Monday, August 10, 2020

Harry Clarke: Breaking the Ice

Barrington Stage Company artistic director Julianne Boyd (left) with Mark H. Dold during rehearsal for Harry Clarke. (Courtesy Barrington Stage Company)

The mood at the Barrington Stage Company production of the solo performance Harry Clarke, which I saw over the weekend, was cautiously jubilant. As the ad campaign reminds us, this is the first live production in the United States since March, performed under a tent down the street from BSC’s home space in Pittsfield to a restricted, socially distanced audience that was ushered in slowly, temperatures taken at the door. The only unmasked people in the arena were on the stage: the artistic director, Julianne Boyd (who also directed the play), when she introduced the show with a speech – expected but not unwelcome – about the need for art in challenging times and reported that the company had put up the tent during the hurricane, and the actor, Mark H. Dold. I won’t underestimate how great it felt to be seeing live theatre again, whatever the special conditions may be under which it must be purveyed.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The How to Train Your Dragon Series: A Well-Kept Secret

Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon (2010).

This review contains spoilers.

The How to Train Your Dragon animated trilogy – How to Train Your Dragon (2010), How To Train Your Dragon 2 (2014) and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (2019) – have all been box-office hits, but critics have mostly ignored them, and I suspect that the only other adults who know about them discovered them along with their children. One colleague reported that when he sat down to watch the first one with his little boy, he was thoroughly delighted to find a treasure after all the animated crap he’d had to endure, and I imagine that many other parents have been similarly – and happily – caught off guard. I came to them through the good offices of one perspicacious critic, Michael Sragow, who praised the latest one, released a year ago, in his column in Film CommentOnce I saw the first one I was hooked. The forces behind them are the Young Adult author Cressida Cowell, who has written a dozen How to Train Your Dragon books, beginning in 2003, and Dean DeBlois, who co-wrote and co-directed the first of the movies, with Chris Sanders, and went it alone on the two sequels.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Newfangled, Old-Fashioned: Hamilton and Funny Girl, Streaming

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Philippa Sooi n Hamilton.

Like at least half of my friends, I bought a subscription to Disney+ so I could watch Hamilton. Thomas Kail, who staged it on Broadway (and, in its earlier incarnation, downtown at the Public Theatre), filmed it in 2016, and the original plan was to release it to theatres. When Covid put paid to those plans, Disney picked it up, and though one misses the effect of the big screen – and though the handful of fucks are muted – it seems like a reasonable trade-off. I caught Hamilton with the London cast two years ago, and they were admirable. But, captured just before they dispersed, the original ensemble, headed by book writer-composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda as Alexander Hamilton and Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr, is so electric that I actually found the show even more exciting and affecting on my home screen.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Emotional Storytelling: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

Jane Levy in Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
This review contains spoilers.

Listen. You know how sometimes a song pops into your head that embodies exactly the emotion you’re feeling at that moment? Well, if you happened to be standing next to the titular protagonist of the NBC musical dramedy Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, she might be able to hear it. In this show, music isn’t just a gimmick. It channels the emotions that are the main driver of this uncommonly empathetic show.

Zoey’s was marketed as a high-concept show, and that, plus the somewhat uneven first three episodes, probably led to the generally mediocre reviews. But the back half of the season’s dozen episodes are much, much more heartfelt and sincere.

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Good Fight, and The Old Guard

Charlize Theron and KiKi Layne in The Old Guard (2020), now streaming on Netflix.

This review contains spoilers.

Following up on the movie recommendations of friends during the pandemic has kept me merrily occupied, especially when art houses are offering such interesting streaming options (like the Jacques Becker and Claude Sautet movies on tap at Film Forum) and Met Opera digs into its archives for a different production every twenty-four hours. I urge those of you who have been enjoying these and other treasures to show your appreciation by making donations to help keep these vital institutions alive. That list should also include San Francisco Opera, which has shared some truly dazzling work; San Francisco Ballet, which streamed a short piece every week until the conclusion of its official season; and Mint Theatre Company. Manhattan’s repository for obscure American and English plays, which is currently running three of its recent revivals. My normal New York theatregoing excursions don’t include visits to the Mint; based on the quality of the productions I’ve streamed over this weekend, that’s a mistake I hope to rectify when live theatre has finally shaken free of the shackles of Covid-19.

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Further Adventures of Ornette: The Biography of Ornette Coleman by Maria Golia

Ornette Coleman performing at The Hague in 1994 in 1994. (Photo: Geert Vandepoele)
“Music, faces worn by time, want to tell us something, or are about to tell us something: that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact.” – Jorges Luis Borges, 1959.
When I first heard the music of Charlie Parker, especially his Savoy recordings while I was still a teenager, my concept of what music was or could be changed forever. A sudden joy escaped from its cage and flew around the room in dizzying circles. Shortly afterward, when I first heard John Coltrane, especially with the magical Miles Davis Quartet and then flying solo on his own, my life changed again, those emotions leaving the room altogether and reaching out for the sky. The same kind of radical transformation occurred when I first encountered the raw music of Ornette Coleman, when the bird was let out forever from its cage and soared off into space.

His album The Shape of Jazz to Come, from the same year when Borges was writing about a revelation as yet unproduced, caused a rupture in musical expectation, not just for me but also for all the most advanced post-bop players then on the scene. They found him, at first, primitive, untutored and almost insanely formless in his quest for a freedom too beautiful to be contained by any customary notation. Now, of course, everyone recognizes that he was indeed foretelling the shape of a music that was, as yet, unproduced, even as he was simultaneously, and spontaneously, producing it before our eyes and ears. He was seriously cooking up music, but also still leaving it mostly raw. It felt, weirdly enough, like the sushi form of jazz.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Time and Place: Tonight with Belafonte, The Mikado, And So We Come Forth

Harry Belafonte in Tonight with Belafonte (1959).

A friend who was trolling through YouTube this week came across something truly extraordinary: Tonight with Belafonte, an hour-long “special” (as they used to be called) from 1959 directed by Norman Jewison – who went on to make Fiddler on the Roof, among many other movies – and starring Harry Belafonte and Odetta. The Jamaican-American Belafonte was at the peak of his popularity: when I was a Montreal kid in the fifties, every family I knew stocked his albums, his rendition of “The Banana Boat Song” was a big hit, and he even made a pass at a movie career, though it didn’t pan out for him as it did for his buddy Sidney Poitier. (Belafonte made only a handful of movies, including Otto Preminger’s adaptation of Carmen Jones, Oscar Hammerstein’s Americanized version of the Bizet opera.) Staggeringly handsome and sexy – he had caramel skin and a taut, high-waisted frame – with a warm, dynamic presence and a magnificent vocal instrument, he was most famous for popularizing calypso in North America. But as charming as those sides were, I think he was at his best with ballads (like my childhood favorite “Scarlet Ribbons”), which he rendered with a focused emotional intensity that lit them up. Odetta was a folksinger with a deep contralto whose fame was eclipsed by the movement of folk to rock ‘n’ roll, but she had one of the great soulful voices of the twentieth century, phrasing of diamond-like purity and precision and a powerhouse delivery. (Think Ethel Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone.)