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“Gypsy” at Music Theatre of Connecticut

Susan Granger’s review of “Gypsy” (MTC – Sept. 2016)

 

Launching its 30th anniversary season, the Music Theater of Connecticut reimagines this classic show business fable in a smaller chamber setting, giving it an unusual intimacy.

Set in the 1920s-1930s, the story revolves around the relentless ambition of Mama Rose to make her youngest daughter, Baby June, a star on the vaudeville circuit and, later, turning her focus on her insecure older daughter Louise, who eventually becomes the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.

Sharply staged by director Kevin Connors with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, and book by Arthur Laurents, it reveals the shabby backstage shenanigans of an assertive stage mother/manager.

Her girls do her proud with perpetually smiling Abby Sara Dahan and stoic Natalie Steele as the younger versions, melding convincingly with their grown counterparts, played by Carissa Massaro as June and Kate Simone as Louise. The latter take over the roles seamlessly during the “Let Me Entertain You” transition, eliciting spontaneous applause.

Restlessly roaming the small stage, Kirsti Carnahan grapples with pugnacious Mama Rose, never quite summoning the energy and vocal strength to propel the show, eventually allowing the complex poignancy of “Rose’s Turn” to slip from her grasp.

The two most memorable musical numbers feature endearing Joe Grandy as the talented chorus boy Tulsa, warbling “All I Need is the Girl,” and dazzling Jodi Stevens stunning as the stripper Mazeppa, triumphing with her trumpet in “You Gotta Get a Gimmick.”

Rounding out the cast are Paul Binotto, likable as Rose’s agent boyfriend Herbie, along with Jeri Kansas, Marcia Leigh, Peter McClung, Chris McNiff, Abigail Root, and Brittany Cattaruzza. Conductor/pianist Thomas Martin Conroy makes terrific music with Luke McGuinness, Chris Johnson, and Gary Ruggiero.

FYI: Since the show opened in 1959, starring Ethel Merman, Mama Rose has been played by Angela Lansbury, Bernadette Peters and Patti LuPone, among others. And Baby June became actress June Havoc (Gentleman’s Agreement 1947) and longtime resident of Wilton’s Cannon Crossing.

“Gypsy” plays at MTC through Sept. 25.

“Finding Altamira”

Susan Granger’s review of “Finding Altamira” (Samuel Goldwyn Films)

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Focusing on the conflict between religion and science, this story revolves around the 1879 discovery of a cavern in Northern Spain that’s filled with pre-historic paintings of galloping bison.

Jurist and amateur archeologist Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola y de la Pedrueca (Antonio Banderas) and his nine year-old daughter Maria (Allegra Allen) enjoy roaming the countryside of Cantabria, observing nature and chronicling their findings.

One day, Maria accidentally stumbles into a cave, hidden in a nearby hillside, and spies the remarkable etchings of bison and other animals. Not surprisingly, her observations ignite vivid nightmares which concern her devout mother, Conchita (Golshifteh Farahani).

Meanwhile, Marcelino comes to believe that these artifacts are Paleolithic – 35,000 years old – which is in direct opposition to the Biblical teachings of the Catholic Church. His astonishing assertion is repudiated by local skeptics like De Los Rios (Henry Goodman) and the Monsignor (Rupert Everett).

When Marcelino presents his conclusions at the Prehistoric Congress in Lisbon in 1880, he is publicly ridiculed by the eminent French historian Emile Cartailhac (Clement Sibony), who argued that pre-historic man was incapable of such artistic achievement.

Finally, in 1902, several similar paintings were discovered in France, prompting Cartailhac to admit his mistake in an article published in the journal L’Anthropologie.

Unfortunately, disgraced Marcelino died before his vindication/redemption. Maria subsequently married into a prominent Spanish banking family; one of the film’s producers is her relative.

Unimaginatively chronicled by Olivia Hetreed (“Girl With A Pearl Earring”) and Jose Luis Lopez-Linares, this period drama is directed by Hugh Hudson (“Chariots of Fire”), vividly photographed by Jose Luis Alcaine and enhanced by Evelyn Glennie and Mark Knopfler’s guitar compositions.

The poignant ather/daughter bond has the most emotional resonance, while a subplot involving Conchita and a local painter, Ratier (Pierre Niney), seems superfluous.

Coincidentally, geologists in Greenland have recently unearthed evident for ancient life in rocks that are 3.7 billion years old; if confirmed, according to the journal Nature, these fossils would be the oldest on Earth, altering scientific understanding of the origins of life. So, even today, the debate continues….

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Finding Altamira” is a persuasive 6, recalling a Spanish scandal.

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“The Disappointments Room”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Disappointments Room” (Relativity/Rogue)

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The haunted house is a staple of the supernatural horror genre but this dismal, wannabe thriller has little to offer.

Trying to recover after the traumatic death of their infant daughter, grieving Dana (Kate Beckinsale) and David (Mel Raido) decide to move from Brooklyn to rural North Carolina with their young son, Lucas (Duncan Joiner).

Dana is an architect, so she’s set to remodel the cavernous, if dilapidated country estate they bought. But when she discovers the long-lost key to a hidden attic room, she opens herself to nightmarish evil.

Ms. Judith (Marcia de Rousse), a local historian, explains that this mysterious chamber, whose only entrance was hidden behind a cabinet, was where wealthy families used to incarcerate their disabled/disfigured children, effectively keeping them out-of-sight – and, apparently, their troubled ghosts still prowl the premises.

Along with losing all track of time, distraught Dana’s eerie explorations lead to nightmarish visions of the former owner, satanic Judge Blacker (Gerald McRaney), and his demonic black dog. Plus there’s the local handyman, Ben (Lucas Till), who flirts with her while repairing a hole in the leaky roof.

Scripted by Wentworth Miller (best known as Michael Scofield on Fox TV’s “Prison Break”) and director D.J. Caruso (“Eagle Eye,” “Disturbia”), it’s filled with malignant hallucinations, resulting in a witless endeavor that, understandably, sat on the shelf when Relativity Media filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in July, 2015.

While Kate Beckinsale, Lucas Till and Gerald McRaney do the best they can with their underwritten roles, it’s a lost cause.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Disappointments Room” is a derivative 2 – at least its title should be credited with truth-in-advertising.

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“Morgan”

Susan Granger’s review of “Morgan” (20th Century-Fox)

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It’s interesting that Luke Scott decided to make his directorial debut with this sci-fi thriller – since his father, Ridley Scott, made one of the first movies about Artificial Intelligence – “Blade Runner” (1982) – about a cop who hunts humanoid replicants.

In many ways, “Morgan” resembles “Blade Runner.” Instead of a teeming metropolis, however, it’s set in a top-secret, remote facility, a decrepit mansion located deep in the woods, where a risk-management consultant, Lee Weathers (Rooney Mara), is sent to investigate and evaluate a scientific experiment that seems to have gone awry.

Classified as an L-9 prototype, Morgan is a bio-engineered organism, made from synthetic DNA. Although, chronologically, just five years old, Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) looks like a pale, precocious teenager with dark, piercing eyes.

Wearing a gray hoodie, pants and sneakers, she appears to be androgynous with a sulky, childlike innocence that belies her remarkable physical and intellectual abilities.

Morgan has been painstakingly raised by a devoted team of scientists, led by Dr. Lui Chang (Michelle Yeoh), along with Dr. Simon Ziegler (Toby Jones), psychoanalyst Amy (Rose Leslie) and their hunky nutritionist/chef (Boyd Holbrook).

Just recently, however, Morgan inexplicably turned in rage on her behavioral psychiatrist Kathy Grieff (Jennifer Jason-Leigh), brutally stabbing her in the eye.

Corporate troubleshooter Lee Weathers and a consulting psychiatrist, Dr. Alan Shapiro (Paul Giamatti), have been dispatched to sort things out and determine whether Morgan should be terminated. Significantly, Weathers packs a gun.

Working from an all-too-thin script by Seth Owens, Luke Scott is unable to prolong the initial sense of unease and eerie intrigue, stumbling into a tonal shift midway through, which all-too-soon descends into bloody stalk ‘n’ slash carnage.

And, unfortunately, a grim plot twist, which should have come as a total surprise, didn’t.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Morgan” is a synthetic 6. “Ex Machina” (2015) did it so much better.

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“The Trojan Women”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Trojan Women” at The Flea (Off-Broadway, Sept. 2016)

 

First produced in 415 B.C. in the midst of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, shortly after the Athenian army’s massacre of the men of the island of Melos, Euripides presents a tragic situation which dramatizes the fate of the women, who are considered spoils of war.

Set amid the rubble that once was Troy – after the infamous wooden-horse calamity – the women are asleep, as the sea god Poseidon (Thomas Mucciooli) counsels, “Whatever you dream, even the most horrifying dream, cannot be worse than what you will awake to.”

There’s Queen Hecuba (DeAnna Supplee), widow of King Priam and mother of his 19 children, including the slain warriors Hector and Paris, her vengeful prophetess daughter Cassandra (Lindsley Howard), and Hector’s widow Andromache (Casey Wortmann), who tries desperately to save her infant son, Astyanax.

They all blame the legendary beauty Helen (Rebecca Rad), whom the Greeks went to war to recover, brutally attacking her. “Behind every man who took me stood a goddess/Who steadied his hips and whispered in his ears,” she reminds them.

Developed in 1995 for a staged reading performed by refugees of the Balkan conflict, which followed the fragmentation of Yugoslavia, Ellen McLaughlin’s current adaptation focuses on the wasted lives that war leaves in its wake. And its theme, of course, is timeless.

Classical scholars will note that McLaughlin has totally eliminated the part of Spartan King Menelaus, shortening the play considerably.

Modestly staged by Anne Cecelia Haney with Scot Gianelli’s ominous lighting and Ben Vigus’ sound design, this translation is performed by The Flea’s resident acting company, known as The Bats, many dressed in togas and not well served by Joya Powell’s distracting choreography.

Perhaps because of their youth and relative inexperience, they declaim the choral text, never seeming to grasp the emotional subtlety, which is as relevant today as it was back then.

As Poseidon observes, “Another war has ended. When will the next begin?”

“The Trojan Women” runs through Sept. 26, downstairs at The Flea, located at 41 White Street between Church and Broadway, three blocks south of Canal.

 

“The Layover”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Layover” (Second Stage/Off-Broadway Sept., 2016)

 

It’s Thanksgiving and an American Airlines flight is delayed on the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. So two business-class passengers, seated next to one-another, start a casual conversation that soon evolves into snappy, erotic bantering.

Based in San Diego, Dexter “Dex” Reidman (Adam Rothenberg) is a somewhat neurotic engineer, headed to New York to spend the holiday with his fiancée. Shellie Sayers (Annie Parisse) is a professor of American crime fiction at Hunter College – and happily unattached.

“I absolutely lust for loneliness,” she informs him.

When a snowstorm forces the flight’s cancellation, it’s clear that Dex and Shellie are destined for a one-night stand at the Marriott.  Before that, however, they stop for cocktails at the hotel bar, where Shellie reveals that her favorite mystery novels are Patricia Highsmith’s “Strangers on a Train,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and “Edith’s Diary” – all revolving around murder and fabricating false identities.

Not surprisingly, it’s soon discovered that Dex is none too happy about his upcoming wedding, particularly since his wife-to-be, Andrea (Amelia Workman), is suspicious and controlling.

On the other hand, Shellie is neither ‘happy’ nor ‘unattached.’ She’s very much married to deadbeat Kevin (Quincy Dunn-Baker), living with him and her epileptic father Fred (John Procaccino), who is confined to a wheelchair.  Instead of teaching, she does janitorial work and cuts hair.

Perhaps the play’s most telling moment comes when Shellie subsequently confesses her illicit assignation to Fred, who observes, “You either steal someone else’s life – or you stay put.”

Acclaimed for her 2010 comedy “Bachelorette,” playwright Leslye Headland turns her acerbic wit toward the darker side with this somewhat contrived, psychological drama, delving into infidelity and its unanticipated consequences.

Adroitly directed by Trip Cullman, both Annie Parisse and Adam Rothenberg are convincing and compelling, aided in great part by recognizable flickering film-noir faces (Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Lisabeth Scott, Ruth Roman, Alan Ladd, Glenn Ford), supplied by video designer Jeff Sugg,

Mark Wendland’s set features translucent screens, creating images of the plane’s interior, along with the airport food court and lounge, along with their hotel room, subtly enhanced by Japhy Weideman’s lighting.

“The Layover” plays through Sept. 18 at the Second Stage Theater at 305 West 43rd Street.

 

“Sully”

Susan Granger’s review of “Sully” (Warner Bros.)

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What you think you know about how Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger skillfully glided his disabled U.S. Airways flight 1549 onto the Hudson River on January 15, 2009, is only the beginning of the story.

Which is why director Clint Eastwood begins this harrowingly realistic, compelling re-creation with the “Miracle on the Hudson,” after which Sully was widely acclaimed as a national hero.

Though it was kept secret at the time, skeptical members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) seriously questioned Sully’s judgment, accusing him of needlessly endangering his crew and passengers with a forced water landing.

Based on sensor readings of the Airbus 320’s left engine, computer simulations showed that the commuter jet could have safely returned to New York’s LaGuardia or made an emergency landing at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey.

So it’s up to Sully (Tom Hanks), backed by his loyal co-pilot Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), to prove that his judgment was correct, noting, “No one has ever trained for an incident like that.”

Under Eastwood’s astute direction, Tom Hanks truly embodies this modest, yet efficient professional aviator, as disbelief, denial and realization subtly register on his face within a crucial period of seconds, while Laura Linney captures the angst of his wife Lorrie in California.

Based on Sullenberger and author Jeffrey Zaslow’s book “Highest Duty,” it’s adroitly adapted by Todd Komarnicki – paying due respect to the air-traffic controllers, ferryboat personnel and intrepid helicopter divers who retrieved all 155 passengers and five crew members, stranded on the icy Hudson River, within 24 minutes.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Michael Rapaport, Mike O’Malley, Holt McCallany, and ferryboat Captain Vincent Peter Lombardi, playing himself.

Recalling 9/11, someone one-the-scene says, “It’s been awhile since New York had news this good, especially with an airplane in it.”
To which, Capt. Sullenberger added, “I think it gave everyone a chance to have hope, at a time when we all needed it.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Sully” is a tense, exciting 8, as Clint Eastwood, once again, proves he’s a superb storyteller.

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“The Light Between Oceans”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Light Between Oceans” (DreamWorks)

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If you’re in the mood for an old-fashioned, historical melodrama, this should be your choice.

Returning from W.W. I in 1919, embittered Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) takes a job manning a lighthouse on an isolated, windswept island called Janus, off the coast of Western Australia. A taciturn fellow of few words, he wants to escape from the carnage of civilization and be left in solitude.

En route to assume his post, he meets Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander), who lives in the nearest coastal village. A romance via mail ensues, they get married and Isabel subsequently suffers two devastating miscarriages.

Then a dinghy containing a crying baby girl and the dead body of a man washes up on their beach. Dutiful Tom’s first instinct is to report the incident immediately and hope that he and Isabel can adopt the infant.

But desperate Isabel persuades him to keep his silence, convincing him that no agency would allow them to adopt a child to live on rugged, remote Janus Rock with no school, no medical care and no church. Her plan is raise the child as their own in their seaside cottage.

Complications occur at the child’s christening on the mainland, where stoic Tom spies Hannah (Rachel Weisz), mourning at the grave of her husband and baby who disappeared at sea just when the dinghy washed ashore.

Riddled with guilt, Tom slips an anonymous note to Hannah, assuring her that her daughter is alive and well. That prompts a police investigation and bitter child-custody struggle.

Adapted from M.L. Sherbourne’s 2012 novel, it’s written and directed by Derek Cianfrance (“Blue Valentine,” “The Place Beyond the Pines”). Obviously contrived and emotionally manipulative, its inherent ethical dilemma generates real empathy, since all the characters must make incredible sacrifices and, ultimately, learn forgiveness.

Couple that with the unrelenting chemistry between Fassbinder and Vikander, amplified by Alexandre Desplat’s lyrical score and Adam Arkapaw’s evocative cinematography.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Light Between Oceans” shines with a schmaltzy 7, a sorrowful, heart-wrenching “weeper.”

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“What the Butler Saw”

Review of "What the Butler Saw"

Review of “What the Butler Saw”

Susan Granger’s review of “What the Butler Saw” (Westport Country Playhouse: Aug., 2016)

 

It’s not a spoiler to reveal that there’s no butler in Joe Orton’s 1967 comedy. The title refers to peeping through a keyhole, heralding a classic British farce, skewering Freudian psychology, social propriety, sexual norms and government institutions.

In a psychiatric clinic, Dr. Prentice (Robert Stanton) is trying to seduce naïve Geraldine Barclay (Sarah Manton) who has applied for a job as his secretary. Having requested that she remove her clothes, his wife (Patricia Kalember) bursts into his office, wearing a black dominatrix corset under her fur coat.

Although admittedly a nymphomaniac, Mrs. Prentice is hysterical about being “raped” in a closet by Station Hotel bellhop Nicholas Beckett (Chris Ghaffari), who is threatening to blackmail her with photographs of their tryst.

Since Miss Barclay’s cowering behind a curtain in her underwear, Mrs. Prentice hastily dons the dress that Miss Barclay discarded before the unexpected arrival of autocratic Dr. Rance (Paxton Whitehead), a supervisor from Her Majesty’s Government sent to evaluate the clinic.

Obviously confused Dr. Rance declares Miss Barclay insane, while Police Sergeant Match (Julian Gamble) searches for a missing body part from a statue of Winston Churchill.

“The final chapters of my book are knitting together,” Dr. Rance declares delightedly. “Incest, buggery, outrageous women and strange love-cults catering for depraved appetites.”

Amid the zany disrobing, cross-dressing and donning of straitjackets, Miss Barclay begs Dr. Prentice to clarify the situation by telling the truth. He brusquely replies, “That’s a thoroughly defeatist attitude.”

Director John Tillinger is devoted to the subversive works of Joe Orton, having successfully revived the playwright’s “Loot” and “Entertaining Mr. Sloane.” And he’s previously staged “Butler” at the Manhattan Theatre Club and Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum.

Precise timing is of the essence – and nobody does it better than Paxton Whitehead. He exudes an irresistible lunatic conviction, while the rest of the cast submit to the frenetic silliness involving mistaken identities.

Although its manners and mores seem a bit stale, the levity of “What the Butler Saw” runs through Sept. 10. For tickets and more information, call 203-227-4177 or go to www.westportplayhouse.org

“Hands of Stone”

Review of "Hands of Stone"

Review of “Hands of Stone”

Susan Granger’s review of “Hands of Stone” (The Weinstein Company)

 

Evoking memories of “Raging Bull” (1980), Robert De Niro returns to the boxing ring again – this time as Ray Arcel, the legendary trainer who coached welterweight boxer Roberto Duran in the 1970s.

As an impoverished 16 year-old from Panama, Roberto Duran (Edgar Ramirez) made his professional debut in 1968 and retired in 2002 at the age of 50. But his story begins at Madison Square Garden in 1971, when Arcel first saw Duran fight.

“Ring sense is an art,” Arcel says. “A gift from God that flows out of a fighter like a painting that flows out of an artist.”

Obviously, Arcel felt that Doran was bestowed with that blessing and had great potential, if he could master the strategy. His nickname was Manos de Piedra (“Hands of Stone’).

Problem is: Duran was indulgent, undisciplined and self-defeating.

In June, 1980, Duran defeated cocky Sugar Ray Leonard (Usher Raymond) to claim the WBC welterweight title. In their subsequent November rematch, he stunned the boxing world during the eighth round by returning to his corner and forfeiting, allegedly saying the words “no mas” (no more).

Duran’s bizarre behavior is then explained by his supposed PTSD as a result of seeing American flags in the crowd. His father was a U.S. soldier who abandoned him as a child in Panama City.

Venezuelan writer/director Jonathan Jakubowicz has crafted a fragmented, often incongruous, “rags-to-riches” biographical narrative, superficially spanning 10 years, including Duran’s courtship of his impressionable, schoolgirl wife, Felicidad (Ana de Armas), and the subsequent births of their five children.

While soft-spoken Robert De Niro is effective and Venezuelan-born Edgar Ramirez has his charismatic moments, the overall effect is ennui because Jakubowicz’s concept lacks focus.

There are too many undeveloped subplots: political bickering between Arcel and Duran’s manager, Carloa Elete (Ruben Blades), and entanglements with the Mob, personified by Frankie Carbo (John Turturro), revealed in conversations with Arcel’s wife, Stephanie (Ellen Barkin).

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Hands of Stone” is a fumbling, formulaic 5, despite the fancy footwork.

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