Theater Review: Lights Out: Nat King Cole

“Is this how I’m going to go out?” American Negro singer Nat “King” Cole asks himself before performing for the final episode of his TV variety show after a makeup artist tries to apply cosmetics to lighten his skin.

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This question and how Cole answers it forms the basis for the wild fantasy that’s Lights Out: Nat “King” Cole at the Geffen Playhouse, which recently debuted in the Gil Cates Theater and runs until March 24. As Cole, Dulé Hill (NBC’s The West Wing, USA Network’s Psych) can sing and dance, which Psych fans already know, though he doesn’t come close to matching Cole’s smooth, crooning voice.

This harsh show business fantasy has eye-popping visuals, gimmicks and plot turns that keep the audience paying attention. It’s more modern social commentary than nostalgic performance evoking an American icon.

Indeed, playwrights Colman Domingo and Patricia McGregor cast Cole as repressing or suppressing his inner rage as he prepares for the last broadcast of his variety show (Cole was TV’s first black host). Integrally, the 90-minute show revolves around tormented Cole as he ponders advice from pal Sammy Davis, Jr. (Daniel J. Watts) to “go out with a bang.”

With raw, inventive staging and lighting that mocks or challenges the audience, depending upon one’s perspective, the entertainer who broke the color barrier on television experiences his moral dilemma through song. Most of the Nat “King” Cole classics are performed, often with cutting tie-ins to racism and other cultural points, as an elfin Davis pops in and out of the show.

The climax comes with a tap dance-off between Hill’s Cole and Watts’ Davis, with choreography by Jared Grimes that requires more stomping and pounding than tap dance of the day. This, too, is part of the playwrights’ contention that beneath the lightness of song and dance men like the marvelously talented Nat “King” Cole and Sammy Davis, Jr., there must’ve been real pain and suffering. Lights Out provokes the audience to think about that and, though the show doesn’t match its mania with substantial dramatic scenes, there’s a sense in which its catharsis earns Cole’s happier song.

Songs: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” by the Smashing Pumpkins

Songs: “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” by the Smashing Pumpkins

From their album with a long-winded title, Shiny and Oh So Bright Vol. 1/LP: No Past. No Future. No Sun. with eight songs comes a compactly urgent tune in power pop from the Smashing Pumpkins, “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)”.

The poetic song by songwriter, singer and band founder William Patrick Corgan, Jr., known as Billy Corgan, captures the same sense of a moment in time as the band’s “1979”. I like “Ghosts” better, however, for getting at the here and now. With a soft skip within a propulsive rhythm against Corgan’s distinctively nasal vocals, the reflective tune revolves around the question: “How long can this go on?”

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That’s a legitimate question. Examining this theme of finiteness, Corgan’s “Ghosts” coasts with assurance in accounting for the cost of dodging contradictions. It glides without sneering.

“Ghosts” can be emotional, combining Smashing Pumpkins’ signature distortional guitar, invoked this time as part of a blaring call and response, with biting and thoughtful metaphors of tyrants, convicts, kingdoms, sirens and valentines. “Ghosts” ties into a kind of cry against the irrational — the halfway, the purgatory, the mixed — which speaks to these times. Corgan observes as if to himself that it’s mixed “signals that hurts me most … we’re in the middle / we’re in the middle, ghosts”. Like a middle-aged man, he notes that, when “someone dies tonight / it’s tragic / but at least it’s not you”.

To me, “Silvery Sometimes (Ghosts)” amounts to an explicit recognition of the ghoulish consequences of today’s prevalent evasion. In other words, it’s two minutes of pop rock which is perfect for right now.

Christmas Commercialism

Now and again, an advertisement comes along that tells a magical tale. Years ago, a short ad which aired during the Super Bowl featured a cancer patient whose husband supports her while a song capturing the emotion of such a connection plays (watch it here). The Coca-Cola ad featuring Pittsburgh Steeler Joe Greene tossing his jersey to a hero-worshipping boy made an impact in 1979 (watch it here).

Though I think advertising is elevated in stature by today’s mixed, partly state-sponsored economy, ads can have value. Apple‘s strikingly anti-totalitarian “1984” ad comes to mind (watch it here).

Leave it to the ingenious Elton John (The Diving Board, Made in England, The Union) to create such an ad. With the John Lewis ad agency, he’s made an indelible Christmas advertisement for his final Yellow Brick Road tour which at once combines virtues with the commercialism of Christmas.

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Typical of Elton John, whose triumphant, inspiring life story was the subject of one of my first chosen writing assignments, the video (watch the ad by clicking on the image at left) bucks the status quo. Elton John’s video glorifies the life-changing power of a material possession as a Christmas present. Indeed, the advertisement depicts the bestowing of a gift of extravagance. The gift, shown as both the climax and origin of an unforgettable story and larger than life career, nested in the music of one of Elton John’s most haunting and romantic songs, is exactly the type of Christmas present the anti-capitalist preachers denounce and rail against every holiday season.

Elton John’s ad goes deeper than superficial notions of commercialism. In powerful sound, melody and motion pictures, the ad dramatizes virtues such as pride and productiveness and examines introspection, proper parenting and the selfish pursuit of happiness. That Elton John’s promotional clip also echoes the season’s uniquely solitary moments, when the person who values the wholeness of a lifetime tends to ponder the memory and legacy of loved ones who are gone, speaks to its stark emotional power.

As Elton John embarks on his farewell tour, his Christmas-themed ad depicts the reflection, contemplation and thought about the meaning, value and intimacy of a life well lived and that which makes it possible … including the sacred commitment to achieving one’s values here on earth which, thanks only to capitalism, can culminate in the giving of something manmade, wanted and wonderful.

Movie Review: The Nutcracker and the Four Realms

Any movie directed by two of Hollywood’s most able directors, Lasse Hallstrom (The Hundred-Foot Journey, CasanovaAn Unfinished Life, Chocolat, A Dog’s Purpose) and Joe Johnston (Captain AmericaJumanji, The Wolfman), is bound to be good, right? Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, based on the famous Christmas ballet, isn’t a bad movie at all. Parts of it are wonderfully isolated and restrained. Parts of it are breathtaking and beautiful. Johnston’s arresting visuals and Hallstrom’s gilded storytelling and sense of musical-pictorial grace seamlessly blend at times into a magical movie.

And a movie which begins with a reference to Isaac Newton’s third law of physics promises to be distinctive. With Keira Knightley (Collateral Beauty, a magical Christmas movie in itself) looking like Faye Dunaway and evoking Marilyn Monroe as the Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker adds an eccentric streak. Indeed, this 90-minute movie tucks in everything from a theme to “trust yourself”, a leading girl (Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar) who’s a budding mechanical engineer, men wearing makeup and Morgan Freeman (Feast of Love) as an eye-patched wise man.

All that and more is stuffed into yet another Disney picture in which the mother has died. Stuffing these parts into the movie somehow puts this otherwise enchanting film into the category of overproduced fantasy (though not nearly as dull as John Carter, The Golden Compass or those godawful Narnia films). The Nutcracker is predictable and strangely chaste. For example, the girl, when she enters this other world at a Christmas party, meets a handsome captain (Jayden Fowora-Knight). Their relationship, which serves as a major plot point, curiously goes flat.

As a story partly depicted in ballet, which comes about in The Nutcracker‘s most striking visual scenes, the storybook style can be both inviting and marvelous. Early scenes of the girl in the new fantasy land depict long, magnificent icicles in a Christmas tree forest where the mystery of a gift from the girl’s late mother deepens and is stolen away. If you know The Nutcracker ballet, and it’s hard to imagine that there’s anyone left who’s never been exposed to this classic score, characters and tale in some way, you know the characters and essential story.

But screenwriter Ashleigh Powell adds an engine, mice attacks, battle scenes, and the grieving father (Matthew Macfadyen). There’s frankly too much of everything and not enough character development for the girl, who climbs rocks in a skirt and never gets the depth to seem anything but distant, detached and really intelligent. The kitchen sink quality creeps in, making the climax and resolution less effective.

“Discipline, order, control” prominently turn out to be the cues for The Nutcracker‘s child-friendly warning against authoritarianism. But the public service announcement-like sensibility in which the STEM-ready girl’s intelligence is sewn into The Nutcracker and the Four Realms undercuts the sense that she’s really present and invested in solving the puzzle. It’s not that Foy makes the girl’s voyage look too easy. The problem is that she looks too often like she doesn’t learn or gain life-changing insights, as Alice purposefully does in Alice in Wonderland or breathless Dorothy does when going home in The Wizard of Oz. There’s music and a mirror but this girl seems to be biding her time.

Still, you get to see Helen Mirren (The Hundred-Foot Journey, White Nights, Collateral Beauty, The Queen, Hitchcock) brandishing a whip amid parts of a beloved ballet remade with the stylized panache of two masterful filmmakers.

Music Review: Arturo Toscanini | The HMV Recordings

Conductor Arturo Toscanini’s BBC records for EMI were collected some years ago as a six-CD recording set which I bought to become better acquainted with the art form and its highly touted orchestral master. My goal was to immerse myself in properly performed, quality classical music. Knowing that Toscanini, whose reputation is legendary, was noted for seeking to create the objective musical performance of a composer’s work, I thought this product would be a good starting point.

While I’m clearly not an expert on classical music, I think I made the right choice. The series leaves this pop, dance and rock fan enchanted and wanting more.

I had known that Toscanini (1867-1957) is best known for authoritative accounts of standard pieces of music in opera and orchestral music, though most seem to know his NBC recordings for the broadcasting network’s symphony orchestra, which NBC created for him in 1937. Toscanini also recorded music with the BBC Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Most of his BBC records are available on Arturo Toscanini: The HMV Recordings, a single boxed set which is part of EMI’s Icons series. The collection features compositions by Beethoven, Debussy and Brahms, as well as Toscanini’s conduction of music by Wagner, Mendelssohn and Mozart, among others.


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The energetic performances are detailed and enunciated. How familiar classical music pieces are uniquely framed and delivered is striking both in terms of quality and distinctiveness. Many of these records are almost 90 years old.

Brahms is a favorite. I have enjoyed listening to various recordings of his music for years. However, under Toscanini’s direction, his symphonies and overtures are faster, more urgent and, sometimes, more powerful. The conductor’s passion is evident in these live concert recordings. Works by Beethoven, Mozart and other masters are irresistible here, too. Even if a prelude or piece of music is not to my personal preference, the performance under Arturo Toscanini, who died at the age of 89 after retiring in the 1950s, is always compelling. The Italian immigrant, who refused to sanction authoritarianism, conducts composer Richard Wagner’s overture from Faust with vigor.

These recordings are old, so don’t expect perfection (or liner notes; the box contains only six discs and six sleeves). Expect imperfection in the audio quality. But I was surprised at how well preserved they are given the context and my adaptation to today’s superior technology. I am thoroughly enjoying discovering the joys of Arturo Toscanini. I feel like I’m just getting started and newly motivated to listen to classical music with deeper appreciation from a master’s perspective. In short, Toscanini leaves me greedy for more of his remarkably studied, practiced and expertly performed work.

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Movie Review: “A Star is Born” (2018)

Directed by its leading man, Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and co-starring the singer known as Lady Gaga, billed as Lady Gaga, the new remake of A Star is Born is good. Yet it is also a disappointingly missed opportunity. This is not the best version.

Hitting the main points of William Wellman’s sterling original 1937 film (read a roundup of my reviews of each previous version here), with nods to the 1976 remake, Cooper’s version, adapted by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) makes an impact. Given its essential theme contrasting selflessness with selfishness, which is more relevant than ever before, that’s to be expected.

However, absent certain elements, especially the role of the collective in spreading nihilism and explicitly dramatizing what destroys man at his best, it is also partial.

A Star is Born starts with guitar-playing vocalist Cooper’s banging out hard rock with his band before bingeing on hard liquor while his driver totes him around Los Angeles. The lengthy movie about a man on the way down meeting a woman on the way up recasts the falling star in a clinically correct mental health context. Unless you know how this story ends, look for plot clues.

Spiraling rocker Jackson Maine meets Gaga’s talented, rising singer Ally when she’s done up as Edith Piaf in a bar where men dress and lip synch as women. For her part, Gaga sings with gusto in her signature style, in which she starts singing and veers into belting the tune. As a performer, she conveys both a sense of commitment and a stage presence. As an actress, Lady Gaga is good, not great, as the insecure artist.

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Lady Gaga’s Ally snaps Bradley Cooper’s scruffy, blue-eyed Jack out of his stupor long enough with her theatricality — she descends into the cabaret audience with a rose — for him to notice that she toasts with a martini and two olives. It’s love at first sight.

Or something like it. Whatever else, Jack and Ally share the artist’s curse of chronic self-doubt. Even after grizzled, drunken hunk Jack, who fills every stadium seat with his blend of rip-roarin’ country-rock, charms the club’s drag queens with a down-home song, he apologizes, confiding to Ally that he thinks he “fucked that song up”. This, too, is a clue.

That an insecure star tutors an insecure ingenue and what becomes of both drives A Star is Born. When the movie lingers on their songwriting, it’s hard to resist. Their moment begins in earnest in an empty late-night retail parking lot that’s both indelible to LA and setting for the best scenes in the picture. Here, with no one else in sight, the artists show their humanity through showing themselves. Like in real life, especially in the city of stars.

When Ally answers “me” after Jack asks her who’ll take care of her injury, their character lines are drawn. In the years since the original, it is telling that the tale of a presumably privileged male being crushed while molding the presumably disadvantaged female still captures an audience’s imagination. Gaga grasps the character’s requisite strength through empathy. But Ally’s undeniable empathy starts with herself.

This is emblematic of Gaga’s star persona and best performances. Ally draws upon her own self-care with a father (Andrew Dice Clay) who projects his self-denial; she sees in Jackson Maine what she sees in her father like a mile of bad road ahead. “He’s a drunk,” she observes about Jack early in the picture. The redeemable drunk is central to the story. Ally, too, wants to cash in on the promise of what Jack says he sees in her, so she follows him into the downward spiral.

Featuring Sam Elliott (Grandma) as Jack’s strong-minded older brother, a complicated relationship which is never fully explained, with Anthony Ramos as Ally’s best friend, A Star is Born descends and ascends with a series of pop and rock songs. When Jack and Ally duet on stage that “we’re far from the shallow now”, it underscores that life is made or broken on how one handles hardship.

Cooper inhabits the role, down to the evident pain on his face when he sings his new lover’s lyrics, to the point that his Jackson Maine is the most introverted version of the character. There’s not enough of Jack’s appeal on display, other than flashes of his blue eyes and occasional guitar riffs. His character fades amid mumbling, outbursts and the alcoholic’s constantly oozing skin. He smokes, snorts and gulps his way into oblivion, hiding behind facial hair, rage and music.

Only Ally brings him out. Together, they spontaneously write songs while touring, play with a puppy and get silly, often with looming clues such as Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont in the backdrop. Credit goes to Cooper, Roth and others for the film’s veracity in depicting the scenario that plays out. Toxic behavior, from enabling and codependent action to the tendency toward self-abnegation, let alone the drug use, rings searingly true.

Director Cooper’s first feature film is too long and unrefined; it needs editing. Scenes don’t play out. In fact, they get choppier as the picture goes on. A key plot point never gets developed. Ally’s best friend, amicably played by Ramos, comes and goes without realism.

A Star is Born wraps too quickly and neatly but not without having made that impact. It isn’t the best version, which remains the original, though it isn’t the worst. And while the 1937 picture starring Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is still the best because it depicts with perfection the quality that makes the drunk irresistible, this movie retains enough of the story’s intimacy, depth and poignancy to stir today’s audiences. The seasoned, discriminating movie fan will want more. But for most, while the gushing praise is mostly unmerited, this new version of the classic tragedy will (have to) do.

Incidentally, the show I attended at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome was unfortunately prefaced by what amounts to an ad for the movie, a creeping and bad trend, which puts the audience in the movie, telling the audience what to think, before the picture begins.