Sunday, January 31, 2010

Pasadena Playhouse Closes

I don't think I've seen much on this since it happened, but on Friday Playbill reported that the Pasadena Playhouse will close down this Sunday. It's a large regional theatre with a strong reputation (93 years old, too), and it's rather shocking to see it go just like that. But apparently there was $5 million dollars of debt to be paid, and no way to do it. It may be one of the largest (in budget) companies to close down in this economy, with the possible exceptions of the Studio Arena in Buffalo and the North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts. Apparently there are hopes to somehow restructure the debt and reopen the company. Hopefully this will come to pass. It's a sad loss, for now.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Worthwhile Conversations

So as I hoped, Don Hall posted my review of The (edward) Hopper Project over at his blog with comments. I'd strongly encourage you check it out--we've started discussing the show, and I think it's exactly the kind of conversation that should be happening more between critics and artists. It's also fascinating stuff, even if you haven't seen the show. Also worthwhile: the more recent post discussing the critic who wasn't interested in having her work discussed and sent a Cease and Desist letter, and the ramifications of that. Definitely worth checking out, and something I hope more companies do with my reviews.

Another conversation with an artist: Molly Brennan just let me know that Rick Bayless will again be the guest at her variety show on February 5th. Tickets only $15 to see Madam Barker, John Fournier, The Barker Dames, special guests, and the famous Rick Bayless making chocolate truffles? Brilliant.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Review-a-Palooza, Part Three

Well, that was tough.

(Note to self: when working a full-time day job, don't review three shows on three successive days. It's draining. Particularly if it's January, your motivation level is low, and you're also dramaturging two shows.)

Anyhow, Centerstage has posted my review of WNEP's The (edward) Hopper Project, which is running at the Storefront downtown through February 21. It's an interesting one, alright.

By the way, producer/director and WNEP Artistic Director Don Hall, who blogs as An Angry White Guy In Chicago, has been posting all of the reviews on his website with commentary and reaction. I will certainly fill you guys in on any comments he makes on me, and any responses I give. (And I do plan to do so: despite his internet identity, his comments are respectful and genuinely interested in understanding the criticism offered, and I think that kind of engagement between practitioner and critic is what theatre needs more.) And no, I will not respond to being quoted with a Cease and Desist letter, as happened with one other critic.

Anyhow, here's the text. (but do follow the link to Centerstage to see the pictures!)

There's one important thing that "The (edward) Hopper Project" gets right: it's full of moments that feel like looking at one of his paintings. There's something incredibly moving about Hopper's lonely urbanites and the way he paints them with light, and parts of the show have the same effect.

Unfortunately, the pitfalls of creating theater based on visual art - along with some of the production's choices - make for an inconsistent evening, more akin to an art installation than a conventional play.

Painting is not a narrative art form, so it's obviously a challenge to adapt it to the stage. Don Hall, who produced and directed the show, and the nine playwrights who wrote it, have not attempted to create a single plotline, opting instead for an episodic structure: 6 a.m. to midnight in 1952 Brooklyn. The scenes are all inspired by Hopper, spinning dramatic or comic sketches from his paintings: a businessman considers suicide every morning in his office, a woman attacks a man and his pigeons with an air rifle, a pair of lovers, now married to others, briefly see each other again. Some individual scenes are quite affecting, but the lack of a central plot line makes it hard to stay involved for the entire show. The fact that the sections vary noticeably in tone and quality contributes to this problem.

But there's plenty to savor along the way. There's the sheer joy of seeing 17 actors onstage, inhabiting a wide variety of characters and making them pop from the stage in brief scenes. There's the way Heath Hays' set, Mike Durst's lighting, and Rebecca Langguth's costumes combine perfectly to create the world. There are the lovely mimed transitions where characters from multiple scenes interact. It doesn't add up to a completely successful play, but as a walk through a living gallery there's plenty to recommend it.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Review-a-Palooza, Part Two

Centerstage has published my review of Tracy Letts' first play, Killer Joe, being revived at Profiles after its world premiere in Chicago 15 years ago. You can read it here.

A personal note on the show: the second production, after Chicago was at the Cleveland Public Theatre. My family friend and theatrical mentor Lynna Snyder (now Metrisin) played Sharla. Since I was ten and the first scene had her in nothing but a t-shirt, I was not permitted to attend. How very wise my parents were.

Also, this seeing Killer Joe means that only Bug stands between me and seeing all of Letts' produced plays. (August on Broadway, Superior Donuts and Man From Nebraska at Steppenwolf.) Anyone want to revive Bug for me?

Anyhow, here's the text of the review.

It's all fun and games until...but that would be giving too much away. Nobody loses an eye in "Killer Joe," the first play by Tracy Letts, now in its first Chicago revival at Profiles Theatre, but what starts as a nastily entertaining black comedy in the first act turns just plain nasty in the second. It's frighteningly convincing, but it takes a high tolerance for close-range violence and disturbing sleaze. If such things turn your stomach, you'll want to flee, but those up for a visceral evening will be thrilled and horrified.

Chris Smith (Kevin Bigley) needs $6,000 or his shady creditors will kill him. The only way he can think of to get the cash is killing his hateful, alcoholic mother to collect her insurance policy, whose beneficiary is his brain-damaged sister, Dottie (Claire Wellin). He quickly gets his father (Howie Johnson) and stepmother (Somer Benson) on board, but they realize that none of them have the courage or skill to pull the trigger. So they hire sheriff/hit man Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell W. Cox). When Joe takes an interest in Dottie, things go wrong very fast.

This is nasty, exploitative stuff, and it's to the credit of director Rick Snyder, the cast, and the designers, that it's presented with intense commitment. Even in the funnier first half, there's no winking at these characters, and no gentling their awful qualities. So when things get violent, it's hard to watch—but hard to turn away. Cox stands out for his toxic, fascinating combination of sleaze and menace, but he fits seamlessly into the exceptionally strong cast. Aside from the pacing sagging a bit in the middle of the first act, everything in the production works together wonderfully. It's just up to you whether it's a journey you want to take.

Review-a-Palooza, Part One

Last week I saw shows three nights in a row: Chicago Shakespeare's Private Lives on Wednesday, Profiles' Killer Joe on Thursday, and WNEP's The (edward) Hopper Project on Friday. I've been working on the reviews, and Centerstage has started posting them.

You can find my review of Private Lives here or look at the text below. Overall it was a very worthwhile production. I love this play--it may be on my top 10 favorite scripts list, and this is actually the third time I've seen it. But I'd be happy seeing it every few years for the rest of my life. It's that funny, that true, that stylish. Basically, I want to be Noel Coward, but if I can't, I'll stick with seeing his shows as much as possible. The revolving stage and some of Griffin's changes to the stage directions (which I can explain on request--I don't want to spoil anything for those who don't know the play) do detract, but not very much when everything else works so well.

A word on ticket prices: Chicago Shakespeare is charging their usual exorbitant rates for this show: $55 on weeknights and Sunday nights, $68 on Fridays, and S75 on Saturdays and Sunday matinees. This is despite the fact that, with a cast of only five and far fewer costumes, it is doubtless much cheaper to run than most of what they do. So if you'd like to go, I recommend a trip to, the half-price ticket site run by the League of Chicago Theatres. The show is often available (as it a large portion of what's onstage in Chicago), and $27.50 is a much more doable proposition.

Anyhow. Here is the review:

Noel Coward made it all look so easy. He wrote plays with astounding speed ("Private Lives" reportedly took only four days), penned songs by the dozen, and starred in everything he wrote. But producing his exquisitely sophisticated and glamorous plays is far from simple; making the style work requires that every element, from performance to design to pacing, be razor-sharp. And while this production isn't quite perfect, it certainly brings off the tricky balancing act delightfully.

Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold) and Elyot (Robert Sella) were divorced five years ago after three stormy years of marriage. They have each remarried, to Victor (Tim Campbell) and Sibyl (Chaon Cross), and are honeymooning in the South of France — unfortunately in adjoining hotel rooms with shared balconies. They meet again, the old feeling returns, and, unsurprisingly, complications follow.

Coward's genius is in balancing an unending succession of witty lines (tossed off gorgeously by the cast) with real and uncomfortable insights about relationships. Gary Griffin's production walks this tightrope with great aplomb. Arnold is a dream, glamorous and witty as possible while keeping Amanda's human core on display, and while Sella sometimes underlines his jokes, he still brings Elyot to blazing life. Campbell and particularly Cross are just about perfect in their smaller roles.

Griffin keeps the production fleet and delicious, though he makes a few decisions that detract: he's staged the play in the round, which works, but about halfway through the first act the stage starts slowly revolving. It does show the stage from multiple angles, but it's mostly just distracting. And two changes at the end of acts II and III significantly alter the play.

But the production still does an exceptional job at balancing the glittering surface and the profound shadows of Coward's great play, not to mention looking absolutely stunning. It may not be the perfect "Private Lives," but there's still plenty of delight to be had.

Madam Barker's (Next) Show

So remember last month when I said  that if Molly Brennan did another show as Madam Barker you should get tickets? Well, she's doing another one. It's coming up February 5th at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway. Bar at 10PM, show at 11PM. Tickets are only $15. It's her last show as Madam Barker for a while, as she's been cast as the Red Queen in Lookingglass Alice, and will be spending the spring on tour before returning to Chicago in the summer to play a 2-month run. So go while you have the chance! Here's the full press release with details:



Featuring a departure performance by Molly Brennan


Madam Barker (Molly Brennan, 500 Clown) and John Fournier host a variety hour and fifteen minutes.


Strawdog Theatre’s Hugen Hall
3829 N Broadway


February 5, Doors and Bar open at 10pm, Show begins 11pm




500 Clown's lusty lunatic Madam Barker, sings original songs by John Fournier, including cuts from 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal. Barker and Fournier welcome some of Chicago's finest variety talent, including clown Jeff Trainor, actor Steve Pickering, and the Gorgeous and Terrifying Barker Dames for 75 minutes of Valentine-themed music, comedy, magic and dancing gals!


Molly Brennan (500 Clown) as Madam Barker,
John Fournier (piano, sax, vocals, composer),


Molly Brennan,


Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Passing Strange on PBS Tonight!

Passing Strange, the 2008 musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, closed after a too-brief run on Broadway. (In fact, it closed only a few days before I visited New York, to my great distress.)  The rock musical was based on Stew's life, growing up with his mother in a bourgeois African-American community in LA, then bolting for Europe and trying desperately to find his identity and his art. The plot outline is familiar from many coming-of-age stories, but the show is lifted into a higher realm by a really exceptional score. It's real rock music, at times melodic, at times electrifying, with an exceptionally smart and penetrating set of lyrics. To my mind the score sits with Caroline, Or Change and The Light in the Piazza among the very best of the decade just past.

Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to sustain a Broadway run. Despite enthusiastic reviews, it never caught on. The show was too unusual perhaps--it was hard to explain why a rock concert/musical with singer narrating his autobiography while another actor played a younger version of him was worth seeing. It also didn't help that the entire cast was black (still all too rare on Broadway) and that the best songs were either too profane or too long to excerpt well on television (the performance on the Tonys was an excellent example of this--it just came off as lots of jumping around). Or maybe two vibrantly original musicals about minorities starring the composer was one too many, and everyone went to see In The Heights (which is also a wonderful play).

Whatever the reason, the show closed too soon. Luckily, there was a cast album made--which has quickly become one of my most played--and for the last few performances, Spike Lee was there. Apparently Lee had seen the show and loved it, and when the closing was announced he sprung into action, filming the last three performances so that more people could see the show. It was screened at Sundance last January, had a brief theatrical release, and was available for a while on Video On Demand. Yesterday saw the release of the DVD, and tonight it's been shown as part of PBS' Great Performances.

For those in Chicago, it's showing on WTTW from 9-11:30 PM this evening, with a replay on Friday at 2:30 AM. Make sure to see it or set your VCR/DVR for it! I'm DVRing it to watch this weekend, and I'll bring back a report. Make sure to comment with your thoughts when you see it!

Also, I'm seeing three shows in the next three nights: Private Lives at Chicago Shakes tonight, Killer Joe as Profiles tomorrow, and The (edward) Hopper Project, done by WNEP Theatre at the Storefront downtown on Friday. Just like a real critic! Look for reviews early next week.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Sean Graney On...

Just read this entertaining interview with Sean Graney, currently in Milwaukee directing Steven Dietz's play Yankee Tavern, about conspiracy theorists in the wake of 9/11. It's an entertaining look at the world of conspiracy theorists, the evolution of his aesthetic, and the joys of masturbation. It made me smile. Check it out.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Guido at the Mercy of Detractors

So we've come to the end of our long, verbose journey. Tim Brayton, of the excellent film blog Antagony and Ecstasy and I have been tracking the winding path of Nine to the screen. First we had a discussion based on my viewing of 8 1/2, Federico Fellini's film about his life and artistic struggles (parts one and two) then we talked about Tim's initial listen to the original cast album of Nine, Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's musical adaptation of the film (which can be found here). Now we've each seen the film version, directed by Rob Marshall and...well, it's a pretty sad discussion. Tim has already posted our discussion at his blog, but here it is for your reading pleasure.

Hi Zev,

Well, here we are at last with Nine, as adapted by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella from Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit's 1982 Broadway musical - or is it? I know we both have quite a few disappointments with this one, for a lot of shared and personal reasons, but I want to put that off for the moment to focus on what seems to me the film's strange and ultimately fatal choice to bring so very much of Federico Fellini's back into the fold, both visually and narratively. I remember finding to my shock how much the stage musical didn't feel like a travesty of that 1963 classic, simply because it was so damn different: the thematic concerns, the way the narrative was structured. And while I might have still disliked the movie - director Rob Marshall and I do not have a very good history together - a film adaptation of Nine still would have been worth seeing.

But that's not what we saw, is it? Frankly, the film Nine doesn't feel at all like an adaptation of the show: it feels like a remake of spiced up with some songs from the stage Nine. Which is a crippling, terrible choice. A film of the musical might have been able to avoid the worst comparisons with Fellini's masterpiece, on account of being so very different; but Marshall and the writers not only court comparisons, but practically beg for them. For starters, the structure is much closer to the film than the musical: this is especially apparent in the second half, which is where the previous two versions of the story diverged most, and the film Nine follows in nearly all specifics, especially the much later arrival of Luisa Contini to the spa where Guido is staying, and the addition of several "filmmaking" scenes - I can't think of any other way to call them - like the sequence where Guido and the producers watch the screen tests, a major climax in Fellini that is wholly absent in the stage version.

The result is a terribly aimless hybrid of two essentially disparate takes on a similar (not identical!) scenario, and the film Nine never figures out what it wants its identity to be. There's simply not enough left of the musical's treatment of a man-child and the woman who have shaped his world to have that stand as the film's primary angle, but Marshall is no Fellini, and he doesn't have remotely the same things to say about creative block, although he certainly appears to suffer from it.

Even worse than it's middling appropriation of motifs from two incompatible sources, there are plenty of points where the movie just makes stuff up, which is nowhere more obvious or more upsetting than the end of the story: unaccountably, Tolkin, Minghella and Marshall decided to do away with the moment where Guido contemplates (or, in some interpretations, commits) suicide, which in both and the stage Nine seems like the obvious and inevitable point that the story has been building to all along. Instead, there's just some lame flash-forward that has all the feeling of a lazy biopic ending. If I could tell what they were trying to do there, I think I'd be a much happier man.

I'm also confused and heartbroken by the way it treats Guido's fantasies: one of the chief appeals of both the previous movie and the musical was the way that we're rarely clear whether a given moment is Guido's fantasy or the actual reality he is observing; eventually we come to understand that there's not much point in distinguishing them. But, using the same trick that appeared in Marshall's dispiriting adaptation of Chicago, all of the musical numbers are unambiguously Guido's fantasies, and everything that's not a musical number is plainly "reality", no ambiguity or melding of the real and the imagined to be found. For me, that is the whole entire point of 8½, and if it's not quite as central to Nine, it's still a tremendously important component - to do away with that entirely seems to have quite missed the point of both works of art that Marshall et al are copying.

I could and probably will say a lot about the way the film travesties Fellini, but for now, I'm tossing it over to you, to ask a) what you think about its attempt to combine the two sources, and b) your feelings on the things the film does to Yeston's music, and I know that on this second point, at least, you have some very definite, very strong opinions.


I think you've expressed how the film unsuccessfully blends the Fellini and the original musical very clearly, though the list of shots (e. g. Guido meeting Carla at the train) and scenes (e. g. the conversaton with the Cardinal in the spa) cribbed directly from Fellini could go on and on.

And before I get into the flaws, a promise: I will say what works about the movie at the end of this message, because it's hardly a total waste.

One of Rob Marshall's fundamental ideas about film musicals, and a very unfortunate one, is that an audience simply will not accept characters breaking into song within the story. There has to be some sort of framing device, with the songs being one character's fantasies. I actually thought the device worked rather well in Chicago, where the main character dreamt of a vaudeville career, but it is far less successful here. There's simply no reason for Guido Contini's fantasies to be songs, unless the film establishes the rule that song is a part of the storytelling language.

Another problem with the device, and to my mind the more damaging one, is that it takes agency away from the women. One of the main distinctions between and Nine is that the stage musical gives the women powere they didn't have in the Fellini. They are singing directly to Guido, confronting him with their feelings, and baring their souls directly to the audience. If everything they are singing is simply what Guido imagines, it saps them of much of their power, and again makes them abstractions whose inner life Guido doesn't understand and the audience can't really access.

Several other major decisions made on the film were similarly wrongheaded: what can we make of the fact that the stage version's major stylistic device, to have the adult and child versions of Guido be the only men in a sea of women, was jettisoned? Suddenly, there are men back in Nine. However, none of them have major roles, so rather than stylistically bold and arresting the film just seems peculiar.

Why drastically reconceive two characters? Lilliane La Fleur, the fearsome Parisian producer, is changed to Judi Dench's Lilli, the kindly costume designer who acts as Guido's confidante. Leaving aside that it makes no sense for Guido to have a trusted friend of any kind, this removes any tension from "Folies Bergere": if it's not performed by a producer demanding that Guido make the musical he promised her to get the contract, what's the point? Similarly, why turned acid-tongued critic Stephanie into a fawning Vogue writer, remove her caustic countermelody from "Folies Bergere," and replace it with the really awful "Cinema Italiano"? (More on that song in a moment.) It's almost perverse to make changes that so obviously harm the story's drama.

You've already mentioned the dispiriting way the movie puts reality, memory, and fantasy into rigidly separate worlds and the weird ending, My ire is reserved for two major elements: the choreography and the music.

Rob Marshall got his start as a Broadway choreographer, but he seems to have lost something along the way. With a few exceptions, his choreography gives the impression of nothing more than crotches and breasts being thrust at the camera. Apparently this is supposed to be erotic, but only one of the characters in Nine is a prostitute. To take "A Call From the Vatican," a teasing seduction, and turn it into an exotic dancer's routine that makes Penelope Cruz look downright cheap, is really distressing. He even adds it at the least appropriate possible times--when the female chorus comes in at the end of "Guido's Song," singing a classical-sounding melody, why are they shimmying like strippers? When he avoids that trap, he ends up with choreography that is just plain dumb--why is Guido running around the set like a jungle gym and doing chin-ups during "Guido's Song"? Why does the choreography in "Cinema Italiano" consist of the chorus doing runway struts and posing, then jumping up and down while shaking their heads back and forth? (It's even more ridiculous looking than it sounds, I promise.)

But it's what happens to Yeston's score that's really heartbreaking. First off is the fact that something like half of it is missing. I didn't much miss the title song or "Getting Tall" (though I do wish they'd done something more with young Guido), but they also cut "The Bells of St. Sebastian's" (the best song in the show, and one of the great first-act closers in musical theatre), "Be On Your Own," "Simple," the entire "Grand Canal" sequence (along with the plot point that his eventual movie is a biopic of Casanova which mirrors his own life), "Not Since Chaplin," "Only With You," half of "Folies Bergere"...I understand movies have to make cuts, but this is ridiculous.

And the lyric changes? While I'm the first to admit that the musical has some clinkers, shouldn't the point of replacing them be to improve them? While I appreciate that "Be Italian,/ You rapscallion" was replaced by "Be Italian,/ Be Italian," the other changes just replaced eh lyrics with other eh lyrics, and in a few cases made decent lyrics worse. I still miss "When he was working on the film on Ancient Rome/ He made the slave girls take the gladiators home," which speaks more to the mad way Guido's life is affected by his art than "Like Michelangelo, he paints his private dome,/ But can't distinguish what's his work and what's his home," which is painfully on the nose.

As for the newly written songs...I am going to assume that Rob Marshall ordered very specific things, rather than that Maury Yeston has lost his touch, because none are particularly worthwhile. "Guarda La Luna," for Guido's mother (Sophia Loren) is a blah set of lyrics and minimal dramatic content wedded the beautiful waltz melody from the show, but otherwise passes almost unnoticed. "Take It All" is passable, but it seems more like an excuse to get Marion Cotillard to remove her clothes than anything else, and deprives us of "Be On Your Own," an absolutely scorching song. And "Cinema Italiano" is really just awful. It has the wrong sound for the period, idiotic lyrics, and an annoying melody, plus is sung by a pointless character and lacks dramatic impact. Amazingly, it was only three minutes long, but it felt much longer.

And now for an episode of musical theatre nerdiness: the orchestrations. For those who are unfamiliar, the orchestrator takes a piano-vocal score from the composer and decides how many instruments are in the orchestra, which they are, and who plays what. Sounds simple, but a good orchestration can add immensely to the musical and storytelling power of the score. Jonathan Tunick, who orchestrated the original production, gets my personal vote as greatest living Broadway orchestrator (he also worked on the original productions of nearly all of Stephen Sondheim's shows since Company). The original orchestrations are gorgeous, and help the score leap out in all of its musical and dramatic richness.

The movie's new orchestrations by Doug Besterman? Not so much. I understood after seeing the movie why so many reviews have called the score bland: the orchestrations are unforgivably dull. Besterman took an original score and made it sound like every other film musical--lots of instruments, very little thought. Sometimes, he actively made the songs worse: the underscoring of the "Overture Delle Donne" drove me up the wall. It's a terrible shame, because the people who see Nine without knowing the score will have very little reason to check it out.

And now, as promised, the things that worked: Daniel Day Lewis is a rather good singer, even if he is 10 years too old for the part. Judi Dench, though playing an unnecessary character, sells her number like a pro, and has delicious line readings. Penelope Cruz manages to wrest a few moments of genuine seductiveness and vulnerability from Marshall's vulgarity. And Marion Cotillard...she's a wonder. When she was on screen, I couldn't take my eyes from her, and I felt deeply for her. She handily made "My Husband Makes Movies" the highlight of the film, managed to make "Take It All" sound better than it has any right to, and had me misted up in the screening room scene. I can't believe I haven't seen La Vie En Rose yet.

To change the subject completely: this movie, while not that great, hardly enters the pantheon of bad movies--and is nowhere near the worst film adaptation of a stage musical. But I think it may end up doing serious damage to the show. Despite a run of nearly two years, five Tonys, a national tour, and a well-received revival, Nine has never really entered the musical theatre repertoire. I don't know if it's too artsy and European, people can't get past the concept, or what, but it isn't produced nearly as often as shows of a similar caliber. Until the movie was made, it wasn't well known to non theatre people. And now, the people who know the show will know it as a mediocrity or worse. The name recognition might help it get produced, but the terrible reviews and word of mouth, not to mention the anemic grosses, are more likely to discourage companies. And that's a damn shame.

So, what say you? Any more thoughts?

I agree wholeheartedly with damn near every word you've said. You're right on with Marshall's essential mistrust of the musical format, and I can't fathom why he keeps making the damn things if this is how he feels about them. While I must respectfully disagree that the fantasy angle worked better in Chicago than in Nine - minimally, I think there's precedent in Fellini for making this story take place mostly inside Guido's head - I still think Chicago is better on the whole because at least there are some good dance numbers. The choreography in Nine is just plain lousy. You mention the three worst offenders, and I have nothing to add to that, really; but good Lord, it's just embarrassing that he is an alleged professional. I could have designed better numbers than that.

You're also right about what happens to the music. One of the things I noted when we discussed Nine was that I felt the songs worked better as part of a musical continuum, whereas I was a bit lukewarm to a lot of them just taken as individual bits of singing. Lo and behold, the movie breaks that continuum and makes the songs sound a bit flimsy in the process - and of course the awful orchestrations don't help with that (I'll see you the overture and raise you the flat and not at all sexy reworking of "A Call from the Vatican"). Nor, for that matter, does the singing; I think I have much less generous feelings towards pretty much everyone than you do. The huge exception is Cotillard, who wrests every drop she can from "My Husband Makes Movies" and turns it into probably the strongest moment of the film, although that song was a lot better when it came at the start of the show, and not in the middle; but that's what the writers get for following too closely.

I did mention that I would have more to say about that, didn't I? Then I should probably get on with it. The biggest problem with Nine as a remake of is quite simply that Rob Marshall is not undergoing a crisis of his art, such as it is. Fellini's movie was about his process, telling a story that commented upon its own creation in an Ouroboros-like cycle of self-reflection and naval-gazing. Marshall isn't doing anything remotely like that. His film's treatment of Fellini's scenario is based on the most shallow understanding of the matter of that I could imagine: a director is wasting time and money. Both and the stage Nine make it clear that Guido is trying to represent himself as cinema, but by taking out any hint that Guido's movie is autobiographical, the film denies us even that bit of meaning. There just don't seem to be any dramatic stakes involved: he'll either finish the movie or not, whatever. In 8½, finishing the movie was a matter of life and death.

The movie's Guido is little more than a parody of Fellini himself; even in there weren't so many direct references to the director's previous films. All this does it to make the film even less urgent and certainly a great deal less personal. In place of creative block, marital angst, mortal dread, or any of the other things that made the first film and the musical interesting and thematically rich, Nine the movie seems to largely operate in that terrible space occupied by the lesser biopics, in which pointing out that Federico Fellini existed and did things takes the place of actual introspection. It also leads to that dreadful "Cinema Italiano", about which not enough terrible things can be said; may Heaven save me from ever again hearing "neo-realism" rhymed with prism. The whole pointless song, sung by a pointless character (and if there's one change relative to that is a complete and unmitigated fuck-up, it's turning the caustic, arrogant critic into a vapid gossip-mage reporter) says one thing: "In the 1960s, Americans liked stylish European movies!" And that's probably the closest Nine the movie has to a theme itself. At any rate, it has nothing whatsoever to say about the creative process, and very little to say about one man's relationship to women, which as you have astutely noted, was a thematic thread that lost all validity the instant that the women were stripped of their personal agency.

I'm going to do the intolerably lazy thing and just refer back to my review of the film for the rest of my problems; they are not few, and a lot of them overlap with what you've said. But since you're playing nice to end your thoughts, I guess I can do the same thing: as mentioned, Cotillard is great, and I think that Dion Beebe's cinematography is quite extraordinary, even making the hellish "Cinema Italiano" interesting to look at. Even when Marshall has him doing terrible things - such as copying the Seraghina sequence from the movie exactly - he does them with a good deal of talent and grace. And um... the sets never fell down? This is hard.

In looking at our comments, I've come to a rather dispiriting conclusion: this film version of Nine lacks a compelling reason to exist. The engine of was Fellini's own artistic block and psychological stress. The stage version of Nine made use of a full, complex score, a stronger focus on the women, and a very different but still compelling take on the central story. The movie combines their approaches with some new material into...well, something. There's good work being done by the actors, particularly Cotillard, and apparently the cinematography is quite excellent (I'm not anything like a connoisseur ). But there doesn't seem to be any animating passion to it. Why does this director tell this story with these performers? Well, a musical with lots of stylish clothes and an insane number of Oscar winning actors must have seemed like like a sure bet to win some Oscars of its own. This is hardly an uncommon reason to make a movie, though the poor reviews and terrible grosses make it unlikely it will succeed at even that debased goal. It's just depressing to see the Oscarbait treatment given to a musical I so dearly love. It's especially sad because I think there is a good movie to be made of Nine. Unfortunately, it hasn't been made, and it's unlikely ever to happen now.


So that's the end of our part of the story: we've talked enough. But what about you? Anyone have thoughts about any incarnation of the story? Have any of you seen the movie? Please comment, either here or over at Tim's post, and be part of the conversation!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Most Unpleasant News Of The Day

Sorry to start the new year off on this rancid note, but this was just too frustrating to not share: as Leonard Jacobs first reported, producer Christopher Carter Sanderson has obtained the rights to produce a stage adaptation of Tucker Max's autobiographical book I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell (also adapted into a movie) , to be called I Hope They Serve Beer...On Broadway! (It's the exclamation point that really does it.)

For those of you unfamiliar, Max (and has anyone ever told him that his name is backwards?) specializes in stories about his own life, full of excessive drinking and a pathological need to bed every woman he can, despite having minimal interest in women as human beings. It's a toxic brew of misogyny, homophobia, and frat boy smirkiness that has been described by some as comedy. The book has been a major success, but the movie adaptation, released in late September, didn't crack $1.5 million at the box office, which suggests that the market for Max's particular charms is running thin. (And if people wouldn't pay $10 to see a movie with him in it, why would they pay $100 to see the same thing onstage?) In other words, it sounds like a pretty rotten idea for a show.

But all of this would make its existence no more distressing than, say, The Blonde in the Thunderbird, the dire Suzanne Somers vehicle of 2005: something that make observers shake their heads, then dies a quick, merciful death, harming nobody but the investors and the people who bought tickets. What makes it really vile are the quotes that Max gave Jacobs about the show. I'll let you click over to the original article to read the whole thing, but I just had to share this particular gem:

At first, I thought Kit was just another creepy theater fag using some bullshit “I want to adapt your book” angle to try to fuck me. Then I realized he’s not only serious about this, he had really great ideas about how to adapt it, and — he’s straight! I didn’t even know you were allowed to be straight and be in theater. I’m excited, I think he could really do something cool.

So let's see...the phrase "creepy theatre fag," the idea that someone would only want to adapt his book to try to sleep with him (unappealing a notion as that is), and shock that a man working in professional theatre is straight. What a charming man.

One can only hope that potential investors and theatre owners have at least a little taste--or have taken a glance at the movie's grosses--and that this will join the deep pile of announced projects that never make it off the ground. Because if that man makes it to Broadway...well I may have to pick a different profession.

In conclusion, ugh.