as sound designer but he’s really acting here as a composer, creating a running undertone of ominous percussion sounds. The few projections designed by Marilys Ernst are rather dark and uneven in quality--this is the first time I’ve seen her work and she may have been hampered by budget considerations. I suppose that theatre students might want to check out this production, but for general audiences, it’s a battle to stay awake for 80 minutes. --DB
Seen Off Broadway: France, Part I. Classic Stage Company’s production of Savannah Bay is cool and aloof. Even the extremely talented actress Kathleen Chalfant cannot break though the ice. Not that the water of Savannah Bay, where the action takes place, is actually frozen, but director Les Waters has not added much warmth to the proceedings. Written by French author Marguerite Duras, the play is slight and enigmatic, with Chalfant playing an elderly actress, and Marin Ireland, playing an almost totally expressionless younger woman--perhaps her dead daughter, perhaps her granddaughter, perhaps a younger version of the actress. They are reliving the facts of a love affair that took place long ago and a death that took place there on Savannah Bay. The set by Myung Hee Cho takes us to a house on the shores of the bay. It has a black floor and a dark backdrop above two black steps and a platform that runs the width of the playing area. The only furniture is a black table and two black chairs, although there is an Edith Piaf record playing on an unseen phonograph, with sound design by Darron L. West. A white teapot and cups sit in stark contrast on the table. The costumes by Ilona Somogyi consist of two long dresses, red for Chalfont, burgundy for Ireland, with matching shoes, and it is hinted that the dresses come from the actress' costume collection. Robert Wierzel’s lighting uses a small rig but adds atmosphere, and at one moment the dark backdrop becomes lighter, almost blue, as if it were the sea stretching to infinity. The real problem is the slow movement, which seems more like stilted choreography, as the actresses slowly remember the past. More spirited direction might do Duras more service; although her work is lyrical, I’d like to see a more theatrical interpretation onstage.
Seen in Houston: France, Part II. The Little Prince, one of the world’s most charming books, is now an opera as well. Based on the beloved book by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the opera tells the story of a pilot who crashes in the Sahara desert, where he meets a little prince from a far-away star who teaches him some fundamental truths about life. With music by Rachel Portman and lyrics by Nicholas Wright, the world premiere of this opera took place at the Houston Grand Opera on May 31 and runs though June 22. Directed by Francesca Zambello, this production features the last sets and costumes designed by the late Maria Bjornson (who won a Tony for her designs of The Phantom of the Opera and passed away last December). Adrian Linford is credited as set realizer. The designs are based on the original drawings in the book, with one set of sand dunes in the desert with a large blue plane in the first act, and a smaller blue plane upstage in Act Two, as if the action is taking place further from the crash site. There is also a round portal, or false proscenium, with steps along the inner edge that serves as a frame for the act curtains that are maps of the world as seen from the plane. The portal moves apart at the top of each act and frames the action as well. Singers appear in windows in the sides of the portal and in the sand dunes, and also use the steps in the portals as perches. The lighting by American LD Rick Fisher, who lives in London, is quite beautiful, dappling the dunes with sun or evening light. There is one very big lighting "moment," when there is no singing, just music, and the pilot and the little prince turn their backs to the audience to watch a sunset, and the upstage cyc explodes with color as the sun sets. Charming and sad at the same time, this version of The Little Prince is sure to please audiences of all ages (and for those who don’t get it, they are selling A Guide for Adults along with copies of the book in the lobby.
Seen in Brooklyn: France, Part III. Direct from the Paris National Opera to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) comes Les Arts Florissants with the American premiere of Rameau’s Les Boréades, an opera written in 1763 but never seen until 1982. This new production (which premiered in Paris on March 28, 2003) is directed by Robert Carsen, with set and costume design by Michael Levine, and lighting by Peter van Praet (chief lighting designer at the Flanders Opera) and Robert Carsen. The story is that of a queen who is forced by the gods to chose one of the sons of Boreas, god of the north wind, as her husband. But she is in love with a mere mortal, who in the end turns out to be of Borean blood, so all’s well that ends well. As is typical of Les Arts Florissants’ production, this one is beautifully performed musically under the baton of conductor William Christie. The choreography by Edouard Locke is in keeping with the updating of the opera to the 20th century. The decor is absolutely stunning, with the first scene on a stage completely covered with a garden of wildflowers, which give way to autumn leaves, then to a raging snow storm, and, as love conquers all at the end, new flowers are planted across the stage. The lighting makes use of almost entirely crosslighting with a limited palette of cold white, warmer white or yellow, and blue, with four ladders of fixtures on each side of the stage. With so much dancing taking center stage, the decor includes just an enormous table also used as a performance platform, and chairs. The flowers, leaves, and snow create the visual surprises. --Ellen Lampert-Gréaux
Heard from San Francisco: The new Broadway season is off and running with the San Francisco tryout of Wicked, a new musical about the early lives of the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch, of Oz fame. The production opened out of town this week to reviews that sternly noted that much more work was needed to get it into Broadway shape. Reviewers had complaints about Winnie Holtzman’s book, but they were particularly tough on Stephen Schwartz’s score. Karen D’Souza in the San Jose Mercury News wrote, "There’s a sugary sameness to the songs, which seem devoted to soaring melody for its own sake instead of propelling the story forward or revealing anything about character." In Variety, Dennis Harvey warned that "Gluey, banal sentiment reaches artery-choking levels several times here." On the plus side, D’Souza noted "The real stars of the show are Eugene Lee’s set design and Susan Hilferty’s fanciful costumes." San Francisco Chronicle critic Robert Hurwitt also had good words for "Kenneth Posner’s vigorous lighting and Elaine McCarthy’s inventive projections." Little or nothing was said about Tony Meola’s sound design, which is par for the course, since reviewers rarely notice sound design unless a show is wildly over-amplified. Wicked doesn’t open in New York until October 31. Stay tuned for further developments. --DB