(*homocinematically inclined)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Reverend’s Reviews: Plummer, Porter & Perfect

There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than in the company of Oscar- and Tony-winning actor Christopher Plummer… although Julie Andrews and other former co-stars may beg to differ. Plummer’s tantrums on the set of 1965’s The Sound of Music as well as other films and plays in which he has appeared over the decades are well documented. Fortunately, he is a perfect gentleman in the current A Word or Two playing at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre through February 9th. The one-man show, which Plummer also wrote, celebrates his lifelong love of literature while indulging audiences with tidbits about Plummer’s upbringing and convictions.

Now an impossibly fit and mentally sharp 84 years old, Plummer reads from such time-honored authors as George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Vladimir Nabokov and, of course, William Shakespeare. More surprising are his admiration for Winnie the Pooh creator A.A. Milne, the Bible (from which Plummer movingly delivers a lovely selection from the Song of Songs) and religio-ethical poet W.H. Auden. The Canadian actor gives an amusingly fey, inexplicably Southern-accented interpretation of King Herod from Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Plummer also impresses with his comments, mostly derisive, on more contemporary subjects including Twitter, Botox, Governor Chris Christie, plastic surgery and, naturally, Justin Bieber.

With guidance from Tony-winning director Des McAnuff and the support of a massive staircase comprised entirely of books (beautifully designed by Robert Brill), Plummer unquestionably succeeds in his stated attempt to rescue classical language from what he perceives as its impending demise. I did find composer Michael Roth’s occasional bits of background music and ambient sound distracting and completely unnecessary. A Word or Two needs only Plummer’s command of literature to keep theatergoers riveted.

Running now through February 16th just a few miles south of LA at Long Beach’s acclaimed International City Theatre (ICT) is the California premiere of Let’s Misbehave: The Music and Lyrics of Cole Porter. The production also serves as the inaugural work in ICT’s 29th season. Cole Porter, the famous (and famously closeted) art deco-era composer, would surely be delighted by this extended revue despite the threadbare storyline devised by Karin Bowersock and Patrick Young to connect Porter’s classic tunes.

An economical three-hander set in the mid-1930’s, Let’s Misbehave features a trio of longtime, single friends — one male and two female — in the early morning hours following a “swelegant” party. Host Dorothy (the terrific, funny Lindsey Alley in her ICT debut) and the on-stage pianist (Brian Baker) she has employed cajole Marc Ginsburg’s Walter and elegant Jennifer Shelton’s Alice into renditions of more than 35 Porter songs in between rounds of old fashioneds. The buddies eventually make a sworn agreement that each will take a lover in time for the 4th of July, just a month away. Things quickly become complicated once Alice and Dorothy discover they both have a more than friendly interest in Walter, while Walter only has eyes for Alice.

Director/choreographer Todd Nielsen and his cast find a few effective, mostly unspoken moments of sorely needed dramatic tension in this piffle of a plot. Porter’s compositions, alternately humorous and wistful, would more than stand on their own in providing an evening of theatrical entertainment. Kicking off with “Well Did You Evah?” and culminating in “De-Lovely” (plus an encore or two), there are stops along the way at such well-known standards as “I Get a Kick Out of You,” “Anything Goes,” “Night and Day,” “Friendship” and “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” plus a number of lesser-known Porter songs. The cast members are fine with the vocals, and the three harmonize particularly well. Unfortunately, their dancing is more pedestrian but each gave Nielsen’s moves their all on opening night.

Porter’s life was given an underrated film treatment ten years ago in Irwin Winkler’s De-Lovely. Kevin Kline is typically charismatic as Porter, with Ashley Judd and out actor John Barrowman in supporting roles as Cole’s devoted wife Linda and one of his male lovers, respectively. At least it is an improvement on 1946’s Night and Day, a decidedly sanitized bio starring Cary Grant.

On a final theatrical note: Some readers probably wish, like me, that you could have caught The Perfect American, Phillip Glass’ operatic treatment (with libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer) of the life and death of Walt Disney, during its one and only performance to date last year at Madrid’s Teatro Real. Well, I recently learned that the world premiere was recorded and is now available on Blu-ray and DVDfrom Opus Arte. Guess what Reverend bought with one of the Amazon gift cards he received for Christmas?

One’s appreciation of the score will likely depend on one’s appreciation of Glass’ minimalist approach. As a longtime Disney devotee, though, I found its controversial depiction of the beloved artist/studio head/theme park builder fascinating. Disney is revealed as more megalomaniacal, neglectful and racist than Tom Hanks’ current turn as the icon in Saving Mr. Banks and, arguably, more so than the historical record. Walt’s brother Roy, wife Lillian and two daughters are characters in the opera, as are Andy Warhol and Abraham Lincoln from Disneyland’s famed Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction, albeit a more malfunctioning version played by Zachary James (who originally played Lurch in The Addams Family Broadway musical and was previously interviewed here on Movie Dearest). Christopher Purves is excellent both dramatically and vocally as the smiling, scheming innovator.

Impressively staged by Phelim McDermott of Shockheaded Peter fame, The Perfect American is well worth renting/buying and watching/listening. Just don’t tell current Disney head honchos Bob Iger and John Lasseter.

Reverend’s Ratings:
A Word or Two: A-
Let’s Misbehave: B
The Perfect American: B+

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

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