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Anne Hathaway Stars in Military Drama ‘Grounded’ Off Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The propelling force that drives Grounded, a solo play by George Brant that opened Off Broadway Sunday night at the Public Theatre, feels like strapping into the cockpit with its fighter pilot protagonist. Fueling every minute of its momentum, Anne Hathaway delivers a fearless and wholly captivating performance as a military aviator who both destroys lives and creates a new one over the course of the play’s 70 minutes. Under the direction of Julie Taymor, the thrilling yet intimate production navigates psychological twists and turns in the pilot’s mind with the audience sitting shotgun. 

Grounded0127rRThe story begins “up in the blue,” a vast, whizzing-by sky, where we learn the pilot feels most alive and herself. Her course veers quickly, though, when she unexpectedly gets pregnant after meeting a guy at a bar while on leave. The condition is enough to get her grounded for medical reasons, and her relationship to her beloved bird’s-eye-view is forever changed — both because she winds up starting a family with the father, and because when she does return to service, her new driver’s seat is on the ground, controlling a drone from behind a desk (in the “chair force,” as she calls it).

Grounded511rRThe transition isn’t easy. Instead of barreling through the sky solo, she works her shift in an around-the-clock war from a Nevada base, and lives nearby with her husband and daughter. While it may seem like a welcome solution to the typical scenario of going off to battle (and away from family and into harm’s way), returning home each night feels like coming home from the war over and over; this is not the sort of work that’s easily left behind at the office. Motherhood doesn’t affect her devotion to military service, but the intertwining of her civilian life with remote combat creates a whirlwind in her psyche — ultimately racking her own understanding of life and death.

If this sounds like a lot of story for one person to tell, it is — and Hathaway does it with tireless gusto and remarkable richness of feeling, maneuvering sharp turns of emotion with ease and baffling precision. Though she plays only one character, she’s also responsible for conjuring up the others who impact the pilot’s life, including her family and fellow servicemen (she is the sole female officer in the story). She does all of this while maintaining the pilot’s point of view, so her exchanges with others are always an opportunity to shed further light on her own character.

Grounded578rRTaymor’s stunning visual work is refreshingly pared down from her typical scale (blink away your memories of the scandal-plagued behemoth Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark). The director’s distinctive imagination creates a vivid world of the mind with striking moments of subtle stage magic, while her physical staging nimbly steers Hathaway through the story’s many psychological ringers. Her hand is also evident in the engrossing design elements, including a floor of desert sand and haunting projections. This immersive quality helps drive the play’s disarming point closer to home, that violence out of sight should not and cannot be out of mind — as this production won’t soon be out of many.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus) 


Chita Rivera Stars in New Musical ‘The Visit’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There are a lot of questions begged by The Visit, an unequivocally strange new musical that opened last night at the Lycium Theatre — i.e. “On what dark planet is this story set?” “Who are those blind eunuchs and why are they wearing white-face?” and, “How did this daring but slight musical find itself on Broadway?” There is only one answer, and she is the legendary Chita Rivera: the two-time Tony Award winner known for her half-century-long career and formative place in American theatre, giving what may be one of her final performances on stage.

Visit_4Of course, there are also its creators, John Kander and the late Fred Ebb, the songwriting team behind shadowy mega-hits like Chicago and Cabaret, and book writer Terrence McNally, represented down the block with It’s Only a Play. There is an unmistakable thrill to seeing Rivera in a new work from the storied scribes (the final one for Kander and Ebb), and her inestimable talent comes superbly alive in every moment she’s on stage. That she holds your attention from wandering too far into sea of question marks that surrounds her is probably for the best.

Based on a 1956 avant-garde satire by Friedrich Dürrenmatt, the story centers on a wildly wealthy woman, Claire Zachanassian, making a return visit to her small hometown, which has fallen into destitution. When she ran off in her youth, she left behind a great love, Anton Schell (Roger Rees), who now has his own family. Claire married rich many times to make her fortune, and upon her return, the townspeople are desperate to get their hands on it. She has a sinister plot up her sleeve to prove vengeance is best served cold, which, once revealed about midway through the intermissionless show, helps explain some of its more bizarre elements.

Visit_6An attempted meditation on greed, lust, and revenge, the story feels more like a rickety framework on which to hang an array of mostly unrelated (but not unenjoyable) songs by Kander and Ebb, strung together by characteristically rote dialogue from Mr. McNally. The musical, which first premiered in Chicago in 2001 and is directed here by John Doyle, plants its feet in two camps: one the macabre, cold-hearted revenge story, and the other a sort of wistful, sentimental tale of lost love. The uneasy combination never quite manages to find solid ground.

As befits its outsider-stepping-in story, The Visit’s cast of players is likewise split. The Brechtian company, smeared with sooty makeup, acts mostly like a presentational chorus, speaking in exposition and turns of plot. Rivera, on the other hand is fully flesh and blood (and occasionally fur), delightfully vindictive and coolly droll, commanding the stage with a single lingering look or turn of phrase. Her coyly sympathetic characterization of Claire is the captivating center of an otherwise ponderous and mottled show. Fortunately, she’s likely the reason for your visit, too.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: thom kaine)


Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Novel Comes to Broadway in New Musical ‘Fun Home’: REVIEW

Fun_Home_0450_Sydney_Lucas__Michael_Cerveris_-_Photo_Credit_Joan_Marcus

BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The dizzying rush of the first time we had sex or set eyes on a dead body aren’t the sort of memories most of us try putting into boxes (the cropped squares of Instagram can only hold so much); such is the task laid out on the pages of Fun Home, Alison Bechdel’s acclaimed memoir and graphic novel. The author’s coming-of-age story about growing up as a lesbian with a closeted gay father, who killed himself just as she embraced her own self-discovery, comes vividly to life in a new musical that opened last night at Circle in the Square — one of the most stirring and inventive on Broadway in years.

Fun_Home_3980_-_Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_-_Photo_Credit_Jenny_AndersonFirst produced at the Public Theater last season, the transformative adaptation presents an adult Alison (Beth Malone) as the writer and cartoonist trying to make sense of her formative experiences by distilling them into captions as they unfold on stage. The show lights on key moments in her relationship with her father (an unknowable character played with aching conviction by Michael Cerveris), particularly the intertwining paths of her sexual awakening with his struggle to suppress the shame and consequences of being gay himself. His end is her beginning, and telling their stories together becomes an integral part of her identity.

Fun_Home_0088_-_Sydney_Lucas__Beth_Malone__Emily_Skeggs_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusA young Alison (a poised and buoyant Sydney Lucas) appears in scenes of her 1970s childhood spent in an elaborately restored home, which her father curates like a museum, and which also houses the family business, the Bechdel Funeral Home (she and her brothers call it “fun home” for short). A post-adolescent Alison, played by a searching and lovable Emily Skeggs, makes her way through the often magically awkward rites of young adulthood (including an effusive morning-after song that’s a delightful high point), and faces sobering revelations about her father’s secret life and sudden death.

Music by Jeanine Tesori (Violet, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron (Well) lend lifelike dimension to the already rich story, adding new and compelling layers in both dialogue and song. Tesori and Kron brilliantly transpose the graphic novel’s focus on the author’s search for her voice, as well as its framework of visual recollection. Like Bechdel’s drawings, Kron’s lyrics capture the way memories are often marked by specific, often random visual details — like a ring of keys on someone’s belt loop, or the rise and dip of telephone wires rushing past a car window.

Fun_Home_0493_-_ITR_Photo_Credit_Joan_MarcusDynamically staged in the round by director Sam Gold (The Real Thing, Picnic), the production has the nostalgic palette and warm, faded hues of a ‘70s photo — as though we are watching Alison thumb through a family album. By the end, you may feel you know the family as well as if the album belonged to you — their story may be a far cry from yours, but its extraordinary telling touches on emotional truths that will surely hit home for everyone.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: joan marcus)


Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer Open in ‘Finding Neverland’ on Broadway: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

The plot of Finding Neverland, a new musical that opened on Broadway last night at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, doesn’t promise many surprises. Google can tell you that (spoiler alert!) J.M. Barrie wrote Peter Pan, and that by the end of this story, he’s going to do it. But, you may be surprised to discover that this adaptation (for which more than one beloved story has lit the path) could lose its way quite like this.

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (3)There’s the proven affection for its source material — and not just for the much-celebrated 2004 movie by David Magee (or the much lesser-known play on which it’s based, The Man Who Was Peter Pan by Allan Knee), but for the boy — or, more often, young woman — in the green tights. (Hey, didn’t we just see her on TV?) And, there are the pedigrees of nearly everyone involved, including the film’s producer Harvey Weinstein (in his first theatrical effort), Tony-winning director Diane Paulus, and stage and screen stars Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, among many others.

The movie’s quietly imaginative story, about Barrie finding inspiration for the play in his relationship with a widow and her young boys, is scaled out for the stage with a book by James Graham, and amplified with middling pop musical stylings. The score, written by Gary Barlow and Eliot Kennedy, the songwriting duo whose success stories include the UK group Take That (of which Barlow is a current member and Robbie Williams a former one), has moments of cleverness, but far more moments of unabashed cheese. The act one finale shares its title refrain with anthems by both Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears. (Quick: Name that tune!)

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (1)Morrison, late of TV’s Glee and terrific when last on Broadway in South Pacific, is honey-voiced as ever, though he makes the business of playing make-believe seem quite sober; rather than a boy who never wishes to grow up, he is unequivocally the dispassionate adult in the room. As Barrie’s producer, on the other hand, Grammer seems to harbor an inner smile behind every stern phrase, even when he’s acting the sourpuss. (His turn as Captain Hook will almost certainly conjure up Christopher Walken flashbacks, and, yes, they even lob him a Cheers pun.)

But its marquee stars are just two of the many elements on stage that seem to have wandered in willy-nilly from different shows in the neighborhood. Evidence of Paulus’ imaginative hand — responsible for acclaimed recent productions of challenging (if proven) musicals like Pippin and Hair — is occasionally evident, and one glittering moment of stage magic knocks the air from the room. But the production’s madcap tone rarely coheres (in this respect, Mia Michaels’ strange and spasmodic choreography seems bizarrely appropriate).

FindingNeverlandcCarolRosegg (2)The danger of trudging up familiar stories is not just coming off as unoriginal (with so many layers of adaptation going on here, that was a given), but ringing cliché — which Finding Neverland does at nearly every turn. The musical’s frequent allusions to Peter Pan more often serve as punch lines or cues for audience purrs than compelling points along the way to the play’s writing. Whether the 9 million viewers who watched the live telecast of Peter, Hook and the Darling clan a few months back enjoyed every minute or squirmed in their seats and found it hackneyed — they didn’t have to shell out the price of a Broadway ticket to do it.

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: carol rosegg)


NEW MUSIC: Villagers, Du Blonde, Anna B Savage, Inner Tongue, White Sage

Villagers_Conor_OBrien

New Music is brought to you by Deadly Music! which covers mostly independent indie, alternative, electro pop, post rock and ambient music, with a bit of everything else deadly thrown in for good measure.

Most songs reviewed here are available on a Soundcloud playlist, some of them on a Spotify playlist....both of which are embedded at the end of this post, where you can also sign up for our weekly updates.

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Villagers - Darling Arithmetic

Nominated for the Mercury Prize for his grandly conceived orchestral / electro-folk first two albums Becoming a Jackal and {Awayland}, Dubliner Villagers - aka Conor O’Brien (above) - has entirely stripped the sound back for the mostly acoustic nine tracks on new album Darling Arithmetic.

Villagers3Recorded at home alone and self-produced, Darling Arithmetic abandons the big picture scope of his earlier work for one of quiet introspection in which O’Brien addresses his own sexuality.

Specifically not a “coming out album” - a label which O’Brien wants to avoid - Darling Arithmetic is “a human love album because everyone in the world feels those emotions at some stage.”

However, it is when he moves beyond the love songs beautiful in their simplicity - notably “Everything I Am Is Yours” and “No One To Blame” - to less personal subjects that the album leaves its mark.

In “Little Bigot”, O’Brien takes to task the notion that those campaigning against gay rights in Ireland are actually not homophobes, singing “So take the blame, little bigot/ And throw that hatred onto the fire."

Sticking with the theme, on “Hot Scary Summer” O’Brien addresses an ex and the difficulties of working hard on a relationship in the face of “all the pretty young homophobes looking out for a fight”. It all gets too hard because “we got good at pretending, then pretending got us good."

Although at times tending towards navel gazing as with the rambling “The Soul Serene”, Animal Arithmetic is a massively rewarding sea change for O'Brien.

 

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Du Blonde: “Mind Is On My Mind”

Du-BlondeDu Blonde is Beth Jeans Houghton from Newcastle, England.

Welcome Back To Milk, set for release on May 18th, is Houghton’s second album but the first to be released under the name Du Blonde.

As such, it represents a complete reinvention. With the new name comes a new sound, new band and a new attitude, leading to new freak psych pop given a shunt from potential obscurity with the appearance of inimitable Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring on “Mind Is On My Mind”.

Where 2012’s debut Yours Truly Cellophane Nose threw everything at a song, Welcome Back To Milk strips everything back and is one massive release of pent up aggression, captured perfectly by producer and Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos.

Think: REM doing the soundtrack for the sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

 

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Listen to new songs by Anna B Savage, Inner Tongue and White Sage, AFTER THE JUMP...

Continue reading "NEW MUSIC: Villagers, Du Blonde, Anna B Savage, Inner Tongue, White Sage" »


Ballet Meets Broadway in Dazzling New Musical ‘An American in Paris’: REVIEW

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BY NAVEEN KUMAR

There is an airy and dizzying quality to Christopher Wheeldon’s wonderfully imaginative production of An American in Paris, a new musical that opened last night at the Palace Theatre. It feels something like a first gasp of air after holding your breath for a long, long time. Broadway is currently awash in questionable movie-to-musical marquees, but a stage version of the 1952 Oscar-winning picture starring Gene Kelly feels like a foregone conclusion held in suspension. And over half a century later, the wait was worth every minute.

American in parisThe show features an assembled score of beloved tunes by George and Ira Gershwin (including those the pair wrote for the movie and other favorites), and an expertly reworked story by book writer Craig Lucas (The Light in the Piazza), which artfully expands on the movie’s characters and reimagines its sparse plot into a more satisfying one for the stage. Made just years after World War II, the movie is pure Hollywood escape; but Lucas grounds the airborne musical in the aftermath of Nazi liberation in 1945—in a Paris in the throws of reinvention.

GI-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (a charming and fleet-footed Robert Fairchild) stays behind after the war to pursue both an artist’s life and, of course, a woman. He falls in with Adam Hochberg (Brandon Uranowitz), a composer and fellow expat, and Henri Baurel (Max von Essen), the son of their French landlords and a closeted cabaret singer (and possible closet case).

American in paris 2As quickly becomes clear, all three men are in some stage of falling in love with Lise Dassin (a graceful and beguiling Leanne Cope), a ballet dancer and very close consort of the Baurel family. Jerry also catches the eye of a wealthy patron, Milo Davenport (Jill Pace), adding another dimension to the plot’s romantic web.

Lucas lends the characters rich backstories and reasons to sing and dance (largely absent in the film), and the company brings their characters to life as if for the first time (with a couple new characters added into the mix). Fairchild, a principal member of NYC Ballet, and Cope, of London’s Royal Ballet, are both captivating on their toes, and equally winning in dialogue and song. The rest of the cast is likewise excellent, including von Essen in a rousing rendition of “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” and Veanne Cox as Madame Baurel, his coolly droll mother.

American in paris 4Wheeldon, a renowned ballet artist, makes a remarkable directorial debut (the production first premiered in Paris last fall). Every aspect of the show unfolds like an effortless, mesmerizing dance.

His masterful choreography can be seen everywhere from the limbs of his actors to the movement of furniture and gliding of cityscapes. The gifted design team—led by a visionary Bob Crowley—mines the city’s art history to stunning effect. The city, sketched to life as it wakes up from war, grows back into the vibrant forefront of modern art. 

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Follow Naveen Kumar on Twitter: @Mr_NaveenKumar (photos: angela sterling, matthew murphy)


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