Monday, January 31, 2011

The Italian Job - The Merchant of Venice - Play Review

The Merchant of Venice - Broadhurst Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - **** (out of 5 stars)
Written by William Shakespeare, Directed by Daniel Sullivan
Closes Feb. 20th 2011

I'm never sure how to evaluate Shakespeare, since I'm not expert. There's always the usual signs, whether the company has performed the text in an understandable way and whether it keeps my attention (and I don't fall asleep). But I'm never quite sure. I think I tend to give the actors the benefit of the doubt that they know what they're saying, and if I get bored, it's just me, but shouldn't a truly exceptional production of Shakespeare at least keep me awake?

And awake I was during this production of The Merchant of Venice, the latest Shakespeare to be revived on Broadway, courtesy of a popular run at The Public Theater's Shakespeare in the Park run at the Delacorte Theatre last summer. I'm not sure I still fully understood everything that was going on, and I definitely didn't specifically understand at least 1/3 to half the lines, but I still found the production enthralling and exquisite, with a radiant Lily Rabe (The American Plan) holding a glow on stage, and of course, being able to see Al Pacino on Broadway live on stage.

Of course, The Merchant of Venice is quite controversial in itself, with its depiction of Jews in negative connotations. Add to the fact that the play seems to vary from heavy dark drama to light comedic romance, swinging back and forth throughout the play, and upon my first viewing, I wasn't sure what to expect or how to react.

The circular iron post set (remnants from the circular stage in the park) creates some lovely movements and flow as angles shift as things rotate around the stage. There's definitely a haunting quality to the dim but elegant lighting (by Kenneth Posner) and the precise nature of the iron look (by Mark Wendland).

Daniel Sullivan, who directed the delightful Twelfth Night in the park in 2009, creates at atmospheric, and slick production, that keeps the clogs continuously moving, even when the play switches up from the dramatic to the comedic. While all the performances don't seem to have a unifying quality to it (with actors seemingly in different plays at times), the nature of the multiple story threads of such differing nature, makes me wonder if it is even possible to do so.

Oscar winner Al Pacino leads the way as the dramatic centre of the story as Shylock. While I'm not someone who thinks Al Pacino is the GREATEST ACTOR EVER in film (he's great, but greatest?), here, he's wonderful on stage from beginning to tragic end.

Then there's the radiant Lily Rabe as Portia, who must float between a romantic love story with Bessanio (David Harbour), the comedy of other suitors, and seeking dramatic revenge in the courtroom. It's quite the balancing act and Rabe does wonders balancing it all effortlessly. If Pacino is the dramatic core, Rabe is the heart of the show.

As the other suitors after Portia's love (and riches), Charles Kimbrough (Murphy Brown) and Isaiah Johnson are both hysterical in their lone scenes trying to win Portia in marriage.

Christopher Fitzgerald (Finian's Rainbow, Minsky's, Young Frankenstein) is, as always, a delight as Launcelot Gobbo, Shylock's servant, in love with his daughter Jessica.

Heather Lind's Jessica and her paramour Lorenzo, played by Seth Numrich (in the upcoming War Horse on Broadway), are lovely and cute together and make for a nice romantic and youthful diversion from the more unsettling themes in the play.

There are some fine performances from the rest of the large ensemble, including a wondering Marsha Stephanie Blake as Portia's gentlewoman Nerissa, Jesse L. Martin as Gratiano, and David Harbour as Bassanio, the man in love with Portia.

Byron Jennings's Antonio was probably the sole performance I truly did not enjoy, which is a shame since Jenning's is usually so reliable.

Alas, people are flocking to see Al Pacino, and they won't be disappointed, especially with the beautifully haunting finale when yet another reveal in the set created a space that is both romantically beautiful (for Jessica and Lorenzo) and chilling for Shylock.

But it's Lily Rabe that has the most lasting impression, as her Portia, and Rabe's performance, ties together the various threads and differing tones of the play.

So while I missed some of the details in some of the lines Shakespeare wrote, I still understood all the various (if totally mixed) storylines and found Daniel Sullivan's production of The Merchant of Venice entrancing and fascinating. It was also interesting to watch the controversial play that this production both seems to acknowledge and brings it out to enhance the drama and the issues at hand. It creates an interesting balance, where heroes are not necessarily good and villains are not exactly bad, and it adds a depth to the play just as the various layers the rotating set creates.

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Friday, January 28, 2011

BeLieve - Leap of Faith- Musical Review

Leap of Faith - Ahmanson Theatre - Los Angeles - **** (out of 5 stars)
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Glenn Slater, Book by Janus Cercone with Glenn Slater, Direction and Choreography by Rob Ashford
Closed Oct. 24th 2010. This reviews a little late but there is hope this moves to Broadway

I almost didn't believe in Leap of Faith. Or didn't think I would. But this joyful new tuner made a solid first impression, with an enjoyable first act, making it an entertaining, if not completely original, new musical. But the grand creators were saving their power moves for the second act, which resurrected the show from a merely good musical to a potentially great one, and I found myself surprisingly moved and completely taken into Leap of Faith

Leap of Faith is a new musical based on the Steve Martin film that no one I know seems to have actually seen, but everyone has heard of. With new songs by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater (who recently did the new musical version of Sister Act that received less than stellar reviews in London), and starring Raúl Esparza (a known Broadway star, but unknown to the general public) and Brooke Shields (known friend of Michael Jackson and Tom Cruise), I was, to be honest, a little apprehensive. It sounded like a recipe for a nice but mediocre musical and that Raúl would never make his great Broadway original role debut. And while there are still some kinks to work out, and some editing to be done, particularly in Act 1, there's huge potential here for a 4.5/5 stars musical in the future, and an excellent Act 2 shows how great this whole Leap of Faith could be.

I've had my doubts with Alan Menken since he sadly lost his writing partner Howard Ashman after they created some of the most beloved tunes for Disney's animated films (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin), but Leap of Faith has many great catchy tunes, some with a gospel feel in the story of a fake preacher and his con-artist congregation who wind up stranded in a drought-ridden smalltown, and looking to dupe the desperate locals. It's essentially The Music Man meets 110 in the Shade but the cliched story didn't bother me at all since it's told well enough from a fantastic cast and some tuneful songs.

Raúl Esparza is simply explosive here, in a mesmerizing role as Jonas, a sleazy con-artist, somehow immoral and yet winning as the lead in the show. Tirelessly running around the stage and capturing the townsfolk (and our) attention, Jonas leads his band of cons through some staged soul-searching, all while trying to win the heart of naysayer Marva McGowan (Brooke Shields). Esparza confidently struts around the stage (sometimes in full sparkly gear as a disco ball) but layers of Jonas' own need for faith slowly reveals itself in wonderful interactions with Marva's son Boyd (Nicholas Barasch).

Young Nicholas Barasch (West Side Story) has the most beautiful voice, and somehow manages to combine stage kid professionalism with a skateboarder vibe that keeps his Boyd fresh and lovable.

A cast of spectacular voices surround Raúl, and it's nothing but heavenly. Kendra Kassenbaum, Krystal Joy Brown, Kecia Lewis-Evans (l-r, above), Leslie Odom Jr., all have stunning voices that is soul stirring.

Kendra Kassenbaum (Wicked) plays Jonas' co-conspirator and sister who manages the tight ship behind Jonas' showiness.

Kecia Lewis-Evans (The Drowsy Chaperone) and Leslie Odom Jr. (Rent) play mother and son who have different approaches to their belief in faith, and each sing with the power of some sort of deity behind them, no matter what you may believe.

Krystal Joy Brown (Hair), Bryce Ryness (Hair), and Brandon Wardell (Evil Dead: The Musical) nicely fill in smaller roles within the troupe, while a great ensemble including Katherine Tokarz (Rock of Ages), Brad Anderson (A Chorus Line) and Charlie Williams (Memphis) joins the powerful chorus in the many Menken written gospel type choral songs.

Rob Ashford's choreography gives the wheat fields set musical a certain calmness and grace that counters the high energy glittery sales pitch from the interloping cons. Admittedly, it's also hard to ignore Charlie Williams, usually front in centre in the choreography, and his muscular but graceful moves, as Deputy Wayne, assistant to the suspicious Sheriff Will Braverman (a nicely stoic Jarrod Emick, (The Rocky Horror Show)).

While I believe the musical, particularly in the first act, can be edited and nipped to become a tighter entity, making the entire show great, this production's other major downfall was sadly with one of the lead castings.

Brooke Shields brings an effortless and breezy loveliness to Marva, and is instantly likable. Shields singing voice however, while competent, sounds particularly untrained against the solid voices of her cast mates. Menken's songs aren't particularly easy here either, and the vocal range and power required is more than Shields could handle on our particular night (I've been told she has her better days).

In the end, Esparza's show, with a powerful killer end to Act 2. His chemistry with Shields is sweet, and she seems truly loved by the whole cast, but there's an imbalance of vocal power that hurts the show (especially since it can be so strong). Because while the story goes to a moment where the city cynic in me should be rolling my eyes, by the time the cast sings "If Your Faith Is Strong Enough", Esparza blows the house down with his "Jonas' Soliloquy", and the show ends off in the title song "Leap of Faith", it had truly earned my faith in the show.

Now I just hope the creative team can do the little necessary edits to pull in a tighter show, and the producers will have to make some choice decisions with the future of this show, but I truly believe this could be a fantastic edition to the Broadway landscape and have a long life. And I hope it happens because I can't wait to see it again. I believe it's gonna be great!

Vance at

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Monday, January 24, 2011

Best of Movies 2010

So here are my picks for the Best of Movies for 2010 (based on either a North American theatrical release date or if I saw it at a festival in 2010 since some have yet to open):

(This post will constantly updated as I see more films from 2010. *** indicates latest new review. Latest Update: Feb. 22nd 2011)

1. Rabbit Hole
Written by David Lindsay-Abaire, Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
(Original Review)

A beautifully drawn portrait of a couple dealing with the grief of their sons death. John Cameron Mitchell provides mature direction in an often surprisingly funny and intensely acute study of loss and the breakdowns required to move on. Nicole Kidman and Miles Teller provide quiet but sharply real performances that anchor the film.

2. Blue Valentine
Written by Derek Cianfrance & Cami Delavigne and Joey Curtis, Directed by Derek Cianfrance

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams are devastatingly haunting as a couple who fall in and out of love, and Derek Cianfrance's film is clever in twisting up the simple devolution of a relationship into a sweet but heartbreaking story.

3. Tangled
Written by Dan Fogelman based on the fairy tale Rapunzel by the Brothers Grimm, Directed by Nathan Greno and Byron Howard
(Original Review)

A beautiful blend of modern gusto with classic Disney nostalgia and good old musical fairy-tale storytelling. Even with some moral holes, the Disney team has returned to their great animated history with a smart, funny, action-packed, and even moving tale.

4. The Social Network
Written by Aaron Sorkin, Directed by David Fincher

The movie is about the creation of Facebook but it's also about the creation and destruction of relationships. Sorkin and Fincher manage to turn what is essentially a court case, into a thrilling drama, with some terrific performances from Andrew Garfield and Jesse Eisenberg.

5. Black Swan
Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, and John McLaughlin, Directed by Darren Aronofsky
(Original Review)

A haunting exploration at the inner cores of the darkness an artist must face to truly create brilliant work. Or some crazed psychological thriller. Take your pick, but either way, Natalie Portman gives a tremendous performance as someone seeking perfection.

6. The Fighter
Written by Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, and Eric Johnson based on the story by Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson and Keith Dorrington, Directed by David O. Russell
(Original Review)

A feelgood underdog story given some rough edges by David O. Russell to give the true story of a fighter from the wrong side of town, with a tight but suffocating family, a realistic and unpolished feel. Christian Bale and Melissa Leo give glorious performances but they truly only work against Amy Adams and Mark Wahlberg's more subtle and sincere performances.

7. Toy Story 3
Written by Michael Arndt based on the story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich, Directed by Lee Unkrich

A rumination on the end and finiteness of life, and how our lives can have lasting effects on others. Oh yah, and also the 3rd movie in the Toy Story series that becomes a beautiful (and often quite hilarious) denouement to the series with some of our most faved animated characters.

8. True Grit
Written and Directed by Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, based on the book by Charles Portis
(Original Review)

Hailee Steinfeld and Jeff Bridges make a wonderfully odd pairing, together on a mission to avenge a murder, with an amusing Matt Damon as the interloping sidekick. The Coen Brothers manage to make a Western (not my favorite genre) into a serene film that still keeps all the markings of a Western while melding it with Coen's mix of humour and horrifying violence.

9. Girlfriend
Written and Directed by Justin Lerner
(Original Review)

A wonderful little film at the Toronto Film Festival that uses the director's real life friend, Evan Sneider, a young man with Down Syndrome, as a man who loses his mother (Amanda Plummer) and tries to find solace in his nice neighbour (Shannon Woodward), while befriending her abusive ex-boyfriend (Jackson Rathbone).

10. Buried
Written by Chris Sparling, Directed by Rodrigo Cortés
(Original Review)

Sometimes a ridiculously jampacked bunch of plot-twists throwing every fear and frustration into a box, a box entrapping Ryan Reynolds as the minutes tick down towards a suffocating death, can still be nonetheless a thrilling and intense experience. Reynolds and Sparling manage to keep humour within this dramatic thriller.

Every 2010 Movie I saw, grouped within each grade, is listed below:

Rabbit Hole = A (Review)
Blue Valentine = A
Tangled = A (Review)
The Social Network = A (Tweet Review)

Black Swan = A- (Review)
The Fighter = A- (Review)
Toy Story 3 = A-
True Grit = A- (Review)
Girlfriend = A- (Review)
Buried = A- (Review)
Inside Job = A- ***
Inception = A-
The Ghost Writer = A-
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 = A- (Tweet Review)
Easy A = A- (Review)
Kick Ass = A- (Tweet Review)

Winter's Bone = B+
The King's Speech = B+ (Review)
127 Hours = B+ (Review)
How To Train Your Dragon = B+
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief = B+
Despicable Me = B+
Eat, Pray, Love = B+ (Tweet Review)
Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World = B+ (Tweet Review)
Ramona and Beezus = B+
Waking Sleeping Beauty = B+ (Tweet Review)
Nowhere Boy = B+

Date Night = B
Another Year = B (Tweet Review)
The Kids Are Alright = B (Tweet Review)
She's Out Of My League = B
Letters for Juliet = B (Tweet Review)
Morning Glory = B ***
Cyrus = B
Never Let Me Go = B (Review)
Shrek Forever After = B
Leap Year = B
Valentine's Day = B (Review)

I Am Love (Io sono l'amore) = B- (Tweet Review)
Rio Sex Comedy = B- (Review)
Little White Lies (Les Petits mouchoirs) = B- (Review)
Paper Man = B- (Tweet Review)
Knight and Day = B- (Tweet Review)
Ceremony = B- (Review)
Score: A Hockey Musical = B- (Review)
Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur) = B-(Tweet Review)
Babies = B- (Tweet Review)

Streetdance = C+ (Tweet Review)
Sex and the City 2 = C+
Daybreakers = C+
The Last Song = C+ (Review)
Remember Me = C+ (Review)
The Back-Up Plan = C+
Repo Men = C+ (Review)
Hot Tub Time Machine = C+ (Review)

Death at a Funeral = C (Review)
Dear John = C
Silent Souls (Ovsyanski) = C (Review)

Step Up 3D = C- (Review)

Alice in Wonderland = D+
Going the Distance = D+ (Tweet Review)
When in Rome = D+ (Review)
Taken = D+ (Tweet Review)

Our Day Will Come (Notre jour viendra) = D (Review)


Best of 2010 Lists:
Best of Music 2010
Best of Television 2010
Best of Stage 2010
Best of Movies 2010

Previous Best-of Lists:
Best of 2009 Lists:
Best of Music 2009
Best of Television 2009
Best of Stage 2009
Best of Movies 2009

Decadeworthy - The Best of 2000-2009 Lists:
SYTYCDworthy (w/ Videos) - List Format
Theatre of the Decade
Best Films of the Decade
Favorite Films of the Decade
Television of the Decade
Television of the Decade - 1 Season Wonders

Best of 2008 Lists:
Best of Music 2008
Best of Television 2008
Best of Stage 2008
Best of Movies 2008
Best of Television Fall '07 - Winter '08 List

Best of 2007 Lists:
Best of Music 2007
Best of Television 2007
Best of Movies 2007
Best of Stage 2007
Best of 2007 (The Final Wrap Up)
Best of Television Fall '06 - Winter '07 List

Best of 2006 Lists:
Best of Music 2006
Best of Television 2006
Best of Movies 2006
Best of 2006
Best of Television Fall '05 - Winter '06 List

Best of 2005 Lists:
Best of Television 2005
Best of Movies 2005
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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sports Score - Lombardi - Play Review

Lombardi - Circle in the Square Theatre - Broadway, New York, NY - ***1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Written by Eric Simonson based on a book by David Maraniss, Directed by Thomas Kail

So I saw down in my seat at the Circle in the Square Theatre, looking out onto the central stage and noticed the audience on the other side of the theatre-in-the-round was packed with a lot more men (some wearing football hats and/or jerseys) than the typical Broadway audience. A bunch of middle aged businessmen sat next to me and jovially asked me "Are you a Packers fan?". Before I could say "What's a Packer" and look like a complete fool, I realized it must be the football team Vince Lombardi was famous for, so this play Lombardi was not exactly in my realm and I was not exactly the target audience for it. And yet, the 90 min. play was engaging and terrifically entertaining, even with no knowledge of who this Lombardi guy was.

Lombardi follows a reporter who gets to interview Vince Lombardi (Dan Lauria, The Wonder Years) and follow him coach the Green Bay Packers for a week, after Lombardi lifted the Green Bay Packers from the bottom of the pack, to the Super Bowl winning team. It's a framing excuse to recount Lombardi's coaching philosophy and the underdog story of the Green Bay Packers, but it works nicely here and gives non-football fans a way in via the reporter (Keith Nobbs). It also gives us a chance to meet Vince's wife Marie Lombardi (Judith Light, Ugly Betty, Who's The Boss), who gives us a lot of the real life scoop on Vince Lombardi, the man, and the coach.

Director Thomas Kail manages to keep things moving with this simple tale of a man sprouting philosophy on football, work ethics, and life. There's nothing really revelatory or revolutionary in Simonson's story, but it's told well and manages to keep things interesting.

Much credit goes to the actors on stage, with Keith Nobbs as a fine audience entry point as the journalist trying to get the story on Lombardi. Dan Lauria is excellent as the headlining man, while Bill Dawes is particularly noteworthy as one of the seemingly smarter players on the Packers' roster.

As the sole woman in the show though, Judith Light steals Lombardi as the caustic yet warm Marie Lombardi, and Light struts and swings her drinks around with such delight, that at times, the title might refer more to the wife behind the legendary Football man, than the man himself.

The theatre-in-the-round set manages to work, with a simple set design by David Korins and lighting design by Howell Binkley, with lights in the round that allude to a football stadium.

The play never quite goes deep enough to fully explore the football legend Vince Lombardi, but in the hands of this cast and director, Lombardi manages to stay quite entertaining and enjoyable. I learned a little about football, I could root for the underdog tale, and watching Judith Light spit out pointed lines is definitely a score.

Vance at

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