Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Legally Blonde:" It's Fun in the First Degree

Elle Woods (Sarah Ledtke) confides her woes to Paulette (Anna Blair).  News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart.

Gay or just exotic?
I still can’t crack the code
Yet, his accent is hypnotic
But his shoes are pointy toed

Gay or European?
So many shades of gray
But if he turns out straight
I’m free at eight on Saturday.
  “There, Right, There.” from “Legally Blonde”

By Dan Hagen
Willowy and witty, pretty and poised, Sarah Ledtke never makes a false step as the star of the Little Theatre’s final show of its 2014 summer season, “Legally Blonde.”
As Elle Woods, Malibu boy-chaser turned Harvard Law ace, she brings the same qualities of likability, whimsy and stage presence to the role as Reese Witherspoon did in the original hit film, although not at all in the same way.
Ledtke’s confident gestures easily arrest the audience’s attention. With empathy, without preaching, Ledtke sells the show’s ever-relevant message — that you don’t have to be limited by other people’s low estimation of your worth. It’s a pleasure to watch a professional performer who has such command of her craft.
Director Therese Kincade did an equally professional job of casting this musical, and all her principals find a comfortable fit in their roles. She’s got Mike Danovich, the season’s most reliably solid player, as Warner, the preppy boyfriend who thinks he’s too good for Elle. She has energetic Tiffany Sparks as Brooke Wyndham, the exercise queen on trial for murdering her elderly hubby. Anna Blair is the gaudy but good-hearted salon owner Paulette, balancing show-stopping clown against endearing underdog.
Andy LeBon, who was so good as Captain Von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” brings his ringing note of authority to bear on the John Houseman-like role of the arrogant and brilliant Harvard criminal law professor Callahan.
Will Skrip as Emmett Forrest
And Will Skrip is diffident and winning as Emmett Forrest, the teaching assistant who appreciates Elle for her genuine potential. Skrip’s and Ledtke’s romantic relationship is a believable slow burn over the course of the show, and satisfying when it finally ignites. Nice to see a musical that takes the trouble to make us believe that boy has a reason to meet girl.
A really enjoyable show — and this one is — always has gems scattered even among the minor roles. For example, there’s Brady Miller (Seymour in “Little Shop of Horrors”). When choreographer Amber Mak needs some particularly spectacular bit of stuff done, Miller is always there spinning across the stage to do it. Haley Jane Schafer, Megan E. Farley and Emily Rhein are the vapidly vivacious sorority sisters who form a “Greek chorus” in Elle’s head (get it?). Duncan Barrett Brown brings an earnest charm and stage presence to the role of Kyle, the well-defined UPS man who pitty-pats Paulette’s pulse.
The music, by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin, is witty and peppy and drives the plot of the show, rather than impeding it. That keeps the show’s pace briskly satisfying, and the eye-catching costumes by Jana Henry and splashy lighting by Mark Hueske also work toward a unified effect.
Lebon takes command in the crowd-pleasing number about lawyers, “Blood in the Water.” Ledtke, Blair, Brown and the Greek chorus celebrate the innocent eroticism of the “Bend and Snap.” The song “There, Right, There,” in which Elle must figure out if a witness is gay in order to discredit his testimony, is simply hilarious, and was probably the most popular number the night I saw the show. And the song “Take It Like a Man,” in which Ledtke takes Skrip to a men’s clothing store and their love unfolds like a pricey shirt, is delightful. One particularly witty touch is the perfume demonstrators. They wander about the store and punctuate the drama with heavily symbolic Calvin Klein fragrances like “Love” and “Subtext.”
And what do I smell here? A hit.
Incidental intelligence: Legally Blonde, a show with music and lyrics by Laurence O'Keefe and Nell Benjamin and book by Heather Hach, is based on the novel Legally Blonde by Amanda Brown and the 2001 film of the same name. It runs through Aug. 10 at the Little Theatre.
This production has scenic design by Noel Rennerfeldt, sound design by Jason Seigel, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long.
The cast includes Emma Taylor, Hanah Rose Nardone, Marty Harbaugh, Josh Houghton, David Barkley, Andy Frank, iko Pagsisihan, Colleen Johnson and Jack the Dog (as “Bruiser”).
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hal Holbrook: Ever the Twain

Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain
Just finished Hal Holbrook’s “Harold: The Boy Who Would Become Mark Twain.” His chancy childhood — a vanished mother, a mentally unstable father, a coquettish grandmother and a devoted oak of a grandfather — fed those identity questions from which great performances can be born.
His life was soap operatic when he was on a live TV soap opera, “The Brighter Day,” guiltily indulging in an affair with his onscreen paramour to warm himself against the existential chill that had settled over his marriage. His life was adventurous when he countered professional and personal obstacles with self-imposed challenges, like the solo climb up Mount Shasta that came close to killing him. Even the exhaustive list of the play dates he crisscrossed a two-lane nation to play suggest the nervous tedium that tests the bravery and endurance of the working actor. And then there’s the climax, revivifying Mark Twain — the process of discovering ever-deeper insights inside the humorist-sage, the terror of creating and carrying a solo show, the eye-blinking, hide-the-tears amazement when the reviews from the New York critics turn out to be a tidal wave of raves.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Gunfight at the Okra in the Produce Aisle

A woman was arrested in July 2014 after she pulled out a gun when asked to slow down in a Rutherford County, Tenn., Walmart parking lot, according to WGNS News.
The woman said it was all right for her to threaten to shoot people because she has a carry permit.
That same week, an Alabama man “accidentally” shot his girlfriend while holding a baby and jumping on a trampoline, Milwaukee County Sheriff’s deputies reported a “running gun battle” between the occupants of a minivan and a Nissan on I-43, a 12-year-old San Antonio boy got shot by a gun kids were playing with, a Georgia GOP congressional candidate announced that he wants Americans to fight the U.S. government with bazookas, a man tried to bring a gun into the U.S. Capitol, a Minnesota man gunned down a 17-year-old girl who had asked him to stop trespassing on his riding mower in her yard, a Texas man shot himself while hitching up his pants in a convenience store, a Tennessee woman slapped and threatened to shoot a Kroger clerk whom she called a n****r, and an “open carry” armed man frightened shoppers away from a Missouri Walmart.
“You don’t want your kids around that,” said shopper George Rolf. “There’s a lot of people out shopping, especially in a place like this.” But in Kansas City, Missouri, the open carry of firearms is legal, because Ammosexual America is insane.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

On a Hill with Hal Holbrook

"Summer Cemetery" by Meg West
Hal Holbrook in "Our Town," 1977

“It was like that cemetery in the play ‘Our Town,’ ‘on a hilltop, a windy hilltop.’ It was quiet up there, with the tender foliage of spring all around us and the sky above our heads a long way off, and this was the only time I saw Grandfather cry.
“As he stood at his father’s grave, the tears rolled down his face while the silent agony of his life clutched at him. It was then that I saw that life was not going to be a spring day. There was suffering ahead. It did not require that any words be spoken for me to see the face of what life had in store. I saw it in the anguish of Grandfather’s tears.
“When I look at pictures of me as a little boy I see a happy child with an impish look. It surprises me. Where did it come from? How could I have lived through the deprivation of having no mother and father, never knowing why they left, and then being sent away among strangers and the beatings at that school, and still look happy in those pictures?”
“A while ago, my wife and I were watching some Hollywood toy person, fresh off drugs, pouring his heart out on television about being an abused child. I said, ‘My god, it just hit me. I was an abused child!’
“’Yes, you were,’ said my wife.
“’I never thought of it before.’
“’You were too busy surviving,’ she said.
“Was it the image of my grandfather that kept me going? A survivor himself. Or was it the little acts of kindness that saved me. When the piano teacher put her arms around me and held me close (after a beating by the school headmaster) — those moments? I saw the face of kindness and perhaps that gave me hope.”
Source: “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain,” a memoir by Hal Holbrook

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

A Dream Blows In On The East Wind

This series of eight children's books appeared from 1934 to 1988, illustrated by Mary Shepard

I have, at long last, been reading P.L. Travers’ tales of Mary Poppins.
The stories proceed with an oddly appealing dream logic, somewhat similar to the SF novels of A.E. Van Vogt or the Fantomas novels by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain.
Impossible occurrences are continually mixed in with mundane ones, and some characters are always incapable of noticing them. The nanny Mary Poppins herself is refreshingly curt and sometimes unreasonable. She is inexplicable, a dreamlike fait accompli.
I can see how the stories, with their Cat-in-the-Hat flavor of safely hidden anarchy, would appeal to children. They’re better than the movie, which subjected the character to the inevitable Disney blandification process.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Rockford RIP

The late James Coburn and the late James Garner in Paddy Chayefsky's "The Americanization of Emily."

He was an authentic person among phonies, an authentic talent among empty celebrities, a quietly courageous and humorously self-deprecating man, a man who played heroes and, although he would have denied it, actually was one.
It occurs to me that one thing I have never heard is someone say something bad about James Garner.

The Modern Media Miasma of Misinformation

MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, like the other right-awing talking heads, is accustomed to peddling bullshit propaganda. He's just not accustomed to getting called on it.
If Mika Brzezinski had not INSISTED on correcting Scarborough with the facts, Scarborough would have gotten away with rewriting history yet again, pushing the mass audience a little deeper into the corporate media miasma of misinformation.
And this is the “liberal” corporate news media channel, remember? The one that peddles lies to kiss Reagan's ancient ass.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Face of a Fox News Monster

A German refugee child and Superman fan is shown at the New York City Children's Colony, a school for refugee children run by Viennese immigrants (Marjory Collins/Library of Congress). Or, as Fox News would put it, a monster.

Fox News Scolds Americans for Not Knowing History, Then Lies About History

Yeah, well, there's a reason they don't know that, Fox Animatronic Lady.
You’ve got to hand it to Fox News. Few would have the temerity to complain that Americans don’t know history and then lie about history in the same breath. Where catapulting the propaganda is concerned, Fox News is absolutely relentless.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Fascist By Any Other Name

"Fascists" covers it. That's the word that panics them, the word they desperately apply to everybody else because they're afraid people will figure out who it really is.

The Sea Rises, Lights Fails, Lovers Cling

Thanks to Brandon Hensley for pointing out this quote.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Plains Are Alive with the Sound of Music

By Dan Hagen
A few minutes into the first act, the Little Theatre’s “The Sound of Music” turns perfect.
It’s the famous “Do-Re-Mi” number sung by the young would-be nun-turned-governess Maria (Leah Berry) and Captain von Trapp’s children (Sam Mulligan, Maddie Keller, Lukas Mills, Syndi Mulligan, Izzy Miller and Piper Countryman).
In a lesser production, those children can be precocious annoyances, too cute by half. But director John Stephens has given his cast a dazzling clockwork charm here, and provided us with one of those live theatre moments when audience and performers are in radiant unison.
This production, which opens today, will be quite the crowd pleaser. Its quality is apparent in both the costumes (I admired the various shades of green in the family’s outfits, designed by J. Malia Andrus) and the set (the von Trapp mansion is a sweeping impression of elegance that converts swiftly into the imposing arches of a convent, thanks to scenic designer Noel Rennerfeldt).
The show is — let’s face it — a warhorse, always in danger of sinking into a pool of its own alpine honey. But the warhorse can still be made to work, and it does the job here.
I don’t envy Berry the task of playing a character as relentlessly good as Maria. Think how difficult it is to make a part like that interesting. Yet Berry can seem desperately earnest without being cloying, and sings us the pantheistic anthem title tune to signal Maria’s transcendent love of life, a force that will redeem a family situation darkened by death and political upheaval.
Berry is supported by an able cast of pros, including Mary Redmon as the housekeeper Frau Schmidt, the bittersweet voice of exposition, and Mike Danovich as impresario Max Detweiller, a stylish cynic with airy charm. I think this is Danovich’s best role this season.
Ann Borders, as the Mother Abbess, is a showstopper. She is convincingly commanding and yet sympathetic in her role, an actress of great poise and ease (even persuading us that she can barely recall the lyrics to “My Favorite Things”).
Her first act curtain number, “Climb Ev’ry Mountain,” always amuses me a little, because the philosophy of embracing all the experiences life has to offer is not something I expect to be sold by a nun. But sell it Borders does, in a ringing voice that brought pounding applause from the audience.
Finally there’s Andy Lebon as Captain von Trapp. The actor, fresh from two years of playing Jud in the national tour of “Oklahoma,” has an imperious but endearing manner that’s well suited for this role, and a powerful voice. He and Berry are believable as attractive adults in love, something you don’t always get in a musical.
Their love song, “Something Good,” ended with such dramatic force that a small child sitting behind me said, “Is it over now?”
Not yet, kid. Gotta outwit the Nazis first by singing at them.
Incidental intelligence: “The Sound of Music,” with music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and a book by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, runs through July 27 at the Little Theatre.
This production has lighting design by Mark Hueske, sound design by Patrick Burks, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips, choreography by Amber Mak and musical direction by Kevin Long.
The cast includes Andy Frank, Brady Miller, Colleen Johnson, Emily Rhein, Haley Jane Schafer, Hanah Rose Nardone, Josh Houghton, Megan E. Farley, Niko Pagsisihan and Tim Mason.
The children’s roles are double cast, and the alternate set of children are Zach Smith, Blaine Lehman, A.J. Zaccari, Zoe Bowers, Brace Lynch and Callie Standerfer. For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Meanwhile, Here in the Unenlightened Future...

"Lucien," a/k/a Lucifer
Captain James T. Kirk defends Lucifer. This animated episode didn't raise an eyebrow when it aired on Saturday morning children's TV in 1973, but would have the Tea Party screaming bloody murder if it aired today, after four decades of the dumbification of America.
In this episode from the Emmy-winning series, the crew of the Enterprise learns that Earth’s myths about Lucifer, witches and devils were based on advanced alien intelligences who had been attempting to help humanity. Kirk ends up defending the rebel being who had liked humanity best, whom we know as “Lucifer.”
That was, of course, before tolerance and intelligence were successfully demonized by the American right wing.

Gated Community, Hated Community

A place with gates isn't a “community.” It's a compound.
As my friend Merri Ferrell put it, “When the gated communities started to spring up all over the US, I knew there was trouble. Enemy of farms (paves and builds over farmland, not just houses but what those idiots think they ‘need’ which are box stores and malls), enemy of cities (hate diversity, hate public services from libraries to transit), hate nature (kids live in car seats shuttled from planned indoor play dates, all controlled, front yard is only a display — no ‘playing’ in a yard or woods, all of which are regarded as the great unknown) and hatred of each other. Fake rock, fake PVC fences, fake sod, vinyl siding, windows that don’t open, no porches for community, no interaction with others, extruded crab meat phoniness and walled-up isolationism. The psychology of these places is horrific but in the 1980s, this was the model for the American family, and the kind of house that became the failed housing market.”
I had that same creepy frisson when the “gated community” phenomenon started to happen. “Gated communities” are the literal expression of the symbolic division of the nation into plutocrats and serfs.
Come to think of it, hell does have gates, doesn’t it?

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Even the Rational Conservatives Get It Now

Andrew eventually adopts every liberal position, just 20 years too late. But thanks for wising up at last.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Scent of a Palin

Prof. Palin's American history class is in session.
Sarah Palin, a/k/a White Power Barbie, the Quitter Queen of the Brain-Frozen North, the Fascist Party Doll, Cruela DeWasilla, the Winkin' Witch of Wasilla, is of course the noted half-witted, half-assed former half-term half-governor of Alaska.
Palin’s supporters PREFER stupid people. They fear and mistrust intelligence, and therefore civilization itself. The mistake liberals make is to assume that people want to learn the truth. Many people don't want to learn anything at all. They merely want to be told that what they already believe is true, and that is the function of Sarah Palin and Fox News. And the corporate media plays up Palin as a way of throwing a fish to these know-nothing seals so they’ll clap their flippers for the greedbag puppeteers who run the GOP. In every public appearance Palin’s presence grows more meaningless, and she splashes on more of her favorite perfume, “Eau de Pauvre Victim.” She reeks of it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

The Dense Heat of Noon or the Shiver of Twilight

“The wind went whirling around the poplars; it came from elsewhere, from everywhere; it went rushing through space, and I, too, was whirled away with it, without stirring from where I stood, right to the ends of the earth. When the moon rose in the sky, I would be in touch with far-off cities, deserts, oceans and villages which at that moment were bathed, as I was, in its radiance. I was no longer a disembodied mind, an abstract gaze, but the turbulent fragrance of the waving grain, the intimate smell of the heath moors, the dense heat of noon or the shiver of twilight; I was heavy, yet I was like vapor in the blue airs of summer and knew no bounds.”
— Simone de Beauvoir in “Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter” (1959)

Friday, July 4, 2014

Robot, Ninja and Gay Guy

Ryan Churchill, Brian Giovanni and Travis Richey in RNGG
My favorite webisode series is Travis Richey's low-key saga of a robot, a ninja and a gay guy who share a West Hollywood apartment. A sitcom parody that is funnier than several network sitcoms, the series illustrates what you can do with virtually no budget but clever writing. It has the delightful slanted sensibility of "Bewitched" without the lameness. Watch the webisodes here, and read an interview with the creator here.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

The Werewolf of Wall Street

What happened to make serial killers, vampires, werewolves, witches and zombies such sympathetic figures in American popular culture?
The corporate right wingers who control American culture and politics made ruthless evil fashionable. That’s what happened.
Popular culture is a funhouse mirror that distorts — but actually reflects — the society which spawns it. Ruthless predatory behavior is admired and rewarded in American society, so what's wrong with monsters? Nothing. They just want to rend and tear. Is that so wrong? They only want to eat your brains, just like American advertising does.
Even Superman is only acceptable now if he breaks some necks.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

At the Little Theatre of Horrors

Michael Weaver, Kelly Maier and Brady Miller in "Little Shop." Photos by Keith Stewart for the News-Progress.
I’ve given you sunshine
I’ve given you dirt.
You've given me nothing
But heartache and hurt.
— “Grow for Me” from “Little Shop of Horrors”

By Dan Hagen
“Little Shop of Horrors” makes for a Little Theatre of Fun.
I’ve seen only bits and pieces of Roger Corman’s original low-budget 1960 monster movie, or the 1982 Off-Off-Broadway musical based on that, or the 1986 movie musical based on that, but I’ve seen enough of the Little Theatre’s brisk little show to be well entertained.
Art by JimSamX
It would be difficult to explain this pop cultural artifact to someone who had dropped from the sky like Audrey II the man-eating plant. Here we have the traditional tragedy of a man corrupted by the devil (a vegetable devil, in this case) played out to its inevitable sad conclusion, and yet played as a camp comedy with the sprightly doo-wop music native to the era of the original film.
This tale of doom is balanced by the silliness of the premise. The show can’t end happily, but the overall effect is happy anyway. It’s upbeat doom, doom without gloom.
Directed and choreographed by Chad Alexander, the show’s beginning neatly inverts a musical comedy convention. Instead of the song about the character who loves life in the place he’s in (“Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “Good Morning Baltimore”), we get a number about what an excremental place Skid Row is (“Downtown”).
At 1313 Skid Row is a wilted flower shop owned by Mr. Mushnik (Michael Weaver), who employs an earnest nebbish assistant/slave named Seymour (Brady Miller) and a pretty girl of low self-esteem named Audrey (Equity actress Kelly Maier). Audrey is the wilted flower Seymour treasures, a woman battered by her sadistic biker-dentist boyfriend (Mike Danovich). The uncanny plant Seymour names for her, Audrey II, will promise them salvation, and provide them with destruction.
Marika Stephens’ cunning set features lighted second-story windows and projections playing on a curtain. The songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman are perfectly serviceable, if not memorable, and they help set a pace that never flags.
What’s fun? Things like these:
• A tango between Weaver and Miller where the point is not romance but a profitable adoption (“Mushnik & Son”).
• Danovich’s crowd-pleasing paen to pain, “Dentist.” I think the time has come, though, for the American musical theatre to put the Elvis Presley riffs on ice for a century or so. They’ve been overused for a long time now.
• Maier and Miller, a well-matched and winsome pair. Maier has the beleaguered urban charm of a Judy Holliday or Adelaide in “Guys & Dolls.” Miller pitches Seymour perfectly, innocent without being insipid, cute without being cloying. Together, the two are impossible not to like in numbers such as “Suddenly Seymour.”
Brady Miller with little Audrey II
• Audrey II himself, a plant that grows throughout the show, moving thanks to Andy Frank and singing thanks to Gilbert Donnelly (who was Jim in “Big River”). Sort of a cheeky Venus flytrap with lips, Audrey II is one of those fantasy elements that endear themselves to an audience, like the ghosts in “Blithe Spirit” or the invisible rabbit in “Harvey.”
The verdict: A fine cast in a fast, fun and fairly kid-friendly show.
Incidental intelligence: “Little Shop of Horrors,” a musical by composer Alan Menken and writer Howard Ashman, is based on the 1960 black comedy film directed by Roger Corman.  The show runs through July 13 at the Little Theatre.
This production has lighting design by Mark Hueske, costume design by Malia Andrus, sound design by Patrick Burks, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long.
The cast also includes Emily Rheim, Haley Jane Schafer, Hanah Rose Nardone, Josh Houghton, Megan E. Farley, Niko Pagsisihan and Sidney Davis.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.