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Susan Granger’s review of “Come From Away” (Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre)

 

Why do you go to theater? Because it’s entertaining and fun. Because it opens your heart, teaches life-lessons and transports you to another time, another place. Because, occasionally, it conveys the essential goodness and resiliency of the human spirit at the same, shared moment in time.

That’s why I stood up and cheered when the cast of this new Canadian musical took their bows.

After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, all flights in and around U.S. airspace were diverted to the nearest airport. Once a popular refueling spot on the edge of North America, Gander, Newfoundland, suddenly became the destination for nearly 7,000 bewildered passengers from around the world.

The rousing “Welcome to the Rock” introduces the insular townspeople whose morning coffee at Tim Horton’s began like any other – before the “38 Planes” began to land, sending them scrambling for “Bedding and Blankets,” not to mention school buses, warm clothing, food and medicine, as a nervous, novice TV reporter tries to chronicle the chaos.

Its book is largely based on interviews that Canadian writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein conducted in 2011, when some of the travelers returned for a 10th anniversary ceremony – because Gander’s genial, person-to-person hospitality was beyond remarkable.

A gay couple from Los Angeles was afraid of encountering homophobia but, instead, found warm acceptance, along with a distraught mother whose son was a New York City firefighter, a Texas divorcee, her amorous British acquaintance, a wary urban Black man, a Muslim chef and a rabbi – to name a just a few.

Admittedly, many of these characters are composites, but not trailblazing American Airlines pilot Beverly Bass, played by Jenn Colella, whose rousing “Me and the Sky” is a wistful feminist anthem.

Director Christopher Ashley (from California’s La Jolla Playhouse) cleverly utilizes his talented cast of 12, having them don and doff Toni-Leslie James’s accessories, like hats and jackets, to play multiple roles. Beowulf Boritt’s versatile set accommodates these shifts, as does Howell Brinkley’s lighting. The catchy, conversational, Celtic/folk rock songs are often accompanied by Kelly Devine’s stomping choreography.

The crowd-pleasing, one-hour-45-minute performance fittingly concludes on a life-affirming note: “We honor what was lost – but we also commemorate what we found.”

 

 

“The Circle”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Circle” (STX Entertainment)

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Tackling the “Me-centric” revelatory culture of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc., James Ponsoldt’s timely thriller delves into the ubiquitous perils of contemporary technology.

When Mae Holland (Emily Watson) goes to work for The Circle, a massively powerful social media company in the San Francisco Bay Area, she’s thrilled. Beginning as a ‘guppy,’ she’s assigned to a Customer Service desk, where she’s expected not only to excel but also to participate in off-hour and weekend events with her co-workers.

Run by a management team consisting of charismatic visionary Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and businessman Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt), The Circle is touting a new social interface app, TruYou, a single-identity password solution which eliminates anonymity, along with SeeChange, a tiny, inconspicuous webcam that can be attached to any surface to emit constant surveillance.

“Knowing is good, but knowing everything is better,” claims evangelistic Eamon Bailey at one of his “Dream Friday” pep talks.

Grateful that she can extend her insurance coverage to include her frail, multiple sclerosis-afflicted father (the late Bill Paxton, in his last screen role) and that the company’s omnipresent monitors saved her from drowning when she foolishly went kayaking alone at night, guileless Mae offers to relinquish all personal privacy and go “fully transparent,” so that everything she does can be seen by Circle members.

Obviously, this leads to more than one embarrassing incident, the most tragic involving Mae’s off-the-grid buddy Mercer (Ellar Coltrane), who just wants to craft chandeliers out of deer antlers, along with the alienation of her best friend/mentor Annie (Karen Gillan).

Adapting his own 2014 novel, Dave Eggers and director James Ponsoldt (“The End of the Tour,” “The Spectacular Now”) meanders toward ominous melodrama, subtly reducing the fascistic future’s pivotal, high-tech skeptic Ty (John Boyega) to an enigmatic, incomprehensible cipher.

Comparisons with George Orwell’s prophetic “1984,” Alan J. Pakula’s “The Parallax View,” and Peter Weir’s “The Truman Show” are inevitable.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Circle” is a sleekly sinister, satirical 6, evolving into a cautionary tale.

06

“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”

Susan Granger’s review of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (Lunt-Fontanne Theater)

By the time this garishly grotesque new musical concludes, Charlie’s fabled Golden Ticket is so tarnished that its creator, Roald Dahl, would barely recognize it. “Pure Imagination” goes terribly awry!

Admittedly, it’s difficult to follow in the footsteps of Gene Wilder’s bewitching Willy Wonka, but Christian Borlie tries, embodying the charming, mischievous chocolatier, opening the show, singing one of its most popular numbers: “The Candy Man.”

The story revolves around virtuous, young Charlie Bucket (Jake Ryan Flynn) who lives with his impoverished family in the shadow of Willy Wonka’s mysterious Chocolate Factory.  Lonely and looking for a successor, Willie launches a contest, offering to open his factory to five lucky children who find Golden Tickets tucked in their candy bars – along with their parents.

Introduced by smarmy TV personalities, there’s the gross Bavarian sausage glutton, Augustus Gloop (F. Michael Haynie); Russia’s entitled ballerina, Veruca Salt (Emma Pfaeffle); California’s gum-snapping Violet Beauregarde (Trista Dollison); and Idaho’s smartphone-obsessed Mike Teevee (Michael Wartella).

Bizarrely, these obnoxious caricatures of ‘children’ are played by adults. And the cacao-craving Oompa-Loompas are “humanettes,” kneeling performers whose heads bobble above their puppet bodies.

At one point, Mrs. Teavee (Jackie Hoffman) aptly quips, “The little people are singing again. That’s never a good sign.”

Since this fanciful musical ran for almost four years on London’s West End, it’s surprising that the producers replaced not only director Sam Mendes with Jack O’Brien but also most of its creative team, as Scottish playwright David Greig relies on the bond created between fatherless Charlie and childless Wonka for emotional resonance.

While O’Brien and songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman previously collaborated on “Hairspray,” the most memorable music is from the film score by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. Mark Thompson’s serviceable sets and costumes disappoint, as does Joshua Bergasse’s clunky choreography.

FYI: Roald Dahl’s subversively popular 1964 book was first filmed as “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” (1971) with Gene Wilder; then Johnny Depp played a creepy Wonka in Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005).

Since family fare is always in demand on Broadway, it’s too bad that something magical must have been lost crossing the Pond.

“Anastasia”

Susan Granger’s review of “Anastasia” (Broadhurst Theatre)

 

Snowflakes fall as the doomed family of Tsar Nicholas II and his family frolic in the palace in St. Petersburg. Then comes the Revolution in 1918, and the Bolsheviks slaughter them, one-by-one – except 17 year-old Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, who somehow escapes the massacre.

Skip ahead to 1927, when Anastasia (Christy Altomare) – suffering from amnesia and dubbed Anya – takes up with ambitious, young proletariat Dmitry (Derek Klena) and his mentor, paternalistic Vlad (John Bolton). They’ve devised a get-rich-quick scheme to claim that Anya is Anastasia, something that she herself doesn’t believe at first.

After hours of Henry Higgins-style tutoring, haunting dream sequences and the recollection of a lullaby hidden in a music box, Anastasia is ready to travel to Paris to be presented to her beloved Nana, the elegant Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who fled to France along with other White Russians.

To add a note of danger, Anya’s being pursued by Gleb (Ramin Karimloo), a suspicious Soviet officer. And Caroline O’Connor injects humor as the Dowager’s confidante, flirtatious Countess Lily.

Unless you’re an impressionable tween, you’ll probably come out singing the sumptuous scenery – because that’s the most impressive aspect of the show. Designed by Andrew Dodge, the immense set is stunning, particularly the imaginative train carriage, encompassing Aaron Rhyne’s amazing landscape projections. And Linda Cho’s period costumes are authentic, including Tsarina Alexandra’s tiara.

Unfortunately, Stephen Flattery’s insipid music and Lynn Ahrens’ serviceable lyrics are almost immediately forgettable, as is Terrence McNally’s dutiful libretto. So director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Peggy Hickey visually dazzle, ingeniously moving the cast like swirling, sparkling Swarovski crystals.

FYI: If the story’s familiar, you probably saw the fanciful 1997 animated version with Meg Ryan voicing Anastasia or, better yet, Ingrid Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1956 adaptation with Yul Brynner.

Tucked into the program, there’s a postcard on which audience members can jot down what they’d do on their journey with the hashtag #onmyjourney. Given my druthers, I’d reinstate Rasputin and his bat Bartok.

 

“Their Finest”

Susan Granger’s review of “Their Finest” (STX Entertainment)

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During World War II, both in England and America, there was a strong sense of purpose. Today, we live in a world that is not only notoriously fractured but also highly ambiguous – with a breakdown of many traditional virtues and values. Which is why a nostalgic romantic comedy like this resonates with those who remember.

During the savage London Blitz in 1940, advertising copywriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is recruited by the British Ministry of Information to work with the film division to bring “a woman’s touch” to bolster morale. Britain wants the United States to enter the war and is relying on cinematic propaganda to convince recalcitrant Yanks, particularly women.

Since Caitrin’s injured husband Ellis (Jack Huston) is a frustrated painter, her paycheck comes in handy, even though she’s told “Of course, we can’t pay you as much as the chaps.”

Partnered with sexist screenwriters Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter), Caitrin pitches a purportedly true story about patriotic twin sisters, Rose and Lily Starling (Lily & Francesca Knight), who stole their father’s boat in Southend and crossed the English Channel to help evacuate wounded soldiers at Dunkirk.

Problem is: her embellished story doesn’t jibe with what really happened. When there’s a difference between “truth” and “facts,” the filmmakers are given the mandate: “authenticity informed by optimism.”

With the help of aging thespian Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), the movie-within-the-movie turns out to be great fun, involving Jeremy Irons in a self-satirizing cameo, along with a strong ensemble cast that includes Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Helen McCrory and Rachael Stirling.

Adapted by Gabby Chiappe from Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel, it’s helmed by Danish director Lone Scherfig (“An Education,” “Italian for Beginners”), who should have sped up the pace a bit.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Their Finest” is a sly, bittersweet 7 – with a tasteful feminist twist.

07

“Oslo”

Susan Granger’s review of “Oslo” (Vivian Beaumont Theater/Lincoln Center)

The phone rings and, suddenly, representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization are talking with officials from the government of Israel through a remarkable conduit in Oslo, Norway.

J.T. Rogers’ new play imagines how Norwegian Foreign Ministry diplomat Mona Juul (Jennifer Ehle) and her husband, sociologist Terje Rod-Larsen (Jefferson Mays), deftly organized the series of high-level, top-secret meetings that culminated in the signing of the historic 1993 Oslo Accords.

A riveting political drama revolves around these clandestine gatherings in which the unlikely participants not only negotiated peace terms but also did impersonations and told jokes. Their diligence led to the historic handshake between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and PLO Chief Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in front of then-President Bill Clinton.

According to director Bartlett Sher, the idea ignited when Norway’s U.N. Ambassador Mona Juul and Terje Rod-Larsen told J.T. Rogers the largely unknown background history.

The initial encounters with lower-ranking officials take place at the Borregaard Estate, a chateau near Oslo, where even-tempered Mona and excitable Terje act as neutral hosts, while the cook (Henny Russell) delights the famished guests with fluffy waffles.

What made these talks work – when others failed – was utilizing the academic theory of gradualism, rather than totalism, which, as Terje explains, is rooted in the personal, not the organizational. Basically, that meant that each point of contention was addressed separately, by the participants as individuals, not as spokesmen for the sides they represented.

“It is only through the sharing of the personal that we can see each other for who we truly are,” he says. And, indeed, the cross-cultural friendship that these disparate men established in Oslo over a period of nine months continued.

The various locations are delineated on the stark set designed by Michael Yeargan with crimson-cushioned benches on the floor circling the stage. Kudos to costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Donald Holder, sound by Peter John Sill and Marc Salzberg and projections by 59 Productions.

Admittedly, its almost three-hour length could use some judicious editing, but, as an ensemble presentation, it’s a multifaceted gem!

Disneynature’s “Born in China”

Susan Granger’s review of Disneynature’s “Born in China” (Walt Disney Company)

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This G-rated Disneynature documentary focuses exclusively on animal species unique to China: pandas, golden snub-nosed monkeys, snow leopards, Chiru antelope and red-crowned cranes, a traditional Chinese symbol of good fortune and longevity.

Educational, it’s filled with spectacular landscapes and extraordinary close-ups of animal activity, centering on three specific families over the span of a year, beginning and ending in the spring.

In the Wolong National Nature Reserve in Sichuan Province, attentive Ya Ya is a first-time mother, raising her curious cub Mei Mei in a forest habitat, where solitary adult pandas consume 40 pounds of bamboo each day. Until vivacious Mei Mei can quickly climb a tree, making her safe from predators, Ya Ya must watch over her.

Nearby, there’s a mischievous troop of golden snub-nosed monkeys. Tao Tao is an adolescent male who is being forced out of his family fold to learn to fend for himself. Rebellious, he joins an all-male sub-group, dubbed the “Lost Boys.” Parents should know there’s a huge predatory goshawk that swoops in, determined to devour Tao Tao’s little sister.

Then, thousands of miles away on the craggy highlands of the Tibetan Plateau in Qinghai Province, there’s majestic Dawa, an elusive snow leopard, representing one of the endangered species. Hunting wild goats, mountain sheep and belligerent yaks, she’s raising two little cubs while facing ever-present danger from other ferocious leopards, as a snarling rival triggers an ominous territorial challenge.

Directed by ecologically-conscious Lu Chuan of China’s Shanghai Media House, it’s scripted by Lu, David Fowler, and renowned British nature filmmakers Brian Leith & Phil Chapman (BBC’s “Wild China” series). Barnaby Taylor’s orchestral score incorporates Asian instruments, like a Tibetan horn, Mongolian fiddle and Chinese dulcimer. It’s cross-cultural diplomacy at work.

Like most Disney films, it anthropomorphizes adorable animals in order to teach life lessons, yet I found it curious that Disney chose John Krasinski, not a woman, to narrate this story about animal mothers.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, Disneynature’s “Born in China” is a suspenseful yet sedately spiritual 7, as the circle of life continues.

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“Unforgettable”

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

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When David Connover (Geoff Stults) takes up with Julia Banks (Rosario Dawson) after his divorce from Tessa (Katherine Heigl), he has no idea about the can of mean-spirited worms he’s opening.

As this tepid psycho-sexual thriller begins, battered Julia is being interrogated as the only suspect in the murder of her abusive ex-boyfriend, Michael Vargas (Simon Kassianides), against whom she once got a restraining order.

Skip back six months to when Julia left San Francisco to begin a new life in Foothill, a (fictional) Southern California suburb, with her fiancé David and his young daughter, Lily (Isabella Kai Rice).  A former Wall Street hotshot, hunky David has just opened a boutique microbrewery in his hometown.

But when icy, embittered Tessa – Lily’s possessive mother – sees how happy he is with amiable Julia, she’s devastated. Her intuitive vulnerability is heightened because she has never been able to satisfy the expectations of her own rigid, perfectionist mother, Helen (Cheryl Ladd).

We’re told that Julia doesn’t use Facebook, which is bizarre since she was an editor for an online literary publication in San Francisco. But that leaves a portal so Tessa can cyberstalk her, shrewdly creating a fake FB profile and utilizing it to contact Julia’s ex, as her devious revenge plot takes shape.

“Everyone’s got a weird ex, but this Psycho Barbie is something else,” warns Julia’s best friend (Whitney Cummings). “You need to come back home with me.”

Working from screenwriter Christina Hodson’s implausibly convoluted script, longtime producer/first-time director Denise Di Novi never alludes to skin color or class, cleverly casting blond, beautifully Botox’d Katherine Heigl as the sinister, sadistic, sociopathic villain.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Unforgettable” is a flimsy, frustrating 4 – and quite forgettable.

04

“The Lost City of Z”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Lost City of Z” (Amazon Studios/Bleecker Street)

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Based on David Grann’s 2009 non-fiction best-seller, this saga chronicles the incredible adventures of a status-seeking British soldier, Col. Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), who explored the Amazon River a full century ago.

Dispatched in 1906 by the aristocratic Royal Geographical Society, Fawcett’s mission is to map the dangerous, uncharted realms of eastern Bolivia, where it borders with Brazil.

Thrashing through the South American rainforest with his Army comrades, Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson) and Arthur Manley (Edward Ashley), plus requisite guides and porters, he discovers not only the source of the Rio Verde River but also tribal pottery and carvings, indications of an ancient city and long-lost civilization hidden somewhere in the dense foliage – and he is determined to find it.

Driven by this mystical, near-maniacal obsession, Fawcett learns a great deal about anthropology and endures an excruciating second expedition in 1911, accompanied by another explorer, scornful James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who becomes a dangerous liability.

Meanwhile, back in England, his dutiful wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and children become accustomed to his long absences. Eventually, his eldest son Jack (Tom Holland) decides to join his third expedition in the 1925; they were never seen or heard from again.

As foretold by his indigenous guide, Tadjui (Pedro Coello): “For you, there is no escape from the jungle.”

This quest concept started seven years ago with Brad Pitt. Several incarnations later, it’s chronologically adapted and referentially directed by James Gray (“The Immigrant”) with scenes subtly suggestive of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” Yet cinematographer Darius Khondji never even comes close to John Boorman’s expansive, atmospheric imagery in “The Emerald Forest.”

Problem is: there’s little emotional involvement or critique of England’s patronizing imperialism, topics which intrigued Werner Herzog in “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” and “Fitzcarraldo.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Lost City of Z” is a sprawling yet superficial 6. As Fawcett says, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.”

06

 

“The Promise”

Susan Granger’s review of “The Promise” (Open Road Films/Survivor Pictures)

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Because of strong ties with the Turkish government, American presidents have never acknowledged the Ottoman Empire’s systematic annihilation of 1.5 million Armenians between 1915 and 1918 as “genocide.”

So this sprawling, historical epic begins in 1914 as Mikael Boghosian  (Oscar Isaac), an ambitious, young apothecary in Siroun, a small southern Turkish village, is betrothed a local girl so he can use her dowry to attend medical school in Constantinople, promising to marry her once he’s a doctor.

In cosmopolitan Constantinople (now Istanbul), naïve Mikael moves in with his father’s cousin, a local merchant, and meets vivacious, Paris-educated Ana Kasabian (Charlotte Le Bon), who is tutoring his nieces. Since Ana lives with an angry American journalist, Chris Myers (Christian Bale), an ill-fated romantic triangle takes shape.

When Ottoman Turks enter World War I as allies of Germany, a classmate’s bribe gets Mikael a medical school deferment. But when anti-Armenian violence erupts, he’s sent to forced labor on the railroad.

When Mikael escapes, he returns to war-ravaged Siroun, reluctantly marries his fiancée, then hides in a mountain cabin. Meanwhile, inquisitive Chris Myers is chronicling the atrocities inflicted on the Armenian population, dispatching them to American newspapers via the Associated Press.

By this time, the contrived romantic rivalry subplot should be on a back burner. Unfortunately, it isn’t. So the real-life slaughter is trivialized into an awkward, overtly manipulative melodrama.

Weakly scripted by Robin Swicord (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) and director Terry George (“Hotel Rwanda”), it was financed by the late Armenian entrepreneur Kirk Kerkorian – with a distinguished supporting cast: Shohreh Aghdashloo, Jean Reno, James Cromwell, Rede Serbedzija and Angela Sarafyan.

Since the film’s inception, there’s been controversy. “The genocide is burned into the soul of the Armenian diaspora,” explains Terry George “And until they get some kind of recognition, it’s not going to go away.”

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Promise” is an earnestly solemn 6. But it loses its focus, diluting the emotional impact of the harrowing massacre.

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