Saturday, February 18, 2012

The power of protest.

I'm way behind on my Sundance 2012 movie reviews.  But I'm not get to let that stop me. So expect some late reviews over the next couple of weeks.

Sundance can often feel like a gay film festival. This year, there didn't seem to be the usual crop of LGBT films. Of the handful of gay-themed films from this year's festival, I saw one; David France's intense documentary How to Survive a Plague. This is a movie about protest. It's about gay men, and the people who love them, doing whatever they could to get the U.S. government to develop more effective treatments for AIDS. It's a powerful film.

I lived through much of this history but I probably wasn't as aware of the issue as I should have been. This movie gave me a new appreciation for people who rattled the system to help save lives. It also reminded me that conservative voices regularly say stupid stuff that will make them the butt of history's jokes. In this film, it's Jesse Helm. Wow, that guy has been filmed making so many offensive gay slurs that he has ensured his place in documentary film history.

How to Survive a Plague also gave me a new appreciation for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Just like the activists of the Act Up movement, the Occupy movement is filled with crazy liberals who can sometimes seem unorganized and combative. But maybe like Act Up, they might just force dramatic changes in the way our world works. Let's hope so.

Friday, February 17, 2012

This is one helluva boat ride.

A recent business trip left me with a few extra hours and nothing to do.  So I picked up a last minute ticket to see Anything Goes, winner of the 2011 Tony Award for Best Musical Revival.  On my last trip to NYC I tried to see this show but tickets were impossible to get. Needing only a single seat, it was easier to get a perfect center spot on the seventh row.

I'll start by making a distinction between the show (the actual musical with music and lyrics by Cole Porter, original book by Wodehouse, Bolton, Lindsay, and Crouse) and the production (directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshal with Rob Fisher as the music supervisor and vocal arranger).

The show isn't perfect. Most of the problems arise from the story and characters that feel a little insensitive in a modern world.  The Chinese characters are the best example.  Even though the book has been updated by Timothy Crouse and John Weidman, the cliched nature of these characters made me anxious.  But I get why the producers couldn't eliminate the characters from the story line. They're an integral part of the madcap cruise that proves Anything Goes.

There are also one or two songs that didn't live up to contemporary Broadway standards. Be Like the Blue Bird performed by Joel Gray as Moonface Martin felt forced and it wasn't just the performance. The gimmicky nature of the song feels, well, gimmicky.

However, that's not much to complain about.  Because Cole Porter's songs are just plain amazing. The lyrics are dizzying to the point that many songs put today's best rappers to shame. Songs like You're the Top, I Get a Kick Out of You,and It's De-lovely sparkle with so much wit and delight you can't help but smile through the whole ordeal.  And the songs live up to the shows name with references to sex, drugs, and scandal that would feel right at home on Entertainment Tonight!

Combine Porter's brilliance with a damn-near perfect production and you have a show-stopping delight.  Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney is spectacular.  She's super sexy, looks fantastic in the shimmering, sparkling, revealing costumes, and can belt a show tune so big and bold it conjures up the likes of Ethyl Merman.

Bill English as Billy Crocker answers Foster with just enough charm to make you like him and just enough "bad boy" to make him desirable. Even the secondary characters whose roles are mostly caricatures rise above the nature of the people they play to deliver standout performances. Jessica Stone as Erma is delightfully slutty, particuarly when she's fighting off an army of suitors in the riotous number, Buddie, Beware.

Let's talk chorus lines. This show was made for flashy, showstopping chorus lines and Anything Goes doesn't disappoint. Kathleen Marshall's choreography reminds us how much fun it is to put a bunch of talented dancers on stage and give them something magical to do. And those dancers! I'm convinced that everything in life would be better with the addition of tap-dancing sailors.When I'm deliriously wealthy I intend to hire and entire crew of tap-dancing sailors to follow me around and make life spectacular.

There is plenty more I could talk about like Derek McLane's simple, iconic set design and Peter Kaczorowski's ingenious lighting design which helped transport the audience not just to a cruise, but to a cruise in a time and place that has unfortunately past. I loved Martin Pakledinaz's costumers with their crisp whites and endless rinestones. I don't know who's keep the costumes so pristine and crisp but they're doing one helluva job.  Because at the opening of the show, everything was perfectly white, but after a night of dancing, many of those whites had blackened and wrinkled.

Anything Goes is pure Broadway fun with a brilliant streak of theatrical genius.