“But first they must catch you.” The Darkest Minds (film review) and Barn Theatre’s production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince with a Thousand Enemies, and whenever they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you, digger, listener, runner, prince with the swift warning. Be cunning and full of tricks and your people shall never be destroyed.” Richard Adams, Watership Down

When even our escapist entertainment reminds us of the dystopia in which we are currently living as Americans, you know things are dire indeed. This weekend we took in a Saturday night production of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast by our talented pals at Augusta, Michigan’s Barn Theatre and a Sunday matinee of the film adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s young adult novel The Darkest Minds. Both were engaging diversions, and, yet, as I sat through both, I was reminded repeatedly of how disconcertingly life imitates art.

If there were ever a tale as old as time that functions as a parable of toxic masculinity, it is Disney’s take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted from Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale first as an Academy Award-winning animated musical in 1991, then as a Broadway stage show in 1994, and finally as a live action film musical in 2017. And it’s made boatloads of cash in each iteration.

Andrea Arvanigian as Belle and Charlie King as Maurice in “Beauty and the Beast” at Barn Theatre.

Let’s see. Belle, a bookish beauty, is caught between two brutes: 1) a misogynistic and vainglorious hunter (Gaston) who sees her as a trophy to be bullied and berated into submission and 2) a literal beast of a man who forces an exchange of her imprisonment for her father’s freedom and locks her in his castle until she succumbs to his “charms.” It may as well be renamed “#MeToo: The Musical.”

As always, the Barn wows with their stagecraft, turning around a technically complex show with barely a week of rehearsal, all the while smiling and parking cars and mowing lawns and serving drinks and selling souvenirs. Be our guest, indeed!

I’d never seen the stage iteration, and I admit to having some difficulty with the first act which pads out the narrative with some forgettable numbers and comic bits and belabors the Beast’s darker impulses to the point that we  begin to lose the sense of isolation and loneliness that humanizes him in the films (not Alan Menken’s and Tim Rice’s finest work – Rice took over for the late Howard Ashman for the Broadway adaptation’s additional material). I now understand why Disney went back to the drawing board with last year’s live action flick, rather than adapt the stage version.

Swiped from Jamey’s Facebook page … sorry (not sorry)!

That said, Jamey Grisham as the titular beast does a lovely job working around those limitations and giving us a Beast who is more of a woebegone man-child than an outright Stanley Kowalski caveman. As I said to him following last night’s performance, his Beast was like a misunderstood pit bull who’d been left at the shelter too long. He looked at me quizzically, but, believe me, for an animal lover like me, that’s high praise. Jamey has the voice of an angel and moves beautifully, but arguably his finest moment is his quietest: when Belle reads King Arthur aloud to the admittedly illiterate Beast. The tender poignancy of Andrea Arvanigian’s Belle sharing a beloved tome with a creature who has never received the most basic of kindnesses is palpable. And the subtle canine physicality that Grisham brings to the scene (how does a Beast sit in a chair, anyway?) is heartwarmingly whimsical.

Albert Nelthropp as Gaston in Barn Theatre’s “Beauty and Beast.”

Albert Nelthropp has a true gift for balancing the cartoonish and the menacing as Gaston. He never misses a comic beat, has a voice (and articulation) that fills the cavernous Barn space, and possesses that rare ability to be likable without losing the utter despicability of his character. Penelope Alex is a lovely and warm Mrs. Potts, delivering the title tune in a soft and lullaby-like manner.

And Hans Friedrichs is having the time of his life as Maurice Chevalier-inspired major domo Lumiere. Few performers could be as elegantly hysterical with (basically) a flashlight strapped to the end of each arm. He and Samantha Rickard as his paramour-turned-feather-duster Babette are a hoot.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast runs through August 10, with tickets available at www.barntheatreschool.org

Be sure to stick around for the Bar Show, a Barn Theatre tradition where the apprentices take over the Rehearsal Shed post-performance to deliver a kooky comic cabaret with polish and panache. Grisham directs and choreographs (is there anything this man can’t do?) with a zippy but inclusive efficiency.

Bar Show

The Disney theme continues with numbers from Coco, The Aristocats, and The Lion King, plus the lost number “Disneyland” from Marvin Hamlisch’s and Howard Ashman’s musicalization of Smile and a pretty epic opener “The Greatest Show” from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul‘s The Greatest Showman (which, for all intents and purposes, should be a Disney musical … but isn’t).

Video clips at the bottom of this post.

From musicalized misogyny on Saturday to a sci fi fable on Sunday about children locked in cages by the government, forcibly separated from their parents –  The Darkest Minds … I told you our entertainment choices this weekend seemed oddly ripped from today’s headlines. Or I just spend way to much time trolling CNN’s and MSNBC’s websites.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The Darkest Minds has been unfairly pilloried by critics. It’s not awful. It’s not great either. The cinematic universe is now littered with Ray Bradbury-esque young adult future-shock franchises that aspired to the box office glory of Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games but never quite made it past the starting gate: The Golden Compass, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson, Divergent, I Am Number Four, and so on. Judging by ticket sales this past weekend, Darkest Minds will be in the trash heap of failed young adult film series as well.

That’s a bit of a shame, as I found its depressing and ominous qualities oddly … refreshing (?). It is necessarily discomforting in today’s world to watch a piece of popcorn entertainment depict young children forcibly ripped from their parents’ arms and sent to internment camps for being “different” (albeit in this instance for having super powers). Yes, we’ve covered this territory a lot; hell, it’s basically the same premise Marvel’s X-Men have been milking for nearly sixty years. Yet, it remains timely. Sadly timely.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

The film probably would have worked better as a bleak TV series – something you watch on NetFlix on a grey Sunday afternoon, while still in your pajamas and eating an entire box of Cap’n Crunch cereal.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In her first live action film (after Kung Fu Panda), Jennifer Yuh Nelson has assembled a capable and transfixing cast, even if they are in servitude to a fairly pedestrian and episodic script. A luminous and haunting Amandla Stenberg (Rue from the original Hunger Games) plays telepathically gifted Ruby Daly – as in all of these sorts of films, she is the Christ/Skywalker/Superman-like “one who will save us all.”

Stenberg is a star in the making, so her mere presence makes the film far more interesting to watch than it should be. A la Dorothy in Oz, she has a band of scruffy friends – Harris Dickinson as dreamy love interest Liam, Skylan Brooks as cerebral Chubbs, Miya Cech as mute Zu – who aid and abet her adventures. The foursome are by far the best thing in the film with a chemistry that deserves a far better vehicle to showcase it.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

They are on the run from a rather confusing collection of government entities and rebel factions that have sprung up in the wake of a nationwide virus that has killed 90% of America’s children and left the remaining 10% with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Uplifting, eh?

Of course, all the adults – well-meaning and earnest Mandy Moore (that’s pretty much her range right there), glowering Gwendoline Christie (sadly sans her shiny Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet), and West Wing‘s Bradley Whitford being all West Wing-y as, yes, the President – are on a mission to collect the super kids to do … well … something? Take over the world? Kill the remaining kids? Clean boots and grow vegetables? Heck, I have no idea.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Arguably, the best outcome for the tens of people who will have walked past Mission: Impossible or Mamma Mia! to go see The Darkest Minds is that some of them might be inspired to pick up the far superior Watership Down by Richard Adams and give it a spin.

Ruby improbably finds a paperback copy in an abandoned shopping mall, reads it to her compatriots, and then repeats ad nauseum Adams’ narrator’s memorable caution to “Prince Rabbit” that “all the world will be your enemy.”

Sadly, these days, those words seem more prescient than ever. So much for escapist entertainment.

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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.

 

 

“It’s called karma … and it’s pronounced ‘ha!'” Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Is it fashionable to hate Mamma Mia!, the international ABBA-stage musical sensation that was parlayed into the biggest box office film-musical of all time ten (!) years ago, starring Meryl Streep? Seems that way. Maybe it’s misogyny or sour grapes or a general critical agnosticism toward anything big, silly, and fun. Maybe people don’t want to admit how much they love infectious Swedish pop songs with nonsensical titles and lyrical metaphors that appear to have been crafted by a roomful of monkeys with typewriters.

Whatever. I liked it. Mostly.

Well, let me equivocate. I appreciated the gaga joy that the original film’s cast seemed to be having – a group of award-winning pros (Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard) who didn’t give a flying fig that they were working from a junk script with a cringe-worthy concept (who’s your daddy?). These talented souls could read an appliance repair manual aloud and make it seem zippy. So what happens when you offer them some catchy-as-eff songs and throw them on a plastic back-lot set designed by Olive Garden with a sound-stage-blue sky that makes your heart ache? Cinematic genius.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Franchise newcomer (is this a franchise yet?) Ol Parker takes over direction from Phyllida Lloyd on the nobody-asked-for-it sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. He does some spectacular reverse engineering to give us an actual film that is just as loopy as before but, you know, gives us characters and motivation and something resembling a plot (sort of).

Since this second entry is basically a greatest hits of a greatest hits package, some songs from the prior film get repeated; some B-side deep cuts you never knew existed (nor wanted to) are employed; and, as a score, all of the numbers are more seamlessly integrated into the story line … which is basically TWO storylines.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

First, Sophie (a luminous Seyfried) is (spoiler alert!) mourning the passing of her mother Donna (Streep, who adds to her odd gallery of beyond-the-grave “angel” characters here), and re-opens the picturesque Greek hotel as a tribute.

Second, in parallel, we learn through flashbacks how young Donna found her island retreat, slept with three different dudes in rapid succession (Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Josh Dylan – all Abercrombie & Fitch adorable and completely disposably interchangeable), and subsequently declared, “To hell with all of ya!”

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

A crackerjack Lily James (Cinderella, Baby Driver) portrays young Donna. She effortlessly channels and brilliantly reinvents the madcap essence of Streep … despite the fact that the two don’t look one whit alike. Lily is brilliant in the role – unapologetic and fiery. By far, the smartest thing the filmmakers did was casting her. She makes the film. Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies are a hoot as her pals (the younger versions of Baranski and Walters, respectively), and the trio present a compelling and believable dynamic as pals making their way in a world and era (1979) where their free-spirited agency ain’t exactly celebrated. (The more things change…)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In the present day, we also see the addition of a criminally underutilized Andy Garcia as the hotel’s concierge/handyman ridiculously named, yes, Fernando. He seems to exist primarily as a narrative device for Cher who literally helicopters in for the last twenty minutes of the movie, phoning in an absolutely brilliant approximation of Cher at her Cher-iest, to croon one of ABBA’s most beloved tunes.

For some illogical reason, Cher, who is only three years older than Streep, plays Streep’s mother. She is about as believable (pun intended) playing Streep’s mother as I would be. Hell, I’d be more believable. “Do you belieeeeeve, in life after love … love … love?” But who cares? In the Teflon-coated Mamma Mia universe, all things exist in servitude to hedonistic joy. And you don’t get more hedonistic nor more joyous than Cher singing “Fernando,” as exquisitely escapist as a big movie moment can be. I adored the sequence and hated myself for doing so the next day.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Check your brain at the door, drink in the images and sounds, and enjoy the best party of the summer with Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. Yes, I laughed, I sang, I danced, I cried, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Much.

Postcript …

There were four lines in the film that I jotted down as potential review titles. They are indicative of why this film is such simplistic, absurdist genius in our meme-happy culture. I chose one – spoken by Julie Walters (I think) – which seemed to perfectly reflect the position this sequel takes in relation to its most vocal critics: “It’s called karma, and it’s spelled ‘ha’!” For the curious? The other three options were as follows: “Be still my beating vagina.” “It’s not easy being a mother. If it was, fathers would do it.” AND “I judge a person’s heart by the way they treat animals.” Go see the film, have a ball, and tell me if I chose my title … poorly.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

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.