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.

Whip and nae nae, compassion and inclusion. A beautifully revitalized The Wiz (Live!)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I’ve always been an Oz-nut for as long as I can remember. Oh, the annual viewings of the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz every holiday season (pre-VCR/DVD/YouTube era, you got one shot, once a year!). I read the books backwards and forwards and mentally catalogued all the fantastic creatures, political intrigue, and oddball illustrations. (“Dorothy Gale” was my “Harry Potter.”) Occasionally, I would delve into other adjacent fantasy lands like Narnia or Wonderland when I needed to cleanse my palate. I devoured any and all minutiae about what motivated L. Frank Baum to write the series (hint: he was pretty irritated with scandal-ridden American politics … go figure).

Championing Gregory Maguire’s postmodern, animal-rights-skewing reimagining of the life and times of the Wicked Witch of the West, I eventually viewed that recent stage musical adaptation twice (though I think it misses the mark when it comes to Maguire’s prescient political allegory). I obsessed over all the trivia I could find on the various cinematic and stage and television journeys over the rainbow and across the Yellow Brick Road. I even love The Boy from Oz – apropos of nothing.

Oh, did I collect STUFF! Stuff upon stuff always competing for space with my ever-growing piles of Star Wars and comic book ephemera as well. Oz has generated mountains of merchandise in the past 100+ years: toys, dolls, figurines, posters, and, yes, those ubiquitous-in-the-1980s Franklin Mint plates. I have a couple of those hand-painted platters (thanks to my gracious parents) … but where and what was the “Franklin Mint” exactly? Does anyone really know? Was it just in some dude’s basement and his name was Franklin?

However, if pressed to pick one corner of Oz-mania that is my absolute fave, the moment that cemented my fascination with the various permutations of this quintessentially American fantasy series? That would be The Wiz, and particularly the 1978 Sidney Lumet-directed film version starring Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Nipsey Russell, Ted Ross, Richard Pryor, and Lena Horne. It’s a polarizing entry point to be sure. While the stage version of Charlie Smalls’ musical was a huge and historic Tony-winning hit in the early 70s, the film was a colossal bomb, vilified for the liberties it took with the source material, and there was a bit of ageist/sexist foolishness over Lumet casting then 33-year-old Diana Ross as Dorothy. (“Too old,” the people cried! I’d love to be 33 again …)

I wrote at length on The Wiz in an embarrassingly fawning love letter in my first book (not humble-bragging – just telling you where you can find it). The movie isn’t without its flaws – too long, kinda dreary, covered in the depressing pseudo-sexual grime that seemed to permeate films of the “Me Decade.” Yet, I would argue that it is the very moodiness of the film, coupled with a Quincy Jones-produced funk bottle-rocket of a score, that gets closest to the populism with which L. Frank Baum approached his work. In that sense, one might suggest that The Wiz movie, remembered chiefly as an unmitigated pop culture misstep, was actually the purest distillation of the grim essence at the original novel’s core.

However, nobody but me likes the nearly forty-year-old flick, so it was high time for a multimedia teardown and rebuild of The Wiz. I’m happy to state that NBC’s live televised holiday musical (from Craig Zadan and Neil Meron who brought us the turgid Peter Pan Live! and the better-but-still-sort-of-moribund Sound of Music Live!) did a fine job reestablishing The Wiz for a new generation.

Director Kenny Leon, aided and abetted by choreographer Fatima Robinson and script doctor Harvey Fierstein, wisely approached the work not as sacred text but as an opportunity for reinvention and reinvigoration. Some of the updates worked beautifully, particularly the orchestrations which, originally (film and stage), were very much “of the moment” (dated R&B, disco) so a refresh was not only in order but essential. Other tweaks fell flat (iPads, sushi, referring to the silver slippers as “kicks”) – a good rule of thumb? If it’s going to sound corny five years from now, chances are it already sounds corny now.

The smartest thing the production team did was cherry pick from both the stage and film scores. Quincy Jones, when he was working on the film, saw that Smalls’ score, even then, needed an overhaul, notably the Scarecrow’s signature tune: the percolating and devastating “You Can’t Win” – foreshadowing Jones’ future blockbuster collaborations with Michael Jackson on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad – replaced the stage production’s aimless “I Was Born the Day Before Yesterday.” Happily, in this latest production “You Can’t Win” won out, and the Elijah Kelley’s adorably nimble performance as the Scarecrow benefited.

Robinson’s choreography cleverly incorporated many au courant moves but in subtle fashion. Oz has always been a cracked mirror reflection of American society, so moves like “whip” and “nae nae” – not to mention some seriously fierce Emerald City voguing – spicing up Ozzians’ onstage pogoing was smart and fun.

The cast was perfection throughout. Newcomer Shanice Williams as Dorothy married a steamroller voice with righteous fire that was fun to see. Finale “Home” was a knockout. She seemed a bit lost in the quieter, softer moments of the show, but those skills will come with experience. For a broadcast theatrical debut, she ran rings around Peter Pan Live’s Allison Williams, though admittedly that bar was so low that it sits in a sub-basement somewhere next to Brian Williams’ career.

Queen Latifah gave as good as she got as a gender-defying Wiz. Vocally, she wasn’t quite up to the role, but from sheer presence? There was no taking that stage away from her.

Intentional or not (and I suspect intentional with Leon’s and Fierstein’s involvement), there was an interesting statement in having the traditionally male role of The Wiz played by the indomitable Latifah. In the guise of the strutting, swaggering Wiz, everyone called Latifah “sir,” until it was revealed that The Wiz was not actually a he but a she. When Dorothy’s scruffy companions exclaimed their horror, Dorothy wheeled on them, exclaiming, “There is nothing wrong with being a woman,” and then spun back to The Wiz and chastising, “But there is everything wrong with being a liar.”

I don’t know what to make of the moment, but, in its narrative context of self-actualization and self-discovery and self-worth, it offers an interesting commentary on the relevance/irrelevance of gender, the importance of humanity and honesty, and the authentic roles women can and do play in leadership and in the accountability of others. I dug it.

In this reboot, women ruled Oz. Not just Dorothy and The Wiz, but Mary J. Blige’s Evillene was a pip. She frolicked dangerously close to the land of overacting, but it’s to be expected from a role that, while serving the primary narrative impetus (“kill the witch”), only has about 10 minutes of actual stage time. Her number “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” is a highlight in the score, and the gospel rave-up that Blige delivered did it proud. Blige running around in a half-hoop skirt and stiletto boots that looked like they could serve double duty as murder weapons only added to the, er, fun. And, in one of the few actual LOL moments of the evening for me, Blige had an Abott-and-Costello-esque word battle with a lackey that sparkled with perfect comic timing.

Uzo Aduba’s Glinda had even less stage time than Blige but an even better song in the gorgeous, hauntingly inspirational “Believe in Yourself.” I’m sorry, Aduba, but no one can touch the incomparable Lena Horne in my mind for her soaring, effortlessly fierce performance of that number in the film, but you made it your own. The sweetly schoolmarm-ish way Aduba (Orange is the New Black) approached the role was distinctive and effective, even if her dress looked as though it were made of a million fuzzy, glowing yellow pipe cleaners.

Stephanie Mills, who played Dorothy in the original stage production, was a thoughtful addition as Aunt Em, establishing the show’s central thesis in fine fashion with opening ballad “The Feeling We Once Had,” an undulating gut punch of a song, simultaneously channeling the remorse for life lost and hope for life yet to live. Glee’s Amber Riley nailed the playground chant whimsy of “He’s the Wiz,” barreling through the number like her life depended on it. Her acting and enunciation could still use a bit of work, but her powerhouse voice made up for those flaws.

If the show’s authority and presence came from the women in the cast, the zip and the play came from the men. David Alan Grier’s Lion had the most fully realized performance of the night – not a beat was lost, not a note was missed. The show was fully alive whenever he was onscreen; he kept things moving at a clip (which was a blessing given half the three-hour running time was made up of commercials … though, happily, that creepy Walmart family was MIA this year); and any consistent comedy in the production came from him. Elijah Kelley (Hairspray) was an adorable wee dervish as the kind-hearted Scarecrow, and pop star Ne-Yo was all country-fried charm and deep feeling soul as the Tin Man. His “What Can I Feel” was a tear-jerking marvel.

From classics like “Ease on Down the Road” to the jubilant (and timely) “Everybody Rejoice/Brand New Day,” the cast of The Wiz Live! performed the showstoppers with vital urgency, as declarations that life can be better – should be better – and that it takes all of us, with the right sense of compassion and of adventure, to get there. I think L. Frank Baum would have been proud. I know I was.

Little Roy

Little Roy

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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.

A day late and a dollar short: NBC’s Peter Pan Live!

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I was an apologist for last year’s inaugural live musical broadcast on NBC: The Sound of Music Live! starring pop/country superstar and American Idol winner Carrie Underwood.

In defense of those rather cardboard proceedings, featuring an underwhelmingly wooden (see what  I did there? 🙂 ) performance from the otherwise charming, sweet, golden-voiced Ms. Underwood, I wrote, “Bully to NBC and the production team and the cast for their accomplishment and for giving the Wal-Mart generation a glimpse of another era. … Let’s hope for more live theatre on network TV … and less Wal-Mart.”

After finally slogging through Peter Pan Live! via the wonders of DVR, can I rescind that wish?

Good lord, but there was even MORE Wal-Mart: the creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, generic family that peppered every d*mn commercial break during last year’s broadcast being replaced by a creepily self-satisfied, Midwestern, hetero-normative, consumerist-fantasy, vaguely Christian with a capital “C”, celebrity family, that of Sabrina the Teenage Witch Melissa Joan Hart, doing her darndest to look winsome and bake cookies and project a calm, ethereal, Donna Reed-passivity that would make Gloria Steinem’s head explode.

And good googly wooglies but as much as I hated the ever-increasingly invasive Wal-Mart ads, the show was worse. Others seem to disagree, but I found this production flatter, duller, drearier, and more aggravating than last year’s. Perhaps I gave Underwood and company a pass because it was the first time in decades someone had attempted such a spectacle. Perhaps Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Sound of Music is just a stronger show in its bones than Jule Styne/Adolph Green/Betty Comden’s Peter Pan. Perhaps Sound of Music had a stronger supporting cast, capable performers like Audra McDonald and Laura Benanti who knew how to transcend the molasses and pop off the screen with sparkle and charm. Perhaps all of the above.

 

My mother Susie Duncan Sexton emailed me immediately following the Peter Pan broadcast – the subject line was “panning pan” and the content is slightly edited here for a family audience 🙂 …

Petuh, Petuh, Petuh…Christopher Walken as Hook channeled Bette Davis?  Kelli O’Hara as Mrs. Darling could have played Petuh or Wendy.  Wendy girl [Taylor Louderman] was great but looked 47.  Nana dog was the best of all.  Show was about as LIVE as a corpse in a casket.

The costumes? (Kelli alone even got that right)  Petuh Pan girl should have worn tights and elf shoes/hiking boots exposing a hint of waxed legs…And, with their outrageous costumery for Tiger Lily’s men and sometimes the pirates, why not give Petuh a pointy hat?!?

And Allison Williams as Petuh never left girldom.  Was this a fever dream about some very odd female rite of passage? Just exchange thimbles either with other girls or with castrated fun-loving immature boys whom they will mother, rather than ever … you know what?

And I kept thinking of Natalie Wood for some reason?  What would she have thought of Walken on a boat with BTW the most talented folks in the show?  Had been looking forward to the production and kept thinking –through all of the lengthy commercial breaks (breaks causing ADD) filled with materialistic mind sets from big families who could even maybe adopt lost boys–that it would improve?

And how about this suggestion.  When Minnie Driver pushed the show down for a completed drowning death that the windows might have opened and Allison’s dad, newscaster Brian Williams, himself flew in?  His man daughter with the waxed legs all grown up?  And did they write unmemorable new-stale songs for this thing or what?

 

My mom is spot on.

As I watched this thing in dribs and drabs over the past weekend – 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there – I grew more horrified with each installment. Was Walken being punished somehow? Or were we, the audience? He seemed miserable, tone-deaf, and medicated like an aging drag queen who’d put in one too many performances of “I Will Survive” at The Jolly Roger in Provincetown. And the dancing? His much-vaunted dancing? All I saw was a lot of leaning left and right, fay hand gestures, and an occasional pretend tap sequence or too. Is that latter bit called lip-syncing? Toe-syncing?

Williams is arguably a smidgen better actor than Underwood but she definitely doesn’t have the erstwhile Maria’s pipes or, for that matter, simple sweetness. Williams had all the pluck and charm of a ball point pen and, at times, she performed like a well-heeled, smart-alecky co-ed slumming on her winter break from Barnard.

Christian Borle as Mr. Darling/Smee was ok. I find him talented but one-note usually. I may be in the minority, but I thought this production highlighted all of his airless, stiff limitations. O’Hara, on the other hand, was magic. In this production, she reined in her overly plucky twinkle, and gave us a Mrs. Darling who was warm, authentic, poignant, and haunting. I very much like what she did with the role. It was a sobering juxtaposition to everything else.

Ah, everything else. The ingeniously fluid set design employed during Sound of Music was definitely on display, but a bigger budget does not necessarily bring better taste or strategic restraint. Neverland looked like it was outfitted by Hot Topic and Justice store employees hopped up on acid and Diet Coke. The Lost Boys/Pirates/Natives (basically all the group numbers) were a hoot to watch – that’s generally when the show came alive, especially the Pirates … but they all appeared to have been costumed by cast-off pieces from The Village People’s camp classic (?) Can’t Stop the Music (directed by Nancy Walker, btw/wtf).

It was this jarring conflict of tone and energy and intent that was most problematic. As my mom suggests with her “pointy hat” remark, if the show had just gone for all-out crazy the way the set and costume design suggest, it would have been an absolute riot. Peter Pan is a strange children’s (?) book with a lot of bizarre Freudian subtext (and super-text) made even odder when musicalized with a grown woman playing the lead and a cast of grown men all in pursuit of and at odds over finding the perfect mother (seemingly the show’s primary narrative conceit).

The production designers seemed to get that innate oddness, but, apparently, they were attending different team meetings from the director and cast who approached the material with flat affect and somber tone … when they could remember their lines, that is. The only way this thing would have worked (in addition to excising an hour of material/advertisements) would have been to celebrate its peculiarity, not only in production values but in performance. We needed unhinged whimsy but got unhinged boredom.

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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.