Friday, August 09, 2019

THEATER: "Unchilding" Gets Shakily On Its Feet

UNCHILDING ** out of ****
DIMENNA CENTER FOR CLASSICAL MUSIC 

The world premiere of Unchilding presented a piece that is clearly a work in progress from a director striving to find a unique voice...or at least one that suits this particular project. It's downtown in every sense of the word and you'd normally expect to stumble across it at La Mama (which gets a thanks in the credits) or in a raw loft space surrounded by hipsters where someone hands you a leaflet with credits run off by a pal at Kinkos who did it for free.

Instead it's staged at the handsome Dimenna Center with a cast of 26 onstage (more provide voice work for pre-recorded dialogue), a very classy booklet complete with cast photos and the entire night thoroughly documented (two or three cameras filmed the performance while still photographers discreetly took pictures of the audience). Director/creator Joshua Kaufman is either independently wealthy or has a gift that major talents often have for getting others on board with their vision. It was all a little head-spinning and discombobulating, from the multi-media tech work (all exquisite, which means they meant to have a bright light blaring down on us from behind until the performance began) to the is-it-over finale that left the audience uncertain if it was really done even after they clapped.

None of this matters, but it provides the context for what was an interesting, uncertain 50 minute performance piece. It uses one-act plays by John Walter Howley as the building blocks for Kaufman's show. Basically, Kaufman recorded dialogue from these plays (they may be performed in full, but I don't think so). That provides a soundtrack for the action on stage. In dim light, other actors (not the ones who recorded the dialogue) come onto a bare setting of wooden platforms and stage tableaus, each of them essentially frozen into place and staring off with focused intent. Once they are in position, the soundtrack begins to play and the story starts.

So while we're hearing two short plays presented almost as radio dramas, we watch people onstage embodying those characters without moving or emoting much if at all. The first story involves soldiers trapped in a building and cut off from their main company. The second story involves a sister and brother struggling to get by in a fishing town when a rough but well-intentioned local man asks the sister to marry him. I'm not sure why these particular plays needed this particular presentation (which is unconventional if not unheard of). While it didn't pay any particular dividends, I will say it didn't not work.


(Uncredited image from the Unchilding program)

A few thoughts occur. The setting of the first story was less clear to us and the audio mix of the dialogue and action dropped the ball a little. When a soldier goes upstairs to keep watch, we were a bit adrift. Are they in a cellar? On  the first floor, with the lookout on the second? When gunfire erupts, it took a minute to be told what had happened, which was far from what we imagined  based on the soundscape. And the ending was abrupt and unsatisfying. No such problem of setting arises in the second story, which takes place in a shack by the water. The sound of water and perhaps a seagull and we're there. The story was also stronger, thanks to a clearer conflict and climax.

Kaufman's presentation of the two dozen+ actors should be bolder and more frequent. His soldiers were poised in a useful tension at first. And the new recruit rising up unexpectedly (and nervously) from beneath the wooden platforms was probably the best flourish of the night. Similarly, a wordless scene was staged between the two playlets. It didn't precisely have anything to do with what came before or after but it was memorable. More of that was needed to flesh out what the audience actually watched. Instead, we had a staging and a visual presentation that was straightforward but not always arresting. Having a group of townspeople with their backs to the audience and then turning to face us/the characters at a key moment of guilt in the second story was far too nail-on-the-head. It didn't help that this obvious choice was also the biggest, hardest to miss moment of the night.

What really didn't work was Kaufman's interest in the grotesque. The fisherman who comes a -courting in the second tale? He's wearing a very effective bit of makeup/mask that makes him appear to have six eyes, like some mythological creature from The Odyssey. It certainly looked striking, but after the initial impact you spend most of the scene half-listening to the story and half-wondering why precisely Kaufman decided the mask was a good or interesting idea. It doesn't need to make sense or be explained, exactly, but it didn't register effectively on a subconscious level either. (The other grotesque touch perhaps did, but it too felt too obvious and too much.)

While the evening was appropriately about 50 minutes long, the simple fact is that an evening of just two vignettes simply doesn't work. You need at least three vignettes...or the two vignettes need to be more specific and strong tales, more like two one acts than what we had. That and adding some more of the unexplained but effective tableau that separated the two stories would give this work a shape and purpose and form it lacks now.

Nonetheless, Kaufman marshaled dozens of people and impressive resources for this piece. He and his casting associates found a strong group of actors who brought presence to the stage, especially Michael James Fry as a crusty soldier, Hannah Crane (I believe) as Laura (the sister being proposed to) and whichever actor embodied the raw recruit in the first story. (The actors who played specific roles on stage are not ID'd as such.) Indeed, the actress playing Laura added immeasurably to the emotional impact of the second piece with nothing at her disposal but her eyes and her intensity.

The hardest part of creating art that needs a team effort like theater/performance is just making the damn thing happen, convincing others with talent you have a vision and that they are going to want to be part of making that vision happen. At that, Kaufmann most certainly succeeded.


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Ink ***
Beetlejuice **
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Moulin Rouge ** 1/2
Bat Out Of Hell **
Unchilding **

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.


THEATER: more! More!! MORE!!! -- "Moulin Rouge" and "Bat Out Of Hell"

MOULIN ROUGE! ** 1/2 out of ****
AL HIRSCHFELD THEATRE

BAT OUT OF HELL **  out of ****
NEW YORK CITY CENTER 

Director Baz Luhrmannn and composer Jim Steinman have at least one thing in common: they both believe excess is a wonderful place to start. If a scene in a film can go over the top, Luhrmann wonders, why not go over the top and then over THAT top? If a song can benefit from a choir, Steinman thinks, surely two choirs would be even better? Luhrmannn wanted to create an original movie musical in the style of Bollywood. (And then he topped that by choosing to populate it with a bevy of familiar pop gems.) Steinman fought for decades to tell a rock and roll version of Peter Pan in full-on theatrical glory.

Both succeeded immensely, with Luhrmann directing the Oscar-winning smash film Moulin Rouge! and Steinman masterminding the massive selling Meat Loaf album Bat Out Of Hell. They can savor dream projects springing from those hits and playing now in New York, at least for the moment. But Moulin Rouge! the stage musical is an out-and-out smash that will make the film's success seem a mere appetizer. It's going to run for years. On the other hand, Bat Out Of Hell comes to City Center battered and a little bowed -- after some offstage travails -- for a brief run and a shortened North American tour. Fans of both should be plenty pleased but Moulin Rouge! is going to make a lot of new fans while Bat Out Of Hell will have to settle for the faithful.



First, the hit. Moulin Rouge! was a successful film but apparently it's a truly beloved film as well. Since day one of previews, this show has essentially been playing like a monster hit AFTER the rave reviews came out, not like a musical with a movie tie-in and something to prove. Audiences are lined up and ready to have fun and the show is sending them away very happy. You want excess?  Moulin Rouge! has it in spades, from the draped-in-sumptuous-red theater to the performers prowling the aisles and staring haughtily and sexily at one and all to the score that has been expanded from the film's already lengthy list of beloved pop classics to include a LOT more songs that have come out since the movie opened in 2001.

You might complain that the story is cobbled together from a thousand different references. But since that's the ENTIRE POINT of Moulin Rouge! your complaints will fall on deaf ears. Instead of Ewan McGregor as a young artist new to Paris, we have the charming Aaron Tveit. Instead of Nicole Kidman as the courtesan with a heart of gold who loves the young artist but must offer herself to a vicious nobleman to save the Moulin Rouge and all her friends from a life on the street, we have the steely, sexy Karen Olivo. And instead of Alan Cumming in Cabaret, we  have Dannny Burstein as our sleazy, don't-turn-your-back-on-him master of ceremonies. It's a fair trade and all three handle the heavy lifting they are called on to do with effortless ease.

I don't really like the film Moulin Rouge! but the stage production has one huge advantage: no editing. Baz Luhrmann likes to edit his movies in a manic style that makes the typical MTV music video seem like an Ozu film. The stage show certainly isn't a shrinking violet when it comes to action (they pop the confetti right at the start and it keeps coming down for almost the entire show) but it's not an assault on the senses. And like the film, all those new pop songs tossed into the mix are actually chosen with care. Those songs might provide a key phrase or line of dialogue; other times they sing a verse or chorus (hearing an entire song is a rarity). But it's not just a medley of songs you know. Each tune serves a purpose, however passing or obvious. It's not until the curtain call and its Mamma Mia, legally required mini-pop concert that they deliver the sort of radio dial-spinning mashup of song after song after song that I feared all along. And at that point, who cares?

It's all stuff and nonsense, but it's done with professional zeal by a tireless, hardworking cast and a creative team that is on point from start to finish. Both shows would benefit from villains that are less villainous but a little moustache-twirling never hurt anyone. Like a hooker, Moulin Rouge! tantalizes and dazzles and implies you'll be getting the experience of a lifetime. But she's not your girlfriend and this isn't a romance. You get what you paid for and not a penny more. She's a pro and you're the mark and really, you have nothing to complain about. And yeah, when friends come to town and want to see a show, you'll be back; you know you will. And she'll be waiting, a cool smile on her face.



Bat Out Of Hell however is here for a limited time only before heading out on tour. If you're a fan of that classic Meat Loaf album or the Jim Steinman aesthetic of Phil Spector teen melodrama turned up to 11, by all means catch it. You'll hear some classic songs delivered with verve by a vocally terrific cast. You'll also sort of see Steinman's long-gestating, post-apocalyptic spin on Peter Pan, more's the pity. In it, the city of Obsidian is floating out to sea, plagued by teens trapped in eternal youth by some nuclear  winter fallout or something. The adults resent those restless, sexy, ready-to-rock kids and of course the kids resent those boring old adults because that's what kids do. Raven, the daughter of a real estate mogul named Falco has fallen hard for Strat, the leader of the Lost (as in Lost Boys, natch).

So when she sneaks away and...wait, what am I doing? Describing the plot? The plot is batshit crazy. The show is batshit crazy. The choreography is Jane Fonda-ish batshit crazy. The directing is batshit crazy, tossing in lots of cameras to capture the action even though it's wildly unnecessary and distracting. The set is...well, not bad, with the high-rise home of our villain Falco suggesting the neck of an electric guitar quite nicely while the hangout of the teenage heroes is nestled at its base. The costumes are REALLY batshit crazy. (Apparently every apocalypse leads to people wearing football shoulder pads and a lot of fringe: see Mad Max and all its descendants.)

Who cares? It's Bat Out Of Hell! I am dorky enough to spot the artwork from Jim Steinman's solo album Bad For Good on Raven's bedroom wall. I know Jim Steinman's work very, very well, from Air Supply to the Streets Of Fire soundtrack to his early days at the Public Theatre right up to today. He's not a guilty pleasure, just a pleasure and his songs are enduring, bombastic fun. Which is why anyone who wants to sing along to tunes they love can turn off their brain and have a pretty good time. But I couldn't, not really, because these musical-worthy numbers deserve much better.

Pop songs have been reaching for operatic grandeur since the early days of Spector, Roy Orbison, Johnny Ray, et al. And Steinman knows his way around a show tune. But the post-apocalyptic setting he's had his heart set on undercuts the fun of seeing a kid's emotions explode into rock n roll. Set this story in suburbia rather than Blade Runner and these songs just work better. EVERYTHING is big when the world has collapsed so the setting dwarfs the emotions. But when you're stuck in high school and your friends and parents roll their eyes and indulge your puppy love and don't realize the feelings you feel are the biggest feelings anyone has ever felt (ever!), the only thing a teenager can do is burst into a big, big song.

"Paradise By The Dashboard Light" is a song about two people who got married too soon. In my mind, maybe because it was sung by Mr. Loaf and Ellen Foley, the couple is pretty young and haven't even paid off the coast of their honeymoon yet. And already they realize they've made a big mistake. But here it's performed by parents who are in their 40s or 50s, people who fell out of love a long, long time ago. High school wasn't yesterday; it was centuries ago. Bradley Dean and Tony winner Lena Hall sing the hell out of it, along with "What Part Of My Body Hurts The Most," another highlight (and a song that's new to me). Indeed, they're so good they practically steal the show from the kids. As with Moulin Rouge!, Dean is the villain here and the show would work better if he wasn't so physically abusive and controlling of his wife and daughter. Ah well, complexity is not the order of the day.

Other songs also work a charm, despite the absurd trappings of the story and the staging. (At one point, a guy roars in on a motorcycle, has an exchange and then angrily takes off...while carefully backing up his bike so he can go offstage without causing harm. Safety first! No, it doesn't work.) The deep-voiced Danielle Steers and Tyrick Wiltez Jones turn the Bat Out of Hell hit single "Two Out Of Three Ain't Bad" from a kiss-off to a touching duet. "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All" -- the Air Supply hit -- also becomes a lovely number for both the teens and the parents. And I FINALLY made lyrical sense of "I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won't Do That)" when it was performed by the happy couples at the finale pledging their all.

Andrew Polec is wide-eyed and strong-voiced as Strat and Christina Bennington is right there as Raven. (She has a funny opening moment as a very bored teen who pours herself over the couch and onto the floor. Indeed, Bennington seems to spend half the show on her bed or on the floor and takes it all in stride, though she and Polec are helpless to overcome some of the godawful choreography and staging which sometimes has them prancing around the stage in a ludicrous manner. (And ludicrous in this context is saying something.) But again Dean and especially Hall almost make you wish the show was about the adults. The rest of the cast is also very strong vocally, with the strutting Will Branner such a standout in a small part that you know without looking he's the understudy for the lead role of Strat. Yeah, this is supposed to be a show, not a tribute concert, but if they just stood there and belted these songs out you'd have a lot of fun. And who the hell knows? The original album came out and caused no excitement. It wasn't until Meat Loaf toured and toured the hell out of it that the audiences became bigger and the radio airplay caught on and MTV started putting his songs on an endless loop late at night. I doubt it (this show always seemed to have a strictly British appeal in its staging a la the truly awful Queen musical We Will Rock You). But maybe they'll tour and word of mouth will spread and history will repeat itself.

Steinman has always been working in a theatrical context. His songs have reprises and natural breaks where you can fit in some dialogue and then dive back into the song. They can be performed, not just sung. "All Revved Up And No Place To Go" is a terrific scene-setter. The song "Bat Out Of Hell" is a gem of an act one closer. (Imagine if you'd heard it for the first time on stage in a musical, rather than as a familiar classic shoehorned into a show after all these years.)

Damn, this project could still be good. I'd do a TV movie with teens -- and make the setting painfully banal rather than the no-rules world of The Walking Dead. These songs would be their only emotional release, not a respite from trying to survive the end of the world. I'd tell Steinman that I love the song "Dead Ringer For Love" (Cher and Meat Loaf crush it  on Loaf's second album) but it's actually not a theatrical song and should be cut. I'd point out that since Strat is the Peter Pan character, it doesn't make sense for Raven to sing most of "It's All Coming Back To Me Now." He's the one who forgets, he's the one who left and waited six months to come back, so that should be his song. I'd tell Steinman the vengeful Tink subplot is faithful to JM Barrie but just doesn't work here and besides, we're ditching the whole Peter Pan thing anyway. I'd tell Steinman to either buy the rights to "Rock Me Amadeus" or call  the dad something other than Falco. And then I'd ask Steinman to sign my cassette and my CD copies of Bad For Good.


THEATER OF 2019

Frankenstein: Under The Radar Fest at the Public ** 1/2
Minor Character: Under The Radar Festival at the Public ***
Ink: Under The Radar  Festival at the Public  ** 1/2
Choir Boy ** 1/2
White Noise ** 1/2
Kiss Me, Kate ***
Ain't No Mo' *** 1/2
Ain't Too Proud **
The Cradle Will Rock * 1/2
Mrs. Murray's Menagerie *** 1/2
Oklahoma! (on Broadway) ** 1/2
Socrates **
The Pain Of My Belligerence *
Burn This **
Hadestown *** 1/2
All My Sons * 1/2
Tootsie ** 1/2
Ink ***
Beetlejuice **
Estado Vegetal ***
Hans Christian Andersen * 1/2
Cirque du Soleil: Luzia ***
BLKS ** 1/2
Moulin Rouge ** 1/2
Bat Out Of Hell **
Unchilding **

Thanks for reading. Michael Giltz is the creator of BookFilter, a book lover’s best friend. It’s a website that lets you browse for books online the way you do in a physical bookstore, provides comprehensive info on new releases every week in every category and offers passionate personal recommendations every step of the way. He’s also the cohost of Showbiz Sandbox, a weekly pop culture podcast that reveals the industry take on entertainment news of the day with top journalists and opinion makers as guests. It’s available for free on iTunes. Visit Michael Giltz at his website. Download his podcast of celebrity interviews and his radio show, also called Popsurfing and also available for free on iTunes.






Tuesday, June 25, 2019

"TOY STORY 4" IS #1 AT THE WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE...AND NO DISAPPOINTMENT

Showbiz Sandbox is the only one that looks at the worldwide box office for the ENTIRE week. That can tell a very different story from everyone else -- they're comparing new movies to current releases and compare four days of box office from new movies to THREE days of box office from movies that are already out. Huh? We compare the TOTAL box office from the entire week.

That means Aladdin was the #1 movie worldwide for four weeks in a row. Now it has been dethroned by another Disney movie, Toy Story 4.



And anyone who suggests Toy Story 4 is a disappointment is bonkers. They're comparing the flawed tracking that shows what they THINK a movie might make to its actual opening and then  comparing that to prior Pixar releases over a holiday weekend. Nonsense. All that matters is a movie's budget and how much it grosses when all is said and done. Toy Story 4 cost a reported $200m and will almost certainly gross $800m worldwide. In what universe is that a disappointment? Check out the exclusive Showbiz Sandbox figures for the week.

WEEK OF JUNE 23 SHOWBIZ SANDBOX WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE CHARTS FOR THE PREVIOUS SEVEN DAYS


  1. TOY STORY 4 ($200mb) -- $238m (opening week)
  2. ALADDIN ($180mb) -- $  85m/ $810m (last seven days/worldwide )
  3. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL ($110mb) - $  80m/ $182m
  4. SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 ($80mb) -- $  39m/ $194m
  5. SPIRITED AWAY ($19mb) -- $  28m/ $ 51m? ($290m?)
  6. DARK PHOENIX ($200mb) -- $  28m/ $233m
  7. ROCKETMAN ($40mb) -- $  20m/ $153m
  8. CHILD’S PLAY ($10mb) -- $  17m (opening week)
  9. JOHN WICK 3 ($75m + $40 p&a) -- $  13m/ $289m
  10. GODZILLA KING MONSTERS ($170mb) -- $  12m/ $352m (?)
  11. MY BEST SUMMER (Chi rom drama) -- $    9m/ $54m
  12. PARASITE (K Palme d’Or) -- $     8m/ $70m
  13. SHAFT ($30mb) -- $     8m/ $16m
  14. AVENGERS: ENDGAME ($360mb) -- $     7m/ $2.749b (needs $39m)
  15. GOING VERTICAL (Russian; $11mb) $     6m/ $62m
  16. LATE NIGHT ($13mb pickup Amazon) -- $     5m/ $10m
  17. LONG LIVE THE KING -- $     4m (opening week)
18. ANNA (Luc Besson; $30mb) -- $     4m (opening week)

Monday, June 17, 2019

"ALADDIN" #1 AT WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE FOR FOURTH WEEK IN A ROW

Hey kids,

Just because Sperling is playing in Europe doesn't mean you shouldn't get an update on the worldwide box office. Here are the biggest films of the week ending June 16. Remember, we are talking about the worldwide box office. And unlike everyone else, we don't just look at the grosses from the last four days for new movies (which usually open on Thursday) or the grosses from the last three days for movies that have been out for a week or more. We add up all the grosses for the ENTIRE week. And that tells a surprisingly different story.



If you listen to everyone else, the #1 movie at the box office worldwide has changed every single week for the past four weeks. They've been:

Week ending May 26, 2019 -- ALADDIN
Week ending June 2, 2019 --  GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS
Week ending June 9, 2019 --  DARK PHOENIX
Week ending June 16, 2019 -- MEN IN BLACK: INTERNATIONAL

But if you look at the total box office for the entire week (and remember, this is summer time when weekday box office is especially robust), if you add up the money made Monday through Sunday rather than just the money made over the weekend, here's what you find....



Week ending May 26, 2019 -- ALADDIN!
Week ending June 2, 2019 --   ALADDIN!!
Week ending June 9, 2019 --   ALADDIN!!!
Week ending June 16, 2019 -- ALADDIN!!!!

Yes, Aladdin has been the most popular movie in the world for the past four weeks. That's going to change next week when Toy Story 4 jumps to the top of the charts. But Aladdin's dominance is notable and it's a story you hear ONLY from Showbiz Sandbox. Here is our chart listing the top grossing movies worldwide for the ENTIRE week ending June 16. Enjoy! And we'll see you next week!

WEEK OF JUNE 16 SHOWBIZ SANDBOX WORLDWIDE BOX OFFICE CHARTS FOR THE PREVIOUS SEVEN DAYS


  1. ALADDIN ($180mb) (Fourth week in a row) -- $120m/ $725m (week/total)  
  2. MEN IN BLACK INTERNATIONAL ($110mb -- $102m (opening week)
  3. DARK PHOENIX ($200mb) -- $ 60m/ $204m
  4. SECRET LIFE OF PETS 2 ($80mb) -- $ 57m/ $155m
  5. GODZILLA KING MONSTERS ($170mb) -- $ 47m/ $340m
  6. ROCKETMAN ($40mb) -- $ 31m/ $133m
  7. JOHN WICK 3 ($75m + $40m p&a) -- $ 24m/ $276m
  8. MY BEST SUMMER (Chi rom dram) -- $ 19m/ $45m
  9. PARASITE (K Palme d’Or winner) -- $ 16m/ $62m
  10. AVENGERS: ENDGAME ($360mb) -- $ 12m/ $2.742b (needs $46m)
  11. MA ($5mb) -- $ 11m/ $52m
  12. POKEMON DET PICACHU ($150mb) -- $ 10m/ $420m
  13. CHASING THE DRAGON 2 (Chi action) -- $ 10m/ $40m
  14. SHAFT $30mb) $  8m/ $8m
  15. LATE NIGHT ($13m Amazon pickup) -- $  5.4m/ $5.7m
  16. A CITY CALLED MACAU (Chi gambling drama) $  4m/ $4m (opening week)
  17. WHISPER OF SILENT BODY (Chi med mys) $  3m/ $3m (opening week)
  18. THE DEAD DON’T DIE (Jarmusch zombie) $  3m/ $5.4m
  19. GOING VERTICAL ($11m; Russian basketball) $  2m/ $56m (highest grossing Russian film in nation’s history)

https://www.comscore.com/Insights/Rankings