Count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. Fox’s #GreaseLive!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I don’t like Grease (in any of its musical forms – Broadway, film, community theatre, drunken karaoke). And I ain’t never gonna like Grease. There are some catchy songs, and Rizzo is pretty much a Teflon-plated hoot no matter who is applying Stockard Channing’s time-tested performance template (even if Channing herself seemed like a 45-year-old playing that role). Yet, the book (in its countless revisions) can’t decide if it wants to be corny, contrived, plastic sock-hop nostalgia or crude, crass, grimy locker room ick. The character development rarely rises above that of an Archie comic – an uneasy mix of satire, camp, and canonization. And the climactic message of “be yourself … no, wait, don’t be yourself … tease, your hair, slap on Spandex pants, and strut around like an inebriated race horse” (which could describe Danny’s arc as much as it does Sandy’s) is, shall we say, problematic?

So, I came at Sunday’s Grease Live! – Fox’s gambit in the ever-escalating live televised musical arms race – with a bit of trepidation and a whole heap of hate-watching ire in my arsenal. Said arsenal remains unused this Monday morning. The show was actually kind of … good? Maybe I can deploy my ire for the Iowa caucus?

As in the days following NBC’s The Sound of Music Live!, Peter Pan Live!, and The Wiz Live! (think we could retire the “live” and the exclamation marks, folks?), there will be a lot of digital “ink” spilled and memes/GIFs posted, some fawning, some hypercritical, but one can’t deny that this new genre – that is neither really live (Live!) nor filmed, neither organic/authentic nor polished/accomplished, neither bad nor good – is a happening that energizes viewers, inspires conversation, and piques our collective cultural interest in stage musicals again.

Let it be said that none of the musicals performed to date are anything I would have chosen to perform or to see, left to my own devices. To me, these shows are all tired, shopworn, and clichéd. All have been filmed and/or performed live on television before, and, with the exception of The Wiz, those prior adaptations were more or less already considered definitive. The next wave of shows coming down the pike – Hairspray (?!) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show – just affirms that conclusion, though Rocky Horror’s casting – gender-bending an already bent show – may prove intriguing.

For all intents and purposes, these shows are less theatre, more stunt spectacle, as if a monster truck rally and a high school theatre department collaborated for a production that none of us really want to see again but can’t not watch. NBC/Fox could give a fig what theatre snobs think. These shows are a throwback to a time when The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind aired annually on network television, when people didn’t think twice when three (!) different television adaptations of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella aired over the years, or when plays like Twelve Angry Men could hit Broadway and be a live television event and a major motion picture in rapid succession. It’s called event programming – it’s always existed, it’s always drawn eyeballs and made money for the networks, it’s always had corporate sponsors (Alcoa! Coca-Cola! Frigidaire!) …  and viewers have always said their era was better than the one in which we find ourselves now.

Grease Live! had the spectacle part down pat. There were clever fourth-wall-breaking behind-the-scenes commercial breaks and scene transitions (grimacing host Mario Lopez and those runaway golf carts notwithstanding). The film-worthy indoor/outdoor sets and the acres of Warner Brothers’ backlot dedicated to the production, including a full-fledged amusement park, were incredible (rainstorms notwithstanding). I would love to know how they accomplished the seamlessly gliding transitions from one fully-realized location to the next – notably the transitions from Rizzo’s Pepto-Bismol pink bedroom to a glitzy USO stage and back (Keke Palmer’s star turn on forgotten number “Freddy My Love”) or from gleaming 360 degree art deco diner to “Teen Angel” heaven (Carly Rae Jepsen’s otherwise forgettable new tune “All I Need Is An Angel” and BoyzIIMen’s shaky “Beauty School Dropout”).

Hamilton helmer Thomas Kail’s direction of all the musical numbers (aided and abetted beautifully by Glee alum Zach Woodlee’s loving choreography) was sharp, purposeful, and epic, furthering the narrative in clever ways (Jordan Fisher’s “Those Magic Changes” an early delight, detailing Danny Zukko’s failed efforts to “fit in”) and providing flashy, eye-popping showstoppers (“Summer Lovin’,” “Greased Lightnin’,” “Born to Hand Jive,” and the finale “You’re the One That I Want/We Go Together” all crackled with a frenetic music video energy … and that’s a good thing). And the costumes (and instantaneous costume changes)?  To die for.  Frothy, cute, and kinetic.

The cast – made up of Disney Channel refugees, Grease movie alumni, and a handful of legit stage stars – wasn’t always able to match the technical prowess, and I suspect Kail was wisely hedging his bets by layering on the gloss and the wow, so we didn’t notice (or care) when a cast member hit a sour note (rarely) or performed their dialogue like they were reading the side of a cereal box (often). Vanessa Hudgens’ Rizzo was the star of the night. Her Rizzo may have lacked pathos, but she added a layer of heartbroken outsider sweetness (not unlike what Laura Benanti brought to Sound of Music’s “Baroness”) that was an appealing counterpoint to all the gum-cracking sass. She infused “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” with a welcome playfulness that kept the song from devolving into sheer meanness (as it often does).

The aforementioned Keke Palmer brought presence and poise to her Marty, quietly driving every scene in which she appeared, and Jepsen was appealingly forlorn as pink-haired loser Frenchy. The Pink Ladies, generally, kept the enterprise afloat, with a loveable sauciness that unfortunately was unmatched by the rather forgettable T-Birds. Not a moment stood out for the greasers, though Aaron Tveit’s Danny Zuko was a singing/dancing marvel. He is arguably the most accomplished musical vet of the cast (Next to Normal, Les Miserables), and it showed, in both good and bad ways. He hit every mark, sang like an angel, and nailed every move and gesture and pose … but he didn’t seem to be having one darn bit of fun. He lacked an impish sparkle that would have sold the performance for the ages, which is a shame, as he did bring a hunky empathy and kindness that actors typically don’t give the role, distracted as they often are with the pompadour and the leather jacket and the cars and the mythically phony “50s-ishness” of it all.

Julianne Hough is not my cup of tea. Never has been. Like Tveit, she has the technical know-how (particularly where movement is concerned) but she has this inherent bland unlikeability that I can’t ever quite get past. Yet, in the case of this production, that quality served her and the show well (to a degree). I’ve never understood why Rizzo, in particular, hates Sandy so much, so quickly. The nebulously defined rivalry over Danny just never works (and is too sexist anyway). So, having a lightly annoying Sandy to motivate a less bullying Rizzo worked for me, whether that was intentional or just a happy accident of chemistry.

Rounding out the cast, Saturday Night Live’s Ana Gasteyer was stoic perfection, as the malaprop-spewing Rydell High principal, and Wendell Pierce was fun as an archetypically pompous and inept coach/gym teacher. Didi Conn (Frenchy in the original film) and Eve Plumb (“Jan Brady”) offered spry cameo turns, and Jessie J (England’s answer to P!nk) did a serviceable job performing the iconic “Grease (Is the Word)” over the opening credits – a tune originally sung by Frankie Valli and written by Barry Gibb for the 1978 film. Never mind that the lyrics to “Grease (Is the Word)” make absolutely no sense (the term “word salad” springs to mind) nor do they have any discernible connection to the plot; the tune’s catchy, we all know it, and it’s perfectly marketable as a pop single. Money, money, money!

In the end, that’s all Grease Live! was every really about anyway. This isn’t great art. This isn’t Great Performances. (Hell,  that high-minded PBS program is underwritten by the Koch Brothers now, isn’t it?) These “live” musicals are an exercise in commerce with a light veneer of artistic pretense. Take some songs you know and a premise you vaguely recall from your youth, mix in a Fantasy Island’s gaggle of dubious “talents,” layer on some high-paying sponsors, promote the sh*t out of it, and count all those “live Tweets” rolling in. #Captalism_Live!

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Still nursing a grudge over Paint Your Wagon? Jersey Boys (film adaptation)

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Oh, for the love of all things holy, what went wrong with the film adaptation of Jersey Boys? I wish director Clint Eastwood would go back to yelling at chairs. I wasn’t sure he could get any more out of touch, and then I saw his film adaptation of the uber-popular Broadway show.

What is truly disappointing is that the stage musical (see my review of its Las Vegas residency here) is so expertly, effortlessly cinematic in its original incarnation. Intentionally episodic, Jersey Boys (live) glides along like a classic Cadillac from one Goodfellas-ish moment to another on the exquisite chassis of The Four Seasons’ hit songs.

Yes, the book is slight, but theatre director Des McAnuff knows that with enough pizzazz, flashy choreography, smooth-as-silk scene changes, and cheeky wit, the audience will be enraptured. Let the music speak for itself.

Eastwood on the other hand, while a self-admitted music-phile, makes the head scratching decision to bury the fizzy pop tunes under heaps of bad TV movie bio-drama. Seriously, did anyone bother to tell him this is a musical? Aren’t we past the point of self-consciousness over the genre, with ten-plus years of hit tuner films (ChicagoMama Mia!, Hairspray, Dreamgirls, Les Miserables) – not to mention tv series (GleeNashville) – under our collective belt?

Unfortunately, the majority of Jersey Boys‘ musical numbers on film are truncated to a verse and a chorus or used as background (playing on a radio!) while the actors – in bad wigs and later even worse old age makeup – struggle to make the life events of The Four Seasons interesting.

The ensemble cast soldiers through, but only Christopher Walken emerges completely unscathed. At this point in his career, that man could show up on an episode of The Bachelor and make it seem interesting.

Everyone else displays pained expressions as if they know Eastwood has ground this Tony Award-winning show to pulp. I was taken with Vincent Piazza (“Tommy DeVito”) and Erich Bergen (“Bob Gaudio”) who both exude a suitable amount of sparkle and nuance; I just wish they had been in a better movie. Sadly, John Lloyd Young (“Frankie Valli”), who won the Tony for his uncanny vocal pyrotechnics on Broadway, just seems constipated for the film’s entire 2 1/2 hour running time.

The only moment – and I mean the only moment – the movie truly comes alive is during the closing credits (!) sequence. Finally, we get a full-fledged musical number (“Oh, What a Night”), with joy and buoyancy and, yes, some cheesy backlot choreography. It’s like Eastwood grudgingly growled to his cast, “Okay, you can do some of this musical crap now. But it’s only at the end when people are walking out in disgust, popcorn stuck to their shoes. Anyone seen my chair?”

Maybe he’s still nursing a grudge about Paint Your Wagon and this is how he punishes us all? “Hey, you musical comedy kids, get off my lawn!”

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Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Countdown: Shania Twain – Still the One

From my wonderful publisher Open Books

Happy Valentine’s Day! 14 days left until the official release of ReelRoyReviews, a book of film, music, and theatre reviews, by Roy Sexton! The book is now (for however long THAT will last 😉 !) on Amazon’s list of top-selling “Guides and Reviews”!!

Here’s what Roy thought about the Las Vegas residency show Shania Twain: Still the One. “And I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune ‘You’re Still the One’ to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy. Now that is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.”

Learn more about REEL ROY REVIEWS, VOL 1: KEEPIN’ IT REAL by Roy Sexton at http://www.open-bks.com/library/moderns/reel-roy-reviews/about-book.html. Book can also be ordered at Amazon here.

Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe: Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, Whoopi Goldberg, and Shania Twain

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

Las Vegas [Photo by Author]

I have a confession to make. I have never had much interest in visiting Las Vegas. Not sure why. Just haven’t.

I just returned from about six days in Sin City … and I’m still not sure I have much interest in the City or its Sins. I did have lots of fun, but I don’t gamble and I’d rather shop at Kohl’s or Target than Van Cleef & Arpels or Fendi. I’m not terribly crazy about crowds, and I am certainly not crazy about crowds of drunk party people who are play-acting some neurotic mash-up of The Jersey Shore and Keeping Up with the Kardashians while lounging about the hotel pool.

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

Paris Casino [Photo by Author]

And, yet, there was much I did enjoy. For example, the famed Las Vegas “Strip” is what it is and has no shame about it. It’s like a humongous traveling carnival that set up shop and just never bothered to leave town. Furthermore, many individuals I met, notably fellow tourists in the audience at shows I attended and the Las Vegas residents staffing the various venues, were kind, friendly, and authentic…a refreshing throwback to a more gracious time, albeit with postmodern and progressive sensibilities.

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

Elvis and Cher? [Photo by Author]

What redeemed the experience was when I had the “a-ha moment” that I was surrounded by world-class Broadway-caliber entertainment and that I would be a big dummy if I did not avail myself of any of it. I always have been a bit late to the party on these kinds of things. Somebody who loves theatre and movies? Why did this realization not dawn on me sooner? Ah well.

Fortunately, given Las Vegas’ 24/7 operation and the churn of folks coming and going, there really was no shortage of opportunities or tickets once I caught on. As this blog is about reviewing entertainment and not about me being a travel snob, let’s get into the highlights.  My apologies for the rote, travelogue, day-by-day approach that follows, but my brain is mush and I’m all outta clever right now.

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

Whoopi [Photo by Author]

The Treasure Island casino and resort played host to Oscar-winner, comedian and pundit Whoopi Goldberg Friday night, and she was everything I’d hoped she’d be. Less a stand-up routine and more a master class in how to deal with a world that seems to go a bit more off the rails every day, Goldberg’s show was a delight. Just a smart, sensitive, spiky person sharing her sensibilities on a stark stage with only a stool, a bottle of water, and a microphone…and she was pretty transfixing. Only blemish on the evening was a poorly executed Q&A that devolved into a handful of audience members asking how to get tickets to The View and if they could come visit Goldberg at her home. Seriously. I – and the nice Canadians sitting all around me – wanted to crawl under our chairs.

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Whoopi! [Photo by Author]

Goldberg started the show by saying she had received flak for using “bad words” (e.g. profanity) in the past. Her response? “The only ‘bad’ word I won’t use is the word ‘stupid.’ That’s the only truly bad word I know.” LOVED that.

Hoover Dam [Photo by Author]

(Saturday was spent primarily visiting the Hoover Dam…the less said about that the better. Awe-inspiring feat of engineering; lots of stair climbing and winding through dank tunnels; hotter than h*ll…six hours of my life I ain’t getting back any time soon.)

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Gospel Brunch [Photo by Author]

Sunday started with what seemed like a good idea: gospel brunch at The House of Blues in Mandalay Bay casino. Meh. Again, we encountered the kindest people, but the food was cruise ship-esque mass-produced sludge and the musical performers were over-amplified, over-spiritualized, and just plain over-done. (I had hopes that we would stumble across a genuinely joyous experience like my parents had when they saw The Blind Boys of Alabama in Fort Wayne, Indiana a few weeks back, but, alas, we did not.)

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

Jersey Boys [Photo by Author]

The day ended, though, in spectacular fashion with Jersey Boys at Paris casino. If you see nothing else, go see this one. Compelling, smart, and funny, the show is like Goodfellas on disco roller skates. I like Frankie Valli’s voice – Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You (double preposition aside) is about as perfect a song as can be – but I wouldn’t say I’d had much interest in seeing/hearing how the Four Seasons came to fame, tragedy, fame, and more tragedy. How wrong I was. The juke box musical format has seemed a bit lazy to me in the past, but here it is perfection as if Bob Gaudio/Bob Crewe’s compositions were always meant for the stage. Scene transitions were whirling dervish marvels, with director Des McAnuff using spare lines and crisp, efficient movement to drive energy and propel the narrative along. Travis Cloer as Valli and Rob Marnell as Gaudio were standouts in that rarest of rares: a completely perfect cast. Not one clunker in the bunch.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Monday and Million Dollar Quartet at Harrah’s. Another juke box musical and another Tony Award winner, but this one about the rare night at Sun Records when Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins all converged for their first and only collective jam session with impresario Sam Phillips. I admit I don’t like any of those rockabilly performers, with the exception of a few of Cash’s songs, but I was curious about the show and still a bit euphoric from Jersey Boys so I gave it a shot. I wasn’t disappointed, though it fell a bit flat in the shadow of the previous night’s offering.

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

Million Dollar Quartet [Photo by Author]

The show is surprisingly slight at just 75 minutes with what is effectively another 15 minutes of encore (and shameless mugging) for the audience. However, all of the principals were marvelous, walking a fine line (apologies to Mr. Cash’s arguably most famous tune) between impersonation and characterization. At my performance, Lewis was played by an understudy, who, while excellent, suffered from the giddy overeagerness of someone getting one shot at their role. The show, though, belongs to the Phillips character, who serves as narrator and tragic hero, as we the audience witness what may very well be his last great hurrah. Marc D. Donovan utterly charmed in the role, simultaneously breaking your heart and energizing you with a huckster’s world of possibilities.

Shania [Photo by Author]

Shania [Photo by Author]

Finally, Tuesday brought Shania Twain’s resident performance at Caesar’s Palace. You may recall the precedent Celine Dion set five years ago, when Caesar’s built a state-of-the-art arena just for her. Said arena now is a revolving (not literally rotating, though in Vegas, that very well may be next) showcase for Dion as well as Elton John, Rod Stewart, and now Shania Twain. I was fortunate enough to be on the front row seated with a delightful couple from South Dakota and another wonderful soul from Nebraska. Somehow we all bonded almost instantly which just added to the fun. Twain’s show is all VEGAS! baby with the singer flying in on some zany motorcycle contraption, her own personal horses thundering across the stage live (inches from our particular happy band of audience members), a million costume changes, and, yes, SHANIA in block letters the size of, well, city blocks descending during the finale in full klieg-light glory from somewhere in outer space (as far as I could tell).

Caesar's Palace [Photo by Author]

Caesar’s Palace [Photo by Author]

Twain was in fine voice but a bit of a raw nerve in light of her personal problems over the past few years…which in some way added a much-needed relatability to her heretofore beautiful but kinda chilly glamazon stage presence. She was at her best, when she worked the room, engaging with her fans, delighting that a girl who probably wasn’t even born during Twain’s 90s heyday knew all the lyrics to every song, and even pulling our new Nebraska friend on stage to celebrate his birthday.

Home Again [Photo by Author]

Home Again [Photo by Author]

AND I am not ashamed to admit that I cried buckets when she sang her signature tune “You’re Still the One” to her horse, a horse I might add that, with no harness or apparent lead, followed her all about the stage like a puppy . Now THAT is some Vegas magic in which I can heartily believe.