Mary Poppins is one of Disney’s most successful and iconic movie musicals, featuring a number of unforgettable songs and a story that has easily withstood the test of time. It’s slightly head-scratching given this that Cameron Macintosh, famed producer of mega hits like Cats, Les Miserables and Phantom of The Opera, would want to mess with something that already works so well.
The stage adaptation of Mary Poppins is one part re-imaging and one part preserving the classic film. It’s a mix of the elements from the film we know and love, and new songs and material that has been added in to expand the film into a Broadway musical. The problem, though, is that the film didn’t really need much expanding; running close to two and a half hours, if the movie version of Mary Poppins ever had any real issue, it was that it’s a little long for younger kids.
The concept behind Portland Center Stage’s production of One Night With Janis Joplin is a good one: bring the Janis Joplin concert experience back on stage and give modern audiences a taste of what it was like to see her in concert. Unfortunately, the production, created, written and directed by Randy Johnson, is one big hot mess. Johnson has a fairly impressive resume with a number of other stage music re-experiences including Elvis The Concert, Always Patsy Cline, and Conway Twitty – The Man The Music and The Legend. Johnson also has extensive experience directing actual concerts and tours. All this experience, however, doesn’t result in a good show.
One Night With Janis Joplin suffers on a number of fronts. The first and most serious issue with the show is an absolutely horrible script. The play never can make up its mind if it’s a singular concert experience or a journey through Janis Joplin’s life. Many of the monologues that happen between or during songs are just one step up from ramblings. In the first act many of these monologues focus on “The Blues” and the other artists who influenced Joplin. Johnson seems obsessed with these influences and at times the show feels like it’s more an essay on The Blues than a show about Joplin herself. This obsession manifests itself in the creation of another character who wanders in and out of the show, ‘The Blues Singer’. This character comes on stage to represent many of the women who influenced Janis Joplin’s music. The role is voiced wonderfully by Sabrina Elayne Carten, whose rendition of classic Nina Simone, Bessie Smith and Aretha Franklin songs are some of the absolute highlights of the show.
The original off-Broadway (and eventually Broadway) production of In The Heights is a much better show than what I saw at the Keller during opening night. If there was ever a show that clearly demonstrated the acoustic limitations and the issues of bringing a show on the road it was In The Heights. Set in the Washington Heights neighborhood in New York, In The Heights takes a very conventional musical structure and infuses it with an eclectic mix of latin music, culture and dance. The core of the story is a Dominican named Usnavi, raised by a surrogate grandmother in the neighborhood, who struggles to run a small, often broken-down convenience store. Usnavi is surrounded by an cast of characters all dealing with the gentrification of the neighborhood and the struggle between planting roots or sprouting wings and finding a better life somewhere else. Thematically and musically there are a lot of notes lifted from Rent, with characters at the apex of dealing with their identity. This is no accident as many of the producers also worked on Rent.
I’m always surprised when I mention the TBA (Time Based Arts) Festival to friends only to find that it isn’t really on their radar screens. It’s a real shame as the ten day festival brings to Portland such a wide range of talent and is so well produced that it’ almost inconceivable that so many people aren’t even aware that it’s going on.
This year, the festival brings back Mike Daisey one of my favorite monologists with a piece dedicated to all things Apple (both good and bad) in “The Agony And The Ecstasy Of Steve Jobs. Daisey follows in the line of great monologists like Spaulding Grey and performs a style of of monologue called extemporaneous monologue, where he tells a story based on a loose outline of notes. His work has an unique mix of the almost electric buzz of complete improvisation combined with a strong wire framework of something totally scripted.
Dance has become a huge part of popular culture. Between TV shows “Dancing With The Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance”, more people are familiar with a wide variety of dance styles than ever before. Jason Gilkison, Director and Choreographer of Burn The Floor (as well as choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance), captures the excitement of dance into a show that’s fresh off a successful run on Broadway and London’s West End.
We spoke to Jason Gilkison about the impact of dance moving into the popular culture, the challenges of putting together a huge dance production, and his experience with Pasha and Anya from So You Think You Can Dance.
Chaim Potok’s The Chosen is among several productions this season at Portland Center Stage that are based on a book or had previously been produced as a movie. It’s an almost unavoidable reality for theatrical companies to pack their slate with plays that people are somehow familiar with in some way.
Another unfortunate reality of modern theater is that the money available for productions has shrunken. Portland Center Stage’s artistic director Chris Coleman has embraced this fact and in many of his productions this season has worked with negative space and actor’s narrative or pantomime to fill the stage. This tactic worked extremely well for Ragtime and Snow Falling on Cedars but fails miserably with The Chosen.
I admit, I have never seen CATS, so with this being my first time, I had very high expectations. Considering it has been performed for 27 years over five continents and 26 countries, and it won seven Tony Awards in 1983 including Best Musical, I expected to be dazzled by a theater experience of a lifetime. While the musical performances from the Broadway Across America traveling cast are impressive, I did not love the show. I’m hard-pressed to say I even liked the show. I went as far as to ask friends and family afterward if I am crazy and everyone else actually loves CATS, but every single person I asked felt the same way – silly premise, lacking in substance, an 80s over-the-top production.
To say there is a story is bordering on ridiculous, and the lyrics to many of the songs are just as ludicrous. I found myself saying, both at intermission and after the show, that I just don’t get it. What is the appeal? Nothing really happens, and there is no character development so we have no one to really care about. The only thing I liked was the first performance of the well-known song “Memory”, mainly because it was the first scene to actually have any substance, and the actress singing has a beautiful voice. After about 30 minutes I tried to just focus on the music. The traveling company slightly redeems itself with outstanding vocals from every member of the cast.
If you happen to be a fan of CATS, this Broadway Across America Portland show closes Sunday, March 28, and tickets start at $23.50. I sat in the orchestra ($63.25) and the view was excellent, even if the show wasn’t.
I honestly didn’t have huge expectations for Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of David Guterson Snow Falling on Cedars. So many popular books and movies have been poorly adapted for the stage recently and
Scott Hick’s 1999 film adaptation of Guterson’s best selling book simply left me cold. Imagine my shock when I was blown away by one of the best productions I’ve seen on a stage in Portland. McKeon’s adaptation is simply amazing and coupled with Chris Coleman’s pitch perfect direction and uniformly excellent acting, Snow Falling on Cedars at Portland Center Stage is nothing short of a triumph.
Set in the late 40’s and early 50’s, Snow Falling on Cedars follows the trail of Kabuo, a Japanese American fisherman accused of murdering a fellow fisherman in a small northwestern island town. The play flashes back and forth between the trial and the years leading up to it, covering the interweaving stories of the characters. Smack dab in the center of Snow Falling on Cedars is a look at the Japanese internment camps in America, enacted after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Although Snow Falling on Cedars covers an important point (and arguably one of our lowest points) in American history, the play is more about the relationships and connections between the people involved than the history itself. Olivia Oguma and Vince Nappo play Hatsue and Ishmael, two childhood playmates who flirt with something more. Their relationship comes to a head with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. There’s a devastatingly beautiful moment when Hatsue turns to Ishmael and says, “Look at me, look at my face, I have the face of the enemy!” It’s within a moment like this between characters that brings everything together and adjoins the greater narrative, the historial context and makes this play work so well.
A lot of credit goes to Kevin McKeon for his masterful adaptation of Guterson’s book. McKeon covers considerable ground in his stage play and really has a sense of how to capture and present the soul and essence of the book. McKeon often gives us just enough of a glimpse at something as he weaves back and forth throughout the lives of the key characters. This results in some truly magical moments, and while fleeting, they give us a tremendous amount of insight and connection with the story. One of my favorite moments of the play involves the coupling of Hatsue and Kabuo, a short scene played perfectly, almost magically; I’ll surely be thinking back to it a long time from now.
Director Chris Coleman, who has been playing around with inventive and minimalistic staging this year, really hits his groove working with McKeon’s adaptation. The staging transitions from scene to scene, emotional note to emotional note flawlessly. At one point we flash between the front lines in the South Pacific to a quiet and tender scene between two of the characters on the field of an internment camp and back again. Coleman’s actors never seem lost in the shuffle and he gives them a tremendous amount of faith and trust to carry off some of the most important elements of the play. In one scene two police officers, played by Scott Coopwood and Casey McFeron, pull a body caught in a fishing net out of the water and onto a boat. This entire scene is done using pantomime, and it executed so well you’d swear they had a real body on stage. I couldn’t help but think back to Coleman’s work on Ragtime and the show-stopping scene where Gavin Gregory (who plays Coalhouse Walker) sits down to play at an invisible piano.
It’s this kind of deep trust in the artform and the capacity of his actors that makes Chris Coleman a truly great director, and under his direction, the actors rise to the occasion. Olivia Oguma gives an award worthy performance as Hatsue, carrying her character through a huge life arch from pre-teen to a married woman with kids. Vince Nappo takes his character Ishmael on a similar journey and caps the show with an emotional moment that is simply amazing. Bruce Locke gives the role of Kabuo a rich texturing despite the fact that his character is extremely reserved.
Across the board the performances in Snow Falling on Cedars are excellent even though many of the cast members double and triple up, playing a variety of roles throughout the show. My one and only gripe about the production is its opening. The characters come on and speak in narrative to set things up. It works but not nearly as well as when we see the characters interact with dialogue. Admittedly, this is a minor issue and in many ways is like complaining about the frame on a true masterpiece, which is what this is.
Kevin McKeon’s adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars is so good and Chris Coleman’s Portland Center Stage production is so well performed it has the potential to become a truly classic piece of theater. McKeon works magic with Snow Falling on Cedars, crafting a truly contemporary theatrical experience using classic theatrical tools, and in the hands of Chris Coleman the result is simply amazing. Snow Falling on Cedars has the potential to be the kind of show that moves on from its Portland debut to New York and then beyond. It’s a truly great piece of theater and is absolutely not to be missed.
It’s hard to write a review of Xanadu The Musical with a straight face. Part of me is thinking, “Really, you’re going to pick apart a musical based on one of the cheesier films from the 80’s?” and in truth there will be some people who click off their brain and just enjoy the brief 90 minute staging of this kitschy musical no matter what faults it has, and that’s fine. The problem with Xanadu The Musical is that it actually far, far worse than the movie it’s based on.
Adapted from the 1980 film with Olivia Newton-John, Gene Kelly and Michael Beck, Xanadu is a fantastical story of a Greek demi-god sent to Earth to be a muse for a struggling artist. In the process she breaks some cardinal rules, including falling in love and getting involved with the creative process itself. Peppered throughout the story are some classic songs from the film including “Magic“, “Suddenly“, “I’m Alive” and the theme song “Xanadu“. None of these songs are pure classics in their own right, but they do really capture some of the delicious elements that make the 80’s so fun to wax nostalgic over.
Musically this gives Xanadu a fairly solid base. Like Mama Mia, there’s enough of a musical foundation for a fun night of musical theater. Unfortunately the music is so subverted in favor of cheap gags and poor staging that it’s hard to genuinely enjoy it.
Elizabeth Stanley, who performs the lead role, has a fantastic voice, similar in tone to Oliva Newton-John, with a depth and breadth that truly fills the auditorium. But she so hams it up while singing that it’s really difficult to enjoy her genuine talent. When she isn’t singing, Elizabeth Stanley’s performance is really subpar. For part of the show she sports an absolutely horrid Australian accent. The accent is yet another aspect of the show played as a gag, but it’s so poorly executed it’s painful.
Stanley’s co-star Max Von Esson, who plays Sonny Malone, has such a small stage presence that he’s absolutely eclipsed by Stanley. Von Esson reminds me of the kind of performer you see on a cruise ship or at Disneyland. He awkwardly hams it up and then completely under delivers when it comes time to really sing. Von Esson even comes up short in terms of skating – in the grand finale he doesn’t even skate. With all the talent out there (including the cast-offs from all the seasons of American Idol), it’s hard to believe they couldn’t find a better performer to play Sonny.
Of all the other cast members the only other real highlight of the show is Larry Marshall, who has the unenviable task of performing a role originated by the great Gene Kelly. Marshall is one of the only genuinely talented and well rounded performers on stage. He seems to be the only one to be able to balance both the humor and the narrative of the musical and both sings and acts wonderfully.
One of the biggest problems with Xanadu The Musical is that it seems to have a fairly strong disdain for the time period which the film and story are set in. Throughout the show the 80’s are often referred to as ‘culturally devoid’ and references to most of the 80’s things are more pejorative than positive. The musical also seems to have a disdain for the very artform of the musical itself. It constantly pokes fun and commentates on the very institution of art that it is. This creates an undertone to the piece which is far from celebratory. Rather than trying to be so self referential, Xanadu had an amazing opportunity to celebrate the absolute over-the-top aspects of the time period and musical theater art form; instead, it seems more interested in bashing it.
The staging for Xanadu The Musical is an absolute mess. Rather than embracing the crazy and wonderful styles of the 80’s the stage looks more like a cheap, dull ampithere with columns and risers that accommodate on-stage seating. Having audience members sit on the stage has become fashionable after plays like The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and Spring Awakening. In both those productions the placement of these audience members served a purpose. Here it’s just another element tacked on to make the show more ‘hip’. These audience members are out of place in this period piece and are only really there to help make the stark staging feel less empty.
My absolute biggest gripe with Xanadu The Musical is how nearly every moment of the show is played for laughs. The show is littered with so many cheap jokes and gags that it leaves very little room for anything else. This completely subverts the characters and the narrative so it becomes extremely difficult to care about anyone or anything in the show. I think it’s possible to play Xanadu over the top and still have some genuine moments between characters.
Ultimately Xanadu is one huge opportunity lost. The original movie had an element of huge spectacle which gets completely lost in the adaptation to stage. Xanadu could have been a flamboyant and unrestrained celebration of an era that wasn’t ever aware how ‘far out’ it really was. But, I don’t think the creative team behind Xanadu genuinely loves the material or the era they’re presenting, I think they saw a good opportunity to mount a Broadway production that would attract a 30something audience who would place very little demands on the play and would appreciate its short running time.
Xanadu plays at the Keller Auditorium January 12-17th. For more info:
Many people may still see Bob Saget as Danny Tanner, the wholesome Dad from the late 80’s and early 90’s sitcom Full House. Or perhaps they see him as the goofy host of America’s Funniest Home Videos. However, if those people were to catch Bob Saget doing standup they’d realize he’s actually one of the dirtiest comedians performing today. Saget plays a lot with these clashing perceptions in very much the same way a five year old takes pleasure in saying the word ‘shit’. It’s a mix of shock, amusement and perhaps delight in shaking people’s perceptions.
Saget embraces his dirty side right off the bat, joking about his love life and the possible paternity connection to some of the people in the audience. Saget spends a lot of time poking fun at himself and his own image, even telling a story about how someone yelled “I suck dick for coke” to him while he was spending time with his mom. He follows with a volley of dick jokes, the rapid fire approach finding some hitting their mark and some missing, but Sagat is cool, comfortable and at ease as he lobs his jokes into the audience.. The first part of Saget’s show felt very alive and unstructured and featured a lot of off the cuff and improvised material. Many of the evening’s funniest moments came out of this part of the show and his unrehearsed interactions with the audience. I enjoyed the fact that Saget’s opening was all over the place. For a comedian who has been around quite a long time it’s great to experience their raw sense of humor, something that is much more alive than the general schtick that they become known for.
After Saget was done playing with the audience, he moved into a segment of jokes that came from his father Benjamin Saget. In both a tribute to his dad and an explanation of “why I’m like this”, Saget told a number of wonderful and charming dirty jokes.
In all Saget delivered a really solid night of comedy. His complete comfort and ease on stage and his wonderfully dirty sense of humor are an absolute delight to watch. I liked how Saget moved through different styles of comedy and seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself onstage. Unfortunately, Saget’s opener, Ryan Stout, was the opposite of Saget, with humor overly contrived and uncomfortable. Stout seemed to be trying to play in the same space that Michael Ian Black does but without the charm. Stout does a have a sharp sense of humor, but he needs to find a way to be more authentic with his routine and material and perhaps learn some ease from Saget. (Also, an opening act shouldn’t keep checking his watch – it’s bad form).