The touring production of the stage musical version of Disney's Mary Poppins, co-created by Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera hitmaker Cameron Mackintosh and appearing at the Durham Performing Arts Center through Feb. 17, is an odd experience, depending on which version of Mary Poppins you know. If you're mostly familiar with the 1964 film with Julie Andrews, this version jettisons many of the songs, scenes and plot points, creates a completely different conflict for the second act and adds a handful of new characters, including a nemesis for the titular magic nanny. If you're familiar with the movie version's source material though, the stage show is a mixed but sometimes fascinating attempt to find a middle ground between the fantastic-but-deadpan tone of the original Mary Poppins books and the more sweetness-filled film.
A history lesson: As a kid, I had all the Mary Poppins books by Pamela "P.L." Travers, in which the children Jane and Michael Banks are naughty and incorrigible, and Mary Poppins herself is a satire of a stereotypical uptight British nanny, guiding her charges on fantastic adventures without betraying a moment of excitement or interest with the wonders they encounter. (When they meet the Man in the Moon, Mary Poppins is mostly irate he's planning to make some cocoa and take a nap instead of doing his job.) Though Walt Disney himself campaigned mightily to make a film of Travers' work (soon to be the subject of its own film, Saving Mr. Banks, with Tom Hanks as Disney and Emma Thompson as Travers), Travers herself was deeply disappointed with the resulting film, even though its success brought renewed interest to her work. (The full story is chronicled in this fascinating New Yorker article from a few years back.)
All this backstory is important because the stage version of Mary Poppins takes most of its cues from the original book. The settings (a combination of physical sets and rear-projection) are designed heavily in the style of Mary Rogers' illustrations of the original books, with the Banks household first appearing as a flat picture that folds out to reveal its interior like a pop-up book. The play also borrows from other books in the series, incorporating the character of a living statue of the Greek demigod Neleus (Leeds Hill) and Mary Poppins' (Madeline Trumble's) various methods of arrival and departure from the different books.
Journalist Jonathan M. Katz, who currently resides in Durham, was the only full-time U.S. reporter in Haiti at the time of the 2010 earthquake. His experiences, not just during the immediate aftermath of the quake but over the next few years of relief efforts, are recounted in his new book, The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.00), which he'll read tonight at Durham's Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. The book has received widespread acclaim for its insight into post-earthquake Haiti, and during its writing it received the J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award from Columbia and Harvard Universities.
We got on the phone with Katz at his Durham residence for an in-depth discussion of the problems with Haiti relief efforts, the lack of understanding and need for accountability regarding the international community's involvement with Haiti and much more.
INDY WEEK: Obviously you have strong opinions on the issue, but I’m curious if your thoughts or perspective on Haiti have changed from when you first wrote the book.
JONATHAN M. KATZ: Most of what I’m describing in the book is what happened, so if something significant happened in the future, I’d want to write a Part Two. But, nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the clock hasn’t stopped, and people are still living in Haiti, and the problems they are facing are still going on.
But I wanted to focus on the aftermath of the disaster, and then the coverage of this a year after, and then two years after, because those are the problems that carry into the future. These problems didn’t end, and they aren’t going to end unless things are done.
For a movie that’s billed as a comedy, Identity Thief certainly leaves you with an empty feeling. Then again, the movie is about a con artist who steals from a dude who doesn’t even know he’s being jacked.
That’s what happens to Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), a Denver company/family man who foolishly gives his personal info away on the phone to “Diana” (Melissa McCarthy), a Florida gal who spends her days making up phony IDs and credit cards and cleaning out the bank accounts of poor schmucks like him.
Once his credit cards begin getting declined and the cops start showing up to take him downtown, he eventually heads to Florida to track down this woman and bring her to Denver so she can clear up everything. The movie turns into an oh-so-obvious, buddy comedy road trip mashup, where the two protagonists end up learning more about each other and all that bullshit.
Identity Thief is directed by Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Four Christmases), whom I starting to think is trying to outdo Todd Phillips for the title of World’s Lousiest Comedy Director. As with most of Phillips’ work, Identity Thief is tonally deranged. (Most of the blame should be attributed to screenwriter Craig Mazin, who co-wrote Phillips’ The Hangover Part II, as well as the third installment coming out this May.)
The film's first half is just a barrage of ugly, soulless humor, as Bateman’s character is surrounded by assholes who can’t seem to comprehend that someone could have stolen his identity (that is, when they’re not also mocking his unisex name). Those dicks soon become no match for McCarthy’s obnoxious sociopath, who greets our boy with everything from punches to the throat to insults about his man parts once he gets to the Sunshine State.
Perhaps the creators of this film realized midway through the production that we’re supposed to feel sympathy for McCarthy’s character as well, which would explain the movie’s weirdly sentimental second half. McCarthy immerses herself here, even shedding actual tears in a couple of scenes.
As darling and promising the pairing of Bateman and McCarthy is, their extemporaneous talents are sadly wasted in this film. Identity Thief is supposed be a fun time, but robs you of it the whole 111 minutes you’re sitting there watching it.
About 20 or so years ago, Kevin Allison was mostly known as that ginger dude from the MTV sketch-comedy crew The State, mostly serving as the straight guy for the other players’ more wacked-out characters.
These days, Allison is less about playing roles and more about telling stories, mainly on his podcast, RISK!. Sort of a more uninhibited version of public-radio shows like The Moth and This American Life, host Allison usually corrals many funny people (to name a few, Marc Maron, Sarah Silverman, Margaret Cho, Janeane Garofalo, his former castmates in The State) to tell stories that are brutally honest, wildly entertaining and, on some occasions, deeply emotional.
Allison, 42, took time out to answer some questions the Indy had about his podcast, and what can people expect when he brings the show live to the Artscenter this weekend during the NC Comedy Arts Festival.
INDY: In a recent Indy article, RISK! was described as "The Moth, but less NPR-y." Do you think that's a fair assessment?
Of course, the big question is how you get all these people to dispense such personal stories?
In the first few months, the stories were mostly about embarrassing, R-rated comedy-of-errors situations. Someone pooped their pants on a date. Someone masturbated to a grainy home video and then realized the people in the video were his parents. Someone accidentally fed psychedelic mushrooms to their elderly cleaning lady.
But in time, the fans of the podcast started writing in saying things like, "This show makes me feel like I'm not such a freak after all" or "Now I see that others have been through harder things than I'm going through lately," and they started pitching us stories. So, it was from fans of the show that we first started to get the heavier stuff: stories of surviving abuse, dealing with the death of a loved one, struggling with extreme poverty.
So the show took on this extraordinary feel where any given live show or podcast episode could go from outrageously hilarious to shockingly tear-jerking. And that's now what people love most about it. That it's as unpredictable and extreme as life itself.
After nearly a decade of experimentation with motion-capture animation, director Robert Zemeckis returned to live action filmmaking last fall with Flight, starring Denzel Washington. The film tells the story of commercial airline pilot Whip Whitaker, who must confront his demons after crash landing a airliner while drunk on vodka and high on cocaine. (You can read Neil Morris' full review here.)
Flight is a fascinating piece of filmmaking and a kind of stealthy movie business maneuver. The marketing and advance trailers for Flight highlighted the film's boffo action sequence — the plane crash — and the almost gimmicky angle of the airline pilot that shows up for work drunk. This is a news story we seem to see about once a month these days.
But as anyone who has seen the film knows, Flight is a much more complicated machine. The spectacular plane crash proves to be a kind of narrative feint concealing a harrowing addiction drama and character study. It's one of the strangest and best screenplays to come along in a long, long while. (It a nominee for this year's Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.)
Anyone interested in looking under the hood of this remarkable film will want to check out the superior bonus materials included on the home video release of Flight, new to DVD and Blu-ray this week.
In the first featurette, "Origins of Flight," screenwriter John Gatins reveals that the story was conceived in 1999, well before the media trend of drunk pilot stories or the heroics of Captain Sully on the Hudson River. Both director Zemeckis and leading man Washington (also nominated for an Oscar) go out of their way to praise Gatins' script. Zemeckis says that when he first read the screenplay, he realized it was the rarest kind of treasure — a complex R-rated character drama both sturdy enough to break new artistic ground and thrilling enough to punch through into mainstream success. Washington, among the industry's most in-demand players, signed on almost immediately. He considered the script "dangerous" and kept the first draft with him on-set as a kind of talisman.
3.5 stars (out of five)
PSI Theatre, Durham Arts Council
Through Feb. 3
Since it’s my first time in the room since renovations in 2011, I’m a little shocked when I enter Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theater on Wednesday night.this photograph from before the facelift, that's still on the DAC website.)
The one main question left about the room’s suitability as a theater was left unanswered Wednesday night, since Durham’s Carolina Theatre, on Morgan Street, was dark that night.
Why might that be important? Because the Carolina and the Durham Arts Council buildings abut one another. The back walls of the two venues are so close that concerts on the Carolina mainstage were clearly audible during a number of shows I saw at PSI Theater during the first decade of its existence, including a dramatically derailed Manbites Dog Theater’s production of The Moonshot Tapes.
I’m hoping that such a fundamental engineering gaffe which once made the room regularly unusable was addressed, either years ago or during last year’s renovations. I’m guessing audiences on Friday night (when Jesse Cook plays the Carolina) and Saturday (with a concert next door by Jane Monheit, with Mark O’Connor) will find out.
But the element that really chills me as I enter the room involves the two pieces of furniture on an otherwise empty stage: a wooden table, set front at center, with a single chair behind it. On the table, a glass of water waits, a little off to the right hand side.
The space seems clearly set for Spalding Gray, the dean of modern-day monologists who took his own life in January, 2004.
I’d followed much of Mr. Gray’s career, interviewing him in New York in 2002. Somehow, in the three years since I last saw Daisey’s work, I’d forgotten the extent to which he copies the late monologist's setting. The frisson of the moment is a ghostly little hug.
But as I settle into a new, upholstered seat in the audience, I realize that what I’m actually expecting from this show is unmitigated disaster. Or, more accurately, a show about unmitigated disaster, at the least.
After nearly a decade and 11 novels in her best-selling urban fantasy series The Hollows, author Kim Harrison admits that the characters "almost seem real" to her. "I know them better than a lot of my neighbors," says Harrison in a call from a hotel in Houston on her latest book tour. The author will appear at Quail Ridge Books and Music on Saturday, Feb. 2.
"I’ve spent almost 10 years with most of the characters in the books, and know what they will and won’t do—but it’s most exciting for me when they do something I wouldn’t expect, because then I have to back through the books and figure out why and flesh out their history one more layer, and that’s always fun."
The Hollows series, which started in 2004, chronicles the adventures of witch and private investigator Rachel Morgan in an alternate universe where supernatural creatures exist alongside the human population, which was mostly wiped out by genetically-engineered tomatoes in the 1960s. The series, currently on the 11th of a projected 13 books, features plenty of action and not a little humor—and has hit the top of the New York Times bestseller list.
Harrison says she's already written the end of the series: "The next book is at the publishers, and, if I’m lucky, I’ll have the edit letter waiting for me when I get home. And the final book is in rough-draft form. Everyone who survives gets their happy ending—everyone who survives, that is. I like to laugh, and I can’t end things on a sour note. Rachel would be very upset with me if I did."