3½ stars out of 5
Durham Performing Arts Center
Through Dec. 12
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
3 stars out of 5
Theatre in the Park
Through Dec. 15
It’s “Is it good enough? ”
Take the professional touring version of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Under the circumstances, I’m tempted to follow that sentence with the Youngman-esque rejoinder, “Please.”
Clearly the musical, based on comedian Mel Brooks’ landmark 1974 send-up of horror films, is a haunted work. Unfortunately, what it’s mainly haunted by is its predecessor: THE PRODUCERS, Brooks’ previous landmark musical based on his 1968 backstage farce of a film. (For anyone who’s, um, forgotten, that production was an anchor on Broadway for six years, from 2001 to 2007.)
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN's apologists have pointed out, with some merit, that after the critical and commercial zenith of THE PRODUCERS, anything less than Einstein’s unified fields on stage was going to qualify as a comedown. Which, they assert, is how the mere 16 months that Brooks’ monster movie meshugas lingered on Broadway somehow became so much chopped liver: by comparison. By itself, the reasoning goes, it’s a perfectly fine piece.
None of which alters my main point, which is this: At this juncture, no ticket buyer is walking into Durham Performing Arts Center under the illusion that YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is the equal of THE PRODUCERS — or walking out, shocked (shocked!) to learn it isn’t. In our critical culture, that question was effectively addressed a little over three years ago; it’s something of a waste of storage media for me to pretend it wasn't.
Which leaves the question I’m called to answer here, instead: Is it good enough?
Most of us will never know the kind of community solidarity that features so movingly in Billy Elliot The Musical because most of us in "right-to-work" North Carolina have little experience with organized labor. But the real-life British coal miners’ strike of 1984-85 that forms the backdrop of this rousing story heralded a lasting change in the relations between labor, capital and government.
When British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her gang broke the coal miners’ union, they destroyed livelihoods and towns, but in the northern England county of Durham, where Billy Elliot is set, the community rallies behind its striking miners, exercising their ferocious wit to keep despair at bay. The Durham of this story is filled with strong men who do the hard dirty work that keeps society moving. But always there is someone who doesn’t fit the pattern, and that is Billy. Sent by his rough-edged father to learn boxing and man up, Billy accidentally finds himself in a ballet class, and finds his dream.
Of course, he has to hide his secret love of pirouettes, but like all big audacious dreams in movies and musicals, his passionate artistry eventually works its magic on all around him. Billy becomes a talisman of hope to people who have little left to hope for, and they pitch in their bits from the dole to make it come true.
All this could be terribly sappy, but it is not. It’s inspiring. And, replete with good acting to Lee Hall’s script, pithy songs set well to Elton John’s tunes, strong dancing, fabulous sets, perfect costumes and excellent lighting effects, it’s a class-A entertainment. Nor has it been overly sanitized. The violence of the strike has necessarily been stylized into dance numbers, but choreographer Peter Darling and director Stephen Daldry have kept the dark thrills of battle in the encounters between riot police and strikers, and there is still plenty of mildly salty language.
It’s forced DPAC to go dark for a month and a half—the longest period of inactivity since the center opened in November 2008. It’s converted the building’s spacious lobbies—on all four stories—into rehearsal spaces for the cast and orchestra. The loading dock now stands as an ad hoc carpentry shop.
Meanwhile, the orchestra section of the theater, which was seen by local media on Oct. 14, resembles some theatrical equivalent of NASA’s venerable Mission Control. Some 21 separate "command centers," tables littered with an impressive array of desktops and laptops, headsets and control consoles for house lighting, sound and automation—the computerized hydraulics that will expedite complicated scene changes on and off stage—are scattered throughout the audience area; one or more for every major subsystem of the production. A current of focused energy runs through the room as Stephen Daldry, the director of the original stage productions (as well as the film that inspired them) cues the beginning of a scene during a press preview.
You’d be right to assume that this much trouble doesn’t go into the average bus-and-truck production at DPAC. But then, BILLY ELLIOT isn’t one. Instead, it’s the first professional-grade touring production to actually be constructed—literally, from the ground up—at DPAC, prior to what its backers plan for as a national tour.
The news is already breaking on the new Pilobolus Dance Theater collaboration with cartoonist Art Spiegelman, creator of In the Shadow of No Towers and the ground-breaking graphic novel, Maus.
Laura Collins-Hughes' June 20 article in the Boston Globe first tantalized us with descriptions of the working process and still images from the work.
Then Dartmouth, where the ADF co-commission work premiered, released three juicy minutes of highlights from the work, on YouTube:
About the same time, Pilobolus published a ten-minute featurette on the work, including behind the scenes intervews with Spiegelman, chhoreographer Michael Tracy and animators Dan and Jason of Hornet Inc., who had to find common ground between Spiegelman's still imagery and Pilobolus' choreography:
And finally — at least, for now — Alastair Macaulay's review of the new work, which ran Monday in the New York Times, praised its "dizzying overlap of cartoon, film, silhouette theater, and live dance," which "picks up on, and refreshes, aspects of Pilobolus that have been there since the beginning: the dream logic, the clowning, the sense of physical liberation that’s only at times highly sexual, and the defiance of categorization."
INDEPENDENT: How does an artist make the transits you’ve made—from supremacy on the streets of L.A. in the hip-hop culture to world-class modern choreographers like Twyla and Rudy Perez, to ballet with Eliot Feld and Les Grands? How does an artist walk between those worlds?
VICTOR QUIJADA: To be honest, it’s less something that I planned and more something that I followed. When I was 16 and I first went to the L.A. County High School for the Arts, I didn’t have this master plan (laughs) that I would someday be in Montreal and have a company of my own. Not at all. I just wanted to get out of my home city of Baldwin Park and see what else was out there.
It was these characters I met along the way that really pushed me, inspired me and opened new doors for me—who really opened my eyes to different possibilities. At times I was quite reluctant to go on path I now find myself.
When I left L.A. to join Twyla’s company, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. (laughs)
Really, it was whole new world. And as I was leaving New York to join Les Grands Ballet, I think I was only starting to get an idea of what could happen, where all of this could go.
I had quite a chip on my shoulder coming from that street dance world because, dancing in Twyla’s company, I was the only one who didn’t have a full classical training behind him.
It was tough. For when people who have a lot of training find themselves dancing next to somebody who doesn’t—that might say something about them and the contract that they have. So at times I needed to prove myself more than anyone else was proving themselves.
I had a lot to catch up on. I got this very specific goal in mind: I was somehow going to catch up on all the classical training I hadn’t had since I was 8 years old. It was a very intense time for me in New York.
By now, they’re the kind of marketing metaphors we’ve all probably become numb to:
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Terminator.
Christian Bale is Batman.
Reese Witherspoon is Legally Blonde.
But having seen the professional touring version of the Broadway musical, WICKED (actually, Professional Touring Company #2) at Durham Performing Arts Center, I’ve got a new one to shake things up a little:
Dick Cheney IS the Wizard of Oz.
Here’s a photo of actor Don Amendola, who plays the famous sorcerer (and humbug) in this imaginative prequel to the filmed version of The Wizard of Oz. For reasons we’ll get into, Amendola’s character frequently doesn’t smile during his scenes. But since our press photo doesn’t show that, you’ll have to use your imagination to picture this. Please do so.
Now add a small (and possibly cerebral-event-related?) growl in the left corner of his mouth.
If you’re hyperventilating at this point, try breathing into a paper bag; it should pass in a few moments.
That is what I saw from my orchestra seat.
Look, I know. And for what it’s worth, I hate them too: those terminally oversensitized commentators who insist on dragging endless political controversies into every cultural or artistic conversation, no matter how tangential. A discussion board about the TV show Lost this week provides an easy case in point:
pmaron_2000: There is no way on earth John Locke who was about to be operated on would not have been intubated and being monitored by an Anesthesiologist.BUT WITH THAT—sorry, but with that said, Wicked is a stunning, big-stage musical: a must-see pageant for the eyes and ears, given Eugene Lee’s steampunk set design, Susan Hilferty and Tom Watson’s outlandish costumes and wigs, Kenneth Posner’s dramatic lighting and Adam Souza’s orchestral direction. And Winnie Holzman’s book, based on Gregory Maguire’s novel, is also a fairy tale jaded just enough to speak directly to our time.
TBAGG1776: YOU KEEP FORGETTING. OBAMA’S BILL PASSED. WELCOME OT SOCIALIST HEALTH CARE REFORM, LOSERS!
But, mainly, Wicked is a fairly large-writ metaphor for the political exploitation of terror over the past decade—with a generous side of governmental anti-environmentalism for good measure. Still, if the results suggest what might have happened had Howard Zinn taken up writing children’s fables (with a really good composer and lyricist in tow), given this tale's particular history, perhaps that’s not entirely inappropriate.
DURHAM PERFORMING ARTS CENTER/DURHAM—There's no musical juggernaut like The Phantom of the Opera: The touring version of Andrew Lloyd Webber's great show has been on the road for 17 years. Its upcoming month-long stand at Durham Performing Arts Center represents the fulfillment of one of the facility's objectives, and DPAC officials are betting that they'll be able to fill seats for the 32 performances that begin on Thanksgiving Day.
Although the show doesn't open for another week, the huge work of loading it in began this morning. The famous decorative elements of The Phantom of the Opera-the chandelier, the underground tunnels and everything else-will fit easily onto DPAC's massive stage and will no doubt thrill audiences. But behind the opulence is a lot of grunt work that goes into laying the foundation for the complex, notoriously mobile set.
This morning at DPAC, the load-in began-a full week before the show's opening (it's still running in Tempe, Ariz., with the actors using a second set). There are about 75 people working under the direction of David Hansen, advance stage manager.
When we enter the facility, we are greeted-awed, even-by the proscenium arch that jutted at a forward angle toward the audience seats. The structure is decorated with friezes depicting Pan-like creatures bearing maidens who are, in turn, surrounded by angels aloft. These figures successfully evoke the Neo-Baroque style of the Opera Garnier setting of Gaston Leroux's 1911 novel. We watch as the workers expertly assemble this grand bit of scenic fakery with the aid of hydraulic lift.
Behind the proscenium lay a tangle of lights, cables and black-painted metallic structural supports. During performances, a stagehand will sit atop this structure to man the lights.
We then see the famous chandelier looming menacingly in a corner. It weighs nearly 1,000 lbs. and incorporates 35,000 crystal beads. For all its delicate gold filigree work, Hansen concedes, the chandelier doesn't look that great up close-perhaps the result of crashing to the floor nearly 7,000 times. By opening night, 141 candles will have been built into the floor, and there will be footlights designed to resemble gaslights of the period.
The cast won't have to worry about dancing on an unfamiliar stage at DPAC. "The dancers have the same surface in every city to dance on," Hansen said. Indeed, the DPAC stage is covered with stacks of floor panels labeled "Phantom III Advance," with the direction "upstage" marked on the side. We watch as eight to 10 stagehands maneuver each panel, weighing between 80 and 120 lbs., by using a pulley system suspended on a chain hung from the ceiling. Another stagehand wields a T-shaped instrument to push two panels together. Other hands help by pushing their sneaker-clad feet against one panel. Hansen tells us a track is built into the panels to ensure quick fastening and subsequent removal.
Hansen says that it took the show's designers eight months to prepare such an elaborate, yet portable set. Preproduction costs ran close to $11 million (in 1992 dollars), with $3 million of it devoted to costumes.
The tour travels with 20 48-foot trailers, and nine were unloaded this week. Since the production sends out trucks to the next tour stop while the present one is running, the total number of trucks used is around 30.
Hansen said the advance time is necessary for troubleshooting any problems that may arise. Here in Durham, he'll check dressing rooms and sinks to ensure that they are in compliance with expectations, do paperwork and establish telephone contact with the venue in Ft. Lauderdale, the next stop on the tour.
The Phantom of the Opera will end its Durham run on a Sunday and open in Fort Lauderdale the following Wednesday. By then, Hansen and company will go to work all over again, laying the groundwork for the Phantom's next stop, Orlando.
Magician David Copperfield’s greatest adversary isn’t the sort of technical snafu that reportedly had him scrub one of the most amazing effects from his 5:30pm performance of An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion at DPAC yesterday afternoon: a 50’s model Lincoln convertible that we saw him, somehow, suddenly produce—not only out of thin air but set squarely in the middle of it, atop a set of pillars—despite a group of witnesses standing all around during the late show Tuesday night.
His true nemesis isn’t the 8-foot industrial fan whose whirring blades he walked through at another point on his way to…somewhere else, let’s say.
It’s not the stinger of the live black scorpion—or the attitude it copped at one point in the proceedings, leaving us in suspense before finally obliging our host with the payoff of another illusion.
It isn’t even some wiseguy local critic in the second row, who had the foresight to bring along a magician of his own—Joshua Lozoff, whose stage show Beyond Belief had two sold-out runs at Manbites Dog Theater and whose new show, Parlor Magic, is now playing at the Siena Hotel.
No: David Copperfield’s real opponent is the age of jade.
More after the jump.
But perhaps, I thought, that’s because no one poses the right questions. I mean, if everyone insisted on asking you the one thing you could never answer while still keeping your job—So, uhh, how’d you do that neat trick on stage?—you’d probably get a bit peevish yourself after a while.
So, in advance of "An Intimate Evening of Grand Illusion," his performances Tuesday and Wednesday at DPAC, I started thinking about questions that might be useful—and even answerable—by a world-class magician.
Then we were informed that Copperfield would not be available for phone or personal conversation—a barrier seemingly lowered, almost like magic, for a stringer at one daily paper, but not a columnist at another.
We could, however, e-mail him.
And then wait a week for his answers.
So we did.
Ironically, for an artist interested in presenting something intimate and grand to the public, the experience was noticeably less than both.
Below: the transcript of our e-mail exchange, and our conclusions at the end. I’d call it Exhibit A for the case against e-mail interviews, but you’ll be the judge. Nothing up our sleeves; the rest, after the jump.
DPAC/ Durham-My first encounter with Grease lasted precisely 24 minutes.
It was 1998 and I was in sixth grade in Western North Carolina, still getting used to my new contact lenses and wearing my hair all the way down my back. It was also the year the movie version of the "girl meets boy, boy breaks out in song, girl and boy shimmy and shake into what they think the other wants them to be" love story was re-released into theaters-just 20 years after Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta (the great-grandparents of Brangelina) first rocked spandex and lettermen jackets around the hallowed halls of Rydell High.
My mom must have forgotten over those two decades the not-so-subtle sexual innuendo and backseat car scenes of the film, because it wasn't long after the movie's animated opening credits that we were out the door and onto the mall in pursuit of more age-appropriate and morally suitable entertainment, like the new Spice Girls CD.
The film, based on the Broadway musical, seemed forever doomed to be a covert sleepover staple until we hit senior class musical gold: Grease would be the word in the halls of my high school and everybody was pumped. Finally, we'd be able to put all those hours of hand-jiving and hip-thrusts to good use. However, we quickly figured out the movie and musical versions have different songs, characters, scenery and dialogue.