Monday, February 11, 2013

Lizzie + William 4ever!

A while back, I heard about this web video series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice as told via YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest. I bookmarked the page and promptly forgot about it...until I was desperately trying to avoid some freelance work I had to do. And then I promptly watched the 86 Lizzie episodes, the 28 Lydia videos, and the various Maria and Domino videos, and read the various Twitter updates. You know what's WAY more interesting than medical editing? The Lizzie Bennet Diaries!

I'm not big into people messing with Austen. The continuations of the books hold little appeal, and while I mostly enjoyed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, I didn't like how it messed with Lizzie's character.

You want to know an Austen adaptation that works? Clueless, the modernization of Emma. And the LBD succeeds for the same reason Clueless did: the heart of the characters are the same, but a bunch of the details are changed. LBD sticks much more closely to the story of P&P than Clueless to Emma, but both maintain the soul of the people.

Ashley Clements is an amazing Lizzie, but what I've found fantastic is the portrayal of a number of the secondary characters, particularly Lydia (Mary Kate Wiles). Holy crap, y'all. I never really thought that much about Lydia beyond what's in the book; I just accepted her story. But what Bernie Su and the other writers do with this character, and how Wiles brings her to life, is just brilliant. There's a depth to Lydia that I don't remember in the original, but at the same time, it feels completely organic.

It's symbolic of how LBD somehow manages to bring surprises to a story that I know well. The details of Lydia's journey is the largest of these, but the tweaks made to certain other characters and storylines manage to combine the original story with modern times. Charlotte Lu(cas) (Julia Cho) has been fleshed out, but remains the pragmatic character from the story. Georgiana (Gigi) Darcy (Allison Paige) still wants her brother to end up with Lizzie, but she's the one character who seems off from the original--a bit too assertive. (I'm also not sure how I feel about Caroline.) But it is the 21st century, after all.

And Darcy. Because of the setup of the story--told through Lizzie's own video diaries--we don't see him until about six months into the story. We hear a LOT about him, but we don't see the man himself until WAY into the story. It serves the story well; this format only emphasizes that Lizzie is the "prejudice" in the title of the original, and she tells us all about his "pride." And yet, with seeing him only a few minutes, I can't help but pull for him.

The story, unfortunately, is rapidly heading toward its conclusion, and I'm left in suspense with how they're going to handle the climax of the book. After binging on the videos, it's torture to have to wait for new content likes this (it's like how I started reading Harry Potter when the first three were out, and only had to wait a few months before Goblet of Fire came out...and then had the torture of waiting for the last three to be released).

Yet I want it to just keep going, but I don't want to stop hanging out with these people.

Espcially Fitz. Because he's AWESOME.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2012 in Review: Theater

Parentheses indicate where I saw the production.

Necessary Sacrifices (Ford's)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (Shakespeare)
Really Really (Signature)
1776 (Ford's)
Anything Goes (Broadway)
Evita (Broadway)
Brother Russia (Signature)
Into the Woods (CenterStage)
Xanadu (Signature)
The Music Man (Arena)
First You Dream (Kennedy Center)
God of Carnage (Signature)
Double Indemnity (Round House)
Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play (Woolly Mammoth)
The Normal Heart (Arena)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Signature)
Fly (Ford's)
War Horse (Kennedy Center)
Complete History of America (abridged) (Arts Center of Coastal Carolina)
A Clockwork Orange (Scena)
A Christmas Carol (Ford's)
Assassins (Broadway)
Les Miserables (National)

Looking back, there are actually a bunch of thought-provoking shows in there, and a good mix of musicals and straight plays. Go me!

2012 in Review: Books

* is a reread. Bold is a recommendation.

Yours Until Dawn; Medeiros
Worthy Any Price; Kleypas
Lipstick Jungle; Bushnell
Lady Sophia's Lover; Kleypas
*Calico Captive; George Speare
You Don't Sweat Much for a Fat Girl; Rivenbark
The Wall St. Journal Complete Home Owner's Guidebook; Crook
Foreign Affairs; Lurie
Death Comes to Pemberley; James
The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History; Barry (with this and Into the Silence, I'd recommend if you're already interested in the topics--they're both BIG books)
The Complete Persepolis; Satrapi
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest; Davis
Stories I Only Tell My Friends; Lowe
Bad Heir Day; Holden
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and Murders of a President; Millard
Swamplandia!; Russell
The Scottish Prisoner; Gabaldon
40 Love; Wickham
Write More Good; The Bureau Chiefs
Moonwalking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything; Foer
The Marriage Plot; Eugenides
The Governess Affair; Milan
*Size 12 Is Not Fat; Cabot
*Size 14 Is Not Fat Either; Cabot
*Big Boned; Cabot
Truly, Madly; Webber
The Next Best Thing; Weiner
Because You're Mine; Kleypas
A Little Bit Wild; Dahl
Size 12 and Ready to Rock; Cabot
The Cat's Table; Ondaatje
Fifty-Nine in '84: Old Hoss Radbourn, Barehanded Baseball, & the Great Season a Pitcher Ever Had; Achorn
Columbine; Cullen
Keeping the Castle: A Tale of Romances, Riches, and Real Estate; Kindl
One of Our Thursdays Is Missing; Fforde
A Desirable Residence; Wickham
A Midnight Clear; Wharton
Redshirts; Scalzi
*The Trolley to Yesterday; Bellairs
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking; Cain
How to Be a Woman; Moran
Death of a President: November 1963; Manchester

Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination That Changed America Forever; O'Reilly & Dugard
Doctor Who: The Angel's Kiss; Richards
Fasting, Feasting; Desai
*Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game; Lewis
Major Pettigrew's Last Stand; Simonson
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence; de Becker
A Christmas Carol; Dickens
Confectionately Yours: Save the Cupcake!; Papademetriou
All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey With Jane; Smith
The Band That Played On: The Extraordinary Story of the 8 Musicians Who Went Down With the Titanic; Turner
My Year With Eleanor; Hancock

Friday, December 28, 2012

Cosette hits the big screen

Christmas night--Les Mis!

The sad thing is, I'm sure I have more thoughts than these. I just can't think of them at the moment.

The Good
  • I loved the incorporation of elements from the book that aren't in the stage version. Marius lives in an apartment next to Eponine! He has a rich grandfather, but lives on his own! Valjean and Cosette are taken in by Fauchelevent in Paris! The use of the cafe in the barricade scenes!
  • Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop. I may have spent a good chunk of his scenes getting choked up just at the idea of him playing this role. Also, he's good.
  • The improved clarity of the story. I noticed a good number of cuts of songs in the beginning, but it was fine--just actually being able to see the story in a way you can't on stage told the story. Also, everything about Lamarque and the cause of the student rebellion (and the fact that it wasn't the French Revolution) was so much easier to understand. And there's follow-up to Valjean taking Cosette from the Thenardiers. It always seemed odd that Javert just...disappeared.
  • The acting, pretty much across the board. I wasn't completely enamored with everyone's singing all the time, but the acting was good enough to elevate the singing. I bought the soundtrack (it was only a few bucks, so why not?), but I doubt I'll listen to it a ton.
  • Grantaire. Grantaire (i.e., the drunk student) is my favorite. They took out his verse of "Drink With Me" and "What's the difference--die a schoolboy, die a policeman, die a spy?" (BOO), but Hooper had enough reaction shots of him and Enjolras in "Red and Black" to make me happy. Also! Including the death scene from the book. Seriously, the rest of this movie could've sucked and as long as they left this scene in, I'd still buy the DVD. They downplayed the Grantaire/Gavroche relationship...I think. Grantaire looked a bit like another of the students, so I couldn't quite make out who it was who had the breakdown at Gavroche's death.
  • Hadley Fraser. He was Grantaire in the 25th anniversary concert and Raoul in the Phantom 25th anniversary concert and played the officer who led the charge against the barricade. I adore him. I had thought his role would be a minor role, but he actually got a bit of screen time. And some interesting acting choices. He seemed conflicted about what was going on, which is not something you normally hear from the officer's offstage voice in the show.
  • I kind of fell in love with Aaron Tveit as Enjolras.
  • The scene with the Thenardiers and Javert. I could've watched that FOREVER.
  • Russell Crowe. I was concerned about his voice going in, and he certainly didn't blow me away, but he sounded fine and he acted the hell out of the part.
  • "Do You Hear the People Sing?" became much, much more powerful than it is in the stage version. Loved how it was done.
  • The ending. I was practically sobbing. (In a good way!)
  • Little Cosette. I instinctively roll my eyes at "Castle on a Cloud," but I enjoyed her for the rest of her time on screen. Great with Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter.
The Bad
  • Tiny nitpick: I actually thought the stage version did a better job of showing time passing in Fantine's descent as a prostitute. In the movie, it seemed like it took her about a week to catch Prostitute Death. 
  • Taking out Grantaire's verse of "Drink With Me." Never forgive, never forget.
  • Amanda Seyfried. Nobody likes Cosette to begin with, and her voice wasn't that impressive. Meh.
  • It couldn't be helped, really, but "One Day More" was much less effective on screen than on stage. There isn't an act break, and that kind of number just doesn't work as well on screen. Also, the end of it was screaming for a pull-away shot. And we didn't get it.
  • Though the action was easier to understand in general, I found the battle scenes at the barricade hard to follow (which is fine--you could tell that the students weren't having a good time of it, which is really all that you need). However, with the action all over the place, it lost some of its power to move me. The death of the students is one my tear-triggers in the show, and it just didn't happen. Despite the awesome Enjolras/Grantaire death scene.
  • Gavroche. I know. Maybe I'm dead inside. I just don't really care about him, and he has a bigger role in the movie than on stage.
  • Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe should've been aged more. At the end, it was like they realized that Valjean has to (spoiler?) die at the end of the movie and so had him be all, "Ooh, my back hurts!" Adding gray or white to the guy's hair wouldn't have been too difficult. This is what Colm Wilkinson looked like by "Bring Him Home" in the original production.
  • "Suddenly." Don't care. Look, I get that they want to be eligible for Best Song categories. Still don't care.
The Direction
All of the criticism about Tom Hooper's direction is warranted. He got some fantastic performances from his actors, and did a great job with the casting. But...really, the criticism of all the close-ups is completely justified. I'm fine with tight shots during the soliloquies, but when two people are conversing, it's OK for them both to be on the screen at the same time. I wanted to see what else was going on. I want to see how the other characters are reacting--and there are moments in the movie where the reaction shot is more important than the shot of whoever's talking. I almost became nauseated at times. This is a major problem, because it greatly affected my enjoyment of the movie.

Monday, November 19, 2012

No no. Go read Manhunt.

I volunteer at Ford's Theatre, both as an usher but also at the historic site, talking about the Lincoln assassination. For the past year, we've gotten a lot of comments about the Bill O'Reilly/Martin Dugard book Killing Lincoln. There was a bit of controversy because the book isn't sold in the museum bookstore (though it is sold in the gift shop in the lobby). (And when Edward Steers, who is a Major Name in Lincoln assassination society, says that your book is wrong...people should listen.) Enough people have talked about it that I finally gave in and decided to read the book for myself. That way I can tell people why it's bad and provide details!

I'd have a lot fewer problems with this book if O'Reilly and Dugard just called it historical fiction. Because that's what it is. The thing that probably bothered me the most was the way the book frequently wrote what Booth and Lincoln were thinking. One of the more egregious sections is this (pp. 29-30):
Despite John Wilkes Booth's many infidelities, Lucy Hale is the love of his life. She is the only anchor that might keep him from committing a heinous crime, effectively throwing his life away in the process. In her eyes he sees a happy future replete with marriage, children, and increased prosperity as he refocuses on his career. They can travel the world together, mingling with high society wherever they go, thanks to her father's considerable connections. All he has to do is choose that love over his insane desire to harm the president.

Lucy--who was the daughter of a New York Senator--was engaged to Booth, and quite possibly was the love of his life. But...what? And this kind of thing occurs over and over in the book. (And I don't just mean the bad writing.) Booth had a journal and wrote letters, but it's not like we knew what he thought to that depth. He also apparently was jealous of Robert Todd Lincoln because Booth regarded him as a rival for Lucy, loathed his father (though little mention of Edwin Booth is made--not that I think John loathed Edwin, but he probably was jealous), and was "fearless in bed." I can only assume that Lucy wrote letters describing John's lovemaking.

And Preston King killed himself because he didn't pass along a petition to Andrew Johnson to commute Mary Surratt's sentence.

The authors also claim Lincoln's thoughts on the theater were quite different than anything I've read. They claim that he went to the theater during the war mostly to indulge Mary, whereas everything I've read indicated that he loved going because it got his mind off the war. They also claim that he wanted to see Aladdin at the National with Tad. Maybe? Of course, they also have the Fords being super excited over Lincoln coming to the theater on April 14. They were, of course, but the big coup was getting Grant to come. People in DC were used to seeing Lincoln, but Grant was the big hero of the moment.

(This is particularly odd, given the rest of the book's tongue bath of Grant. You'd never know what a crappy President the dude was, and they totally glossed over his numerous failures in life. But he won the war, so, yay!)

The authors frequently mention how vulnerable Lincoln--and other leaders--are to assassination. I'm not entirely sure what the point of this is. Are we supposed to be grateful he made it as long as he did? Also, early chapters kept including "The man with 10 days left to live blah blah blah." We all know Lincoln is going to die. Stop hitting us over the head. Like this description of Lincoln on the morning of April 14 (p. 146):

Every aspect of Lincoln's early morning has the feel of a man putting his affairs in order: reading the Bible [established as something he does every day], jotting a few notes [responding to mail], arranging for a last carefree whirl around Washington with his loyal wife [last? they discussed plans for the future], and setting his son on a path that will ensure him a successful future [he suggested to Robert that it was time to go back to school to become a lawyer]. All of this is done unconsciously, of course, but it is notable. [No, it's not.] But today it is as if Lincoln subconsciously knows what is about to happen.

And oddly enough, for a book about the killing of Lincoln, O'Reilly and Dugard spend a LOT of time discussing the end of the Civil War. Like, actual troop movements and final engagements. I suppose it was to set the scene for the mood of the country, but the connection wasn't really there. If I want to read a book about the military aspects of the war, I'll find one.

Booth as depicted in the book doesn't decide to kill Lincoln until the week of the assassination, and as written, thinks that he'll just go up to Lincoln on the street or in a hotel and shoot. I just can't buy that. Booth had planned to use a theater to kidnap Lincoln (which was apparently part of a plot to just restore slavery; I mean, yeah, Booth wanted slavery back, but at this point, he just wanted the war to continue). Part of the reason Booth killed Lincoln was for the notoriety. I can't believe that he thought he'd just bump into Lincoln in a hotel and shoot him, much less that he spent the evening of April 13 wandering DC for just that chance.

The physical descriptions of people throughout the book was bizarre. Booth was handsome. Check. But David Herold was described as having "matinee-idol good looks," whereas Lewis Powell gets this description: "otherwise very handsome--save for his face being deformed on one side, thanks to a mule's kick." Look at that picture. Deformed on one side? What? Dude was dreamy. To this day, women at Ford's see his picture and get all giggly. Mary Surratt is said to "captivate journalists" with her good looks and Lucy Hale is all sensuous and attracting men left and right, but Mary Todd Lincoln is totally unattractive.

The authors seem to have a bit of a thing for David Herold. He's frequently described in literature as being dim, which probably wasn't the case. However, here we get this, from page 248. Herold has gone with Dr. Mudd towards town the morning of the 15th, but goes back to Mudd's farm before making it into the town itself--which is good, because there are soldiers around:

That is the sort of savvy, intuitive thinking that separates David Herold from the other members of Booth's conspiracy. Atzerodt is dim. Powell is a thug. And Booth is emotional. But the twenty-two-year-old Herold, recruited to the conspiracy for his knowledge of Washington's backstreets, is intelligent and resourceful. He was educated at Georgetown College, the finest such institution in the city. He is also an avid hunter, which gives him a full complement of the outdoor skills that Booth now requires to escape, the additional ability to improvise in dangerous situations, and an instinctive sixth sense about tracking--or, in this case--being tracked.
The details left out and included was random. Why didn't they include the famous quote after Booth watched Lincoln giving his speech the night of April 11--"That'll be the last speech he'll ever make"? Why didn't they include the fact that Booth gave his own name when crossing the bridge out of DC? Why include that the Lincoln autopsy was "inconclusive" (p. 208)? He was shot in the head. An "inconclusive" autopsy does not indicate a conspiracy. And why say that Tad died of a "mysterious heart condition"? He got tuberculosis on a trip to Europe and died of heart failure. Not mysterious. The whole "sic semper tyrannis" quote is unaddressed--he has Booth planning on saying it, but nothing about him saying it (or not) at the theater. Also, Richmond is described as "more distinctly American" than Washington D.C. because Patrick Henry gave his "Give me liberty or give me death" speech there (p. 38).

There are also factual issues in the book; details of the Seward attack are off, as are details regarding the imprisonment of the conspirators. They describe Booth drilling the hole in the door to the box at Ford's, which was discredited years ago. The description of what happened to Ford's itself and the actors working there was off. Also, the whole "Oval Office" thing.

I'm not going to say that everything about the book is bad. It's very engaging. It has the Dan Brown-style short chapters thing happening, making it super quick to read. And he includes some things I like, like the story of Boston Corbett. (Don't know this story? Go look it up! It's fantastic.) My boy Ned Spangler is also treated very sympathetically.

However, they refer to telegrams as "t-mail."

But the most egregious part of the book is that the Lincoln assassination is portrayed as a conspiracy. Not just among John Wilkes Booth and Atzerodt, Powell, and Herold, but involving Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. Or, as they put it on page 216, it was the "most spectacular assassination conspiracy in history of man." Because if Lincoln AND Johnson AND Seward died...then Stanton would be President? The book makes a big deal of the fact that Stanton wasn't attacked that night. But then, neither were any of the rest of Cabinet. Honestly, this is just nuts. The chances of it actually working were so small, and the likelihood of being exposed were pretty high. Why would Stanton do that?

(The missing Booth diary pages. Stanton had them. It's not like Booth used them while on the run to give notes to people...Oh, wait. He totally did. Some of them, at least.)

The book makes a HUGE deal of the relationship between Stanton and Lafayette Baker and how incompetent Baker was and corrupt and yet Stanton called him in to find Booth! From page 244:
Baker is in his room at New York's Astor House hotel when he hears that Lincoln has been shot. The disgraced spy, who was sent away from Washington for tapping Secretary Stanton's telegraph lines, is not surprised. His first thought, as always, is of finding a way to spin this tragedy for his own personal gain. ... If Baker were an ordinary man and not prone to weaving elaborate myths about himself...

And somehow, at the same time, Booth was part of a Confederate plot. In the book, he's definitely a Confederate agent who had a go-ahead to kidnap Lincoln. And these are illustrated together--as if somehow Booth could be working with Stanton AND Jefferson Davis to kill the President!

Look, I don't know much about Lafayette Baker or Edwin Stanton. I do know that historians whose work I respect have discredited this theory. And nothing in this books makes me give it any benefit of the doubt. About anything, really, much less that a Cabinet member wanted his President dead.

I'm just happy I took it out of the library and didn't directly pay any money for this.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

All you have to do is pull your little finger

I've never been a JFK fan. I think it stems from reading something when I was little about his assassination, and the book said something like, "Not since the death of Abraham Lincoln had the country mourned so much." My favorite President is FDR. I was outraged. People were very upset when Roosevelt died. The country probably was more upset about JFK's assassination...BECAUSE WORLD WAR II WAS STILL GOING ON WHEN ROOSEVELT DIED.

I apparently still feel strongly about this. But honestly, JFK wasn't that good a President. I don't really count "bringing youthful vitality to the White House" that much. He did a good job with the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he did start the process of the civil rights bill. But Bay of Pigs and escalation in Vietnam. So, mixed bag. Him being attractive? Not considered.

I just finished reading Death of a President: November 1963. It was written by William Manchester and published in the late 60s. Manchester had the blessing of Jackie and Bobby and had written a book about Jack earlier, so he knew these people. He interviewed pretty much everyone even tangentially involved with the Kennedys or the assassination. It's a 650-page book. It's very thorough.

Most of the book is a fairly straightforward account of the week surrounding Kennedy's death (from the Wednesday before to the Monday after), and Manchester describes the scenes and people involved vividly. One of the hardest things about reading this book is remembering who everyone mentioned is, which really is a testament to Manchester's work.

In general, I enjoyed it, though if Manchester was trying to hide any biases, he failed miserably. In discussing some of Kennedy's staff, Manchester frequently points out the problem of being loyal to a man versus a position. He makes a lot of the fact people don't refer to Lyndon Johnson as the President...and he is obviously totally fine with people not wanting to call Johnson the President, even well after he was. Manchester frequently includes lines about how hard it must be for Johnson, but it's just lip service. It's pretty clear that while he understands intellectually that Johnson had to start governing, Manchester sure couldn't understand emotionally.

(He also, amusingly, makes a snide comment about someone writing something scandalous about JFK's personal, like obviously there was nothing scandalous there. Heh.)

Manchester also emphasizes how the entire country just spent the entire weekend in mourning, how everyone kept trying to get drunk to dull the pain but it just wouldn't work, how the world stopped for this weekend. (To the point that there was a moment of silence or similar, and trains stopped. Really?!) And yet, he acknowledges that JFK wasn't the most popular in the world. Manchester clearly doesn't like Texas, and blames Dallas for the assassination. So...not everyone was paralyzed by grief. (Including my parents. Not that they didn't like JFK, as far as I know, but I DO know that they had their first date that weekend. So life did indeed go on.)

Speaking of, dude does NOT like Lee Harvey Oswald. He 100% believes that Oswald did it, acting alone. But his portrayal of Oswald is one with zero sympathy, zero empathy, zero redeeming qualities.

Mind you, I found some of the principals in the story somewhat unsympathetic. Jackie was obsessed with making sure Jack would be remembered, which at times came across to me as somewhat unseemly. (Did she really need to add a plaque to his bedroom that he slept there? You, sir, are no Abraham Lincoln.) (Turns out the Nixons removed it. Which is awesome.) On the other hand, she showed a grace and thoughtfulness toward others that was strictly amazing. And who should make a cameo late in the book but Aristotle Onassis!

The bits like that were largely depressing, mostly because of the knowledge of what would happen to Bobby the year after this book was published. Seeing Bobby and Ted in this context was just sobering. Also statements about attempts to pass gun reform bills in the wake of the shooting were all too familiar.

But overall, a good book. I particularly enjoyed finding out the details about what went on between Parkland and Arlington. The random conversations, the debate about where to bury JFK, the odd behavior that wasn't seen as particularly odd, the confusion about tell Caroline and John-John. Fascinating.

A good, if time-consuming, read.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The unsympathetic heroine

I do love me some trashy romance. After reading a Lisa Kleypas novel in one afternoon last weekend, I've been reading a bunch lately. One book that I downloaded on my Nook was A Little Bit Wild, by Victoria Dahl. It's about a well-bred woman, Marissa, who gets caught in flagrante before she's married. To avoid scandal, she winds up getting betrothed (at least until she can confirm she's not knocked up) to Jude, a friend of her brother.

You will not be surprised to find out that they do, in fact, wind up falling in love.

For the first chunk of the book, I found myself wondering why I was reading it. I didn't like Marissa. She was a snob, thoughtless, spoiled, selfish. Jude had very few problems, other than he wasn't the pretty boy type preferred by Marissa.

But...something happened. Dahl managed to transform Marissa from the twit she was at the beginning to a genuinely nice person. I could sympathize with her at the beginning--she made a mistake. But she acted like a brat, so I couldn't deal with her. Dahl did a fantastic job showing this woman growing up and maturing. It was impressive.

And it called to mind Something Blue, by Emily Giffin. The sequel to Something Borrowed, it tells the story of Darcy, whose fiance Dex left her for her best friend. She gets pregnant and flees to England to force herself upon her friend Ethan--who was not a Darcy fan. The first book was the story of Dex and Rachel and Darcy at no point came across sympathetically. And her attitude in Something Blue is no different.

So. Also an unsympathetic leading lady. We see the story through her eyes. Partway through the book, she has this great epiphany that she's not a good person and is all, "I'll be good now!" The problem here is that Giffin continues to describe Darcy's thoughts...and really, nothing is different. She may act differently on the outside, but at no point do her thoughts progress to a mature woman.I almost feel bad for Ethan at the end, that he's duped by Darcy's actions when we know that her thoughts--who she actually is--hasn't changed at all.

There tends to be a stigma around reading romance novels, but in this case, the romance author far and away did a better job with characterization.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Simpsons and history: A comedy!

My favorite Simpsons episode is "Cape Feare," in which Sideshow Bob gets out of jail and chases the Simpsons, who are in Witness Protection, to Terror Lake. The courtroom scene, the H.M.S. Pinafore performance, the rakes! Genius.

Woolly Mammoth's Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play is set at some point in the near future, after an unnamed catastrophe has turned off the power, wiped cities off the map, and caused nuclear power plants to melt down. A small group of survivors spend their time recounting the plot and memorable quotes of "Cape Feare", and we see the shared history of The Simpsons bring the group together--when they're not confronting strangers with guns and patting them down.

The second and third acts bring us 7 years in the future, then 75 years after that, giving us a chance to see how civilization has progressed and how they remember what life was like "before." The longing of people to be able to relive the past was fascinating, and playwright Anne Washburn's details seemed believable (trying to figure out how many cans of Diet Coke were left, for example, made perfect sense).

The third act gives us the final telling of "Cape Feare," blending the story with how the survivors' descendants viewed the long-past disaster. The play moved from largely comical to a much more dramatic tone.

The play appealed to me as a theatre lover, a fan of The Simpsons, and a historian. ("Historian." History major?) How do we remember what happened? How important is pop culture? How does pop culture influence our lives? When we don't have the resources to remember the details of everything our lives--a post-Google world--how do we share what's important?

It was an entertaining play, and a thought-provoking one. If frustrating. I may have spent part of the first act mentally trying to tell the actors various quotes from the episode. It only made the show that much more relevant to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Week of Theater: Summer Edition!

I've apparently given up movies for theater. I can't remember the last movie I saw in the theater, but I've seen three shows in the past week.

(In fairness, I plan on seeing a bunch of movies this weekend.)

Last Thursday, I saw First You Dream: The Music of Kander and Ebb at the Kennedy Center. Other than Chicago, Cabaret, and Kiss of the Spider Woman, I'm not too familiar with their work, but I got a good price for a front-row seat and I'd seen a couple of the cast members before, so figured, why not? And man, I did not regret that decision. What a fabulous night. Three men and three women performed for two hours on a stage bare except for the orchestra--who also managed to become part of the evening, as the cast interacted with them subtly throughout the night. A credit to the show is that it made me want to run out and buy all the songs I heard. Even without context, director Eric Schaeffer created vignettes that needed nothing additional. The first act was a bit more humorous than the second, but both were wonderful. Two standouts in the cast for me were Matthew Scott and Heidi Blickenstaff (though the rest were great, too). Scott's transformation from "She's a Woman" to "Dressing Them Up" (both from Kiss of the Spider Woman) was amazing, and Blickenstaff's balance of belting and singing intimately blew me away. The orchestrations were fascinating; there were some new versions of classics that were extraordinarily well done. Great, great evening.

Tuesday I saw God of Carnage at Signature. The play is actually originally French, but the setting was moved to Brooklyn when the show was translated into American English. Made into a movie with Jodie Foster and Kate Winslet last year, it tells the story of two couples whose sons got into a fight in a park. The play goes into couple dynamics--how they relate to each other, how they relate to other couples--and gender roles. It's a play that is largely very comedic, but has a very serious undertone that becomes less and less "under" as the show goes on. Paul Morella, who plays Alan, reminded me a LOT of Ralph Fiennes. All four actors were excellent; it was a joy to watch them react to each other. A fun evening, though one that I walked out of perhaps a bit more shaken up than I thought I would be as I walked in. I do have to say that while I don't have many complaints about the show, it didn't stick with me the way I perhaps thought it would. I saw it two nights ago, and when I sat down to write this, I had to pause to figure out what that show was that I just saw.

Ending the week of theater is Double Indemnity, performed at Round House. I've seen the movie, but it's been a few years (or, you know, a decade), so my memory of the details of the plot was a bit hazy. For those not familiar, it tells the story of Walter Huff (Neff in the movie), an insurance salesman who hooks up with Phyllis Nirlinger to kill her husband and get the insurance money. The ending of the movie was a bit stronger than that of the play--and the author of the book, after seeing the play, declared Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's version superior. Marty Lodge was onstage almost the entire night as Huff, and he did a good job, but he had zero chemistry with Celeste Ciulla's Phyllis. His asides the audience were fantastic, but I can't help but feel that the character should be about 20 years younger. I would've been fascinated to see how the play worked with understudy Danny Gavigan in the role. Gavigan played a variety of roles in the play, and I enjoyed him in December in Pride & Prejudice, and I can't help but wonder if his youthfulness may have helped the show. I was very impressed with the lighting and set. The mood was there. I also have to give props to Todd Scofield, who played both Nirlinger and Huff's boss who figures out the murder scheme. In watching one character, I had to remind myself that it was the same actor as the other. As with a number of other shows I've seen at Round House, it was a worthy effort, but not something that I'd tell my friends to run out and see.

A hat tip for the week also goes to One Destiny at Ford's. It's a one-act that tells the story of the Lincoln assassination from the point of view of two of the men present (Harry Hawk--the actor on stage at the time of the shooting--and Harry Ford, owner of the theater). They act out the events leading up to the assassination. It was the 500th performance last night. It's an enjoyable show and a great way to tell the story that's more lively than the normal ranger talks--and one that adds an emotional layer. Kudos to Stephen Schmidt and Michael Bunce for their hundreds of performances over the years!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

But you can win me yet

Arena Stage has continued their run of classic musicals with the current The Music Man. A friend managed to snag free tickets, so I checked out their production last night. It stars Burke Moses, who I saw as Sky Masterson on Broadway YEARS ago, and Kate Baldwin, who I apparently saw in 1776 at Ford's in 2003. (She was Martha Jefferson.)

I hadn't seen The Music Man in years. I'm fairly sure I've seen the play at some point. I know I've seen the movie, but it's been a long time. The songs are incredibly enjoyable; Meredith Willson did just a stupendous job with it. And the music allows Arena the room for a lot of great dancing--one of the company's strong points. "Seventy-Six Trombones," "Shipoopi," "Marian the Librarian" all provide fantastic opportunities for entertainment. I could watch those kids dance all day. (You can see a clip of "Shipoopi" on Arena's website.)

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the story itself, particularly the journey of Marian. I love that the story for her ultimately isn't that she must get the guy. It's that she's opened herself up, has bonded with people in town, isn't the rather dour woman we meet at the beginning of the show. I LOVE that at the end, she's all, "It's cool, you can take off--not a problem. My life is better for having met you, but I am legitimately OK with you leaving." Seriously, how awesome is that? That just seems incredibly progressive to me for a show that was written in the 1950s.

A confusing element was how Hill hoodwinks the people of River City. He really doesn't seem quite as bad as the show wants us to think he is. It's not like he takes these people's money, tells them for weeks that they'll get uniforms and instruments, and leaves town before they realize the supplies are never coming. They get the instruments. They get the uniforms. They even get instruction booklets on how to play. So, the big con is that...he can't actually teach music? That doesn't really seem like such a big deal to me. I mean, hello! The town has a music teacher. Problem solved!

Possibly the biggest problem in the play is the relationship between Marian and Hill. It's a problematic relationship because we don't really get to see many falling-in-love moments for them. Much of their dialogue is antagonistic. It reminds me of My Fair Lady, in that the relationship relies a LOT on the actors playing the parts. (To date, I've seen one production of My Fair Lady where I felt the relationship worked--at Signature, in probably 2006 or 2007.) Kate Baldwin did an admirable job; she managed to convey Marian's emotions--her doubt, her hope, her skepticism. But though Burke Moses did a good job with the slick hucksterism of Hill, I never bought that he felt anything real for Marian. The chemistry wasn't there.

And to make some sort of comment on looking back fondly on "easier" days, the play is set in the 1950s. Kind of. The play itself could never be; it's solidly written in the early 1900s. Hill says he's class of "aught five." They talk about Model Ts. For heavens sake, they get excited about the Wells Fargo wagon. So why stick all these people in clothes from the 1950s? I mean, sure, they look great (who doesn't love 1950s fashion?), but it makes no sense. I hate when theaters do this.

But the singing was good and the dancing was enjoyable. I do continue to have problems with Arena's Fichandler space; I feel like it isn't optimized acoustically. It's a theater-in-the-round, and if an actor isn't facing me while talking, I frequently have no idea what that person said. I don't think I caught a word of what Nehal Joshi's Marcellus Washburn sang in "Shipoopi." I don't think everyone was miked, and it showed. Very badly. I had the same problems during Oklahoma, and I would hope that this kind of thing would be fixed. In this day and age, I shouldn't have to struggle just to make out dialogue.