Saturday, September 27, 2008

Keeping informed

Before I go to bed to rest for yet another busy day, let me make a pitch for everyone to read or keep reading Robert Reich's blog, which has had a lot of concise, smart commentary on the economic crisis at hand. The former treasury secretary is an especially interesting person to listen to at the moment that we may literally be handing our fortunes over to the current treasury secretary as a kind of financial czar. The link in my list of Blogs I Read below and to the right. As I write this, news sources are announcing that a tentative bailout deal has been reached, but no details are available yet. I'm waiting to read what I can and then get Reich's commentary, and make up my own mind.

And I am telling you...

I hope to find time to write something on Paul Newman soon, because I was genuinely sad when I saw the announcement of his death this morning. He was really a great actor, and did a lot of wonderful philanthropic work. He's been embedded in my consciousness all my life, it seems, from the tiny little movie glutton that I was as a child.

Tonight, just a quick note that I heard Jennifer Hudson perform a song from her album on Leno last night, and it was distinctly unimpressive. Sorry. I like her, though I (unlike the rest of humanity) did think that her big anthem, "And I Am Telling You," in Dreamgirls was oversung and overshot; on the other hand, "Love You I Do," a lighter number that she sings to Jamie Foxx's character earlier in the film, was absolutely perfect. This song was light, boppy, catchy, but nothing to it to show off her voice or to distinguish the music from so much other canned studio-made pop out there these days. Maybe the rest of the album is better. I am also sure that her acting will continue to be worth watching. Next up is The Secret Life of Bees.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Whistle while you work

You can tell I'm busy; the posts are getting shorter and further apart.

I must say that music really helps when you have to buckle down. Favorite albums to work to at the moment? The Killers' Hot Fuss, Queen's Night at the Opera, Guys and Dolls (I don't even know if it's the original Broadway cast; I don't have time to read the album cover!), Dreamgirls (the movie soundtrack, sorry purists), Hairspray (Broadway recording with one track from the movie), and Aerosmith's Get a Grip. Green Day is coming out next. I have Dookie and I'm not afraid to use it.

Absolute failures: Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, Cavalleria Rusticana, and a couple of showtunes concert medleys. Hip hop does not work. I have concluded that I need to be able to either sing along loudly or bang my head to whatever I'm listening to.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A Tale of Two Reviews

A Tale of Two Cities (the musical) had its opening last night. I was very curious to read the reviews, and the NY Times' Ben Brantley did not so much review it as take a hatchet to it... and the cast. Not a single thing of significant value did he find. The Post, on the other hand, gave it a more reasonable review, saying the music was like Les Miz plus dishwater (I'm willing to go along with that, though I don't think it's all true) but giving Barbour a rave and kudos to the rest of the cast, though I was surprised to see Natalie Toro go unmentioned. Brantley called Barbour 'grotesque.' I mean, that's just unreasonable. I would have understood if he had called him hammy, overacting, or pompous; I did notice the second time I went to see it that all the cast (including Barbour) had started to make their acting larger, which is not always better. But grotesque? That's a hell of an adjective to apply to any half-decent acting job, let alone a show-carrying performance. In any case, I would have forgiven grotesque for the sake of that voice.

It's not the first time I've disagreed massively with a Times review this month. Christopher Isherwood reviewed the new Spring Awakening cast and seemed so enamored with them and their dewy young complexions that I snorted. I think this is a case of the critic sitting in a good seat -- or at least not in the back row. Maybe I'm wrong; I'd love to know where he did sit. Personally, I recognize that the actors' youth and good looks suited the roles to a tee. However, sitting in the last row in the mezzanine, one naturally cares more whether the acting and singing have a great impact. Subjective, of course, since the teenagers in the row below us were delighted no end. No doubt that the cast are all lovely and talented, but the review was just... peculiar.

Ah, critics.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Tone poem

I quite enjoyed this arts feature in the NY Times on Julian Schnabel painting Placido Domingo's portrait. As the author said, a lot of ego in one room!

Of course, I also enjoyed the SNL intro. Fit in your bits of media whenever you have time, say I.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Oh, no!

Just read that the author David Foster Wallace has killed himself. Poor man -- and his family and friends, too.

His novel writing was not everyone's style, but he won a lot of fans in the tennis world with a NY Times piece on "Roger Federer as Religious Experience." It's really a tragedy.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

"One of the worst movies I have ever seen"

The TIME reviewer, on the new film The Women (starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, etc.).


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Literary contest

Booker Prize shortlist is out. I usually view these as useful guides to books I missed. I did forget to read Netherland, so that's a useful reminder. This article was interesting in one sense; I had no idea that Rushdie's new novel, which I really enjoyed, had not been reviewed well in America. I can understand that. People might find it weird, fantastic, florid, self-indulgent; I liked it for the reasons I mentioned.

My House

Arrived home last night to find that it is already fall in Chicago, and also to find my newly arrived DVD of season two of House, M.D. I love Hugh Laurie, whose pinnacles of ridiculousness in Blackadder you'll never find surpassed anywhere. Season two has some really great episodes I want to rewatch, including "Humpty Dumpty," in which the hospital chief Cuddy's Latino construction worker falls off her roof but then has a more serious problem -- why are his hands gangrening? My favorite from this season is probably "Failure to Communicate," which features House working his way back into his ex-girlfriend's affections while diagnosing an aphasia-stricken journalist over the telephone. Seriously. No sophomore slump here.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Frank Wedekind < Frankie Valli

I just had to add what my friend overheard as we walked out of Spring Awakening:

"Jersey Boys
was way better than this."

I know I didn't give Spring Awakening a rave, but my god, comparing it to the Four Seasons; that's like comparing apples and... parakeets.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

It's about what?!

If you saw Spring Awakening on the Tonys, you saw all the good bits. If you missed it, watch it here. I wouldn't positively tell you not to go see it, by I was by no means wowed.

Part of this, my friend authoritatively tells me, is due to the fact that the cast is all new, and not particularly strong (with one or two exceptions). They have nice voices, but the change in intensity from the Tonys performance is obvious even if you only view the latter on YouTube. Still, it didn't stop many people in the relatively young audience from oohing and aahing over it during the intermission and afterwards.

The book is based on Frank Wedekind's story of sexual awakening in turn of the century Germany, not your typical musical fare. Male and female students, educated separately, are all struggling to learn the facts of life. Innocent Wendla encounters childhood friend Melchior, a young nihilist hidden behind the facade of the perfect student; struggling Moritz, the worst student and Melchior's best friend, encounters runaway childhood friend Ilse, now living in an artists' colony, too late to save himself. It all ends in death of various kinds and lots of mournful ballads that all sound the same.

The high-energy thumping numbers that open the show gave promise of a Rent for a new generation, which is pretty much what it is regardless of my opinion. I just don't think it has Rent's energy or colorful personalities, or for that matter its now nostalgic NYC setting. There's one more in the second act, "I'm Fucked," which gets the show going again, but it ends with a "Seasons of Love" type number about "Purple Summer." I know I'm drawing all of these comparisons after eschewing the Les Mis comparisons for Two Cities, but hey, it was in my mind.

The blocking is very dynamic, with the cast mostly running back and forth from sitting in old-fashioned school chairs on the sides (where audience members can also buy tickets), and a good use of the stage space -- poor Melchior has to go sit on a naughty chair twelve feet up in the air, vault a fence, etc. Platforms raise and sink, lights on the back of the stage and sides of the theater flash on and off -- it's a high energy staging. The adult characters are all played by one man and woman, which as my friend observed has the benefit of being economically responsible and symbolic of the older generation's ineffective conservatism, regardless of their attitudes. Actually, I've talked myself into it: I would recommend it. But more for interest than the wow.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Cute and clever

I also read some David Sedaris, finally, while in NYC (seemed vaguely appropriate, and my friends had it on their bookshelf). Me Talk Pretty One Day is the one with the child-like writing on a chalkboard for a cover. You probably saw it in bookstores on the display or recommended shelves for months on end. I never knew what it was, or really what Sedaris was all about, until I saw him on Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert. For those similarly impaired, he's a humorist of a peculiar kind and the brother of Amy Sedaris (also a humorist of a peculiar kind). MTPOD deals half with life in America, including his weird family, half with living in France and trying to learn French; that's where the title comes from, his inept grammar and terrible classroom experiences.

I won't say I wasn't amused, because I was, but it wasn't very anything to me; it wasn't really very laugh-out-loud or very memorable or very shocking or very original or very clever or very biting or... you get the idea. This might be my own fault, since I was hoping for a modern-day Thurber of sorts. I get the sense that he is that to some. I suppose the way I'd summarize it in a quick conversation is, "Yeah, it was OK. I guess I'd recommend it. Didn't rush out to read anything else of his, though."

Monday, September 1, 2008

The other NYC

I didn't stop reading (or working) while I was in NYC, though it may have seemed like it from my theatercentric blog posts (more to come, by the way, on the last show I saw before I left town). I finally got around to Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, 2006 Booker Prize winner. It's a long novel that revels in the depressing details of ordinary life, which may or may not be surmountable by love and imagination--the ending isn't so uplifting that the author comes down on one side or the other. A retired English-educated Indian judge, living in a tumble-down house in the foothills of the Himalayas with his teenage granddaughter, and their cook's son illegally working and squatting in NYC, ponder their miserable existences and strangely mirror each others' multinational lives across a huge class divide as well as half the globe.

Very well written, with some good descriptive writing, and overall a good read. The sections in NYC were particularly good; there aren't as many novels written about the underbelly of New York in that way, though the squalor of London is fairly well explored in Indian diasporic writing (see Brick Lane). I didn't find the sections on the granddaughter as interesting, though one could certainly sympathize with her position: parents dead in Russia, suddenly thrown into the hills with nobody her own age but her tutor, who turns into a radical. Desai is wonderful at imagining situation, though I'm curious to read her other earlier novel and see how long she is on plot in that one. Overall, a very good read, though not one of my rare big wows.