King Kong on Broadway

I have not read a professional review of this show that we saw last night, so I’m winging it here. Officially, it is still in “previews,” with the full opening set for November 8.

Judging from the audience reactions, and our own, the show was extraordinary in at least one major respect. The stagecraft was over the top. Of course, there was Kong himself. An amazing achievement to bring to life a 20-foot, 2,000 pound (seemed much bigger) gorilla on a stage. But there were a number of others that blew the audience away. I won’t give them away here.

On the slightly negative side, and this is largely just personal taste, the songs were not particularly memorable. We heard nothing that will be in long term memory to evoke the other responses to the show. I was distracted a bit by the “modernity” of the leading lady’s voice. To be sure, Christiani Pitts gave a lot of heart and energy to her role as Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress picked off the streets by the dastardly Carl Denham as the bait to lure Kong from his lair on Skull Island. Her voice was clear and strong throughout and playing the love interest of a giant gorilla has to be a challenge for anyone. Some of her language and mannerisms just seemed out of sync with the 1930s in which the story takes place. Moreover, I don’t know how this “issue” could have been cured by choosing another performer. All that aside, she deserved the standing ovation she received at the end. So did Kong and his “handlers.”

In any case, the staging of this show is over the top and that will be remembered for a long time. The action, especially during the first half, was fast-moving and captivating. I was actually surprised when the intermission arrived at about the one-hour mark.

One more thing; if you’re thinking of taking a child to see this show (minimum posted age is only 4), you should prepare the child for the ending. It seems to take a long time to bring off the violent, inevitable and tragic conclusion to the tale. Knowing what is going to happen doesn’t make it easier to watch.

Bohemian Rhapsody – Ignore the Critics

To be clear, I am not a fan of rock music and in fact mostly “missed” the era of the 70s and 80s entirely while pursuing a nascent career as a lawyer in Washington, DC. Thus, perhaps amazingly, I was really not acquainted with the rock group Queen or Freddie Mercury, its mercurial lead singer.

Nevertheless, my wife insisted that we see Bohemian Rhapsody as soon as possible. It turned out to be opening night of the movie in New York City this weekend and, fortuitously, it was playing at a theater within walking distance of our apartment.

Upon arrival at the theater, I learned why the tickets were so expensive. The movie was in the IMAX Theater. Happily for me, the eye-watering blasts of the previews were toned down to normal loud hearing range for the movie itself. Do overpowering sounds really make people want to see a movie more?

I went in with some concern because I had read a few of the critics’ reviews which were mostly negative, leading to a kind of anticipatory piling on of negative expectations. However, in the event, I must state that I think the critics are dead wrong about this movie. Everyone who enjoys a compelling story of hard work, success, heartache and ultimate resolution, well told and brilliantly acted by everyone, will like this movie. A lot.

To be sure, you’ve likely seen this movie before, or, to be more precise, a movie about a famous star with a remarkably similar story line. The early music savant, a renegade in conflict with a traditional family, strikes out on a path that leads to sudden fame and with it, the demands, gains and losses, that come with it. The great one has what is portrayed as a weakness, a fatal flaw, that threatens to bring him down. In Mercury’s case, I think it was that he believed, as so many famous people seem to, that he could have everything he wanted without risk or consequences. He is difficult but always confident and often overbearing. Personal relationships develop and dissolve. He is alone in the crowd that surrounds him at every moment. Then things really get bad. In the end, the human spirit triumphs and all are lifted up. The movie will, I suggest, rock you.

Here’s the thing. Rami Malek turns in an extraordinary rendition of a complex character. While I was put off by the camera work that seemed always to point at Malek’s reconstructed dental work to mimic Mercury’s overbite (he was born with extra teeth), the essence of the story was one of building tension surrounding the star. Where would fame lead? How could any normal human survive such exposure and remain “normal?” Knowing the end did not diminish the drama, an accomplishment that says, this movie was well done.

I will not give away any secrets about exactly how the story plays out. Suffice that between exceptional acting all around, a compelling story line, great music (yes, I said that), just enough “dirt” to give you the flavor without dwelling on it to the exclusion of the personal side of the singer and those who surrounded him, this movie deserves better than the critics quibbling. Mercury’s conflicted relationship with his wife/friend is laid out but does not overtake the main story line. The casting for the movie was brilliant and many Oscar nominations will undoubtedly result, for Malek certainly, and likely for many of the supporting case.

The critics seem to think that there were major elements of Mercury’s life and personality that were not fully developed but it seems to me that this story is the story that is repeated for every person, like Freddie Mercury, who is challenged and often brought low, at least for a time, by the heavy weight of unimaginable fame. I am, of course, surprised at myself for liking this movie so much, but I am confident that most of the people who see it will find it interesting, fun and, ultimately, satisfying.

Late Show with Stephen Colbert

I am not sure how I was persuaded to do this, but my wife and I attended the Stephen Colbert Late Show on CBS a few nights ago. I suspect I was primed to say ‘yes,’ by having walked past the theater many times and seeing the people lined up outside. Besides, the ticket price is great: zero.

You pay instead with patience. My bank account balance in patience is low, but you only live once. In a nutshell, the deal is that you apply online and at some point you get an email confirmation telling you, in our case at least, that you have Priority Tickets for a specific date. All people named on the tickets must be present or the “guardian” will not let you enter the line. The line begins to form well before 3 pm and priority entry closes at 4, at which point late arrivals must enter the “General Admission” line. There appeared to also be a group of “VIPs” who were at the front. Don’t know about that.

In any case, I compulsively arrived early and my wife arrived “late,” but we were in the line together by 3:30, after stuffing down a hot dog from the cart carefully positioned at the entry point for the line. So, we’re in line, fresh wristbands on (like a hospital band) and we wait, fortunately in the shade as temperatures are in the mid-80s. Eventually, another shouting guardian allows the line to enter the theater, which is accomplished by presenting your forearm vertically to display the wrist band.

Inside, we are crammed tightly into a hallway designed for other purposes with multiple TV screens showing past episodes from the Late Show. There are essentially three tranches. You must remain in your own tranche, or else. Another guardian allows us to use the restrooms, down the stairs, in groups (that is, we are released in groups to go down). You are reminded that you must return to your same spot in the crammed in lines. To my surprise, everyone seems to comply.

And we wait. And wait. And wait.

Then we are admitted to the theater. As you enter, another guardian tells you which way to turn and yet another one tells you where to sit. This is not negotiable. We luck out and get an aisle seat and adjacent on the right of the two “center” aisles, closest to the band.

Two important cautions: it is a lot colder in the studio than is conveyed by the “it’s cool in the studio” warning on the tickets. A lot colder. Probably to offset the heat of the lights and massive electronics everywhere in the studio. Also, during what becomes another protracted wait, they pump rock music, or similar, at high volume into the theater. There is no escape. If this bothers you, you may wish to bring earplugs. It did and I didn’t.

The show has a very clever comedian who comes out to “warm up” the audience, complete with calling people up on the stage and humorously embarrassing them. This too is not negotiable. All in good fun, of course, as long as I don’t get called up.

Another man, Mark, as I recall, explains how important the audience enthusiasm is to the energy of the show and indicates how he will call on the audience from time to time to demonstrate its unlimited excitement by vigorous applause and yelling, etc. The signal is a rolled-up magazine held up and rotated. Occasionally, also, flashing “APPLAUSE” signs, but mainly it was Mark. All that technology and a rolled-up magazine. [More likely, it was a script; we’ll never know]

We practice this vigorous applauding and yelling multiple times. The audience is pumped. Hell, even I’m getting pumped, and I generally don’t do pump.

Then Stephen Colbert comes out to talk to the audience, answers a few questions and then, suddenly everything starts happening. The show moves very fast. The monologue is right in front of us but there are a lot of cameras and booms so you end up watching the monitors a lot. Colbert’s guest this day is Josh Brolin, currently starring in Deadpool 2 and Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado. Brolin has a long list of movie credits, but I have only seen one of them, so had nothing much to go on. Colbert, however, is a comic genius and was able to create a very funny interview.

The second guest, Ruth Negga, was less successful. She was the star of Loving, for which she received an Oscar nomination but didn’t have much to say this day. She confessed to being extremely nervous about being with Stephen Colbert who, even for major acting figures, has become a larger-than-life figure.

One absolute standout of the experience was the band, Stay Human, led by Jon Batiste. Their musicianship was amazing, a surprise because I had not cared for them when watching on TV. They came up the aisles during commercial breaks and played right next to us, jazzy pop music, I would call it, and were very impressive. Kept the crowd pumped so they wouldn’t “come down” during the breaks. Side note: during the breaks, Colbert conferred at his stage desk with various staff people and could be seen writing and marking up notes to himself. Back on the air, he never missed a beat.

So, the big question: is this a great experience? Was it worth all the standing and waiting (I hate lines and waiting, if you had not guessed that by now). Answer: unqualified “yes.” The overall experience was exciting and also exhausting because you found yourself going along with the excessive enthusiasm of the worked-up crowd and just letting go. And Colbert was very funny. We laughed a lot. I would do it again. If you do, bring a warm jacket. The studio is freezing. So cold.

Ballet in Bryant Park

The first time I saw ballet performed was an exhibition in St. Petersburg many years ago. The performances were brief but spectacular, especially the leaps of the male performers. I had never seen anything to equal it, but it did not trigger a passion to see more. Indeed, I found the length and pace of the traditional ballets I later saw as a bit much, though, again, the artistry and sheer physical power of the performers was almost supernatural.

When we arrived in New York, one of the obvious benefits of our location was Lincoln Center, literally a few blocks from our apartment. And, miraculously, within months, the one ballet I really did want to see, Stravinsky’s The Firebird, was scheduled for the Metropolitan Opera House. The added treat was entitled AFTERITE, danced to Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, one of my favorite pieces of classical music, with Misty Copeland to boot! As a side note, we were so excited to see all this that we sprang, first time ever, for box seats. They turned out to be cramped and difficult for viewing unless you were in front row or elevated third row (we weren’t). I was also interested to observe that in order to enter the box at any time, an attendant, usually nearby, had to unlock the door. I kept thinking of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. As a further and final side note, we didn’t much care for AFTERITE. Misty Copeland’s amazing talent was largely wasted as her role involved more standing and walking around the stage than dancing.

But I digress. All of the above being true, I remain an uninformed, inexpert observer of ballet,  but still awed by the superhuman effort, grace, athleticism and artistry of the dancers. So, facing Friday night with my wife out of town on business, I went to Bryant Park for what was advertised as a “A Night of Ballet, including a Master Class led by Cynthia Harvey, Artistic Director of the American Ballet Theatre Onassis School, a discussion of personal histories with two ABT Company dancers and performances by three local New York City ballet companies.

Bryant Park shares with the New York Public Library the rectangle bounded by 5th and 6th Avenues and West 40th and 42nd Streets. There is a lot going on there all the time. See http://bryantpark.org/

Arriving early, I snagged a seat in the first row, on the stage side of the rope separating the walkway from the Lawn in front of the Fountain Terrace. After the Master Class, in which I did not participate [contain your amusement] and the discussion, the first group of dancers came onto the stage. The first good shot I managed to get is the featured photo at the top of this post. There is nothing meaningful I can say about the extraordinary talent of these young dancers except that I was mesmerized. Rather than pretend to be a critic, for which I am, as noted above, grossly unqualified, I will let the photographs speak for themselves.

I’m just going to show a small sample of the shots I took that night. The first group, Continuum Contemporary/Ballet, danced Concerto Geloso to the amazing music of Vivaldi. The second “group” is just two dancers, from Doug Baum & Artists performing Tangle, and the final group is Da’Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift performing Dances for Brass: Sacred and Profane. These photos do not do full justice to the performance because they lack the music and the continuity of the moves, but I think you’ll get the idea.

 

 

Continuum Contemporary/Ballet

  Choreography: Donna Salgado

 Dancers: Laura DiOrio, Dorothea Garland, Shoko Fujita, Donna Salgado,

 Vanessa Salgado

Doug Baum & Artists

Choreography: Doug Baum

Dancers: Doug Baum, Katie Currier

Da’ Von Doane & The Artists of the Shift

Choreography: Da’ Von Doane

Dancers: Malik Berry, Daniel Cooke, Paunika Jones, Cortney Key, Courtney Cochran