A Standing Ovation for Les Miz

Les MizBefore I even begin a review of the current film, I have to acknowledge the hold this musical has over my heart. I’ve seen the stage version multiple times. As a teenager I sang “On My Own” into my mirror with embarrassing frequency. I still stop whatever I’m doing every time PBS airs the 25th Anniversary Concert special. My feelings about the music are inexorably intertwined with people I have loved and lost. No one will ever sing “Bring Him Home” with the heart-breaking sweetness and depth of the late Joe Bass. Likewise, no showman will ever upstage Wayne Buidens barely singing, but completely selling “Master of the House.”

So, there now, I’ve admitted my total lack of objectivity when it comes to Les Miz.

Oh, and I might also mention that for several years I have had a fantasy crush on Hugh Jackman. Hugh JackmanActor, singer, devoted husband, loving dad, clever and hilarious interviewee and that body! C’mon. Who doesn’t love this man?

Given my passion for the music and the lead actor, I actually got excited about the movie version. Of course, I also feared the many ways in which Hollywood could ruin my beloved musical – miscasting, inserting spoken dialogue, retelling, 3D, bad musical arrangements, deleting scenes, adding new music…. The reviews, when they came in, did not inspire a whole lot of confidence in the film. Frankly, I’m surprised I didn’t chicken out on seeing it.

On New Year’s Day, along with my son and my mother, I saw the movie.

I love it.

First of all, my man Hugh Jackman gives the performance of a lifetime as Jean Valjean. Yes, his singing can tend toward the nasal, but his performance overall brought me to tears over and over again. He embodies the role, reaching deep into himself to portray the pain of a man teetering on the precipice between despair and salvation. Hopefully, the Academy will recognize the physical, emotional and vocal demands of this role and reward him with an Oscar.

Samantha BarksThe other stand-out for me is Samantha Barks as Éponine. Barks is not (yet) a Hollywood star, but I was familiar with her because she played the same role in the 25th Anniversary Concert I mentioned earlier. I’m stunned that the producers actually allowed the stage actress and not a Hollywood starlet to play this crucial and meaty role. I’m sure her beauty and smoking hot body didn’t hurt, but she is simply brilliant as the heartbroken and courageous Éponine.

Actually, the supporting cast in general is outstanding. They each had moments to shine and held the film together beautifully.

Are there flaws? You bet. Russell Crow is a vocal embarrassment as Javert. He is a fine actor, but I actually cringed every time he began to sing. And, while Sasha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter are both perfectly cast as the inn-keeper and his wife, I found their antics too overblown even for these overblown characters. Carter, especially, is so similar to her Sweeney Todd portrayal of Mrs. Lovitt, that it was like watching the same film.

But none of the film’s flaws could mar the overall brilliance, drama and epic sweep of the movie. I applaud the director, Tom Hooper, for his courage in allowing the actors to really sing their roles – to allow their characters to carry the musicality instead of the other way around. I know he’s already catching flack for recording their songs “in the moment,” but that is what captures the theatre magic in the movie. The cinematography, costumes, sets and editing are all top-notch.

I have no idea how this movie will resonate with audiences who don’t already love the musical (my 10 year-old thought it was “fine.), but if you’re a Les Miz fan, I encourage you to go. Bring tissue, sit back, and get swept away.

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A Tale as Old as Time in a Brand New Production

I was thrilled to return to Chicago Shakespeare Theater last weekend for the press opening of their Family Series production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. My review will be published in the August issue of Chicago Parent as well as ChicagoParent.com.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater has built its reputation on excellent quality productions reflecting Shakespeare’s love of storytelling, language and human emotion.

That has carried that through to its Family Series as well. When I learned that CST chose to premiere the 70-minute version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for the summer children’s show, I was unsure how it fit the mission. However, after seeing this beautiful production, I’m more convinced than ever that CST is a best bet for families.

With a cast of only 16 people, they managed to provide the feel of a full-scale Broadway musical. Outstanding voices and swift choreography set the mood. Dynamic costumes and an ever-changing set complete with computer-animated graphics bring the enchanted world of Belle and Beast to life.

In fact, the scenes in the forest with wolves attacking and fog rolling through were so realistic that some young audience members cried out to leave. That’s certainly testament to human emotion.

Emily Rohm is perfect as the inquisitive, feisty and beautiful Belle. She brings something fresh to the well-known character, captivating the young girls in the audience. William Travis Taylor (Beast) and Jake Klinkhammer (Gaston) provide the perfect counterparts in the quest for her love. Klinkhammer makes Gaston’s smarmy and conceited villain the show’s comic relief. Taylor has the challenge of conveying Beast’s emotional journey through an intricate mask and mass of beastly hair. Using his voice and body language, he succeeds.

Once again, director Rachel Rockwell keeps the pace of the show and its ensemble members moving quickly. She milks the comedy, but doesn’t shy away from the romance inherent in the story. My 10-year-old son thought there were “too many slow songs” but, judging by the reaction of the audience, he was in the minority.

Girls and boys alike were lined up in the lobby after the show for their chance to get an autograph from, and picture with, some of the actors.

You can read more of my stories at Chicago Parent.

Girlchild sparks a raw memory

Cover image from Goodreads

*Please note that this review contains some profanity, all contained within quotes from the book.

Raw.

To love Girlchild as much as I did, you have to be willing to understand “raw.” Several times while I was reading this book, my husband looked at my face and asked me what was wrong. (I was alternating between tears brimming over and horror leaving my mouth agape.)

Rory Dawn suffers neglect, mistreatment and abuse at the hands of those trusted to care for her. Growing up in a Nevada trailer park outside Reno, Rory clings to her tattered copy of the Girl Scouts Handbook as the only set of rules that use “honor” and “obey” as positive edicts. She makes her own badges and creates her own troop.

Tupelo Hassman does not shy away from the anger, bitterness or shame that go with the broken down territory.

You’ve done a thing you can’t clean up, found a place you can’t reach with mop or apology. The forever you’ve created branches like the hairline fracture in a pelvic bone, hides like a dirty Polaroid stored under a mattress, rises like hot blood to burn cheeks pretty with shame. Places you didn’t even know you were signing your name will always be marked by your hand, but despite every new day’s resolution to never do it again, you will. You’ll look away from your own face in the mirror, pull the chain twice to hide from yourself in the dark, and when it’s all over you won’t say anything. You won’t fucking say anything to anyone ever.”

So, if you can’t read books about children being hurt, you will miss out on a truly remarkable debut novel. Rory Dawn, despite being “third generation in a line of apparent imbeciles, feeble-minded bastards surely on the road to whoredom,” inspired me. Her desire to embrace life, to live fully and to strive for more, may seem shocking given her circumstances; but that is the brilliance of Hassman’s writing. Instead of just feeling sorry for Rory Dawn, I marveled at her.

As if knowing how hard it would be for readers to stick with dark material, Hassman tells the story in very short chapters, some less than a page.  She literally blacks out line after line to make us understand that Rory Dawn refuses to remember certain parts.

In the fairy tales there’s only one Big Bad Wolf and the little girl takes only one trip through the Dark Forest…But life on the Calle is real, not make-believe…So be prepared. We’re not out of the woods yet.”

In unveiling the whole truth this way, Hassman kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

This book took me immediately back to Rebecca Gilman’s play, The Glory of Living. I was fortunate enough to be the Assistant Director for the world premiere production and remember well the pressure on the lead actress (my dear friend Deborah Puette) to be “raw.”

In live theater there was no room to let the audience off the hook. The horror and evil and shame had to be palpable. But even more importantly, each character’s humanity and hope had to shine through at key moments.

Tupelo Hassman has achieved this same balance of horror and hope.

I haven’t found a mirror yet that doesn’t reflect the curves of the Calle back at me, my dirty ways, my fragile teeth and bad skin, my hands that won’t stop picking at themselves.”

She has turned her talented skills on stories that many Americans would hope to keep hidden. She has done it beautifully.

Reblogging my theatre-geek excitement: Les Miserables – THE MOVIE!!

Poster
Cover of "Les Miserables (Highlights from...

Cover via Amazon

Theatre Thursdays: Les Miserables – THE MOVIE!!1.

Thank you Lady Geek Girl and Friends for this post that got my heart pumping this morning. I, too, am an enormous Les Miserables fan. It’s the kind of high-octane, high-drama, amazing-harmony musical that I love. And I’ve seen it performed on a variety of levels — from high school stage to Broadway touring production. I have such fond memories of my friends performing excerpts. The late great Joe Bass brought me to tears every time he sang Bring Him Home.” And there was never a more entertaining, if tone deaf, Master of the House than Wayne Buidens. To hear the opening bar of the overture is to take me back to the years I lived in the world of theater.

Although I no longer live in that world, I’m still a Les Miz fanatic. I’ve become a little obsessed with the 25th anniversary production that PBS airs during every pledge drive. I watch it over and over, making my husband and sons crazy. Now Hollywood is planning a movie! And it’s starring one of my Broadway/Hollywood crushes, Hugh Jackman. Finally, casting someone who can sing in a singing role! As you can see on Lady Geek’s blog, the cast is top notch. But what will Hollywood do to this operatic musical? I shudder to think about the very real possibility that they will kill its glory.