Friday, August 5, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: All Dressed Up


While hardly a household name today, costume designer Orry-Kelly enjoyed a 40-year Hollywood career that garnered him three Academy Awards and numerous additional nominations. He designed wardrobes for such stars as Marilyn Monroe, Bette Davis (with whom he had a particularly lengthy partnership) and Barbara Stanwyk as well as Rosalind Russell's memorable Auntie Mame ensemble.

Orry-Kelly was openly gay at a time when such openness was discouraged by the studios. Still, his star relationships and Oscars for An American in Paris, Les Girls and Some Like It Hot kept him somewhat protected. He also enjoyed a lengthy if closeted romance with one Archibald Leach, better known to the world as Cary Grant.

The designer's life is depicted to generally fabulous effect in Women He's Undressed, now playing theatrically in select cities prior to its VOD/DVD release on August 9th by Wolfe Video. Unexpectedly directed by veteran Australian filmmaker Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel, the 1994 version of Little Women), it combines vintage film footage with interviews of celebs and film historians as well as dramatized segments featuring Orry-Kelly, played by Darren Gilshenan.

Though Gilshenan's flamboyant performance irritated my husband, I found it enjoyable and its incorporation helps to fill in the subject's less-documented early life Down Under (hence the involvement of his countrywoman, Armstrong). Both the re-enactments and the original footage of Orry-Kelly's work that dominates the second half of the film illustrate his personal and professional significance during a time when Hollywood was deeply, often hypocritically, anti-gay. Women He's Undressed is a must-see for gay viewers and anyone with an interest in classic film.

Two current, female-dominated movies have received mixed responses at the US box office but the women involved are hardly to blame. Ghostbusters, Paul Fieg's remake/reboot of the 1980's blockbusters, finds its lead, mostly SNL-bred quartet overshadowed by a too-familiar script and excessive budget. While Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon shine collectively and individually, this scattershot comedy's grim central plotline -- involving a bullied nerd who intentionally wakens the dead in his quest for revenge -- lacks the original movies' less serious spirit. Runaway special effects also detract from what could have been a lighter, less derivative hoot. Hopefully the virtually guaranteed sequel will do it better.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie is a big-screen chapter of the hilarious, long-running British TV series. Jennifer Saunders (who also wrote the screenplay) and Joanna Lumley reprise their performances as wannabe fashionistas Edina (aka Eddie) and Patsy, and its great to find them in as fine form as ever. Virtually all the series' regulars make appearances during the course of a slight story that finds Eddie and Patsy on the lam when Eddie is accused of murdering supermodel Kate Moss. Saunders makes Eddie unnecessarily reflective and serious at a few points, undermining the otherwise amusing goings on. As usual, Lumley pretty much steals the show and ultimately makes the movie worth seeing.

Reverend's Ratings:
Women He's Undressed: A-
Ghostbusters (2016): C+
Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Bouviers & Con Men in the Spotlight


Popular movies have been serving as inspiration for Broadway musicals for at least the past two decades. The Producers, Hairspray, The Lion King and Kinky Boots all originated on the silver screen. The much-admired 1975 documentary Grey Gardens and 1988 comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are additional, somewhat more surprising picks for musicalization but both were well-received during their original New York runs.

Grey Gardens is finally making its Los Angeles premiere at the Ahmanson Theatre through August 14th. Broadway divas Rachel York and Betty Buckley are headlining as "Little" Edie Beale and her dominating mother, Edith Bouvier Beale. Real-life relations of Jacqueline "Jackie" Bouvier, who famously married John F. Kennedy and served as First Lady, the Beale women fell from high society and were later discovered living impoverished lives in the run-down mansion after which the documentary and musical are named.

York plays Edith Bouvier Beale in the musical's first act, then takes on the role of "Little" Edie in act two while Buckley plays the aged Edith. York makes the transition fine and craftily "channels" Buckley at times during act one. Unfortunately, York wasn't in the best singing voice during Grey Gardens' opening night performance on July 13th. Whether the result of illness or this production's presumably intensive rehearsal process, she sounded raspy at times and had difficulty hitting some high notes. She was fine in terms of characterization, though, especially as irascible, tragic "Little" Edie. Buckley was predictably superb as "Big" Edie in act two.

Out actor Bryan Batt also has a featured role in act one as George Gould Strong, Edith's accompanist and confidante. He is fine but Doug Wright's book for the musical hits audience members over the head with George's homosexuality. It seemed like the character's orientation is mentioned or referenced with nearly every line of dialogue involving George. This is definitely excessive.

Jeff Cowie's stunning set design includes both "before" and "after" views of the Beales' homestead. Since the documentary film noted the 52 feral cats (plus a raccoon family) that called Grey Gardens home at the time, the scenic design incorporates occasional, amusing projections of cats prowling across the window panes. Ilona Somogyi's costume designs are also eye-catching.

Having long been a fan of the documentary as well as of the original Broadway cast recording of the musical, I was prepared to like the LA production of Grey Gardens a bit more than I ultimately did. The book's flaws and Michael Wilson's direction proved distracting (especially whenever the actors had to narrowly navigate around openings in the stage over the orchestra). Still, it is an entertaining depiction of two enduringly fascinating characters.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, starring Michael Caine and Steve Martin as dueling con men in the French Riviera, was a modest hit upon its release nearly three decades ago but is not particularly well-remembered. Long Beach's Musical Theatre West is currently presenting the musical's local premiere at the Carpenter Center through July 24th. Buoyed by a host of catchy, funny songs by David Yazbek (The Full Monty), it turns out to be one of the few stage adaptations to date that actually improves upon its source material while retaining several of the film's funniest moments. The musical's original, 2005 New York production ended up nabbing 11 Tony Award nominations including Best Musical and Best Score.

Making MTW's staging even more of a must-see (though for adults only due to some risque material and crude language) are the bonafide Broadway stars heading its cast. Davis Gaines, who has the distinction of being the longest-running Phantom of the Opera in over 2,000 performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber's blockbuster, plays the elegant Lawrence Jamison. Jamison has made quite a living out of seducing wealthy women visiting the local casinos, aided and abetted by police chief Andre Thibault (Kyle Nudo). Gaines employs here the commanding presence and full-throated baritone that made him such a success as the Phantom, if in a less-threatening manner.

Benjamin Schrader, Gaines' fellow Great White Way import with credits in The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q, is hilarious as the decidedly less-refined Freddy Benson. Yearning to live at the same level as Jamison's extravagance, Benson convinces Jamison to take him under his wing. The pair pull off a few cons together and Freddy is about to go his separate way when a new target, the sweet natured American "soap queen" Christina Colgate (MTW regular Rebecca Ann Johnson), arrives. They make a wager on which of them can swindle $50,000 from her first. Things get complicated when both men end up falling in love with her.

These lead cast members as well as the musical's high-stepping ensemble members raise the bar in terms of local performance. I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Cynthia Ferrer's sparkling turn as Muriel, a wealthy matron who doesn't necessarily mind being taken advantage of financially. She stops the show several times with the songs "What Was a Woman to Do?" and "Like Zis/Like Zat" and their reprises.

The MTW orchestra sounded great on opening night under the direction of John Glaudini, who also happens to be serving as music director of the new stage adaptation of Frozen at Disney's California Adventure. I only detected a couple of singing glitches and some sloppy lighting, chiefly a lazy or wandering spotlight, during the premiere performance. For tickets, call 562-856-1999 extension 4 or visit the Musical Theatre West website.

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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