Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Six That Should Be Seen

Six movies many should see, but most have not. Here they are in chronological order:

A Face in the Crowd (1957): Andy Griffith made monstrous by celebrity culture in a film that suggests the vast dangers swimming just beneath the surface of American triviality and anti-intellectual self-satisfaction.
Lonesome Rhodes: “This whole country's just like my flock of sheep!”
Marcia Jeffries: “Sheep?”
Lonesome Rhodes: “Rednecks, crackers, hillbillies, hausfraus, shut-ins, pea-pickers — everybody that’s got to jump when somebody else blows the whistle. They don't know it yet, but they're all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller.’ They’re mine! I own ‘em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ‘em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president — and you'll be the power behind me!”

The Americanization of Emily (1964): A very funny film that takes the glorification of war very seriously. After the laughs settle down, the insights remain unsettling. Way ahead of its time and — in our bellicose, warrior-worshipping society — still ahead of its time.
Lt. Cmdr. Charles E. Madison: “You American-haters bore me to tears, Miss Barham. I’ve dealt with Europeans all my life. I know all about us parvenus from the States who come over here and race around your old cathedral towns with our cameras and Coca-Cola bottles... Brawl in your pubs, paw at your women, and act like we own the world. We overtip, we talk too loud, we think we can buy anything with a Hershey bar. I’ve had Germans and Italians tell me how politically ingenuous we are, and perhaps so. But we haven't managed a Hitler or a Mussolini yet. I've had Frenchmen call me a savage because I only took half an hour for lunch. Hell, Ms. Barham, the only reason the French take two hours for lunch is because the service in their restaurants is lousy. The most tedious lot are you British. We crass Americans didn't introduce war into your little island. This war, Miss Barham, to which we Americans are so insensitive, is the result of 2,000 years of European greed, barbarism, superstition, and stupidity. Don't blame it on our Coca-Cola bottles. Europe was a going brothel long before we came to town.”

The President’s Analyst (1967): Does the American political system ever give you the feeling that you’re the only sane person left standing? A film for those born with the gift of laughter, and the sense that the world is mad.
Bing Quantrill: “Hey, Dad. You want the Magnum .357 in the house?”
Wynn Quantrill: “Darn it, Bing. I told you not to play around with my guns. No, I do not want that in the house. That is my car gun. My house gun is already in the house. Now, put that back in the glove compartment, and don’t let me catch you fooling with my guns again.”
Bing Quantrill: “I’m sorry, Dad.”
Wynn Quantrill: “Great kid.”
Dr. Sidney Schaefer: “I thought you said you were an accountant.”
Wynn Quantrill: “I am.”
Dr. Sidney Schaefer: “Why do you have all these guns around, then?”
Wynn Quantrill: “You know.”

Network (1976): The madcap film that presciently predicted the contemporary TV “news” environment by springboarding from a simple premise — what happens to a society when profit trumps truth?
Howard Beale: [laughing to himself] “But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell. We’ll tell you that, uh, Kojak always gets the killer, or that nobody ever gets cancer at Archie Bunker's house, and no matter how much trouble the hero is in, don’t worry, just look at your watch; at the end of the hour he's going to win. We'll tell you any shit you want to hear. We deal in ILLUSIONS, man! None of it is real! But you people sit there, day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds... We're all you know. You're beginning to believe the illusions we're spinning here. You're beginning to think that the tube is reality, and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you! You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube, you even THINK like the tube! This is mass madness, you maniacs! In God’s name, you people are the real thing! WE are the illusion!”

The Lives of Others (2006): Big Brother sees all, hears all — including existential and moral examples that may shake the foundations of his own inhumanity.
Anton Grubitz: “Did you know that there are just five types of artists? Your guy, Dreyman, is a Type 4, a ‘hysterical anthropocentrist.’ Can’t bear being alone, always talking, needing friends. That type should never be brought to trial. They thrive on that. Temporary detention is the best way to deal with them. Complete isolation and no set release date. No human contact the whole time, not even with the guards. Good treatment, no harassment, no abuse, no scandals, nothing they could write about later. After 10 months, we release. Suddenly, that guy won’t cause us any more trouble. Know what the best part is? Most type 4s we've processed in this way never write anything again. Or paint anything, or whatever artists do. And that without any use of force. Just like that. Kind of like a present.”

A Single Man (2009): The prospect of death becomes a lens that transmutes despair into a vivid vision of the wonders just under the surface of quotidian human existence.
George Falconer: “Waking up begins with saying ‘am’ and ‘now.’ For the past eight months waking up has actually hurt. The cold realization that I am still here slowly sets in.”

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The First Time I Saw the Flash

The first time I saw the Flash as a solo feature I was 5 years old, at a newsstand in the spring of 1960, looking at the cover of the 113th issue of his comic book.
Really, it was the 9th issue following a four-issue, two-year tryout run in Showcase comics. The numbering of the title had continued from the end of the original Flash’s run in 1949 because high numbers were, at the time, thought to signal a successful comic book, one worth reading.
And this one was, featuring the initial appearance of the Trickster. He loomed large on the cover, running on air and mocking the earthbound superhero, and I’m sure the blond, harlequin-costumed villain was what drew my brightness-fascinated young eye and my dime. He was caped, yellow-clad, flying — three things I loved.
I understood the appeal of the hero — whom I’d first seen with the Justice League of America — on an equally instinctive level. The superabundant energy of little children spills over into a love of running, and the Flash could run anywhere, accomplish anything, with his speed. Up the sides of buildings, across the surface tension of oceans and right through walls he raced, leaving behind strobe-effect images or an elegant jet stream or — if he cared to — a spin-generated, full-blown tornado.
He could whip the wheels off a getaway car in a second, while it was in motion, and the man never got winded or even raised his voice. About the only thing the Flash couldn’t do was fly, and even that restriction seemed arbitrary and iffy.
The obscure scientific facts and historical references in the comic also whizzed by me, because I was really too young to understand the title at the time. Mighty Mouse was more my speed.
For example, I remember puzzling over the title page of the second story, The Man Who Claimed the Earth. Alien beings who had once posed as Greek gods returned to seize our planet, and the Flash fended them off alone without too much trouble (Earth averaged at least a half-dozen alien invasions and visitations per month in DC titles back then). That was satisfying — then as now, I like my superheroes to be effortlessly competent. But how, I wondered, could this “Po-Siden” character and the Flash be as big as continents, towering over the globe on the title page of the tale?
So symbolism escaped me, but the sleek elegance of Carmine Infantino’s art did not. It was contemporary, clean-lined and sunlit, as optimistic and reassuring as the stories by John Broome. Infantino made the impossible seem pleasantly plausible, somehow.
“The mature Infantino drew everything — a hidden city of scientific gorillas, a harlequin committing crimes with toys, Flash strapped to a giant boomerang — as if he believed absolutely in its existence,” observed Gerard Jones and Will Jacobs in their book The Comic Book Heroes. “But Infantino’s art could so fully evoke the quiet of a small-town afternoon or the cool of a shaded lawn that readers could forgive even plots full of beatniks, schoolteachers and singing idols. Even those of us who resented, as kids, finding Kid Flash stories in the backs of so many Flash comics now find them hypnotically nostalgic.”

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Empowerment and Super-Empowerment

The Invisible Woman of the Fantastic Four. Art by Stuart Immonen
The relations between the sexes still leave something to be desired in superhero comics.
For example, in a 2007 issue of Ultimate Fantastic Four, Reed Richards has been abusively addressed by his father and refuses to discuss it with Sue Storm. As he walks away, Sue forms a force field and slams Reed into it face first. Hardy har har.
Reverse the situation. If Sue had asked for privacy and Reed had instead slammed her into a force field wall, the readers would be livid. As well they should be. Writer Mike Carey appears to have confused empowering women with turning them into bullies.
Yes, Sue was a something of a shrinking violet when the Fantastic Four began in 1961, but overcompensation is not the answer.
And yet the attitudes of all the superhero comics in 1961 were not as retrograde as people think. Check out the Julius Schwartz titles at DC — Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom and Hawkman. Iris West, Carol Ferris and Jean Loring were all independent career woman focused on the own accomplishments, not on their boyfriends and certainly not on the weird costumed heroes who operated at the margins of their lives. Hawkgirl and Hawkman were married, and full partners in crimefighting.
And not one of them needed to slam her man’s face into a wall to make a point. The real point that should be kept in mind, I think, is mutual respect.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The First Time I Saw the Justice League

The first time I saw the Justice League of America I was 5 years old, at a newsstand in the spring of 1960, looking at the cover of Brave and the Bold 29.
This second appearance of the team was a first for me in several ways — the first time I saw a number of soon-to-be iconic superheroes, and the first time I was introduced to the thrilling concept of a superhero team. I’d missed their first, instantly-sold-out appearance.
The Martian Manhunter I recognized from the first issue of Detective Comics I’d purchased, number 277, two months before. I considered him to be kind of a Superman, but green.
I probably also recognized Aquaman from his back-up features in Superman family magazines. But the thrilling, brightly colored figures of the Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman were delightfully new to me.
This was cover-dated May 1960. By July 1960, I’d be buying my first issues of Flash and Wonder Woman and by December 1960, my first issue of Green Lantern.
As if five cover-featured superheroes weren’t enough, the issue also offered some of the attractions that could be seen in DC’s sleek science fiction titles like Strange Adventures — multicolored interstellar dinosaurs and, joy of joys, a giant yellow robot with an alien criminal inside his glass tummy.
The fact that the robot also seemed to have a ray gun for a penis is something of which I was not consciously aware.
The plot was, to my young mind, perfect. This Flash guy was clearly the hero in the pin spotlight, since he broke free first and tackled the future supercriminal alone. The Flash had kicked off the new wave of immense popularity for superheroes, and DC was aware of it. Martian Manhunter and Aquaman teamed up next, then Wonder Woman and Green Lantern.
Finally the heroes tackled the villain as a team, but were turned against each other by an illusion-casting beam. Yikes!
Yet who should come hurtling out of the sky but Superman! The Man of Steel grabbed the robot by the feet and jammed him into the earth. The whole menace wiped out in a mere three panels — that’s my guy! I hadn’t even been aware that my beloved Superman was a part of this team. I was in heaven.
By the way, Batman was around on the sidelines but did nothing. At the time, I probably figured that Batman’s lack of super powers rendered him useless for any task other than calling in Superman for a kind of WMD drone strike. It’s probably difficult for today’s fans to realize that Batman was starting to seem old hat and unspectacular compared to these shiny new rivals, and that the sales of his two titles were sinking.
What I didn’t know was that it was the internecine warfare between DC’s editors that kept Superman and Batman in the background for the first several appearances of the JLA
I would have been thrilled beyond containment if I had known that this team was a space-age iteration of one from the Dark Ages of the 1940s, the Justice Society of America, and that even this cover idea had been used before by the earlier team.
To a child of 5, a decade ago might as well be a time when dinosaurs roamed the planet.
The entire subsequent history of comic books — and of much of American popular culture — is channeled directly through the three Brave and Bold tryout issues for JLA. Because publisher Martin Goodman was watching how eagerly kids like me plunked down their dimes for those issues. He had an idea for editor Stan Lee…

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

On the Co-Emergence of Virtue and Happiness

“Virtue, until its very recent revival, has sounded old-fashioned or even prissy to our modern ears. Epictetus’s teachings on virtue had nothing to do with being a goody-goody or a doormat. Virtue, happiness and tranquility are not separate experiences but co-emergent states.
“While he advocated being good for its own sake, his practical observation was that a virtuous life leads to inner coherence and outward harmony. There is great relief in being morally consistent: The soul relaxes, and we can thus efficiently move forward in our endeavors, as Epictetus would say, ‘without hindrance.’
“Inner confusion and evil itself spring from ambiguity. Epictetus coaches us to call forth the best we have by making our personal moral code explicit to ourselves. Freedom, ease and confidence are won as our outward actions gradually conform to this code.” —  Sharon Lebell in “The Art of Living: Epictetus”

Monday, June 22, 2015

How to be a Career Girl on Screen

Invited to address the National Federation of Businesswomen, Rosalind Russell betrayed her sassy screen persona by being intimidated.
“They were all college deans and women judges and politicians with the Ph.D.s falling off them,” she recalled in Life Is a Banquet.
“I finally decided to stick to what I knew, and explained to my sister executives how superior the on-screen life of a career woman was as compared to the real life of a career woman. ‘How many phones do you have on your desks?’ I asked them. ‘Two? Three? Four? Well, I have at least 12.’
“ ‘When I play a newspaper editor, I tear up the front page twice every edition. When I play a lawyer, I win every case. Every picture I’m in begins with eight or 10 men sitting around me, begging me to speak, to tell them what to do, how to think. And there’s always one with a hat down over his eyes, and he says, ‘Verry interesting, M.J., verry interesting,’ and I say, “Who are you?’ Have you been sitting here during this entire meeting?’ and he saunters out, still murmuring, ‘Verry interesting.’’
“ ‘I give more orders in one morning than you girls give in a month. Then I go to lunch with my hat on and my sables over my arm. After lunch I usually have a fitting, and then it’s the weekend I go to my country place. If my country place is in the mountains, I need snow boots, but if it’s on Long Island, a skirt and a sweater will do. Sometimes the studio fools me and puts me on a boat and I go to Europe. But I never go back to the office after lunch.’
“The businesswomen had a good time, and so did I, once I’d heard the first laughs. I told them I could order the clothes for my pictures in my sleep. I’d say to Jean Louis, Adrian, Irene or Travis Banton, ‘Make me a plaid suit, a striped suit, a grey flannel and a negligee for the scene in the bedroom when I cry.’ I even did the dialogue from a typical love scene for them. The guy was saying to me, ‘Underneath it all, you’re very feminine,’ and my saying to him, ‘Please, Richard, I must go on with my work, so many depend on me.’
“ ‘But don’t envy me,’ I told the businesswomen, ‘because in the end I always give the whole thing up, marry the guy with the hat down over his eyes, move to New Jersey and live in a mosquito-ridden cottage with a picket fence and a baby carriage outside. Why, I’ll never know. Except that they pay me well.’”

Friday, June 19, 2015

When Roz Arose

Cary Grant with Rosalind Russell

“I dealt with what I had to deal with, and I relished the work. (Obviously, since I made my way to some studio or other for 40 years, more or less),” Rosalind Russell said of her career as an actress in her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet.
“Every day at 5 a.m., I’d throw on a shirt and pants and an old topcoat, stumble out of doors, take a look at the garden, get into my car, and still half asleep, drive to the studio. We started shooting at 9 a.m., but first came hair, makeup and wardrobe fittings. I didn’t mind that. I love the early mornings.
“Somebody once quoted me as having said, ‘God gave us from five to seven so we could get up and beat the traffic.’ I think that’s funny, but the real reason I’ve always loved the morning hours is, it’s the only time you can ever have alone, time that belongs to you, and not to the world or your home or your husband or your boss.”
I couldn’t agree with her more.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

'Hairspray:' No Mourning in Baltimore

Jordan Cyphert as Corny Collins with th e"Nicest Kids in Town"
By Dan Hagen
The dress rehearsal for the Little Theatre’s second show of the season reminded me just how well Hairspray works as a musical.
The John Waters story about outsiders (persecuted for their pounds and pigmentation) who are trying to get inside a local TV dance program in 1964 provides a perfect excuse for dance after dance. You realize that the large cast must be exhausted by the end of director Kevin Long’s brisk, high-energy show, although their smiles never show it.
Colorful costumes by Sherri Milo are shown off to good effect against a terrific set by Noel Rennerfeldt.
From the moment Tracy Turnblad (Sara Reinecke) emerges from her dramatically vertical bed to sing the life-affirming anthem Good Morning Baltimore, the comic book colors of the set catch and please the eye. I particularly enjoyed the big vari-colored light panels surrounding the stage and the angled, Seuss-like buildings.
Double kudos go to Lee Ann Payne as actor and choreographer. The Equity performer (Reno in 2014’s Anything Goes) brings stage presence and assurance to the role of mean mom Velma Von Tussle, glorying like Cruella De Vil in the memory of her triumph as Miss Baltimore Crabs.
Claire Kapustka sparkles in the role of the girl in Tracy’s shadow, her best friend Penny Pingleton. The show now plays the “forbidden romance” angle as a throwaway for laughs, I suspect because younger audiences now regard the idea that interracial romance was ever controversial with mere puzzlement. So some things do get better, after all.
Therese Kincade plays Penny’s weird mom, a butch dodge ball coach and a goofy jail guard, all with cartoonish verve.
There’s a greater or lesser cartoon angle to much of this show, in fact, right up to the moment that Motormouth Maybelle (Kendra Lynn Lucas) belts out the gospel-like tune I Know Where I’ve Been. Her voice is thrilling, and the song is a heart-tugging anthem for any besieged minority.
Colleen Johnson (who just played the title role in Mary Poppins) is the vixen Amber Von Tussle, and gets a handsome chance to express her contempt for Tracy in the song and dance number Cooties.
Little Theatre veteran crowd-pleaser Jack Milo is back as Tracy’s father, a genial joke shop owner whose sinuously goofy dancing style made us smile.
Gus Gordon gets the drag role of Tracy’s mother Edna, the woman whose last diet pill is forever wearing off. Gordon amuses the audience and engages their affections without ever going overboard, wise enough to know that the costume is going to carry some of the weight of the performance. I think it’s the best work I’ve seen Gordon do on this stage. Gordon and Milo sway together through one of the most charming numbers in the show, You’re Timeless to Me.
Corbin Williams plays handsome heartthrob Link Larkin. I like the subtle way he invests his good looks with a sort of beguiling vacuity.
Sara Reinecke as Tracy Turnblad (News-Progress photos by Keith Stewart)
Tracy is required to be considerably overweight, yet so unsinkable, fair-minded and sunny that handsome Link can’t help but fall for her. That’s not an easy needle to thread in every production, but Reinecke brings it off easily here, radiating good nature and fascinating with her beautiful eyes.
Perhaps most impressive is the limber-limbed, laughing Gilbert Domally as Seaweed Stubbs, Penny’s true love. Domally has a riveting stage presence and delivers the show’s funniest line in a perfect deadpan. I’ll tell you it’s about chewing gum, and leave it at that.
The best number comes at the end of the short second act, and it features the entire company singing and dancing You Can’t Stop the Beat. The song rolls on through a reprise with the cast gyrating swiftly and hypnotically.
Incidental intelligence: Hairspray, which opens today and runs through June 28, has music by Marc Shaiman, lyrics by Scott Wittman and Shaiman and a book by Mark O’Donnell and Thomas Meehan, and is based on the 1988 John Waters film Hairspray. Songs include 1960s-style dance music and “downtown” rhythm and blues.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Andy Hudson. The cast includes Jordan Cyphert, Josh Houghton, China Brickey, Emily Bacino Althaus, Danielle Davila, David Davis, Megan Farley, Daniel Gold, Daryn Harrell, Danielle Jackman, Chloe Kounadis, Ben Locke, Brady Miller, Collin O’Connor and Collin Sanderson.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Mame and the Duchess

When Rosalind Russell received the unpublished manuscript of Auntie Mame from author Patrick Dennis, she instantly became absorbed and sat up late reading it.
“(S)ince I was due on a movie set the next morning, Freddie fumed, ‘Put your light out, you’ll have such dark circles the cameraman will kill you,’” Russell recalled in her autobiography, Life Is a Banquet. “But I was bemused. ‘Somebody has written my sister,’ I said. ‘Somebody has written the Duchess.’ I could have played Mame with one hand tied behind me: I’d been living with her all my life.”
Russell was the middle daughter in a large Catholic family seemed to regard her older, beautiful, vivacious sister Clara, whom she always called “the Duchess,” with a mixture of awe, envy and devotion.
The Duchess attracted lots of boys, all of whom she called “Darling” while she “…like an accomplished juggler tossing plates, kept them passing one another in midair and gravitating back toward her fingertips.”
“Even after we were grown and she had become a fashion editor on Town & Country magazine, we’d have idiotic arguments about The Way It Had Been. ‘Dad was always saying, ‘Oh, I envy the man who’s taking you out tonight,’ the Duchess would start, and I would scoff: ‘Dad didn’t talk like that, you imagined it.’”
Russell recalled walking with her sister down Madison Avenue during the 1940s and observing, as people waved at the Duchess, that she owned it.
Clara Russell, a/k/a the Duchess
“The Duchess was going on about my Hollywood hat and my shabby handbag — ‘Is that an old one of mine?’ — when a man came by. She hailed him with great glee. ‘How have you been?’ demanded the Duchess. ‘You don’t need to tell me. I can see just by looking at you, you’re in the best condition of your life. And how’s your mother? Give her my love, she’s one of my favorite people, always has been, always will be. Still going away weekends to the countryside? Well, it’s been wonderful to see you. Goodbye, dear.’
“The man had nodded to me, asked, ‘How are you, Roz?’ We’d shaken hands, and now Clara and I were walking on down the street. ‘Darling,’ she said. ‘I know just as well as I know I’m walking here who that man is, but I can’t think. Who is he?’
“I stopped dead and looked her right in the face. She’s not gonna pull both legs, I thought; one at a time is enough. Then I realized she was in earnest.
“’Now, Duchess,” I began, but she was nattering on again: “I know him, I know I do — can’t you give me a clue?’
“ ‘That was your first husband,’ I said.
“ ‘Oh my God,’ she said. ‘Don’t tell anybody. I’m going to stand right here until you promise. Raise your right hand and say, ‘I will not tell anybody this story.’
“ ‘I’m gonna tell everybody this story,’ I said.
“ ‘Now that’s mean,’ she said. ‘They’ll think I’m senile or something.’
“ ‘You’re something,’ I said. “I can tell you that.’
“I’ve heard this same tale with other casts of characters — Truman Capote wrote about Gloria Vanderbilt not recognizing her first husband — but I know it happened to the Duchess. I was there.”
A difficult story to believe, perhaps, but one terrific anecdote.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Thing That Frightens Chris Christie

Americans shoot other Americans dead because they didn’t show sufficient “team spirit.”
Wars are now permanent, but no one particularly cares. The middle class is dying, but no one particularly cares. Wall Street bankers steal trillions with fraud, but no one particularly cares.
Humanity has wrecked the world climate — you might care about that, but you won’t hear anything about it on the TV news weather report.
The drone-flying, spy-camming, internet-bugged American police state can know when you have a bowel movement, but American voters cannot know what a presidential candidate pays — or doesn't pay — in income taxes.
And what does New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie think will destroy America? Free college tuition. Yes, really.

Friday, June 12, 2015

What Happens on Screen Can't Happen

I was watching some of Marky Mark’s “Italian Job” remake on Netflix yesterday, and while it was enjoyable, I realized that parts of it were just as implausible as any superhero movie.
Superhero movies are required to be unrealistic, of course, but crime capers are not. Maybe the problem is not that we have too many superhero movies (heaven forfend!), but that virtually ALL Hollywood movies now range from implausible to impossible. The something that’s missing in the cinema is the same something that’s often missing in our culture, I think. The realm of possibility has been entirely displaced by the dream world of wish fulfillment.
No more “Chinatowns,” for example (a film in which events remain plausible, if strange). People with a taste for realism now must turn to long-form, novel-like cable TV serials like “Mad Men.”

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Coward Goes West

Noel Coward in the Nevada desert

In 1954, Noel Coward was 19,000 pounds overdrawn, his life insurance pledged against the debt, when the offer came to appear in a place called Las Vegas at $35,000 a week. As the date approached, CBS managed to sweeten things by offering him $450,000 for three television specials.
“All this money, plus Las Vegas, would mean that at last he could have some capital in the bank,” wrote Cole Lesley in his The Life of Noel Coward — money for his old age “…which, as he put it, was due to begin next Tuesday.”
Just before Vegas, crisis — Coward’s accompanist couldn’t get a work permit.
“He interviewed eight people, none of whom were good enough, and then one evening the telephone rang. This time his savior was Marlene (Dietrich), who had been loyally working away on his behalf. She was calling from the airport and her plane for London was already boarding; had he got a pencil, ready, quick, Pete Matz, this is his number, ring him at once and grab him.
“Pete came round next day. He seemed absurdly young, only 26, dark and intelligent, with a great sense of dehydrated humor, and Noel knew in his bones that he was exactly what was needed. When Noel showed him the old arrangements he had been using at the Café, Pete said, not contemptuously but matter-of-factly, ‘You’re not going to use these, are you?’ Noel lied quickly, ‘Of course not, but who can make me new ones in the time?’ Quite calmly Pete said, ‘I will.’
“Noel had no way of knowing as yet how brilliant a musician Pete was. Later we discovered from experience that for instance there was no need for labored conversation at the breakfast table; instead of Agatha Christie, Pete read from a Mozart score propped against the toast rack.”

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"Poppins" Pops In the Little Theatre

By Dan Hagen
One night in Australia in 1909, with rain swelling a nearby creek, 10-year-old Helen Goff’s widowed mother told the girl to take care of her two younger siblings. Mother was going to drown herself, she explained. And then she walked out into the storm.
Terrified, Helen gathered the children on the rug in front of the fire and made up a story about a magical flying horse — a perfect symbol of escape — to distract them. Unsuccessful in her suicide attempt, Helen’s mother returned later, but her daughter never trusted her again. 
Helen grew up to wear trousers, engage in various unorthodox relationships and become an author. She changed her name to P.L. Travers and wrote famous stories about a no-nonsense, supernatural protector of children whose parents had failed them.
Which makes sense, doesn’t it?
And now you can see that character soar — literally — across the Little Theatre stage as the first offering in Executive Director John Stephens’ most family-friendly season yet.
Colleen Johnson as the uncanny nanny Mary Poppins
Mary Poppins, directed and choreographed by Amber Mak, is a musical drawn from both the original stories and the famous Disney film.
Mak’s dance numbers really dazzle in a couple of places, notably the angular sign language of the  Supercalifragisticexpialidocious number and sunset-rooftop romp Step in Time. Brady Miller and Daniel Gold (as a surprisingly limber park statue) have standout dance moments.
Several of the show’s scenes are carried by strong but minor characters — among them Tim Mason as a just-fatuous-enough bank chairman, the brassy Kendra Lynn Lucas as the owner of a “Talking Shop” and Therese Kincaid as the cook Mrs. Brill. Kincade gets laughs without half trying.
The masterful Ann Borders, a Millikin University professor, is especially delicious as the anti-Mary Poppins, Miss Andrews, the evil nanny who warped poor Mr. Banks in childhood (apparently nannies are responsible for everything that happens in this version of Victorian England).
The idea of giving the seemingly omnipotent Mary Poppins a formidable antagonist is a good one, and Borders plays it with assurance and the authority of a whipcrack.
The vivacious Jordan Cyphert, a musical theatre graduate from Clarion University of Pennsylvania, plays Bert, the Dick Van Dyke chimney sweep role. He has a lot to do in this show and looks happy doing it. My friend Bart Rettberg pointed out that Bert fulfills the same ambiguous and ubiquitous function in this show that Che does in Evita — as a male character who is intrigued by the central female figure, and thereby spotlights her.
The Banks children — Gideon Johnson and Zoe Bowers — are charming without being cloying (a neat trick). And their parents, played by Hillary Marren and George Keating, are really the only fully human personalities in the show.
Because the parents are surrounded by fantasy figures, the emotional weight of the show, such as it is, falls on them. Marren projects an appealing empathy and I was especially impressed by Keating’s mixture of authoritarianism, pain and vulnerability. I kept thinking he reminded me of someone, and I just realized who it is. The actor Gary Oldman.
Effingham native Colleen Johnson is as sweet and crisp as an autumn apple in the rather thankless title role. Why “thankless?” It occurred to me while watching the show how difficult the part of Poppins must be to play. The uncanny nanny is more a force than a character, more an attitude than a personality. But Johnson carries it off with no-nonsense charm.
People always expect to see the sunny Julie Andrews character now, but the original literary Mary Poppins had more of an edge, an almost sinister, dreamlike quality.
To give you some idea of just how chilly an east wind Travers wanted to hear whistling through her idea of a Mary Poppins musical, I would just point out that she asked Sondheim to write it.
Incidental intelligence: Mary Poppins, a musical with music and lyrics by the Sherman Brothers (with additional music and lyrics by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe) and a script by Julian Fellowes, runs through June 14 at the Little Theatre.
The show has lighting design by Michael Cole, costume coordination by Jeannine La Bate, scenic design by Daniel Mueller, stage management by Jeremy J. Phillips and musical direction by Kevin Long. The cast includes Sara Reinecke, Danielle Davila, Marty Harbaugh, Corbin Williams, Collin O’Connor, Megan Farley, Danielle Jackman, Emily Bacino-Althaus, Claire Kapustka, Collin Sanderson and David Davis.
For tickets, call The Little Theatre On The Square Box Office at 217-728-7375.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

A Marvelous Party in Jamaica

Noel Coward's statue, sculpted by Angela Connors, still looks out over the Jamaican coast from Firefly.

The playwright, actor, singer and author Noel Coward is buried not in England but at Firefly, the mountaintop oceanfront home he built in Jamaica. It was where Coward had been happiest.
“Running though this year of 1951, and for many years to come, was the happy fact that Ian (Fleming) and Ann, soon to be joined by James Bond, were just along the coast at Goldeneye,” recalled Coward’s friend and aide Cole Lesley in his The Life of Noel Coward.
“Jamaica was booming. It had become ‘the’ place to holiday in the winter — Noel, Ian and Ann and their friends heading the post-war pioneers — and hotels began to spring up all along the North Coast.”
Interior of the spartan Firefly, now open to the public
“Agnes de Mille was among Noel’s troop of fascinating visitors, and we saw a great deal of Roald Dahl, accompanied the following year by the ravishing Patricia Neal, soon to become his wife. Pat taught us to cut off the top quarter of green coconuts, fill the rest of the nut and its soft white flesh with lamb, prawn or chicken curry, seal the top on again with a paste of flour and water and stick the whole thing in the oven for as long as you like. Marvelous for picnics; when the top is removed, even after several hours, the delicious inside has retained its piping heat. We became so mad about this dramatic-looking dish that Noel named it Cocomania.
“Errol Flynn, his lovely young wife Patrice Wymore and his yacht — he called her a schooner — the Zaca, were along the coast in the other direction at Port Antonio. Joycie and (Baron Nicolas) Niki de Gunzburg were staying at Blue Harbour; Niki and Errol were playmates of old and we were all asked over.
“First of all, drinks under striped awnings on the deck of the Zaca, beautiful in the evening light. Then we went ashore to feast on one of the corral beaches of Errol’s own island; the table covered with jade-green banana leaves, decorated with scarlet hibiscus, gleaming with candles and silver and crystal, and a baby suckling-pig slowly roasting over a pit in the sand a few yards away. When an enormous moon came up out of the sea, everything seemed too much: it was piling Pelléas on Mélisande, Noel said (referring to Debussy’s five-act opera).”
“Joyce and I had not met Errol before and I don’t know what we had expected, but all four of us agreed on the way home that, in spite of all we had read, he was one of the most charming, kind and courteous hosts we had ever known. If only he had lived longer; the kind, civilized man is revealed in parts of the autobiography, but he was no longer with us to receive the praise.
“All this gaiety notwithstanding, Noel worked away every morning like a beaver. He wrote the verses which make the links between the songs on the album of Conversation Piece and flew up to New York for a few days to record them. Lily Pons sang Melanie’s songs and arias, and the part of the young leading man was spoken by Richard Burton.
“Even as long ago as 1951, $200 was a pittance to Richard and he told his agent to refuse it. His telephone rang — Noel was always one for the direct approach — and he heard the firm tone in the well-known voice: ‘You will do it for $200 and like it,’ and Richard did it. Whether he liked it or not I don’t know, but Noel was very fond of Richard, and admired him as an actor from the beginning, and his voice on the record remained for Noel a source of pleasure.”