Theater Review: Les Misérables at Benedum Center

Cameron Mackintosh’s slightly changed production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s epic Les Misérables retains its glory. I decided to see the revised musical, after having seen the original 1989 production several times in Los Angeles. Les Misérables recently returned to Broadway with new staging, which is mixed, and scenery inspired by Hugo’s paintings, which adds a flair, in downtown Pittsburgh at the Benedum Center toward the end of its run there.

The 19th century France-themed Les Misérables is an unforgettable story. The musical version softens the villainy while keeping the plot’s redemptive theme for every character that does wrong to any degree. The songs “I Dreamed A Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “One Day More,” and a great favorite, “Red and Black”, make this beloved musical one of the most popular in theatrical history.

This great musical is unique for its idealism and seriousness and this version did not disappoint. Nick Cartell’s Jean Valjean had a commanding presence. His “Bring Him Home” was easily the show’s most emotional performance. Other cast standouts include an actress named Phoenix Best as Eponine, a conniving ghetto girl who falls in love with a French aristocrat enlisted in an anti-government rebellion; she turns romantic, defies her father and fights for her true love. Matt Shingledecker as Enjolras was captivating in every scene, especially leading “Red and Black”, stupidly renamed “The People’s Song” against the very core of its meaning in this version. The actors playing the Thenardier couple overacted. Gavroche was too precocious (there is such a thing for this character, which entirely relies upon innocence for its full impact) though I think the part and the boy’s lines were rewritten to pander to modern parents, families and audiences.

The best performance belongs to Josh Davis as Javert. I’ve never liked this character and I still do not. I’m planning to review a few recent TV and movie versions of Les Misérables, which I’ve recently seen, and gained a new appreciation for the rationalistic policeman character. But Davis, whose physical, vocal and acting ability added dimension to his portrayal, delivered what for me is the first performance that makes his suicide truly meaningful, organic and impactful to the plot. I’m not a fan of the new set, which dominates the stage, though I was surprised at how much I like the infusion of pieces suggested by Hugo’s art. The barricade remains central to the performance.

Overall, I was as moved as ever, possibly more so because I’m older. What strikes me now, as against 30 years ago, when I first saw Les Misérables on the stage, is that the world has grown darker, more perverse, more desperate. The show’s explicitly Catholic underpinnings resonate less with the audience than its searching themes of wanting to examine and know who am I, what am I doing here on earth and how can I be my best. It was impossible during the often pin-drop perfect performance not to think of those young rebels in Hong Kong, and now also in Teheran and in countless other silent and unknown rebellions from Saudi Arabia to Communist Cuba, China and North Korea. I’ve the sense that I was not alone. Couples, families with children, older and younger adults of all types were held by the power of “Red and Black” (I refuse to call this poetry by its mangled title the people’s song) with the soft yet searing plea by an idealist to his fellow men:

It is time for us all
To decide who we are
Do we fight for the right
To a night at the opera now?
Have you asked of yourselves
What’s the price you might pay?
Is it simply a game
For rich young boys to play?
The color of the world
Is changing day by day…

Red – the blood of angry men!
Black – the dark of ages past!
Red – a world about to dawn!
Black – the night that ends at last!

Les Misérables endures, especially in the streets, back alleys and hushed halls of Hong Kong, where the anti-Communist rebels, young and old as in Les Misérables, unite, gather and mobilize despite China’s barbarism, brutality and oppression to sing the 1989 musical’s triumphant final “song of angry men who will not be slaves again”. In Pittsburgh this Thanksgiving, its banner waved with wonder, power and inspiration still.

The 2,800-seat Benedum Center for the Performing Arts, formerly a movie palace called the Stanley Theater before a $42 million renovation in 1987, affords intimacy and grandeur. Named for Mike Benedum, the son of West Virginian farmers and merchants who became a self-made, wildcat oil tycoon who made a charity after his only child died in 1918, the Liberty Street theater is nearly perfectly proportioned. I plan to return.


Movie Review: Judy (2019)

Based on a stage play, The End of the Rainbow, Judy starring Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland takes too many falls. This biographical film, directed by Rupert Goold, is relatively innocuous.

Its maudlin theme is that this woman, an astonishing movie star (Judgment at Nuremberg, A Star is Born (1954), Meet Me in St. Louis, The Wizard of Oz, Easter Parade), singer and entertainer whose alcoholism and drug addiction killed her by age 47, was doomed. But Judy is neither dramatized at the proper depth for the caliber of its subject nor does it accomplish a successful depiction of Garland, who married several men including Vincente Minnelli and Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) and mothered three children, all portrayed here.

Judy’s mixed success is not necessarily Zellweger’s fault. She’s a fine actress with a good record. But she’s either been misdirected, misguided by the script or ventured out of her league playing Garland, whom Zellweger portrays in fragments. Just when you’re willing to go along with the depiction, and there is both resemblance and success in her performance, an overly mannered tic or expression betrays the actress and you’re out of the movie. Judy is telescoped in flashbacks and her final London stage engagement, so end-stage career acts are portrayed. Zellweger (Chicago), singing in her own voice, hasn’t got the pipes.

Domineering movie studio types, a tracheotomy, attempt at suicide, custody battle with Luft over the two kids, poverty, a crush on Mickey Rooney and the chronic need stemming from the child star’s damaged ego to gain intimacy with an audience; all of these, much of it happening off screen, drive Garland’s addiction to drugs and booze. A party at daughter Liza’s, who’d go on to face similar struggles, leads to another marriage to another man that needs and doesn’t satisfy Judy. Addiction’s vicious spiral gets its due.

Judy doesn’t give Garland her due. It’s possible to make a late life movie about her without depicting her in her finest vocal form. Yet Judy gets bogged down in too many disparate segments without any single theme. Her London engagement, for example, becomes the focal point for her swan song, Judy suggests, leading to a climax in which she gains some deeper form of audience bond. This would’ve been more effective, however, with better seeding through exposition.

Oddly, Zellweger’s created more of a smaller-scale caricature of the maudlin caricature that’s been the mainstay of the gay male adoration than a convincing portrayal of a real-life falling star. There are finer moments, especially with a gay couple in an arc that nicely cashes in on the best of Judy‘s subplots and themes. Jessie Buckley (the fireman’s wife in Chernobyl) has a lovely turn as Judy’s main contact during the London show. An actor named Finn Witrock (La La Land, TV’s The Normal Heart) plays one of the men who becomes one of the husbands. Michael Gambon is fine, too, and Judy looks and sounds terrific.

Judy Garland deserves something either deeper or lighter than Judy. This is because something about her stardom and demise has been lost, very, seriously lost and fouled up, since she self-destructed. A scene in which her doctor, giving her an injection as he admits his childhood admiration for her portrayal of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, gets at what this movie needs and lacks.

After skimming the surfaces of her sordid past, which is all Judy ultimately does, he urges her toward proper self-care, an idea rooted in egoism which is only, very rarely properly practiced let alone properly understood. Liza Minnelli, whose thoughts on her mother are very serious, deep and profound, lives and talks as though she gets what egoism means. So does Elton John. Both are addicts and survivors, for the moment, and, like Judy Garland and others such as Whitney, Elvis and Amy Winehouse, they’re stars whose ability radiates.

Judy, to paraphrase the poem that, if realized, gets and keeps you clean and sober, hasn’t the wisdom to show the difference.


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.

Three New Exclusives

Comedienne Julia Sweeney’s back and I saw her new one-woman show, Older & Wider, last weekend in Westwood. I’ve always found her humor to be unique, relevant and compelling, so I was interested in seeing her return to show business after a break to be a wife and raise her daughter on Chicago’s suburban North Shore.

Happily, Older & Wider is topical, intelligent and hilarious. While I incessantly hear about “diversity and inclusion”, I rarely hear about demand for rare, intelligent artists of ability such as Julia Sweeney, who’s making the most of being an older woman in her new theatrical work. I am glad to know that she’s currently starring in a new show on Hulu. I’d love to see her get more work in Hollywood.

I’ve posted my review of Julia Sweeney: Older & Wider here.

Also, read my new interview with screenwriter and director Robert Benton here. We met during Turner Classic Movies’ 2018 Classic Film Festival at the site of the first Academy Awards, the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, on Hollywood Boulevard. I’ve met and interviewed Benton before and found him to be incredibly sharp, thoughtful and engaging.

This time was no exception. The subject was his Oscar-winning Best Picture, Kramer vs. Kramer, a groundbreaking movie about men, parenting and divorce which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. We discussed his original choice for the crucial supporting role of Joanna Kramer, which eventually went to Meryl Streep, propelling her career. But Benton, who’s talked with me about working with Nicole Kidman, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, also went into detail about working with Sally Field, who won an Oscar for her performance in what’s probably his most personal film, Places in the Heart.

Robert Benton, whose Texas-based Places turns 35 years old this year, has created, written or directed some of the most iconic movies of the modern age, from Bonnie and Clyde to Superman (1978) to Kramer vs. Kramer. I consider it a privilege to interview this former journalist again in the heart of supposedly “inclusive” Hollywood where this masterful storyteller should be invited to create more movies.

My newest classic movie review honors the 70th anniversary of a film about great baseball legend; the story of Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, portrayed by James Stewart. Like Places in the Heart, the Academy Award-winning motion picture, The Stratton Story (directed by Sam Wood and released in the same year he was robbed and died) partly takes place in the Lone Star state and involves tragedy, overcoming adversity and a single act of gun violence.

The picture also stars Agnes Moorehead as Stratton’s tough-minded mother and June Allyson as his romantic partner. I don’t want to spoil the experience of the 1949 film about Monty Stratton, whom I’m afraid has sadly fallen into relative oblivion. But I found this movie about rising to one’s hardest challenges inspiring. It’s about baseball, of course. It’s also about what happens when the most hardworking type of person fails, falters or makes a potentially deadly mistake — and the character of one who chooses to recover — and the type of person who loves him.

But, like the best sports-themed movies, it’s also very much about living life; the daily hustle and grind of it in simple yet daunting steps. Read my review of The Stratton Story here.

Stage Review: Julia Sweeney Older & Wider

“Make America laugh again,” comedienne Julia Sweeney tells herself in front of an audience during her new one-woman show, “Older & Wider”, which I recently saw at LA’s Geffen Playhouse. Despite being afflicted with a case of laryngitis, the artist took the Westwood stage last week with a good blend of realism, wit and humor. By the time she’d said it, Ms. Sweeney had the audience laughing.

This is no small feat. Julia Sweeney, a former cast member on NBC’s decrepit Saturday Night Live broadcast, who writes and performs her own material, including bestselling monologues and memoirs, makes everything better. From her asexual SNL character Pat and her needy character on NBC’s Frasier to her Showtime program Letting Go of God, the cervical cancer surviving atheist from Spokane displays a keen sense of timing and a biting sense of humor.

Julia Sweeney’s “Older & Wider” builds on her brand with refreshingly rogue results.

Beginning with a hilarious tale about going to the theater while growing older and the perils and advantages of feeling invisible, she launched into a recap of her professional and personal life. The wife and mother says she took a break from Hollywood to move to a Chicago suburb north of Evanston called Wilmette. Stay at home parenting gets skewered, as does everything else, including Tesla’s eccentric Elon Musk, to whom she not disparagingly compares to John Galt from Atlas Shrugged.

The show takes off with a dig at vagina-themed spaceships and other modern peculiarities. It’s easy and natural to follow. The material is often unusual. In crisp lines, Sweeney delivers thoughts with her signature searching, freeing tartness.

After referring to President Trump as a “petulant circus clown”, Sweeney turned to the DNA test to satirize behavior by her mother, husband and child. Whether sharing her experience of telling alcoholic jokes to an Irish audience or having Chicago’s SNL alumni Don Novello officiate her wedding as Father Guido Sarducci, she’s more lively and emboldened than bitter and cruel. The show’s middle portion, which includes stories about her leaving LA like Homer in an Odyssey minivan, culminates with sharp and hilarious observations about the pleasure of having a glass of wine countered by the risks of having another…and another.

This is balanced, integrated comedy for people with brains. It’s neither an anti-Trump tirade nor a pop culture palooza.

When Sweeney recalled the time she contemplated resurrecting the non-binary Pat for a brief return on NBC’s Today Show with Matt Lauer — with Pat emerging either as looking the same following sex reassignment surgery or as totally homophobic — she sends up the utterly ridiculous. When she cleverly contrasts the selflessness of mass at St. Monica’s Roman Catholic Church with the implicit virtuousness of selfishness at an Al-Anon meeting, Julia Sweeney takes on the status quo.

But that Sweeney does so with skill, tact and fidelity to facts is an amazing accomplishment in a world going — some might say already gone — mad. The self-described secular humanist, who does funny bits on driving with her kid, whose blond boyfriend voted for Trump, for which someone dubs him Rolf from The Sound of Music, and watching The Wizard of Oz with Syrian refugees, roots her show in passion for life.

Julia Sweeney: Older and Wider, part of the Geffen Playhouse’s Spotlight Entertainment series, closed this week but catch her act if you can. Hopefully, Older & Wider leads to new career turns for an actress and comedienne, currently in a show on Hulu, whose witty and satirical insights are exactly what Americans need.

Stage Review: ‘An Inspector Calls’ at the Wallis

Playwright J.B. Priestley’s social drama, An Inspector Calls, directed by Stephen Daldry (The Reader, The Hours, Trash, TV’s The Crown, Billy Elliot) and now playing in the Bram Goldsmith Theater at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, unspools a dastardly tale of one woman’s demise in sometimes shocking, sometimes compelling and often dreary and distracting detail. Its theme that each individual must morally serve others or be damned unfolds with predictable moralizing. The exclusive West Coast engagement at the Wallis, which runs an hour and 45 minutes without an intermission, plays through Sunday, February 10.

This uniquely staged version was revived in London in 1992 after the original play’s run following its premiere in Soviet Russia (which, with the play’s anti-capitalist ideals, is fitting). This version won awards during runs in the West End, Broadway and elsewhere, including Los Angeles at the Ahmanson theater in 1996. Besides the very convenient Wallis venue in tony Beverly Hills, An Inspector Calls currently tours theaters in Washington, DC, Chicago and Boston.

The talented Mr. Daldry reimagines the original 1945 script, which is set in 1912, about an inspector who abruptly imposes himself on a wealthy English family, interrupting their dinner party with an accusatory and quite pointed inquiry about what he claims is the death of a young woman. The capable cast includes Liam Brennan in the title role, Christine Kavanagh as Sybil Birling, Jeff Harmer as Arthur Birling, Andrew Macklin as Gerald Croft, Lianne Harvey as Sheila Birling, Hamish Riddle as Eric Birling and Diana Payne-Myers as Edna. As prospective son-in-law Gerald, Mr. Macklin (TV’s Mr. Selfridge, as well as King Lear and The Picture of Dorian Gray in theater) fares best, though there wasn’t a bad performance.

As the mysterious visitor interrogates each family member, one by one, about the apparently suicidal young woman’s demise, a strong presumption of guilt emerges. As it does, those in the audience may watch and wonder: why is each character prejudged as bad? Who, besides the unseen and mysterious woman presumed to have killed herself, is conceivably to blame?

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Everything in An Inspector Calls revolves around these questions and the answers become dreadfully and glaringly obvious as the play’s morality, altruism with a collectivist-socialist twist, becomes clear. With stark, dramatic music by Stephen Warbeck and elaborate staging specifically designed to accentuate and dramatize the idea that no one is self-made and everyone who’s wealthy, productive or successful must come down, really crashing down, to the level of the common man to whom he’s tethered, An Inspector Calls rings and rings its smashing climactic points.

A mob gathers in silent, condemnatory moral judgment, like a Me, Too march (there’s admittedly an air of that lynch mob movement’s influence throughout the production) as the angry white male inspector demands to know about an act of charity for which the giver is presumably supposed to be guilty: “How much did you give?”

Amid an unasked and unanswered question of paternity, bestowing of blankets for the rich and the unspoken conclusion that money is the root of all evil (with you as thy brother’s keeper), the family’s house literally crumbles, crashes and explodes as the Birling family comes undone.

Or do they? On top of the socialistic moral mystery, the raging and elusive police inspector implants the question “How do we know (what we think we might know)?” Therein lies the play’s deeper mystery that nothing is knowable and, unless you renounce yourself, property and individualism, you are likely to be doomed…at least to the extent these things can be known. This is the upshot of An Inspector Calls, officially billed as “the National Theatre of Great Britain’s Landmark production of J.B. Priestley’s classic thriller An Inspector Calls”. If it sounds rather tedious, it is and can be, depending on one’s tolerance for seeing the same ideals laid bare in moralistic melodrama, if with inventive staging and a booming score to match.

Tickets to An Inspector Calls range $35 to $105 and are on sale now for shows on weekdays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; and Sundays at 2 pm and 7 pm. The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, designed by Zoltan Paliis of Studio Pali Fekete architects and located at 9390 N. Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, is housed in the building featuring the restored, original 1933 Beverly Hills Post Office, the 150-seat Lovelace Studio Theater, space for arts education and the 500-seat Bram Goldsmith Theater.