Friday, December 19, 2014

The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The Hobbit did not need to be three movies. I suspected as much when the trilogy was first announced, and the third movie just hammers home that fact. The Hobbit would have been an amazing, thrilling, emotional, action-packed set-up to the Lord of the Rings. Instead it's a bloated, boring, and contrived mess.

Story wise, it probably makes more sense to end the second movie with the awakening of Smaug and his subsequent rampage. But methinks they realized saving that bit for the beginning of movie number three would guarantee more butts in seats. It's certainly the best part of the The Battle of the Five Armies. Too bad it only lasts about 10 minutes.

Everything after is a long slog towards Lonely Mountain, where the dwarves are walled up with an ever-increasingly crazy Thorin, who refuses to relinquish the gold. But where there lies gold, there comes those who want a little/some/all of that gold, and thus the five armies of the title gather to battle.

And really, that's the majority of the movie. An ever-increasing war of thousands, that becomes ever-increasingly boring. The ridiculous subplot about star-crossed lovers, the elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner), which feels nothing but contrived and pandering, (let's give the ladies something to cry about!), finds its conclusion, and includes some of the most ridiculous dialogue in a genre that has its fair share of it.

Which brings me back to the magic that was the original trilogy. If it could keep someone like me, who has no interest in the fantasy genre at all, enraptured for over 10 hours, it just doubly proves that The Hobbit--which was the only book in the Middle Earth series that I read as a kid, and whose animated version I then watched dozens of times--is nothing but a failure. At 48 frames per second.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Preaching To The Choir: Kinky Boots

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Kinky Boots, based on the 2005 movie, with a book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper, tells the story of a family-run shoe factory in Northampton, England that is facing changing times, and possible bankruptcy. Son, and only heir, Charlie (Steven Booth) hopes to start a new career in London, but returns home upon the death of his father. A chance meeting with a drag queen named Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker)--who accidentally breaks a shoe over Charlie's head--gives Charlie the idea to revamp his shoe biz, creating quality women's boots for men, or more specifically, drag queens. (Although the insistence that no woman's shoe can hold a man's weight is, well, specious.)

Is there a musical called Where Do I Belong? or Who's My True Family?, because I have yet to see a musical that isn't essentially about one or both of those two things. Kinky Boots is no different, and in fact has one song, "Charlie's Soliloquy" that opens with the lyrics, "Do I belong here?" That would seem a ripe topic for satire, but Lauper's lyrics are completely earnest, as is too much of the musical.

Other numbers fair better. Lola's introduction, "Land of Lola," complete with backup dancers, definitely charged up the audience. Lindsay Nicole's solo "History of Wrong Guys" includes some nice bits of prop comedy. And the second act ensemble number, "In This Corner," involving a slow-motion boxing match, is clever and original.

It's when the show slows down to get serious, such as when Lola, nee Simon, tells his "it gets better story," and pleas with an ignorant factory worker to accept him as he is, that it begins to suffer under the weight of its own earnestness. There's nothing wrong with the message, of course. It's just that in SF, they're definitely preaching to the choir.

Kinky Boots is at its most fun when Lola and her energetic band of colorful drag queens (The Angels) take over the stage. The dancing, at times, borders on the gymnastic, and Kyle Taylor Parker's got a great voice and a great pair of legs. I'm glad this musical exists, happy it was a hit, but really hope it gets some more play in cities less likely to pack the opening house with local drag stars. They need it more than San Francisco does.

Friday, December 5, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

The wildly popular book gets the movie treatment, produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon. Being a fan of the book, I had fears that Hollywood would turn the often difficult, albeit ultimately inspiring memoir, into another insipid Eat Pray Love. I'm happy to say, that isn't the case. For the most part.

Like the book, the movie opens with a graphic bit of toenail removal, followed by some pissed off boot tossing. Almost immediately, we are also shown flashes of events out of context, though clearly featuring our protagonist, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). The rest of this film follows the same kind of structure, showing us scenes from the past as Cheryl walks forward; 1,000 miles forward, along the Pacific Crest Trail, to be specific.

Soon, we begin to see that Strayed is not so much trying to leave a painful past behind as to make sense of it. At the center of that pain is her mother: poor, domestic violence survivor, and eternally optimistic Bobbi, played by Laura Dern. (It's not a spoiler to say she dies; that becomes clear pretty early on.)

This death, while Strayed is in her 20's, becomes too much to handle, and she finds herself falling into a pit of adultery with strangers and increasingly dangerous drug use. I won't say Witherspoon is "brave" for seeking out a role that includes some graphic sex scenes and unpleasant character traits, because bravery has nothing to do with it. But I do think she's pretty savvy to know that her main movie persona, as a romantic comedy actress, gives extra punch to the film's seedier moments. How could someone so pretty and smart allow that stuff to happen to her? Pretty sure a lot of Cheryl Strayed's real life friends said the same thing.

The movie does take some liberties with the book. Strayed now has one brother instead of a brother and a sister, and her non-abusive stepfather is gone completely. I can understand these liberties since so much of her history is told in short flashbacks; shorthand is needed to get some points across. (Which I suppose also explains the scene involving a gang bang in an alley, something definitely not in the book.)

I found it refreshing that the scenery, while often quite beautiful, doesn't become a distraction; the movie isn't a travelogue and director Jean-Marc Vallée refrains from showing too many beautiful sunsets. Strayed's walk in the woods is filled with beautiful things, as well as dangerous ones. But it's ultimately the walk through her own mind that matters the most.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Horrible Bosses 2

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's the good news: You really don't need to see the first Horrible Bosses in order to understand its sequel, Horrible Bosses 2. Here's the bad news: You don't really need to see Horrible Bosses 2, period.

I saw the first one, laughed a few times, and immediately forgot about it. Going into the sequel I chose not to remind myself what happened in the first one, just to test the theory about whether it would be necessary to or not. I ended up being slightly confused about only one thing: why Kevin Spacey's character, one of the original Horrible Bosses, was now in jail, so, quick explanation for that: in the first, he ends up killing one of the bosses the three heroes wants to kill, because he thinks he's sleeping with his wife.

So, yes, Kevin Spacey has a small role in this one, and he elicited some of the movie's biggest laughs. Also back is Jennifer Aniston, and I couldn't tell you if she was funny or not because I spent most of her screen time distracted by thinking I had to clean my glasses, because the screen would suddenly go all soft and blurry. I can tell you she's just as sex crazed and foul-mouthed as she was the first time.

And, of course, the three original dummies, played by Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, are also back, now hoping to leave the world of horrible bosses behind by launching their own company, whose first product is a "Shower Buddy," a kind of mini automatic car wash for people. Unfortunately, they get duped into going into business with an evil one-percenter, played by Christoph Waltz, and his equally evil son, (Chris Pine). Before you know it, they're back planning the demise of MORE horrible bosses, although this time the plan involves kidnapping, not murder. And back to help out is Jamie Foxx's Motherfucker Jones.

I'll be honest--I did laugh, several times. Bateman, Sudeikis and Day have really good comedic chemistry, and I will always be a sucker for Bateman's extreme deadpan, straight guy routine. The problem is, almost all of the laughs are completely expected, so that most of the movie is spent just waiting for the punchlines that inevitably come. And that can get pretty boring. There are no real surprises in the Horrible Bosses 2, and for a movie whose plot is supposed to be filled with them, that's a bad sign.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Theatrical Time Travel: I Love Lucy Live On Stage

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I Love Lucy Live On Stage seems like a weird concept for a theatrical show: recreate two episodes of the classic sitcom with performers imitating the iconic characters of Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel. These are, after all, shows anyone with an internet connection can watch any time they want, not performances lost in time forever.

But luckily, Lucy Live is more than just the mimicking of a classic. Instead, it's a little bit of theatrical time travel. The show is presented as it would be in the early 1950's: the audience is there to see the recording of two "I Love Lucy" episodes, complete with a host; a quartet of singers performing live between-act commercials and musical standards; and even a tourist from Oklahoma named Birdie Mae Figg, (really actress Denise Moses), who makes her way through the audience before the curtain goes up, seeking autographs from all the movie stars she sees. (Apparently, I'm an actress famous for her work in Westerns; I gladly gave her my autograph.)

The show is presented without an intermission, but with a slight break between episodes, featuring a trivia contest between two audience members. (Well, one audience member and Birdie Mae Figg.) The first episode is "The Benefit" in which Ethel asks Lucy to ask Ricky to perform at a benefit held by her women's club. Lucy, of course, wants in on the act, and insists she be included in the show. The second episode is "Lucy Has Her Eyes Examined" wherein Lucy, once again, hopes to break into show business by auditioning for a Broadway producer friend of Ricky's, but an eye exam leaves her hopelessly blind during her jitterbug audition.

An obvious question would be why they didn't choose much more memorable episodes to recreate, like Vetameatavegamin, or Lucy stomping grapes. I think one factor may be it's easier to accept the actors and their imitations when they aren't doing things you've seen many times before. Also, these episodes require only two sets: their apartment, and the Tropicana club, both of which fit on the stage. (Although the Tropicana is a little cramped.)

Thea Brooks doesn't look or sound exactly like Lucy, but makeup and hair go a long way to create the illusion. And she can definitely dance a blind jitterbug, and sing as badly as the real thing. Euriamis Losada looks even less like Ricky, (he's much more handsome), and he actually sings a little better than the real Ricky, too. But the Cuban accent is spot on. ("Lucy! You have some 'splaining to do!")

Also spot on is Lori Hammel's Ethel. Ethel's is not the easiest voice to mimic, but close your eyes and you'll swear that's her on stage. It's a shame they didn't pick episodes that were a little more Lucy and Ethel-centric.

The show is definitely lively; the minute you get a little tired of the Lucy shenanigans, they break for a commercial, which include "Dinah Beach" (Sarah Elizabeth Combs) singing the Chevrolet song, and a visit from Speedy the Alka Seltzer boy (Denise Moses again), among other surprises. The costumes are also terrific, full of brightly colored new look dresses, and broad shouldered suits.

I'm not sure how appealing the show would be for the younger set, let alone someone who's never even seen an episode of "I Love Lucy." But those with a love of all things mid-century and a soft spot for nostalgia will probably love Lucy all over again.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Jazz Hands And Hat Tipping: Chicago The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Here's something I didn't know prior to seeing the San Francisco premiere of Chicago the Musical at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday: it's a comedy! And a really funny comedy, at that!

My only previous exposure to Chicago was the 2002 movie that won a surprising number of Oscars. I saw it once, thought the songs were definitely catchy--a few of the cast members certainly sang them better than others--but aside from that, I wasn't too impressed. And I certainly don't remember laughing much.

But the stage production is an entirely different matter. It's a biting and laugh-out-loud funny satire about fame, tabloids, and America's hunger for sinners. The original musical, with a book by Fred Ebb and Bob Fosse, premiered in 1975, was a huge hit, ran for almost 1000 performances, and was revived in 1997. And it's pretty much been playing somewhere ever since. This touring production features John O'Hurley as Billy Flynn (and he's getting top billing since he's probably the best known actor in the cast, him being J. Peterman, and all), Terra C. MacLeod as Velma Kelly, and Bianca Marraquin as Roxie Hart.

The production is pretty simple; it's all about the songs, which are almost all instantly recognizable at this point, and the choreography, in this case choreography by Anne Reinking "in the style of Bob Fosse," which means, yes, lots of jazz hands and hat tipping. There are no real sets to speak of, aside from the bandstand, which is on the stage, allowing the performers to interact with the musicians and the conductor. The costumes are all black, and all skimpy--pretty much what you'd expect to see in a 1970's musical. Tight, tight pants and sheer t-shirts on the men, leotards and fishnets on the women. (Aside from Billy Flynn, who's forever in a tux.)

The musical zips along, opening with the memorable "All That Jazz," and before too long both Roxie and Velma are in prison for murder, and their fellow inmates perform "The Cell Block Tango," (aka "He Had It Comin!"). It was with this number that I began to notice the show was a little...subdued. I don't know if it was a problem of opening night stiffness, or just a need to turn the audio up a little bit on both the singers and the band, but the number didn't have the simmering up to a boil energy it should have.

Roz Ryan's performance as Mama, with her big number "When You're Good to Mama," punched things up a bit, with powerful vocals and comedic delivery. And John O'Hurley is definitely the show's consistent comedic relief, from his opening number "All I Care About," surrounded by burlesque girls with feather fans, to the excellent "ventriloquist" routine with Roxie, "We Both Reached for the Gun."

Bianca Marraquin's Roxie Hart was the show's biggest revelation. She plays the character's combination of naiveté combined with calculation, and a starry-eyed yet ruthless lust for fame perfectly. There's nothing pathetic about her Roxie Hart, and her solo number/monologue "Roxie" is riveting and hilarious.

Terra C. MacLeod's Velma is tough and funny during her solos--including the opening number--but her best moments come during her interactions with her rival, Roxie, and her duet with Mama, "Class." But being that one of her biggest solo songs is her pleading with Roxie to join her in a duo act, with "I Can't Do It Alone," it's fitting that she hits her highpoint with the show's finale routines with Roxie, "Nowadays" and "Hot Honey Rag."

Seeing the musical made me go back and re-watch the movie, just to make sure I wasn't wrong with my original assessment. I maintain I wasn't. The original musical is just so much more fun, and I'd recommend this current production over watching the movie any day.

Friday, October 24, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I was a kid, I had a Ouija board, and I was an eager "player," because it is, as the box says, merely a game, right? I was also incredibly gullible, and friends and family took advantage of that gullibility more than once, and for a hot minute, I DID believe in ghosts.

Hasbro continues to sell Ouija boards to those who want to believe, though it's marketed, still, as a game. Which is why it's a little weird that Ouija is, essentially, a game tie-in, partially produced by Hasbro. It's kind of like doing a movie version of the board game Life, where everyone in that little car dies a horrible, violent death.

Ouija is a flat out dumb, predictable, and pointless horror movie. All the scares are telegraphed a mile ahead. The plot, about the ghosts of a dead medium, and a little girl with a sewn-shut mouth, doesn't make a lick of sense if you stop to think about it for even a second. It's rated PG-13, so perhaps younger audiences will flock to it, but all I know is by the time I was 13, I was over my gullible years, and watching much better, and scarier, movies than Ouija.

Friday, October 17, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Brad Pitt is back fighting Nazis in another World War II movie that is just as preposterous as Inglourious Basterds, but not nearly as fun. Not that war is fun, of course. War is hell! And Fury spends two-plus hours illustrating just that, again and again and again.

Pitt plays a U.S. Army sergeant commanding a sherman tank nicknamed Fury. The four men in his crew include three who've been through plenty of battles with him, and one fresh-faced Army typist (Logan Lerman) assigned to be the assistant driver after their original driver loses his life (and half his face). It's nearing the end of the war, and Hitler has gone full throttle into battle, and the war-weary American troops are forging ahead, town by town, across Germany.

Of course the wet-behind-the-ears recruit has to learn to suck it up, shoot them Nazis, and BECOME A MAN through the course of the film, and there's no shortage of opportunity for him to do just that. He goes from pacifist to trigger happy pretty quickly, and even gets to spend an afternoon with a lovely, smalltown Fraulein. (Who, incidentally, is seen in a preposterously short and anachronistic dress; it's almost as anachronistic as Brad Pitt's naked pecs, also on view during the same scene).

But is there a purpose to this movie, aside from showing us the hell of war, again, some more? Not really. It's intensely graphic, often thrilling, and filled with impressive explosions and headshots. It's designed to make you cheer at the fury of battle. It's a World War II movie for the gamer generation.

Monday, September 29, 2014

For The Fans: Pippin

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I've gone to a lot of musicals in the past year or so, but the majority of them have had pretty simple stories, and songs I already knew: your standard "jukebox" musical, which seems to dominate the Broadway stage these days. Pippin is a "classic" musical: original songs; a story loosely based on history; and that sometimes uncomfortable mix of drama and flair that you can either accept, if you're a fan of musical theater, or have a hard time with, if you're not.

Pippin was first staged in 1972, with choreography by Bob Fosse, and songs by Stephen Schwartz, and if you look back at clips from that original run (which starred Ben Vereen) it just oozes 1970s theatricality, in all its tackiness. The version currently running at the Golden Gate Theater through October 19th ran on Broadway last year, and won a Tony for best musical revival. It hasn't been updated so much as brightened. Gone are the shabby monotone costumes of the rag tag group of "performers" from 1972, replaced by colorful circus clowns, acrobats, and contortionists, and the setting has been moved under a bright blue big top. Still in abundance, however? Jazz hands. Lots and lots of jazz hands.

Pippin's the hero of the story, a prince in a roughly medieval era, on a quest to find his ultimate fulfillment in life. Guiding him through this journey is the Lead Player--a kind of circus ring leader--and the players themselves, who often represent life's vices: play instead of work; hedonism above responsibility; sex without love. Pippin goes to war, becomes king, realizes that's a little too much work, and continues on his quest until he eventually meets a widow and her son, and settles in with them, still unfulfilled.

Matthew James Thomas, who played the role during its Broadway run, is Pippin, and he infuses the role with a loose-limbed nerdiness, his hair always in his face, and his jeans and long sleeved t-shirts hanging off him; his Pippin always looks appropriately out of place.

The Lead Player role originated by Ben Vereen is now played by a woman, and I was excited to see Sasha Allen in the part. I first noticed her in a little indie movie called Camp back in 2003. Her performance in that film always stuck with me, and I'm glad to say she's even better in Pippin. Her singing and dancing are terrific, and she has some surprisingly strong dramatic moments during the show's finale.

John Rubinstein, who originated the role of Pippin back in 1972 now plays the role of Pippin's father, Charles, in a nice bit of circular casting. Luci Arnaz has a showstopping number as Pippin's grandmother Berthe, singing "No Time at All," that almost brought the audience to their feet. (Starting October 6th, Tony-winner Andrea Martin replaces Arnaz in the role, while Arnaz joins the Broadway cast.)

This revival's circus theme has some San Francisco ties, as local Pickle Family Circus alum Gypsy Snider is behind that bit of magic. And to be sure, there are some great stunts, and awe-inspiring moments during the show's two-hour running time: fire; knife-throwing; balancing acts; lyrical performances on hoops over the stage. But there are also long bits where the story drags. Pippin, at times, comes off as a whiny rich boy, and the ultimate source of his happiness (if he can even call it that), doesn't feel genuine. There's an old moral being told, about how you can find happiness in your own back yard, but Pippin's choices feels like weighing drudgery over the creepy world of a circus: neither seems that great!

Fans of the original musical are unlikely to be disappointed with this version, though. There are no blasphemous changes, (the biggest comes at the show's very end, but even Schwartz has said he prefers the newer version), and the show's mix of anachronisms, fourth-wall-breaking, and Fosse-influenced dance remains. But if you aren't someone who enjoys the genre, don't look to Pippin to change your view on that front.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Trip To Italy

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Sequel to 2010's The Trip, starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon as fictionalized versions of themselves taking a road trip through the Italian coast, sampling various hotels and gourmet meals. If you saw the first one, and liked it, you're going to like this one, too. In fact, I liked this one a bit more, but maybe that's just because I prefer Italian food and scenery over the offerings of the U.K.

The same might hold true for those who did not like that first movie (who are you?). This one features Coogan and Brydon dueling with their Michael Caine impressions right off the bat, and there are plenty more impressions and vocal shenanigans to follow. If you didn't find that funny the first time, you won't this time either. This one also kind of takes the roles of the two men and switches them, making Brydon a bit of a jerk, and Coogan the sympathetic one. (Some might not be able to forgive Brydon's transgressions.)

An argument can be made that since The Trip to Italy is, like The Trip, an edited version of the six episode series that aired in the U.K., it should be passed up in favor of a viewing of the series. However, the series isn't as of yet (legally) available here. Director Michael Winterbottom is responsible for all versions--it's not like it was taken by the studio and chopped beyond recognition. I prefer to think of the movie version as a nice little amuse bouche; something tasty to consume before the banquet of an eventual DVD release of the series.

Speaking of eating, don't see this hungry. Or, if you do see it hungry, have a firm plan to eat Italian food after the movie. I mean it. A firm plan--otherwise, out of desperation, you may find yourself at Fuzio across from the Embarcadero theater because you can't think of any other place to go and goddammit you need some pasta in your face ASAP, even if it is mediocre pasta (at best). The Embarcadero is walking distance from North Beach. Make a reservation at Tosca, or any of the other amazing Italian eateries out there, order four courses, some good wine, and savor every bite. (Michael Caine impersonations are optional.)

Friday, August 22, 2014


This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

When I first heard of the movie Frank, back when it played the SFIFF, I thought it was a pretty insane concept for a movie: Michael Fassbender as the lead singer of an indie band who is always--always--wearing a giant paper mache head? I mean, ridiculous, right? Turns out, yes, it's still kind of ridiculous. But it's also partly based on fact! Writer Jon Ronson, (who is hilarious; read his books), was recruited in the 90's to join up with the band backing Chris Sievey, AKA Frank Sidebottom, a man with a giant paper mache head. Ronson later wrote about his experience, and that article has been adapted into the fictionalized Frank.

Alas, aside from the singer with the giant fake head, much of Frank is standard rags-to-near-riches-to-rags storytelling, with the indie band making terrible music, going viral, getting booked at SXSW, and then imploding. Michael Fassbender does a pretty good job of acting without a face, and Maggie Gyllenhaal is suitably pissed off and passionate as one of the band's keyboardists. And when you have a guy wearing a giant head, bits of slapstick are bound to happen; whether or not that counts as comedy depends on where you stand on the slapstick front, (I am vehemently pro). It's just too bad much of the music in the film, (aside from a great closing number), is entirely forgettable, and the answer behind the mystery of Frank and his head is a bit of a let-down.

Completely Believable Barbra: Buyer & Cellar

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Barbra Streisand has a basement full of crap she's collected over the years. Really, who doesn't, in some form or another? But Barbra's basement is a little different. You see, it's been designed to look like a small town street full of quaint little shops. Her old costumes can be found in the antique clothing store. Dolls are in Bee's Doll Shop. And of course, let's not forget the Gift Shoppe, full of mementos and tiny bars of soap. Don't believe me? Here:

This is something you'll learn right off the bat at Buyer & Cellar, the one-man-tour-de-force that has made a move from off-Broadway to San Francisco. Yet that bit of insanity is in fact the only true thing in the play, and this is made perfectly clear from the beginning, when star Michael Urie sits on the stage, a copy of Barbra Streisand's book My Passion For Design in his hands.

During the short introduction, he explains how playwright Jonathan Tolins was inspired by the book--and Barbra Streisand's Oprah appearance promoting it--and imagined what it would be like to work in that quaint personal mini mall. Urie goes one to tell us everything else we are about to hear is fake--just to make sure the very famous and "litigious" Streisand understands, should she ever actually come and see the play.

He also makes it clear that he's not an impressionist, and that enough people--"even some women!"--have "done" Streisand before, so his interpretation is less impression, and more impressionistic. After this introduction--which includes readings of choice passages from the Streisand book--the play begins, with Urie now Alex Moore, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who, after being fired as mayor of Disneyland's Toontown over an unfortunate churro incident, goes on a job interview in Malibu, at a huge ranch house, guarded by "brand new barn doors that look old."

After meeting the assistant in charge, he learns that the job involves working in a basement full of "shops." He will be the sole shop worker, and he'll only have one customer, the "lady of the house," who enjoys the immersive experience of "shopping" her own things. Of course, he thinks it all sounds horrible and a bit insane. Until he learns who the lady of the house actually is.

He admits he's not a stereotypical gay Barbra Streisand fan, but that he is well aware of her, and considers her part of his "gay heritage." So when offered the job, be dives right in, manning the shops while wearing a uniform, days spent dusting French dolls and listening to the incessant "whir-ir-ir" of the frozen yogurt machine. Until one day, Barbra actually shows up.

Urie's Streisand isn't dead on, as he warns, but it's still kind of perfect, and he transitions from Alex to Barbra seamlessly. The play's best laughs come the unexpected things Barbra does and says in that cellar full of shops, so I won't spoil it. But know that it's completely ridiculous, and yet, somehow, completely believable.

Urie is just stupendous. He's probably best known for his role as one of Betty's nemeses on "Ugly Betty," and he was certainly funny, if a tad stereotypical in that, but his comedic talent are on full display here, and he doesn't disappoint. Playing Alex, Alex's failed screenwriter boyfriend Barry, Barbra's assistant, and Barbra herself, he makes every character completely recognizable through body language and cadence, while never going completely over board. His comedic timing is so dead on, I can't imagine anyone else ever being able to play the part as well. (Apparently, it was originally written with Jesse Tyler Ferguson in mind, but should he ever take over, he'll have some huge and hilarious shoes to fill.)

It's not all laughs. There are some genuinely moving moments between Alex and Barbra, and the inevitable end is both poignant and brilliantly comedic. Going into Buyer & Cellar I had my doubts. It seemed too on-the-nose in its subject matter: A gay man making fun of Barbra Streisand? Come on now. But turns out it's a truly funny and insightful look into fame, fans, and the desire create to one's own personal utopia.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Entertaining And Slightly Exhausting: Motown: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

It's too bad Berry Gordy can't make an on-stage appearance at the end of every performance of Motown: The Musical, as he did at San Francisco's Orpheum Theater on Tuesday night, because the 84-year-old legend nearly brought the house down dancing jubilantly with the cast. It was a hell of an end to the entertaining and slightly exhausting jukebox musical.

Gordy wrote the show's book, and it's loosely based on his 1994 autobiography, detailing the rise of his music empire, from 1938 to 1983. The legendary 25th anniversary TV show serves as the musical's framing device. Act one opens with energetic dueling performances by The Temptations and The Four Tops as they rehearse for the show, while an aging Gordy (Clifton Oliver) is home, lamenting the loss of so many of the names he helped create as they moved away from Motown and on to bigger paychecks. Will he actually show up at the anniversary show?

The time then moves to the past, making a quick stop in Gordy's childhood (the fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling was a pivotal point for Gordy as a child), eventually settling on Gordy as a young man and songwriter. After writing some songs for Jackie Wilson ("Reet Petite" and "Lonely Teardrops") Gordy decides to pursue songwriting and producing full-time, and "Motown" (the naming of the company is an amusing moment) is born.

The pace of the show is breakneck, with over 50 songs from Motown (and other Berry labels) performed. Of course, not all of the songs are done in full, so one song often blends into another, and the groups performing those songs aren't always clear (for instance, if you aren't a fan of The Temptations and The Four Tops you probably won't know just which is which).

A lot of groups and singers are portrayed over the course of the almost three-hour musical, with much of the cast playing three or more different roles. The show's major focus is the relationship between Gordy and Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), who Gordy meets when she's still in high school, and hanging around Motown with her group, The Primettes. He sees something in the group, and especially the one "with the big eyes." The Primettes become The Supremes, and after many failed songs, eventually ends up as Motown's biggest act.

Semmes does a good job of mimicking Diana Ross's smile-filled singing style, and her voice is dead on, though the big eyes everyone keeps talking about...aren't. Smokey Robinson (Nicholas Christopher), Gordy's best friend, and Marvin Gaye (Jarran Muse), his brother-in-law (at least for a while) are the two other main characters, and both actors are great, particularly during the songs. Of course, the whole cast does a lot of singing, so much so that there's not a lot of room for plot. Events happen at breakneck speed. Hit records are being made, groups split up, Kennedy gets shot, and then war protest breaks out in what seems like 10 minutes time. Die-hard Motown nerds will probably have a hard time with all the liberties taken with the musical timeline.

Because there are so many songs, there are a few times when tunes are used in an expository way. Sometimes this works, (when Smokey Robinson must face angry Alabama police on stage while singing "I don't like you/but I love you" from "You Really Got a Hold on Me"), and sometimes it doesn't, (Diana Ross sings "I Hear a Symphony" while laying in bed next to an impotent Berry Gordy; but perhaps the awkwardness of that scene was amplified because Berry Gordy was sitting in the row in front of me).

A lot of ground is covered in the first act, while act two focuses on Gordy's move to Los Angeles, the discovery of the Jackson 5 (Reed Lorenzo Shannon is fantastic as young Michael Jackson), disco, and the looming threat that the label will have to fold as more and more artists--including his beloved Diana--move on to bigger things. But Gordy vows to fight, releasing even more hits. (He seems to remember he's got Stevie Wonder in a closet somewhere, as Wonder makes a brief appearance as a child in act one, and isn't heard from again until the end of act two).

By the time the finale and the 25th anniversary reunion arrived, I was just plain tired, and couldn't blame them for completely overlooking Michael Jackson's immortal performance during that show. Who'd have the energy for that?

Well, maybe Berry Gordy would.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Begin Again

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

A few weeks back, I reviewed the stage musical version of director John Carney's movie, Once. There were some aspects I liked more than the movie--mainly, that the male lead is more likable than in the movie--but both versions fall short when it comes to the female lead. I wanted more of her story.

Begin Again almost seems like a direct reaction to that complaint, as the musical lead this time around is a woman, played by Keira Knightley, and her muse and cheerleader is a guy, played by Mark Ruffalo. Like in Once, there's some romantic tension between them, and the question of "will they or won't they" does linger for much of the movie. But the meat of their relationship is musical, as he produces her demo on the streets of New York City. (They decide to record all the songs live and outdoors, an interesting concept that, unfortunately, doesn't carry over to the movie's actual soundtrack.)

Adam Levine is perfectly cast as Knightley's d-bag boyfriend, and some other real life musical talents, like CeeLo Green and Mos Def, also make appearances. And immediately after seeing the movie, I wanted to download most of the songs. Knightley doesn't have what I'd call a powerful voice, but it's pretty, and her songs are as catchy as the best tunes in Once. How long till this one makes it to Broadway?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Falling Slowly: Once, the Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I liked the 2006 film Once well enough, but didn't fall madly in love with it as many of its fans did. I certainly understood the appeal of the film, and a few of the songs made it to my iTunes, but I couldn't get past feeling like the male lead was a huge...jerk.

In 2012, the stage musical based on the film made its Broadway debut, and it went on to win eight Tony awards. The traveling company of Once now comes to San Francisco for a three week run at the Curran Theater.

The basic story from the film remains: A young Czech woman hears a young Irish man singing a passionate song to a group of listeners who are...slightly less passionate about him, and he's on the verge of quitting his music for good. But she is enraptured, and convinces the man to let her hear more. This involves the fixing of a vacuum cleaner, and a visit to music store owned by a very animated musician who knows karate. Yes, the show is quirky.

The man and woman are nameless in the play, known only as the Guy and the Girl, and are played by Stuart Ward and Dani de Waal. The Girl is also a musician, taught piano by her father back in Czechoslovakia--before his own musical career was cut short by arthritis and he killed himself, so she has personal experience with moody musicians. She's such an encouraging, engaging, and positive force that the guy can't help but go along with her plan to record a demo. He's also a bit smitten with her, while she is reluctant to return his affections, as she has a daughter, and hopes to reconcile with her estranged husband.

What sets Once apart from your standard musical is that every actor is also part of the musical's orchestra. They all play their respective instruments while on stage, sometimes dancing at the same time. (Although the "dancing" is more like subdued movement, not your typical big numbers.) There are usually at least 10 people on stage at any time, filling out such roles as the girl's mother, fellow Czech immigrants, a banker with musical aspirations of his own, and local Dublin pub goers and musicians.

The cast moves around a set that looks like an Irish pub, and in a really fun move, the audience gets to become part of the action, as the stage is opened up for theatergoers before the curtain and during intermission. You can walk on to the pub set, buy an ale, wine, or water, and get a close-up look at it all. Slowly, some of the show's cast makes its way on stage with some instruments and starts to play a few songs, surrounded by the audience. Eventually, the stage empties of its guests, and the play begins.

The energy of these interactive moments aren't matched entirely within the musical proper. There are terrific songs throughout--"When Your Mind's Made Up" and the Oscar winning "Falling Slowly" being the stand-outs, (and that one's performed, ironically, more than once). But sometimes the show is maddeningly slow, grinding to a halt for subdued musical numbers with languid dancing that do nothing to advance the plot.

The central relationship between the guy and the girl is a bit more overtly romantic than it is in the movie. As a result, he comes off as less of a pushy jerk, which is a welcome change. But the story is clearly his, and the girl is there to be his champion and muse; her goals appear to be nothing more than to be a good mother and wife, playing piano at home, while the guy is persuaded to pursue his musical dreams in the Big City. I wanted more for her character, especially since Dani de Waal has such a terrific voice, and is only given one solo song in which to showcase it (the lovely ballad "The Hill").

I'm not sure how fans of the movie will take to this version, as the film definitely had such a genuine, local Irish community energy, that it almost felt like a documentary; the actors here are, for the most part, clearly NOT Dubliners. That authentic feel is almost captured during those moments of interaction with the audience. But when that proverbial curtain rises, it floats away.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Kick Ass Heroine: Divergent

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I understand the draw of teen lit. They're page turners that appeal to the heightened, hormone-fueled emotions of your younger years. The world sucks, you're different--special!--and one day everyone will see that! Teens might not live in a post-apocalyptic hell hole, but I'm sure high school feels like it sometimes.

Divergent is the latest female-lead, post-apocalyptic action series, and yes, it's a lot like The Hunger Games. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Set in Chicago, in an unspecific future, but at least 100 years after a war has left the world in ruins, this version of the windy city is surrounded by a large electric fence, to protect it from...well, perhaps we'll find that out in the sequels.

Society has been divided into five "factions." Of course, these factions bear some resemblance to current professions, or at least they did to me. You've got the "honest" Candor (lawyers); the "intelligent" Erudite (scientists); the "peaceful" Amity (hippies); the "brave" Dauntless (military); and the "selfless" Abnegation (non-profits). Not sure where those who write dystopian books and movies would fit in. Perhaps they're part of the "Factionless" (homeless)?

Our heroine, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley), was born into Abnegation, the faction that, because they are selfless, does most of the governing. Her father is high up in the political ranks, (which makes sense, since he's played by Tony "I'm the PRESIDENT!" Goldwyn), but Beatrice is drawn to the black-leather-clad, running-through-the-streets, climbing-buildings-while-shrieking assholes that are Dauntless.

This societal division is designed to keep order and peace. People are born into their factions, but when they reach their teen years they take a personality test that reveals if they are made for the faction they were born into, or destined for another. Post test, they can go with the faction they were destined for...or choose the one they want to belong to, the catch being, once they choose, they can never go back.

But Beatrice's test results are inconclusive. They reveal she is more than one faction; she is "divergent." And this is a bad thing. She is told to keep this a secret, or risk losing her life.

Does Beatrice choose to stay in boring, gray Abnegation? Well, she's wearing black leather on the poster; it's not a spoiler to say she joins the cool kids. And she goes by "Tris" now, thanks.

The middle section of this admittedly overlong movie is a series of training rituals: hand-to-hand combat, target practice, knife-throwing, psychedelic drug tests that reveal your deepest fears. Friendships are forged, (Zoe Kravitz does a nice job as Tris's gal pal, Christina), and enemies made. (Though why they chose to cast three men who look EXACTLY alike as Tris's friends and foe remains a baffler.)

But what would a dystopian teen adventure be without a love interest? Not the new Hunger Games, that's for sure! And thankfully, we've got a better guy to look at than that milquetoast Peta (isn't he the worst?!). Our heroine's eye candy is a Dauntless trainer who goes by "Four," and he's played by Theo James, who "Downton Abbey" fans may recognize as the Turkish guest Mary kills with her vagina.

The movie follows a formula, and there aren't a lot of surprises. But I have to say, I liked it more than the first Hunger Games. The set-up is just slightly less ridiculous, the camera work less "cameraman with palsy," and the corrupt government conspiracy is a little more believable. Plus, that evil Faction is headed by another woman, played by Kate Winslet, (doing her usual terrible American accent).

It's going to take more than The Hunger Games and Divergent to erase the horrors of Twilight and its nightmarish messages about sticking with abusive assholes who can't control their rage. But I'm glad we're moving along, and Hollywood is giving teens some kick-ass heroines--saving dudes in distress!--to emulate.