Tag Archives: theater

Chess in Concert: Post-Cold War Edition

The cold-war musical Chess works surprisingly well set in the present day.

UCI Drama’s production is a concert staging of the show, with the orchestra and choir onstage, and the actors carrying handheld microphones with minimal props. It works well, especially for the more 80s-pop numbers like “Nobody’s Side” and the big ensemble songs like “Merano” and the chess games, though it gets a little awkward when the characters are singing to each other with microphones. (The show features two competing styles of music, achingly 80s and classical musical theater.)

The show’s structure is fluid, with vast differences between the original London and Broadway versions and later productions, and just about every version tweaking the story and moving songs around. This version largely follows the London stage version, with a few key changes:

  1. It’s set in the present day. This updates the USSR to Russia and drops the CIA vs KGB elements of the background game played between Walter and Molokov. Florence is the daughter of Hungarian refugees, rather than a former child refugee herself (Budapest 1956 is the only fixed date in the story.) The political stakes may be a bit lower, but the personal stakes work just as well.
  2. Several roles have been recast as women, including Molokova and the arbiter, which makes the show even more “alto-licious” (as Katie puts it).
  3. The second act drops a lot of the connections between songs (it is done as a concert, after all), which means you don’t see the breakdown of Anatoly’s and Florence’s relationship, or Anatoly cracking under the pressure, until he finds his “one true obligation.” You get the before and after but not the process.

The performances were all solid, with Molokova in particular as a standout.

An aside: I found it interesting to see an actual production of Chess at UCI, since the songs had been so popular with the musical theater crowd when I was there in the 1990s. “I Know Him So Well,” “Heaven Help My Heart,” and “Someone Else’s Story” were standards in the library, and I heard them a zillion times, while all the guys who were serious about musicals wanted to sing “Anthem.” And really, can you blame them?

I’m still not sure how well “Someone Else’s Story” works for Svetlana, but that ship has sailed. And “One Night In Bangkok,” despite being instantly recognizable to anyone who lived through the 80s, is cringe-worthy now. For this production they downplay the stereotyping by playing up the fact that it’s seen through the perspective of a total lout (Freddie). It’s still cringe-worthy, but at least it’s a character statement rather than a narrative one.

The production continues through this weekend.

Beauty and the Beast, Live in 3D

I saw 3D Theatricals’ production of Beauty and the Beast this weekend and really enjoyed it. It was much better than the stripped-down touring version we saw in 2010. Bigger cast, bigger orchestra, more elaborate costumes and sets, and they didn’t cut any of the songs (including the one I kind of wish they had).

Great performances from the leads. Belle was a little more brassy than I’m used to, but it worked. The scenes with her and Maurice at the beginning had a nice geeky-family-hanging-out feel to them. Gaston’s performance actually reminded me a lot of Captain Hammer.

It was interesting to see how they worked around the lack of an understudy for Lumiere. They said he (and the actor playing Chip) had been delayed by a car accident, which may have been one he was involved in, or may have been the multi-car fatal collision and fire that shut down the 5 freeway for the whole day. They pulled an actor from the ensemble who had never rehearsed the part, and while he knew a lot of it, they still had to work around things like the dance steps in “Be Our Guest.” (Belle stepped in and offered to lead.) The regular actor made it there before act two and stepped back into the role.

Incidentally: Chip is a thankless part. You have to sit inside a cart wearing a giant teacup on your head the entire time you’re on stage. Though I’m impressed at what it takes to play Mrs. Potts: You need to hold one arm up the entire time (or else wear a very unbalanced costume on your shoulder, which I can imagine messing up your back), and push that cart around one-handed, with choreography. I hope directors/costumers are willing to adapt the costume for the actress’ dominant hand.

Anyway, it was a good production, and an interesting live-theater snafu. Sadly, I was the only one flu-less enough to go, and it was the last weekend of a short run. One of these days!

Belle’s Dreams of Adventure

It never occurred to me in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast that Belle was giving up her dreams of adventure in the great wide somewhere to be with the Prince Formerly Known as Beast. She gives them up at the beginning of the story to save her father, but by the end, what’s she done?

  • Joined a society of transformed humans in an enchanted castle.
  • Fought wolves in a snowstorm.
  • Held her own against a ferocious Beast and changed him.
  • Saved her father’s life and freedom, and the life of the Beast.
  • Escaped that poor provincial town (and that boorish, brainless Gaston)

She’s had a big adventure…and now that the prince is human again and she’s cast her lot in with him, she has the resources and freedom to have more.

That’s why I can’t stand “A Change in Me,” the song that was added to the stage musical a few years in. It takes a criticism that I always thought was unfair — that she’s OK with giving up her dreams to be with a guy — and makes it canon.

Symbolic Costuming: Stage vs. Screen

We took the kiddo to see his first live theater play today, A Year With Frog and Toad. It’s a children’s musical based on the Frog and Toad books, with each song adapted from one of the stories. The costumes in this production tended toward symbolic representation rather than realism. Frog and Toad themselves just wore old-fashioned patchwork suits with green or brown color schemes. Birds had feather boas, aviator goggles, orange tights and yellow shoes. Moles had miner’s helmets and jumpsuits.

That’s something that works well in live theater, but moviegoing audiences want realism. Or studios do. So effects budgets keep climbing, regardless of storytelling quality, as they strive for ever more detail.

The only recent movie I can think of that went for this sort of look was Into the Woods, with the wolf. But everything else in the film went for realism (even Cinderella’s frozen-in-time inner monologue of “On the Steps of the Palace”), so it just looked way out of place. On stage you’d go with it. In another movie you might. But in this case it was just Johnny Depp in a weird outfit. Gee, I’ve never seen that before.

They Didn’t Know What They Were Getting Into: the Woods

Despite an overall 7.0 rating, there are a slew of one– and two-star reviews of Into the Woods on IMDB. Did these people see the same movie I did? As I looked through several pages seemingly sorted by rating, a few common threads emerged:

1. Too much singing! It’s a musical. Unfortunately, the trailers seemed to be trying to hide this fact.

2. It wasn’t a fluffy, happy family movie. Well, no. It’s supposed to be a darker, more complex take on the stories. Again, the ad campaign wasn’t entirely clear on this, and several people said they had expected it to be kid-friendly because of the Disney name. That says something about the power of the Disney brand (especially when associated with fairy tales), and makes me wonder if it would have been better to release it through, say, Touchstone.

Interestingly, the things people were most upset by are things that were toned down (or moved off-screen) from the stage version. I guess the studio shouldn’t have bothered with those notes. And one recurring complaint, Cinderella’s stepsisters’ more extreme efforts to get into the shoe, is actually in the Brothers Grimm version (where her name is translated as Ashputtel).

Those two threads are a failure of the ad campaign to prepare people for what they were going to see. (Though the viewers complaining that it’s “not PG” seem a little unclear on the concept of “Parental Guidance suggested: Some material may not be suitable for children.”) But then there’s this…

3. It should have stopped before the final act. That would be missing the point, which is to follow through with the consequences of what everyone did in act one, and the personality traits that brought them through it.

Consider: How does Cinderella fit in with the royal family? How does Red Riding Hood deal with the trauma of her experience with the wolf? How is Rapunzel affected by her life in isolation? The baker and his wife had a lot of trouble working together just to get their child; how are they going to handle raising him? The princes are still going to be charming, and they’re accustomed to the chase. And when you come down to it, Jack broke into someone’s house, stole a bunch of stuff, and then killed him.

Admittedly, the second act isn’t as strong in the movie as it is in the play, because they cut out a lot of it…but I’ve heard the same complaint leveled at the show. That would be like cutting the second act of The Fantasticks. You could perform just the first act, sure, but it would be much less meaningful.

Once you get to the three-star reviews, you find more people who still didn’t like it, but understood what it was supposed to be. They didn’t like the performances, or thought the story structure didn’t hang together, or just don’t like Sondheim, or knew it was going to be a darker take but still didn’t like it. Fair enough. Everyone has different tastes, and what works for one viewer doesn’t always work for someone else. But at least they disliked it for what it was, not for what it wasn’t.

Though it would help if the ads had been a bit more clear.