Friday, February 27, 2009

"Minsky's"

Burlesque is back. In a brand new musical comedy at the Ahmanson Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, “Minsky’s” is bringing the old style of entertainment to a new audience. The play, with a run from Jan. 21 to Mar. 1, is a production with plenty of kinks to be worked out, but overall presents a good time for everyone involved.


The show, written by Bob Martin, is centered around a 1930 New York burlesque house. Billy Minsky, played by the impressively energetic Christopher Fitzgerald, runs the house, and is trying to keep his business up while a new politician is gunning to shut down all traces of smut in the city. Of course, Minsky falls in love with the politician’s daughter, and musical hijinks occur.


The several celebrities in the show represent the most fun aspect of the production. Rachel Dratch, from seven seasons of “Saturday Night Live,” plays the most humorous character, Beula. Her interpretation of jokes had the audience cracking up—especially in her musical number, “I Want a Life.” There were several scenes that would have fallen flat without her deadpan delivery.


George Wendt, from “Cheers,” plays the politician, Randolph Sumner. Although he gets some of the sillier scenes (like a repeated pie in the face gag,) Wendt is a consummate professional, and he brings much to the production. “Mad TV” veteran Paul Vogt also appears as the hilarious Russian thug Boris.


Because this is the musical’s first run there are still many areas that can be improved. The music overall is solid—lyrics by Susan Birkenhead and music by Charles Strouse—show promise.


However, the dance numbers, choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, leave the audience disappointed. These are moments that should have been the most show stopping, but they turn out to be sloppy and the dancers were hardly ever together, even when precision and tight formations were required.


Several songs could have been shortened (“Eyes Like That” and “Happy,”) and there were even a few that producers should consider completely cutting out (“Someone” and “Workin’ Hot Reprise.”) A few of the show numbers, like “Bananas” and “Cleopatra,” are reprised too many times—the audience gets the feel after the first version.


The sets, designed by Anna Louizos, are outstanding. They easily transform from the backstage at Minksy’s to an old-fashioned New York street. Lighting by Ken Billington aids the production’s showiness factor. Also, the costumes are an impressive part of the production—great attention to detail is paid to every costume, including the showgirls’ elaborate outfits.


The best part of the show by far was the performance by Beth Leavel, who plays the house’s stage mom, Maisie. Leavel won the 2006 Tony Award for her role in “The Drowsy Chaperone” (another recent production at the Ahmanson,) and proves her talent in this show as well. She gets some of the best songs in the show, “You Gotta Get Up When You’re Down,” “Every Number Needs a Button,” and “Home.” It is her portrayal of the bluesy broad that ties the whole production together.


While the show could use some refining before making its Broadway debut, the production is fun, lighthearted, and entertaining—the perfect form of escapism.

Friday, February 20, 2009

"Three Sisters"

The setting is perfect for a Russian tragedy—a cemetery celebrating its anniversary with the play itself. Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles has teamed up with Chalk Repertory Theatre to bring the production of Anton Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” to the stage. Unfortunately, this ‘re-imagining’ would have had the playwright rolling over in his grave. The production has all the components of a solid play—beautiful script, pedigreed actors, and an incredibly spooky setup. However, the play drags, and the tragic spirit in which Chekhov wrote the play has been completely distinguished.


The play, with a run from January 30 to February 22, is being put on in the cemetery in a Masonic Lodge that was built in 1925. The setting is incredible, with high vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. The room is set up with no outside light coming in, and audience members are encouraged to sit in rows lined up on either side of the room. The performance is conducted almost in the round, and actors often walk among the audience members. However impressive the theater is, the blocking prevents some of the audience from seeing important scenes. Actors are sometimes positioned in corners, and can’t be viewed by everyone. This leads to viewers craning their necks just to see some of the actors.


The cast members are all competent, accomplished actors, but they have turned every piece of dialogue into drawn out soliloquies. This results in the play becoming boring and trite, instead of staying true to the passion and emotion in Chekhov’s works.


Perhaps the most famous cast member is Ricardo Antonio Chavira, who plays Carlos Solis, Eva Longoria’s husband, on “Desperate Housewives.” Chavira has taken on the role of Vershinin, a battery commander who has taken residence in the same Russian town as the three sisters. Chavira has an impressive, booming voice, but his monologues were some of the most passionless parts in the entire play. Actress Jennifer Chang, who plays Masha, is probably the most talented of the bunch, but she is given more scenery chewing pieces than the rest of her cast-mates.


Another disappointing element of the production is the forced laughs the company seems determined to insert in scenes that are traditionally supposed to be tragic and touching. Corey Brill, playing the part of Kulygin, is a talented comedian—unfortunately he is using his comedic talents in scenes which require heart wrenching intensity, not sight gags. The company should have felt comfortable enough with the script to let the audience sit in the misfortunes of the characters—instead of allowing the actors to make jokes at inopportune times.


There was certainly a lack of professionalism in the production as well. Scenes which required absolute stillness from the actors offered one cast member scratching his nose.


By the last act, the audience had grown so tired of the show that several people in the first rows could be seen nodding off. The concept of putting on a show with astounding acoustics in the lodge was an inspired choice, but this theater group should have been capable of bringing Chekov to life without infusing the show with boredom.

Friday, February 13, 2009

"The Wrestler"

“The Wrestler,” is a story of comebacks. The movie has become a vehicle for star Mickey Rourke to gain attention for his acting once more, instead of his wild child antics. Rourke has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor, and has already taken home trophies from the BAFTA’s and the Golden Globes. The once battered train wreck has proven to audiences and critics alike that he can still carry a movie.


After starring in several successful films in the early 80s, like “Barfly,” “Body Heat,” and “Diner,” Rourke got caught up in the party scene and left his playboy status behind. Then came his professional boxing career in the early 90s—Rourke has admitted that this training helped him immensely when he shot the wrestling scenes in the film. But his boxing career also helped him diminish his pretty boy looks—no longer would Rourke be the stud, but he never could have played this role as a good looking man. The character had to be portrayed as a wreck, a man looking for redemption.


While Rourke’s comeback has been impressive, it is the writing in this film that allows the actor to play the most heart-wrenching comeback of all—his portrayal of Randy “The Ram” Robinson. Randy is a down and out wrestler who was once a famous figure on the circuit, but who now realizes he is much too beaten down and old to keep fighting. He goes through several violent matches, but keeps wrestling because it’s all he knows.


Randy meets a stripper, Cassidy, who becomes his confidante. Marisa Tomei, as the age-old clich├ęd stripper with a heart of gold, turns out a good performance, but most likely doesn’t quite deserve the Oscar nomination she’s received. Of course, she’s impressive in her pole dancing, but the audience might feel like she can never quite commit to the role.


Aside from Rourke’s tour de force performance, Evan Rachel Wood turns out an equally impressive emotional character as Randy’s estranged daughter. The later scenes between Rourke and Wood help the movie’s hard-edged tone transform into a softer, lighter film in some parts.


The film, written by Robert Siegel (the former editor in chief of The Onion), is a hardcore, draining production. But an outstanding feat of direction from Darren Aronofsky (who also directed “The Fountain,”“Requiem of a Dream,” and the upcoming “Robocop”) helps tie the film together. The film sparks with signs of realness—the movie was shot with a shaky handheld camera. This gives the audience a feeling of unrest much like the emotions experienced by Randy himself. The film was shot in a surprisingly short time—production was completed in 35 days; but altogether, it is a moving film that demonstrates that it’s never too late to start over.