Center Stage with Pat Launer on KSDS JAZZ88
July 7, 2012
The relationship between movies and plays is long and fraught. Two cases in point: a world premiere musical made from a silly, third-rate film written and directed by a playwright; and a bloody war movie adapted from a children’s book that also inspired the most wildly imaginative stage play you may ever see. In other words, the ridiculous meets the sublime.
In the preposterous corner is the adult fable, “Joe vs. the Volcano,” created by John Patrick Shanley . A hangdog, hypochondriacal nebbish in a dead-end job is diagnosed with a terminal “brain cloud,” and agrees to live the last weeks of his life in luxury, culminating in a leap into a volcano. Goofy plot, actually a parable, about taking chances and making every moment count.
Now, with an adaptation by Scott Hafso and Darcy Phillips, along comes Lamb’s Players Theatre with a musical version of this messy rom-com, and surprise! It actually works better than the film. Robert Smyth briskly directs a 13-member cast of energetic actor/singers, backed by a superb band. The shifting locales are marked by attractive, humorous projections, and the costumes are a hoot, especially on the orange soda-loving Polynesian-Jewish-Celtic island of Waponi Woo.
As Joe, Sean Cox is engaging, in a Tom Hanks kinda way, and Eileen Bowman is a knockout as his three love interests. The music is pleasant, the lyrics clever. It’s lightweight summertime fluff that fairly flies by.
Up in L.A., there’s a spectacle that soars into the stratospyhere : “War Horse,” not the recent Steven Spielberg film, but a 2007 play that every true theaterlover simply must see. In contrast to the concrete World War I hyper-reality of the movie, the stage play is pure magic, inspired enchantment.
It’s not about the melodramatic, tear-jerking story of a young farm boy so devoted to his horse, he follows him across countries and into a war. It’s the genius of theatrical storytelling.
The sets – marvelous projections that take shape as pencil sketches – are highlighted by the spectacular lighting and sound, with beautifully-sung Irish folksongs interspersed. The actors are effective. But the real stars are the horses: ingenious, life-size, life-like, wood, metal and mesh puppets, large enough to be ridden by a man. Each magnificent creation of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company is controlled by three visible performers, who give poetic life to every swish of a tail, blink of an eye, or twitch of a flank. Most amazing, Joey the stallion has a soul. We can sense his feelings; we fall in love with his spirit, majesty and loyalty. The brilliant production bowled over London and New York critics and audiences, and it’s guaranteed to steal your heart, too.
So take your own leap of faith – into a volcano or onto the back of a breathtaking steed.
“Joe vs. the Volcano, the Musical” runs through July 29 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
“War Horse” also plays through July 29, at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
©2012 PAT LAUNER