Friday, August 10, 2012

Goodbye for now

Not that you couldn't figure it out, but just to make it official: I'm not updating this blog much anymore. But you can find me at the Commonweal website, and if you don't want to miss an update, you can follow me on Twitter.

To get you started, here are some recent posts of mine for Verdicts, Commonweal's arts-and-culture blog: a farewell to Mark O'Donnell, my friend and mentor, who died this week. Some thoughts on the New Yorker's new TV critic (love her) and the art of the cliffhanger ending. And I've been doing weekly posts/discussions about season 5 of Breaking Bad -- here's last week's episode. Please visit.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

It's a scandal, it's a outrage

So this is apparently real:
PITTSBURGH (AP) — A Pennsylvania school district has decided not to stage a Tony Award-winning musical about a Muslim street poet after community members complained about the timing so soon after the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The show: Kismet. And although I read this story thinking "There has to be more to it," there isn't, at least not according to the public reports. School district officials didn't find anything objectionable in the content, but the dropped it anyway, because Kismet has Muslim characters. And by the way, by "so soon after the tenth anniversary..." they mean in February. February of 2012.

Now, I'm not sure high school students should ever attempt to put on Kismet, because the music is difficult. But the idea that mentioning the existence of Baghdad or Islam - in a cartoonish way, in a 1950s stage musical - would be somehow inappropriate would never have crossed my mind. (Unless it was decided that the content, cartoonish as it is, was insensitive to Muslims, but we are very far away from that sort of thinking here.)
[School superintendent Thomas] Fleming said sensitivity about the play is understandable because of Flight 93's demise in nearby Shanksville, and because the sudden death of a drama student in a car crash affected students last year.
Oh Lord, it's like the "Ground Zero Mosque" nonsense all over again, smaller and dumber. I don't care where you are; if you're offended by the mention of Arabia, you shouldn't be humored. And that last part might be relevant if (a) the show were being canceled altogether, because the drama students are too upset to put it on regardless of its content, or (b) the show were about a car crash. It does not explain why they have to switch to a different show because someone realized that the guy who sings "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" is a Muslim (and so were the terrorists!).

When I read the brief story in the Johnstown Tribune Democrat, I gathered that what Fleming must have been trying to say is that he feels the kids have been through enough already, and they're trying to protect them from futher turmoil. They're educators, after all:
"We’re in the business of trying to do what’s best for the kids – not to do anything detrimental if we can avoid it."
Yes, think of the lessons they might learn if the performance were allowed to go on.

But wait! This is the best part:
The play has no inappropriate content, [music director Scott] Miller said, but he and other members of the performing arts committee decided to switch to "Oklahoma!" after hearing complaints.
I'd like to think of this as a sly act of rebellion on the part of the "performing arts committee." I just hope nobody tells those concerned community members about Ali Hakim until opening night.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dressing for yet one more spree

Bernadette Peters in Follies: yes, please! I was looking forward to this show for months - we made it our first night out without the baby. My review is posted at Verdicts, Commonweal's new books-and-culture blog. Read it here.

Looking back at what I wrote about the Encores! production four years ago, I see this version has many of the same high points and low points. The high points are not quite as exhiliaratingly high, but on the other hand, I like this Buddy and Phyllis better.

The biggest disappointment, for me, was Elaine Paige, who I thought did a lousy job with "I'm Still Here." Looking back I guess I shouldn't have been surprised; she sang it exactly the way you would expect it to be sung by someone who has spent her career singing Andrew Lloyd Webber music and Tim Rice lyrics. She seemed determined to sell it on the strength of her belting alone, which meant every time she got to the release ("I've gotten through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover..."), she lost track, as an actress, of what her character was saying, and the lyrics got lost in the noise. Plus she had a pop-twang in her voice that doesn't quite work for a musical written and set in 1971 and referencing song styles from the decades before that. Also, she has a very unflattering costume. It's this bright blue dress with a fur wrap around the shoulders and a slit up the leg that makes her look the shape of a slice of pizza standing on its pointy end.

Even if I loved her performance I think I would have been turned off by her bio in the Playbill. I swear, this is what it says:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Yours taste buds will sore

Our go-to pizza place is called Luigi's. It's close and fairly consistent, and a good compromise for our respective expectations when it comes to pizza (you can't get a good Old Forge-style tray around here anyway). I did not know, until I looked at the menu just now, that this establishment is officially called "Luigi's Gourmet Grill." The pizza is tasty enough, but "gourmet" might be raising expectations a bit too high. "Grill," too, come to think of it. I'm pretty sure they use ovens. Perhaps that's why, online, it is also known as "Luigi's Gourmet Pizza" or just "Luigi's Pizza."

Anyway, I am looking at the menu because I want to share with you some text that appears on it, just beneath the restaurant name and above the stock image of a gondola. (Luigi's goes in whole hog on the "Italian" clip art on its menu, pizza boxes, awning, etc., despite the fact that -- as far as I can tell -- every single person who works there is Hispanic.) I know you will find this sample of found poetry as mesmerizing as I do:
Walk Up & Enjoy Your Favorite Foods, Prepaired as the Day Arrives.
We Use Only the Finest Ingredients,
Yours Taste Buds
Will Sore & Bring You Back Time After Time.
We Will Be Happy to Assist You.
The other thing I love about Luigi's is that there is a sign, printed on 8.5 by 11 paper and posted on the wall in several places in the small eat-in area, urging customers not to loiter too long. Except it doesn't simply say that. It begins "Here at Luigi's, we are all family..." -- which is about as far from describing reality as is calling the place a "gourmet grill" -- and it goes on at great length about how one should be thoughtful and make room for other patrons/family members. There's something a little deranged about it, and I always wonder whether it was actually posted by the management, or (as I suspect, especially given the complex English syntax) typed up, laminated, and posted by a nosy patron who is perhaps the only person in the world who likes to hang out there. Luigi's: come for the decent pizza; stay for the perplexing signage.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Krup you

Previously on Restricted View, we noted with approval that Stephen Sondheim does not like it when someone levels a negative judgment against a work of theatre that he or she has not seen. When John Lahr did so with Sweeney Todd, according to the account in Finishing the Hat, Sondheim complained to the editor and "then wrote Lahr himself a letter, saying that although it was his privilege to give a show both barrels of his contempt, I thought he ought to see it first."

Maybe that Stephen Sondheim ought to have a talk with the Stephen Sondheim who wrote this crankypants letter to The New York Times, unloading both barrels of his contempt in the direction of the new Broadway-bound production of Porgy and Bess and everyone connected with it (all women, incidentally) based on what he read about it in Sunday's arts section. Because that seems like something the Stephen Sondheim who complained to John Lahr might think twice about doing!

For what it's worth, I read Patrick Healy's piece on the new Porgy and Bess with interest, and without forming a strong opinion. I know and love the score, or at least the score's highlights, but I haven't seen the show and can't evaluate the judgments of Diane Paulus et al. one way or the other. They certainly sounded plausible to me. Perhaps they're totally wrongheaded, but if so, the proof will be in the pudding, and I'm curious to see how it turns out. Sondheim seems to have been set off by the perceived disrespect for DuBose Heyward (the letter reminded me that "Ira Gershwin wasn't all that great" is one of the tiresomely repetitive motifs in Finishing the Hat), and he may have a point there. But he went on from there at great length in many surprising directions. For one thing, I'm pretty sure I've heard him say things about the shortcomings of opera in general that line up closely with what Paulus et al. said in Healy's story, making his touchiness here seem odd. There's also the fact that he has been sanguine, even defensive, about revisionary takes on his own work that seemed to me much more obviously misguided than what the Porgy team is undertaking at ART. And then there's the fact that attacking fellow artists -- in such personal terms -- without letting their work stand on its feet first is, as they say in French, kind of a dick move.

What's the bitchiest part of the letter? Tough call, but I think it's this, which left me wondering, "What did Audra McDonald ever do to you?":
[Audra McDonald] says that Bess is “often more of a plot device than a full-blooded character.” Often? Meaning sometimes she’s full-blooded and other times not? She’s always full-blooded when she’s acted full-bloodedly, as she was by, among others, Clamma Dale and Leontyne Price. Ms. McDonald goes on to say, “The opera has the makings of a great love story … that I think we’re bringing to life.” Wow, who’d have thought there was a love story hiding in “Porgy and Bess” that just needed a group of visionaries to bring it out?
Who'd have thought there was a tetchy letter-writing crank hiding in Stephen Sondheim that just needed an article about a bunch of women experimenting with Porgy and Bess to bring it out?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Safe at home with our beautiful prize

"Since Celia's baby was born, she had a new sense of her mental solidity and wisdom. It seemed clear that where there was a baby, things were right enough, and that error, in general, was a mere lack of that central poising force."

- George Eliot, Middlemarch

So, the happy ending: We have a son! His name is Martin George. He was not quite as enormous as predicted. And he's wonderful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

In a little while, just a little while...

A couple years ago I bought a journal from Ex Libris Anonymous as a gift for a friend who was expecting. The good people at E.L.A. make journals out of discarded old books, leaving a few key pages of the original inside along with the blank paper. The book I bought was Mother and Baby Care in Pictures by Louise Zabriskie, RN, a sort of proto-What to Expect when You're Expecting published in 1935 (this edition was from the '40s). I spent some time browsing before I wrapped it up for my pregnant friend, and it was so terrific I found myself wishing they'd left more pages intact. Although this review of the book from 1935 suggests that I should be grateful to have missed pages 68-71. Imagine, giving people detailed information on what the labor and delivery process involves! That might fly with your "younger generation," but no "old family doctor" would stand for it. Parents-to-be should be either zonked on drugs or barred from the hospital entirely, the way God intended.

I had a feeling I'd find this book helpful someday, so I scanned a few illustrations for future reference. And now that my own pregnancy is nearly at an end -- and by that I mean the baby is arriving tomorrow -- let's take a moment to see how I've done.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Funny enough

It was the reviews that convinced me I needed to see Born Yesterday on Broadway. My initial reaction was something like, "Eh, there's a movie, and the movie has Judy Holliday, and I'm very happy with that, thanks." But reviews like Michael Feingold's made it sound like something much more exciting than a run-of-the-mill revival of a reliable old comedy was happening at the Cort. And you know I love Feingold. So I went, and I'm sorry to say it was pretty much what I would have expected if I hadn't read any of those reviews. Fine, entertaining enough, but not especially good.

I should say that Jim Belushi was out last night, and perhaps that threw everyone else's game off more than I could detect. But his understudy, Bill Christ, was just fine, and the problems I had with the production wouldn't have been fixed by a stronger presence in that one role. Basically, I didn't see the "snappy" and sensitive direction Feingold saw; what I saw was much more in line with what I've come to expect from Doug Hughes after A Man for All Seasons and Inherit the Wind. If you want to make an old play feel fresh, I don't think Hughes is your man. In this case, there was a void where much of the emotional content should have been.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Tony memories

So little attention was I paying in the run-up to the Tonys last night that I didn't even know the show had moved from Radio City to the Beacon until it began. From where I sit, the move was an upgrade -- the broadcast actually seemed professionally produced (as befits a show that pays tribute to live theatre). The performers seemed able to hear the orchestra! What a difference that makes.

In terms of professionalism and general skill, the opening "It's not just for gays anymore!" number was the best I've seen, maybe ever. On the other hand -- well, here's what I said last year: "I just don't think the motto of the Tonys should be 'Broadway: It's Not So Bad!'" Alas, so much for what I think.

Some other thoughts, as I watched:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Oh, is that on tonight?

I can't think of a year when I've been less excited about the Tony Awards than I am now. I have been a bit distracted from paying attention to the Broadway scene this winter and spring, so that accounts for some of my lack of enthusiasm. But even when I have made it to the theatre I seem to have seen all the wrong shows, at least if the Tony nominating committee is to be trusted. And you know, I'm not certain that they are. In past years, I've managed to see at least a couple of shows that gave me something to be excited about -- I may have seen only one of the nominated Leading Actor in a Play performances, but if I could feel good about that nomination, I had a reason to cheer. This year, even the shows and performances I have seen aren't inspiring me to root for anyone special. (Here is the official list of nominees.)

For example, I saw Arcadia, which I thought was quite good. It has a big cast with several very strong performances -- in general I thought the British cast members were stronger than the Americans, and if I were to recommend individual actors for Tony nominations, Billy Crudup would probably be the last name on my list. And Billy Crudup was the only member of that cast to be nominated. Hooray?

I also saw That Championship Season, which went completely unacknowledged by the nominators. Not even a Best Revival of a Play nod! Ouch. I didn't think it was great, but it wasn't an embarrassment either, and I'm surprised it was so completely snubbed. Maybe the American Theatre Wing took my griping too much to heart? Last year I complained about the celebrity-worship on display at the Tonys -- Catherine Zeta-Jones winning an award immediately after her completely horrifying live performance of "Send in the Clowns" was a low point. In a conversation on Facebook, I griped, "Next year they're going to skip the plays altogether and just hand out Tonys to any movie star they can get to show up. And then do a tribute to Glee, because why the hell not." I have been proven wrong. To look at the list of nominees, you would never know that such stars of film and teevee as Daniel Radcliffe, Kiefer Sutherland, Chris Noth, Dan Lauria, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, and Robin Williams all had major roles (and positive reviews!) on Broadway this year. I guess that's progress? Of course, there's still the chance (very high) that the broadcast will make the most of any famous faces it can find. And I wouldn't rule out a random tribute to Glee. But when it comes to the actual nominations, I'm wondering whether the committee leaned a little too hard in the opposite direction.

Speaking of Robin Williams: last night I saw Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. His performance didn't blow me away, but it was solid and disciplined, and a nomination wouldn't have been a mistake in my opinion. I'm glad one other actor, Arian Moayed, did get nominated, even if he's really more of a "leading" than a "featured" performer in that play. But why on earth wasn't the play itself nominated? No love for Rajiv Joseph? There's extra room in the Best Play category. I didn't see any of the shows that actually were nominated, so I can't say whether it's better than any or all of them, but it's certainly good enough to get recognized. It's better than, say, God of Carnage. And when we have a new, notable American play running on Broadway, why be stingy with the recognition?

I think the main reason I'm so grumpy about what did and did not get recognized (despite my failure to see many of the favorites) is that one show I did manage to see is Sister Act. And it was terrible. So bad I scrapped my plans to review it, because what's the point? It's not even bad in an interesting way, it's just why-is-this-show-so-insulting-to-my-intelligence bad. Yet somehow the nominating committee found room for Sister Act in nearly every category set aside for musicals. I will grant them a Best Score nomination; some of those 1970s R&B pastiche numbers are pretty amusing. But Best Book is an outrage, and honestly the whole thing should have been overlooked in embarrassed silence. I just hope it doesn't actually win anything.

So: was it an off year for Broadway, or just for the Tony powers-that-be? Or was it just an off year for me? I'm not sure, but I do know I'm barely motivated to tune in tonight. I still will, of course, and there's always the hope that the broadcast will be surprisingly professional and enjoyable!