Sir Andrew’s work may be found in three of the seven new shows announced at DPAC’s SunTrust Broadway Preview Event on Friday, specifically the touring version of the recently-closed revival of Evita, the 2011 West End musical version of The Wizard of Oz film with new songs by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and a whole concert featuring songs from Lloyd Webber’s extensive oeuvre, including The Phantom of the Opera and Cats.
If you’re not a Lloyd Webber fan and you hold season tickets for DPAC’s Broadway series, you might be in trouble.
The other new shows are a strange mix. I’m most excited about the touring productions of two recent Tony winners, The Book of Mormon and the minimalist stage adaptation of the film Once. I’m less enthused by a musical of the Patrick Swayze film Ghost that flopped after 136 performances on Broadway last year, or by a new musical of Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas, though the Grinch costume shown to us is less trauma-inducing than the Jim Carrey film from a decade back.
Mind you, my cynicism wasn't shared by the DPAC members who swarmed the auditorium on Friday for the announcement (at least 1,200 were present, based on the number of raffle tickets submitted to the event organizers), who cheered loudly at the announcements. One patron told me that he was pleased that the lineup features shows with more “broad appeal,” claiming DPAC’s recent showing of Jekyll and Hyde with American Idol’s Constantine Maroulis was “too dark.")
It doesn’t always look that way, I know. But critics usually don’t go to a show for the purpose of basking in their own smugness and perceived superiority over the material, the genre, the company or the audience. (At least, they shouldn’t. When one does—and occasionally it happens, even here—little more is served than their own ego.)
But what do we make of a performance in which the performer appears to be doing this instead? That is the riddle posed by one Melissa Madden Gray, whose caburlesque performance under the stage name Meow Meow, Beyond Glamour, closes this evening in PSI Theatre at the Durham Arts Council.
By themselves, the 15 songs in this cabaret-concert-with-a-twist take us on a willfully eclectic trip. After an opening out of the American songbook, Gray quickly goes continental, mixing multiple selections by Edith Piaf and Astor Piazzolla with works by Bertolt Brecht and Monique Serf, best known during the 1960s as the single-name French songstress, Barbara. (Over half of the songs sung in this performance are in their original tongues; translations are provided for some, but not all.) These are interspersed with fashionably downbeat numbers by Radiohead, Fiona Apple and Patty Griffin (with an ostensible cameo by John Cage in the midst).
But, as Dr. Lamaze repeatedly observed, it’s all in the delivery. Unfortunately, Gray’s renditions of these works evokes more question marks at times than exclamation points.
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.
CIRQUE DU SOLEIL: DRALION
* * * stars
Through Aug. 19
Cirque du Soleil is a global juggernaut, but it's still a surprisingly youthful institution. In contrast to, say, those 19th-century animal drivers Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey, Cirque is a babe. Officially dating to 1984, the Montreal-based troupe exploded in the 1990s. In the middle of that decade, the troupe developed an Eastern-themed show called Dralion. The show focused on Chinese acrobatics and became a huge hit, running for about 13 years.
In 2010, the show was revived for arena tours, and that's what audiences see this week at PNC Arena. We caught the show Wednesday night at Raleigh's PNC Arena. We can report that the show is filled with dancers, singers, tumblers, trampoliners, aerialists and an impossibly ripped guy who does this thing with a "crossed wheel" routine. The latter comes early in the show, as Jonathan Morin tumbles onto the stage in his self-invented device of two steel circles, intersecting in the shape of an egg. Morin does a variety of spins, cartwheels and flips with the device. It's amazing, inventive stuff, the sort of thing people come to expect of Cirque du Soleil. However, the routine goes on for a couple minutes too long—and it's not the first time in the evening that we have that feeling.
You wouldn't know from watching the show, but Morin is playing a character called Kala, who is described thusly on the Cirque website: "Kala is the heart of the wheel that represents time and the infinite cycle. He is the internal propulsion of the wheel that makes time evolve. It is the ongoing circle of life."
There's a lot of this "ongoing circle of life" stuff in this production. A group of dancers and singers establish what seems to be a narrative framework, although we can't understand the invented language the trio of singers sing ("an invented language to which only Cirque du Soleil holds the key. Their mysterious accents echo down through time").
Nor do we know exactly what is meant by the character called The Little Buddha, who steps forward at the beginning of the show (after the clowns have warmed up the crowd) and meaningfully brandishes an oversized sand hourglass. Our lives are finite, I suppose. Time is running out in this circle of life. For those interested, the website helpfully tells us that the "Little Buddha is the chosen child. Although it possesses special powers that will allow it to eventually become an Âme-Force, it dreams of being just a regular child."
What's an Âme-Force? "L'Âme-Force symbolises ultimate harmony between the four elements."
OK, it's best not to peer too deeply into the story of Dralion, when it's really just a mostly solid evening of human tricks and stunts, topped off with some gorgeous, death-defying aerial dances over center ring, and a thrilling wall trampoline routine at the rear of the stage (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that many ex-Olympians, especially gymnasts, divers and synchronized swimmers, find work with Cirque du Soleil.)
I never thought I’d say this, but I’m glad I missed Christie Brinkley last night.
A buzz of disappointment ran through the opening-night crowd for the brash and bawdy musical Chicago at the Durham Performing Arts Center. Supermodel Brinkley, due to play murderous ingénue Roxie Hart, would not appear due to illness.
She may return later this week. (DPAC announced this morning that Brinkley will not perform in Durham.)
But Bianca Marroquin, who's playing the lead in the current Broadway incarnation, hopped a plane from New York to stand in for the cover girl, and knocked her performance onto Waveland Avenue.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Brinkley bringing but a fraction of the pizzazz to Roxie that Marroquin does. Combining a muscular sexiness with the jerky slapstick sensibility of Cheri Oteri, Marroquin gave Roxie rich layers of innocence and libido. The Mexican actress knows this role, for she's been playing it on and off since she made her Broadway debut as Roxie Hart in 2002.
Marroquin wasn’t the only stand-in for a principal. Kecia Lewis-Evans stepped into the role of Matron “Mama” Morton, garnering some of the loudest cheers of the evening for belting out her character’s signature tune “When You’re Good to Mama” and providing the only voice in the cast to fill the cavernous DPAC.
Amra-Faye Wright is brassy and hilarious in the other lead role of Velma Kelly and Tony Yazbeck’s slick-and-sleazy lawyer Billy Flynn glues the evening together with a solid, steady performance amid the burlesque hysteria of almost incessant musical numbers.
The one thing lacking from the performance was the title character itself. The city of Jazz-Age Chicago, land of speakeasys and feverish promiscuity, fails to make a real appearance in the production. The staging couldn’t be more spare, as the orchestra occupies the majority of the performance floor in a three-level riser that images a nightclub. This leaves a surprisingly narrow area between the riser and the lip of the stage for the cast to perform in, which presented occasional challenges Tuesday night. Marroquin’s nose was nearly taken off by a chorus dancer skidding in for the final ta-da to “We Both Reached for the Gun.” If anything, it gives the numbers a dangerous edge.
But the absenteeism of the City of the Broad Shoulders is hardly the fault of the cast, who top to bikini-briefs-clad bottom blasts the audience with enthusiasm. Chicago stays fun and fast throughout, with or without a supermodel in the mix.
Steampunk, for those not in the know, is a branch of science fiction that postulates what would have happened if modern or futuristic technology had been created in the past, using the technology and materials available at that time, e.g. steam engines, zeppelins and the like. It’s become a particularly popular subset of science fiction fandom, with many fans creating steampunk-themed outfits and crafts sold online and at shows.
Priest has become one of the most popular authors of steampunk in her “Clockwork Century” series, which began in her award-winning bestseller Boneshaker, about how a massive steam-powered drill unleashes a zombie plague in Civil War-era Seattle.
Priest says that steampunk’s appeal comes from a “perfect storm of pop culture” where people embrace the sense of design and functionality in the old-fashioned technology, as opposed to the sleek, compact style found in Apple-style products. “In that school of design, everything is this sort of pristine, inscrutable box where if you don’t know where to touch it or how to react to it, it might as well be a brick,” Priest says.
“The Victorians, God bless ‘em, thought their technology should be beautiful as well as functional. And we seem to have lost that in the streamlining efforts to make everything look futuristic. I think in one regard, Steampunk is a reaction to that, a way of saying, ‘No, we don’t want something that looks like what everybody else has, that’s flat and inscrutable.’"
So are the fans wearing homemade goggles and railroad pocket watches giving the finger to the iPad?
“I’ll put it this way: If the Victorians made a giant death-ray killing machine, it would look like a giant death-ray killing machine,” Priest says. “It would fill an entire room and have gears and brass and engraving, and would be this enormous, powerful, beautiful-looking thing. If Apple made a giant death ray killing machine, it would look like a button. And I think there’s a sense that something has been lost, and steampunk’s trying to reclaim that a bit.”
Just ask Rebus Works owner Shonna Greenwell. Today, the men of local wrestling outfit GOUGE Wrestling will be smashing and bashing outside her arts and crafts gallery, entertaining spectators as they take part in another one of Rebus Works’s Food Truck Rodeo.
So, just how did an art gallery owner hook up with a bunch of tights-wearing bruisers? Well, for starters, she lived next to one for years.
“Count Grog was my neighbor,” says Greenwell, referring to the wrestling manager and GOUGE commissioner. She got invited to one of their shows back when they were performing over at the Berkeley Café. Greenwell, who was dabbling in photography at the time, found them to be the perfect photo subjects.
“These guys, or men and women, would completely go into this other ego or other personality, and it was always your classic, like, good vs. evil,” she says. “And they would get the crowd riled up, and you could get all your frustrations and everything out. You could yell whatever you want and basically cheer for whoever you wanted as well.”
Greenwell got the GOUGE crew to perform outside Rebus Works for one paid event, but it turned to be, in Greenwell’s words, a “borderline disaster.” She forgot that because Rebus Works is located below the Boylan Street Bridge, passersby could watch the action from the bridge and not pay a dime.
This past Christmas, I received two books on the history of Broadway flops, Not Since Carrie and Second Act Trouble. They’re fascinating reads, both illuminating some hidden treasures of the theater and in recounting the brazen excesses that doom many a Broadway flop to its fate.
A review of the adaptation of Carrie, the musical version of Stephen King’s classic revenge story, which inspired the title of Not Since Carrie. A recent revival dumped the camp and was excoriated for NOT providing the insane spectacle the audience anticipated.
This is on my mind when I recently attended a Fathom Events screening of Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ill-fated follow-up to his seminal The Phantom of the Opera. Phantom is, of course, now the longest-running show ever on Broadway, but Love Never Dies never even made it to the Great White Way after a disastrous West End run.
Trailer for the Melbourne production of Love Never Dies, the version released to theaters and DVD.
A revised Melbourne production was better-received, though, and it’s this version I’m catching at my editor’s behest (it came out on DVD May 29). My schadenfreude is hoping for some sort of epic so-bad-it’s-good camp classic. Lloyd Webber is known for excess, and musical sequels are a dangerous game. Ever heard of Bring Back Birdie, Annie Warbucks or A Doll’s Life, the musical sequel to A Doll’s House? My point exactly.
Anime represents a blind spot in my nerdity, but its sense of community and wide variety of colorful series have long piqued my interest. Despite its apparent overlap with the comic books and SF/Fantasy that make up an uncomfortable part of my psyche, there's almost a separate-but-equal vibe to these worlds. Just as I complain about not knowing who any of these characters are at Animazement, one bunny-hatted girl complains to me that she had no idea who any of the superhero characters were at a New York convention I attended and enjoyed last fall.
While I am still taking furtive steps into the medium of anime, the combination of Netflix Instant, Hulu and a Roku device has allowed me to blast through a few complete series over the last few months, and where better a place to find out about quality series than a massive gathering of anime fans? Through some chit-chat, I find a number of names occur over and over.
Combined with my own experiences, here's the first episodes of 10 different anime shows that are available in the entirely for free on Hulu. I had certain grounds for inclusion: Nothing based on a card game, a bare minimum of giant robots and no schoolgirls and/or tentacles. Yes, this limited the playing field. Yes, there's still plenty of good stuff.
Gurren Lagann is a more recent series that combines many an archtypical anime trope (big robots, scantily clad girl, rebellious teenage protagonist, post-apocalyptic wasteland), but transcends them with a healthy dose of self-awareness and strong characterization. Its tale of a couple of "bros" who find a battling robot head and use it to find similarly-armed mutants on the Earth's surface takes some surprising turns, with major characters dying and a poignant ending, combined with a punkish exuberance. If you must watch one giant robot show, let this be it.