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Posts tagged ‘Novel’

Josh Groban Makes Musical Theater History on Bway in Spectactular “Natasha, Pierre…”

Can you believe that schlump is  handsome rock star Josh Groban???

natasha-pierre-1How to describe what is certainly one of the best musical theater experiences I’ll ever have in my life? There are no words. Only superlatives, and they can’t even begin to do justice to the transformative, shocking, heart-breaking, bravura performance Josh Groban gives in the pop-opera “Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comic of 1812” now on Broadway at the Imperial Theater. The Imperial is the former home to “Les Miserables” which ran there for decades, and I’m predicting this will, too.

Josh Groban will win Best Actor in a Musical and every other Tony in the book. Move over “Hamilton;” there’s a new masterpiece in town! ( And it’s right next door to “Hamilton” too! )”Natasha, Pierre...” is a tiny sliver of Leo Tolstoy’s 1000 page epic Russian novel “War and Peace” and is as unlikely a musical comedy blockbuster as “Hamilton.” The war that’s “going on out there somewhere” is the Napoleonic War against Russia. But in Moscow, the decadent aristocracy is partying like it’s 2016.

They sing “Chandeliers and caviar! The war can’t touch us here!” But, of course, it can. It is led by Napoleon. And, as it gets closer and closer, the  aristocrats & the party crowd are becoming more and more frantic.

 

natasha-pierre-5Those who’ve been following the career of pop-star Josh Groban will be stunned by the absolute 360 he’s done with “Natasha, Pierre…” which is as innovative and spectacular a musical, and risky, too, as the astounding performance Groban gives in it. You see, “Natasha, Pierre…” is not your ordinary musical comedy. It’s hardly a comedy at all. You do feel like you’ve been in the midst of a drunken Russian party that turned into a wild, thumping troika ride.

As a handsome young man, who is now unbelievably only 35, one did wonder what Groban, a brilliant musician, lyricist and composer as well as a platinum selling recording artist with four world tours and seven albums under his belt, and millions of fans to boot, would do with this role, his first time on a Broadway stage. Sexy, and angelic at the same time, one wondered what he was going to do, when his teenaged good looks and youth appeal began to wear off. Not that it has, but Groban was open-minded and daring enough to take on the completely incongruous and daunting role of Pierre Bezukov, Tolstoy’s depressive, over-weight, bespectacled alter-ego in “War and Peace.” It’s proving to be the role of his career.natasha-pierre-4

At first entrance,  flanked by a blinding bank of rock star lighting ( by Mimi Lien, whose contribution  is inestimable), Groban enters as Pierre with an accordion, then makes his way almost lumbering  way to center stage, down several stair cases (director Rachel Chavkin has carved up the Imperial into a brand-new, almost intimate cabaret-like space and puts the audience onstage, too!) and you think that middle-aged, almost-fat man CAN’T be Josh Groban, but it is!  josh-groban

Heavily bearded with long-grown out, almost greasy, dark, curly locks, he looks nothing like any iteration we’ve seen of Josh Groban  before. He’s almost unrecognizable!  He’s totally transmogrified himself into this hulking Russian bear of a character, but that’s exactly what Tolstoy wrote his hero. He’s the symbol of pre-Napoleonic Russian aristocracy.

He’s depressive. He’s unattractive and he drinks and drinks and drinks.

“I drink and read and drink and read and drink,” he sings in a confused clarion of voice that is less than happy about this inactive plight.

He’s married to a completely inappropriate wife, the witchily attractive Helene, who is referred to in the opening number simply as “Helene’s a slut.” Amber Gray plays Helene with exactly the right blend of nastiness, sexuality and charm, as she sashays  her way through the night seductively telling our heroine, the virginal Natasha (Denee Benton) that she is “Charmante, Charmante.” She is hissing at her like she was Cleopatra’s asp.amber-greyHer brother, who turns out to be a dastard of the first water, Anatole, is portrayed with a devil-ish  blend of blond good looks, rock star pompadour hair, and VERY tight military pants by Lucas Steele. “Anatole’s hot” the opening chorus sings. And who are we to disagree?natasha-pierre-2He’s out to elope, or basically kidnap, Natasha. He’s already married and clearly an irresistible and untrustworthy slime-ball. Anatole’s seduction of Natasha, who thinks he’s going to marry her, forms the plot that is as wildly complicated as the novel itself. But don’t be scared of Tolstoy. You can follow him.natasha-pierre-6

 

Dave Malloy, who I saw play Pierre originally three years ago, wrote the music, lyrics and adaptation. It is all sung-through, so yes, it is indeed an opera, but it’s only a tiny sliver of Tolstoy. Volume 2, Part 5, to be exact. I saw it first in a circus tent in the Meatpacking District of the West Village, where they served a Russian meal to you while seated at cabaret tables (see above.) It was dazzling, even then.

Phillipa Soo was astounding as Natasha, and went on to become a Broadway star as Eliza Hamilton in “Hamilton.” But Denee Benton, who plays Natasha now, just glows and glows and grows on you, too, the absolute picture of willful innocence and stubbornness as she falls in love with, then insists on her ill-advised elopement with bad boy Anatole.

A core of miraculously agile, vocally and physically, actors continued with the show from the tent  they called Kazino, to Broadway, including Amber Gray, Brittain Ashford and Grace McLean. In that cast I first saw, Josh Canfield was a sexy Anatole, before is “Survivor: San Juan del Sur” fame. He was equally charismatic as Anatole.

But it’s Groban that kicks this show upstairs and into theatrical history with his astonishing performance and perfect voice. To hear someone who has been called a choir boy for years with his perfect pitch and miraculous lyric baritone, tear into the gutsy, difficult, challenging, sometimes discordant vocals of “Natasha, Pierre…” is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Drunken, depressed, over-weight, near-sighted and scruffy though his Pierre convincingly is, his golden tones ring out in the night(and twice weekly at matinees.) His respect for the other actors is evident as he also blends seamlessly into their tight ensemble.

Josh Groban, genius that he is, has perspicaciously plunged himself into the midst of an equally amazing group of fellow-artists, who are geniuses, too, in their own ways. Did I mention Mimi Lien’s lighting? She’s the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant. So it’s official. And of course, there’s a killer solo that composer Malloy newly wrote just for Groban that they call “Dust and Ashes”, but I would call “This is how I die?” as Pierre berates himself for his intellectual inaction as “there’s a war going on out there somewhere.” The show is bracketed by another tour de force Groban soul-searching solo called “The Great Comet” as the grand Grande Finale.

I’ve seen “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” three times now and I can’t wait to see it again!

Groban has committed an entire year to staying in this historic production and helping it thrive. It’s been making a million dollars a week! Long may it run!

#Josh Groban

# Broadway musicals

#Natasha, Pierre…

#Tony Awards

# Broadway

 

 

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Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” Her First or Second Novel?

Harper leeEveryone in the reading world right now seems to be obsessed with Harper Lee, the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And the question of why did she write only one book?

A Southern novelist to the core, the same question can be applied to that other great Southern writer of one,  only one highly successful novel,Margaret Mitchell. And that novel, of course, was “Gone with the Wind.”

I never thought it was a particularly confusing question. The international acclaim, critically and monetarily would be hard to top. They said what they had to say, and that was that. Same question as why did Greta Garbo retire so early? She wanted to.

But now another NEW book by Harper Lee has purportedly been discovered and will now be published in July. The suspense is mounting. Is it any good? Will it be the caliber of “To Kill A Mockingbird”?

How can it be?

It’s an impossible mountain to climb, and the fact that it was written a long time ago, maybe a VERY long time ago makes me feel that Harper Lee, being the wise woman that she was/is, just didn’t want it to be seen or read.

This may and I emphasize MAY have been the first book she wrote BEFORE “To Kill a Mockingbird” made her a literary sensation.

The book that she shopped around to publishers when she was an unknown first novelist in New York struggling to make her name. And it was rejected by everyone. I know the feeling.

And THEN she wrote “Mockingbird” plainly and simply and it, like “Gone With the Wind” really did not need a follow-up.

“Go Set a Watchman” – What an awkward, collegiate writing class title! Is probably not a patch on “Mockingbird.”

I think this whole thing is a literary stunt of the first water. Maybe she needs the money in her twilight years. Maybe, it’s been suggested, she doesn’t really know, cognitively, what really is going on with her unheard of, silent second book. Or was it her first surpressed one?

We’ll find out very soon. One thing’s for sure. It will be an international best seller. Interest in it is very, very high. But will it be any good? Or will it be very bad? That remains to be seen.

I, for one, can’t wait. And “Hey, Boo!” is a great documentary on Lee and is coming up soon on PBS. Don’t miss it.

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“Goldfinch” 3/5’s of a Great Book

Dear readers, dear cineastes, I’m going to do what I seldom get to do in my busy life as a film & theater critic, blogger and playwright/director, I am going to review a book. And a BIG book at that. I predict it will make a rollickingly good movie someday with the right director. Some true auteur like David Fincher guiding it and cutting it down to half its’ humongous length.

Donna Tartt set out to write a great novel, but she wrote a great BIG novel. Not the same thing.

Donna Tartt, an acclaimed, best-selling novelist, took ten years to write this GIGANTIC tome. She should’ve taken at least another one to edit it.
Overwritten in the extreme, “The Goldfinch” is like the little girl with a curl.”There was a little girl who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.”

“The Goldfinch” isn’t really horrid, but it’s just that the last two/thirds of the book don’t live up to the thrill, the excitement,the orginality and the sheer readability of the first three/fifths. So it’s a big disappoint, really.

For in the beginning, of this purposeful try to out-Dickens Dickens, Donna Tartt does succeed in engaging us in the life of her 13-year-old Harry Potter-esque hero, Theodore Decker, who lives blissfully with his beloved mother in the opening chapters of the book in what seems to him a magical New York City at the turn of this new century.

His life with his mother is terrifyingly torn apart by a terrorist blast in the Metropolitan Museum of Art(don’t worry this never happened) but in engaging us in Theo’s torn-apart post-Apocolyptic world, Tartt succeeds mightily. Theo survives. His mother is killed.

We are totally drawn in to the child’s new life under Social Services. His upper East Side adoptive parents, the marvelously well-drawn, wealthy Barbour family, and then feel his terrrible disruption and depression, when his deadbeat dad, whom he hates, turns up to claim him, and he’s dragged off to Las Vegas, by Dad and his new girl-friend a Vegas bar-tender named Xandra.

Mom Decker, Mrs. Barbour and Xandra are all vividly drawn, refreshingly new female characters, and we cling to them the way Theo in various ways tries to, but is always wrenched apart from them by cruel Fate and Circumstance.

The Barbours middle son, Andy, a fellow pre-teen nerd, in New York, is replaced by new best friend Boris, a Russian ne’er-do-well, whose last name we never really learn. Boris is likened to the Artful Dodger in Dickens “Oliver Twist” by Theo himself, and Theo in turn is called “Potter” as in Harry, by Boris.

These are all great characters as is Hobie, the gentle giant of a furniture repair shop in Greenwich Village that Theo improbably hooks up with. And yes, they and a red-haired girl named Pippa, another survivor of The Blast, live together quite picturesquely in Hobie’s Furniture Shop(read Dickens “Old Curiostiy Shop).

Boris and Theo make a fun pair for the books sprawling Western mid-section as they prowl Las Vegas’ strip malls, deserts, high schools and tract houses searching for hot girls and the perfect high, which like is looking for life on Mars. After New York, it’s like an alien moon-scape to Theo, made tolerable only by Boris’ lively presence and fact that none of it reminds him of his beloved mother’s untimely death.

Theo is a classic Dickensian orphan, part David Copperfield, part Oliver Twist, part Pip of “Great Expectations.”

All these deliberate Dickensianisms are all well and good, and are quite charming. And the threats and realities of an orphaned child in the Gothic NYC Welfare system are accurately drawn, and yes, terrifying.

Theo lives in fear of everything that he loves or is at the very least, used to, being ripped from him by ANOTHER catastrophic incident, like his mother was. And I totally identified with him.

My favorite part of “The Goldfinch” is a wild, mid-night, cross-country Greyhound bus ride with Theo, fleeing many demons and threats, real and imaginary. And oh yes, he stole a painting, a Dutch Master “The Goldfinch” by Fabritius, in the confusion following the Museum blast.

It’s an actual, real, beautiful Dutch painting of a tiny, sad, little goldfinch cruelly chained to a perch. It’s considered a masterpiece and Theo holds on to it as his secret treasure and reminder of his mom. They were on their way to see it at the Museum the day it exploded.

And Theo’s got it and Xandra’s little dog named Popper with him on this cross-country bus flight that is sooo marvelously and frightening detailed that it really was the high point of the book for me. As he has to keep the painting AND the dog hidden. No dogs on Greyhound. Those are the rules.

But that was only like page 400 or so. And it’s a 771 page GIANT of a book. It’s so heavy to hold it kept giving me arm, hand and back pain and muscle cramps. I’m amazed I got through just holding it to read.

And then, when this electrifying bus ride is over, so is the novel. Whatever else happens, it’s all down-hill from there as Theo grows up into a character I couldn’t relate to.

He was an adorable kid. Why did he have to grow up? And why did Tartt have to keep writing and writing and writing and over-writing. Didn’t she have an editor?

There are many narratively brilliant set pieces, but after Theo grows up, life is nothing but one drug deal after the other, and well, I just didn’t like him or “The Goldfinch” very much in its’ latter portions.

But it has a beautful beginning and a rip-roaring middle and no end.Literally.

Dazzling Oscar Hopeful Keira Knightley ~ Magnificent as “Anna Karenina”!

Beautiful, radiant, witty, intelligent and maturing into one of the great screen actresses of our time, Keira Knightley chats “Anna Karenina” with me at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012. Her breathtaking, bravura performance of Anna as a heroine AND an anti-heroine in this radical re-telling of Tolstoy’s oft-filmed tale,is like a dark diamond and  has Oscar Nomination written all over it.

“Hey, Boo!” intriguing new doc on the mysterious Harper Lee

I really was quite enchanted with the lovely, new documentary film “Hey, Boo!” about the reclusive Southern authoress Harper Lee. She wrote the  classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird”, won the Pulitzer Prize, then never wrote anything again and disappeared from sight. This very well done doc by Emmy-winning documentarian Mary McDonagh Murphy explains why.

I had no clear picture of this elusive author, except what one could glean from, of all things, the TWO films about Truman Capote that came out one right after the other in a two year period. “Capote” won Phillip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar, and got Catherine Keener a supporting actress nomination. It was her second, and she was playing a lesbian in both films, “Capote” and “Being John Malkovich.” 

Sandra Bullock, in her best performance ever, and pre-“The Blind Side”, played an even butcher Harper Lee in the 2nd (and I thought superior) Capote film, “Infamous.” These two films made sure that Truman Capote was back in the public’s eye, even though he’s been dead for a number of years…But no Oscars or nominations were coming the way of “Infamous.” It sucks to be second in this kind of close filmic race. But Truman would’ve loved all this posthumous attention. Harper Lee, no.

However, there Harper Lee was depicted on screen in two movies, helping, traveling and being the all around best pal to Truman Capote, as he traveled to Kansas  by train to investigate the horrific deaths of the Clutter family. Massacred en masse by two gay drifters, one of whom Capote fell madly in love with Perry Smith, and who he pretty much immortalized in his greatest work “In Cold Blood.” And Smith is depicted in all THREE films.

Harper Lee doesn’t appear in “In Cold Blood.” And Capote did not win a Pulitzer Prize, fairly or un-fairly, for his greatest work. And he never forgave his former best friend since childhood, Harper Lee, for this. She had a Pulitzer. He didn’t. And this revelation, among many others, sort of forms the climax of “Hey, Boo!”

“Hey, Boo!” performs the magic trick/tap dance of not having the central character Harper Lee anywhere in it. Yet it still remains compelling. No mean feat. Kudos to filmmaker Mary McDonagh Murpphy who is also the author of the New York Times Best-Seller “Scout, Atticus & Boo: Fifty Years of to Kill a Mockingbird.” This film is so complete, Oprah Winfrey is even in it, telling how much this small, succinct book impacted her young life. To this day, “To Kill a Mockingbird” still sells a million copies a year!

We see pictures of her, and hear her heavily Southern-inflected voice on a radio broadcast from the early ’60s, but that’s about it.

Nell Harper Lee, for that is her full name, and all her friends who are interviewed in the movie call her, Nell, was Capote’s next door neighbor in the small Southern town of Munroeville, Alabama. That these two children would both become considered America’s great writers of that time is a fateful historic co-incidence.

And the film reveals many things we did not know about Nell. She was, when she came to New York in the ’50s an airline reservation ticket counter clerk for a quite a long time before some well-meaning friends, who are interviewed extensively in the movie, generously gave her money to take a year off to write “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And it wasn’t a breeze doing so for Nell, even with this generous support.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” was rejected by many publishers before Nell Harper hit pay dirt and got a sympathetic editor…and the rest as they say is history.

She always reminded me more than a bit of Margaret Mitchell, that other Southern female writer, who wrote one great, best-selling novel, “Gone With the Wind” then was never heard from again, literaray-il-ly speaking.

And “Hey, Boo!” lays out why. Suddenly famous, then also suddenly weary of all the non-stop press attention she was getting, she just says simply to someone, “I have given enough. I don’t want to give any more.”

And I guess, she, being a woman of carefully chosen words, meant was she said.

In this Internet age, one wonders if one book, and a novel at that, could ever make such a stir these days. But in its’ day “To Kill a Mockingbird” coupled with the great Black and White film that won three Oscars, one for Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, the heroic lawyer, patterned to a T on Harper Lee’s own father, and one for Horton Foote’s screenplay and one for Haskell Wexler’s cinematography.

It’s also a question if the book without the film’s monumental impact would have achieved the legendary, classic status both the novel and the film enjoy to this day.

But “To Kill a Mockingbird” endures and endures, and this great, thought-provoking documentary explains why.

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