By Pat Launer
The End of Death ? (I’m not so sure)
Nothing a spritz of “Hairspray” can’t cure.
Just a Tease
THE SHOW: “Hairspray, ” the movie, which has transmuted from a wacky John Waters cult film (1988) to a Tony Award-winning stage musical (200?, 8 Tonys ) to a big, brash blockbuster (sort of). Screenplay by Leslie Dixon; music by Marc Shaiman , with lyrics by Scott Wittman (remember when the partners kissed on the Tonys in 2003? A milestone for network TV!). Directed by choreographer Adam Shankman
THE STORY/THE BACKSTORY: In this puffed-up Cinderella story, the plus-sized girl wins the day. It’s 1962, Baltimore . Hyper-enthusiastic teen Tracy Turnblad , whose heart is as big as her oversized frame, just wants to dance on the American Bandstand-like “Corny Collins Show,” so she can beat the (bitchy) reigning queen, win over her hunky beau and integrate the dancing, all of which she actually manages to accomplish, with the help of her quirky parents.
The John Waters film marked the movie debut of Ricki Lake , who played Tracy before she famously lost 125+ pounds. Lake ’s voice is heard in the new movie, on the credit-rolling voiceover song, “Mama I’m a Big Girl Now.” She’s joined in that number by the original Broadway Tracy, Marissa Jaret Winokur – and Harvey Fierstein , the Tony winner who played Tracy’s mom, Edna (following in the Big Gay shoes of the original Edna, Divine). Lake also has a cameo role as a Talent Agent; the other Agents are played by creators Shankman , Shaiman and Wittman . And oh yes, Waters appears briefly as a Flasher. Perfect.
The current Tracy, mega-talented Nikki Blonsky , has a cool backstory, too. She was working at a Cold Stone Creamery store when she learned that she was cast in the movie. Years ago, the 18 year-old had tried out for the Broadway show, but she was told she was too young. She saw the Broadway production on her 15th birthday. Her only prior credits were at Great Neck High School ( Long Island ). Now she’s in rehearsal for the L.A. production of Hairspray. And Tony winner Winokur (niece of acclaimed writers S. J. Perelman and Nathanael West) is now 34, probably way too old for the role, though she did briefly revisit/re-inhabit Tracy in 2005.
THE PLAYERS/THE PRODUCTION: Besides the newcomer Blonsky , the movie boasts a high-profile cast: John Travolta as Edna, Christopher Walken as her husband Wilbur, Michelle Pfeiffer as the scheming TV producer, Velma von Tussle, and Queen Latifah as Motormouth Maybelle . They all assay their roles with seriousness. But they all seem oddly mis -cast. The whole effort lacks the off-the-wall eccentricity of Waters or the sheer, spontaneous, unadulterated energy and fun of Jack O’Brien’s direction of the stage musical. There’s no subtlety, just the slightest wink-nudge sarcasm. But all the edge is gone. The gay community has complained about Travolta (and not a big gay man) playing Edna. He looks all right, but his accent is prissily precise and extreme. And he doesn’t have the amazing connection that Fierstein had with Tony-winning stage vet Dick Latessa . Even Queen Latifah seems overly mannered and polite, looking very pretty but never bringing down the roof in the R&B role of Motormouth ; she even gets a new song (“Come So Far, Got So Far to Go ”), but it’s underwhelming. The most unforgettable show-ender in a long time, “You Can’t Stop the Beat,” that had audiences dancing in the aisles on Broadway and in the touring production (which came to the Civic Theatre in 2004), does not, surprisingly, end the movie. Several songs follow for the credits, and they totally dissipate the energy. The score sounds good, but everything feels over-produced. Plus-sized, indeed.
As is so often the case, ‘opening up’ a stage musical and ‘taking it to the streets’ doesn’t always do the show a favor. There are a few cute or clever moments – and the costumes and big-fin 60’s cars are super! – but nothing makes you want to jump up and boogie (or Mash Potatoes). What makes the movie worth seeing is the knockout Blonsky , who has oversized talent, presence, personality and effervescence.
THE LOCATION: Movie theaters around town
The Future is Past
THE SHOW: The End of Death (the future ain’t what it used to be).
I was only able to see the preview of this new play by Janet S. Tiger, Playwright in Residence at Swedenborg Hall, so I will be circumspect in my comments. The show wasn’t ready that night, many lines were unlearned, the pace was slow and the piece was overlong. Since then, Tiger tells me, the play has lost a good deal of its running time, whittled down to a lean, mean 90 minutes (from a plodding 2 hours, 15). When I saw the play, it was just too bloated – with characters and actors and ideas.
The notion of living forever, or of visitors from the past or future communing with modern-day folk, isn’t new. Longevity into eternity isn’t even that far-fetched any more. But it’s Tiger’s real characters who are much more interesting than her other-worldly ones. Even Jonathan Dunn-Rankin, as the primary visitor/informer (a role that was written for him), couldn’t use his stentorian tones to rescue his generally lackluster character.
But at the center, as the addled and befuddled playwright, Teresa Beckwith is thoroughly credible. She’s a fruitcake, all right, and she drives her family nuts, but she’s endearingly befogged, as she imagines and converses with her dramatic characters. She feels she has to “break through the 4th dimension,” and the play often breaks through the 4th wall (with mixed success). But her dilemmas as a writer who also tries (however lamely) to be a mother and wife (although her husband left for a morning swim 10 years ago and never came back) are touching and engaging. In future rewrites, I’d lose all the sci-fi stuff and focus on this dysfunctional family, which has to cope with a creative maternal unit who lives in her head and can’t be bogged down by cleaning, shopping, cooking or acknowledging her family, however lovably weird and loyal they may be.
Tiger’s sly literary references are more interesting than her sci-fi stuff (which feels shopworn); she’s far more in her element in the intellectual/emotional domains than the time-traveling hypothetical. Dunn-Rankin’s character expresses the play’s basic tenets: “What is reality? What we remember and what we forget.” That notion, central to the (currently convoluted) plot, should be worked into the play somehow, without all the extraneous characters and visitations. As the rest of the quirky family, Steve Rowe, Lynne Goodman and Joseph Baker are aptly hapless and confused. Further exploration of their dilemmas and interactions would provide audience rewards. The fictional playwright’s imaginings are far more compelling than their physical embodiment onstage. Tiger has a way with (modern) dialogue; this is a valiant effort on a work-in-progress that deserves more work (and fewer participants).
THE LOCATION: Swedenborg Hall ( 1531 Tyler Street ), through August 19
NEWS AND VIEWS…
… KUSI regular… My premiere appearance on KUSI -TV was a big hit, and I’ve been invited back on “Inside San Diego” on an ongoing basis… every three weeks through the end of the year! My next visit will be Wednesday, August 15. So, tape, TiVo or tune in (10-11am, channel 51/cable 9). And keep those calls, emails and letters of support coming!
… Dancing as a Star… I’m well into my prep as one of the celebrity contestants in Malashock Dance’s reality -TV-type fundraising event, “Malashock Thinks You Can Dance.” Verrrrry exciting. I’m chronicling the experience in a Dance Blog on my website ( www.patteproductions.com ). I think this event is gonna be a stunner! Saturday, September 15 at the new, state-of-the-art Irwin M. Jacobs Qualcomm Hall on Morehouse Drive . Proceeds support Malashock’s 20th anniversary season and The Malashock Dance School. Mark your calendar, and get your hot tix now. 619-260-1622; www.malashockdance.org
.. The final program of 6th @ Penn Theatre’s highly ambitious Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival runs this weekend only. Buried: The Sago Mine Disaster, couldn’t be more timely, with yet another mine disaster in the news. This play, written by Jerry Starr, with original music performed by singer/songwriter Anne Feeney, focuses on the Jan. 2006 West Virginia explosion that killed 12 miners and severely disabled another. Starr, a Visiting Professor of Communication at UCSD who grew up in a mining town and taught at W. Virginia University, based his play on transcriptions and media interviews. Dale Morris directs a high-profile cast that includes Linda Libby , Deanna Driscoll and Matt Thompson . Aug. 9-12.
Next up at 6th @ Penn, Ruff Yeager rules! He directs a killer cast of San Diego’s finest female performers – Robin Christ , Jill Drexler , Danielle Rhodes, Susan Stratton, Leigh Scarritt and Wendy Waddell — in Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the 1981 Ed Graczyk dramedy about a bunch of West Texas 1950s Disciples of James Dean, coming together for a 20th fan club reunion (Aug. 23-Sept. 30). And on alternate nights, Ruff directs his own play, the highly acclaimed and provocative Bronze, which premiered in 2005 at Sledgehammer Theatre. Jeannine Marquie , fresh from her temporary takeover of the lead role in The Breakup Diaries: The Lesbian Musical, is the Olympic figure-skating ice-queen turned gun-wielding hostage-taker. John Martin, Geoffrey Yeager and Kim Strassburger reprise their intriguing performances.
… Get Blitzed! The 14th annual Fritz Blitz of New Plays by California Playwrights opens soon, with four weeks and six plays (only one from San Diego , Bets and Blue Notes by Kevin Armento ). The Blitz has always provided thought-provoking entertainment – and even commanded a Patté Award, The McDonald Playwriting Award for Best New Play… for Kim Porter’s Munched. Porter, a former San Diegan, now living in San Francisco , has another play in the Blitz this year, a short piece titled In the Wake of the Bounty. This year’s esteemed directors include Fritz founder/artistic director Duane Daniels , as well as D. Candis Paule, Katie Rodda, Don Loper , Josh Temple and Dane Stauffer. Check ‘ em out, Aug. 16-Sept. 9; www.fritztheatre.com
…Et tu , ya Brute? … Will you be among those seeing FREE SHAKESPEARE, courtesy of New Village Arts? NVA continues its 6-year tradition with Julius Caesar, but this year, they’re coming indoors; it won’t be Shakespeare in the Park. The historical drama, directed by Chris Williams, will be staged in the New NVA theater space in Carlsbad (8/9-19). And, for something a little different, there will be two performances (Sept. 1 & 2) in Vista ’s Avo Playhouse. Make reservations at: 760)-433-3245 or @NewVillageArts.org
… Don’t forget the San Diego Shakespeare Society’s upcoming reading of King Lear, featuring an all-star cast headed by local favorite Jonathan McMurtry, with nasty-and-nice daughters played by Priscilla Al len, Linda Libby and Monique Gaffney (she’s the nice one). The rest of the imposing ensemble includes: Richard Baird (Edgar), Mitchell Wyatt (Edmund), TJ Johnson, Walter Murray , Mark Petrich , Neil McDonald, Matt Biedel, Sean Cox, Al ex Sandie and Jack Winans . Mike Auer directs. 7:30pm on Monday, August 13 in the Westminster Presbyterian Church Theatre in Point Loma.
…Managing ourArts and Culture… the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture has named a new Arts and Culture Program Manager, Gary Margolis, who’s worked for Arts Councils and Museums in several states. He even taught school in two challenging neighborhoods: Brooklyn , New York and Bamako , Mali ( W. Africa ). Welcome aboard!
…Keeping Floyd alive… The San Diego Black Ensemble Theatre is presenting a special benefit event that will contribute to the Dr. Floyd Gaffney Memorial Fund and support the next season of SDBET . To commemorate the 44th anniversary of the oration that influenced a nation, Antonio ‘TJ’ Johnson will re-create Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. There will also be performances by the ‘ SDBET Players’ and the gospel group Voices of Prayze . August 28 at St. Paul ’s Cathedral. Pre- and post-show music by Dwight Love Jazz Ensemble. Tix at 619-280-5650.
… I think he’s got it! … Former San Diegan and UCSD alum Jefferson Mays (Tony Award winner for his brilliant performance in I Am My Own Wife) will star as Henry Higgins in the new revival of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (the source material for My Fair Lady). Film star Claire Danes will be making her Broadway debut as the indomitable Eliza Doolittle. Col. Pickering will be played by Boyd Gaines (Tony Award winner for his performances in Contact and She Loves Me; winner of the 2007 Drama Desk Award for Journey’s End). The show begins previews on Sept. 21 and opens Oct. 18 at the American Airlines Theatre.
… Other UCSD alums in New York : Daoud Heidami (last seen here in 2001, in the Sledgehammer Theatre production of The Chairs). He’s appearing in Masked, a powerful play by Israeli Ilan Hatsor about three warring Palestinian brothers. Writing in the New York Times, Wilborn Hampton said “the fine cast keeps the gut-wrenching emotions of the drama under a tight rein, and Dauoud’s performance is “a study of a complex man driven by illusory dreams.” Open-ended run at DR2 Theatre on E. 15th St .
Meanwhile, further uptown ( E. 76th St. ) is playwright Josh Tobiessen ’s hilariously wacky play, Election Day, which premiered here at UCSD’s 2006 Baldwin New Play Festival. The New York Times called it “an outrageous comedy…The stage can barely contain Mr. Tobiessen’s rapidly shifting story… paced at double-espresso speed.” ( through Aug. 25, at the McGinn/Cazale Theater).
‘NOT TO BE MISSED!’ (Pat’s Picks)
after the quake – spare, at times amusing, and starkly beautiful; gorgeously designed, directed and acted
La Jolla Playhouse, through August 26
The Breakup Notebook: The Lesbian Musical – a universal story of lost love, bad dates, and romantic possibility, cleverly told, engagingly performed
Diversionary Theatre, through August 12
Resilience of the Spirit Human Rights Festival, Program 12
6th @ Penn Theatre, through August 12
Rashomon – intense and thought-provoking; well directed and acted
North Coast Repertory Theatre, through August 12
The Deception – another beautifully integrated production by Théâtre de la Jeune Lune ; just about anything this imaginative company (and its brilliant director) creates is worth seeing
La Jolla Playhouse, through August 19
Hay Fever – witty, sophisticated, deliciously vicious
Old Globe Theatre, through August 19
Two Gentlemen of Verona – light, frothy, goofy, well-acted fun
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
Measure for Measure – beautiful , comprehensible, relevant, flawlessly directed and performed
The Old Globe’s Festival Stage, in repertory with Hamlet and Two Gentlemen of Verona, through September 30
(For full text of all of Pat’s past reviews, going back to 1990, use the Search engine at www.patteproductions.com)
They’re hawking Back-to-School wear already. Prolong the summer… at the theater!
© 2007 PATTÉ PRODUCTIONS, INC.