The 2013, Tony Award-winning revival of Pippin proves an unusual pastiche of medieval history, 1970’s free love nostalgia and, new to the mix, Cirque du Soleil-style theatrics. It is now playing at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles through November 9th as a stop on the revival’s national tour. While the circus acts are undeniably impressive and entertaining, they don’t always fit easily into a narrative about the quest undertaken by Pippin, young and naïve son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, to find his place in the world (or, more accurately in light of one of the musical’s several popular songs, his “Corner of the Sky”).
Pippin is guided in equal measure by his war-mongering father (John Rubinstein, who played the title role in the original 1972 Broadway production); his beloved trapeze-flying grandmother, Berthe (Tony winner Andrea Martin is reprising the role in LA before Lucie Arnaz takes over for the rest of the tour); and a seductive ringmaster identified only as “Leading Player” and embodied by Sasha Allen, who was a finalist on season four of The Voice and co-starred in the theatre-themed (as well as gay-themed) indie film Camp. Meanwhile, his conniving stepmother Fastrada (played by the sensational Sabrina Harper) strives to get Pippin out of the way so her own son, Lewis (hunky Callan Bergmann) can assume the throne post-Charlemagne. It ultimately falls to simple farmer’s widow Catherine (Kristine Reese, assuming the role played by a pre-stardom Jill Clayburgh in the 1972 Broadway production) and her son to teach Pippin what is most important in life.
In addition to Andrea Martin, who brings the house down and deservedly garners a mid-show standing ovation with her sing-along rendition of “No Time at All,” Matthew James Thomas is recreating his 2013 performance as Pippin in LA. His voice seemed a little shaky at the start of the show on opening night — perhaps due to nerves from performing in front of such A-listers as Steve Martin, Martin Short and Sean Hayes, among others — but he grew more confident as act one continued. The ensemble players were splendid both vocally and physically, with the various demanding circus acts they perform serving as particular tributes to the cast members’ dexterity and strength. I was especially impressed by a number of “how did they do that?” illusions devised by Paul Kieve that are presented during the show.
But it is Stephen Schwartz’s score, written when he was a mere 25-year old and three decades before his more recent success with Wicked, that is truly the star of this show. From the unforgettable opening number, “Magic to Do,” through the aforementioned “Corner of the Sky” and “No Time at All” and on to several other memorable tunes including “Simple Joys,” “Morning Glow” and “Love Song,” they are much more the source of Pippin’s enduring popularity than Roger O. Hirson’s vague, patchy book. Director Diane Paulus’ inspired decision to move the action away from traditional vaudevillian staging to a big top setting, while maintaining the style of original choreographer Bob Fosse, will no doubt ensure this touring production and future incarnations of Pippin a long, renewed life.
Since bursting onto the indie movie scene with 1992’s controversial The Living End, out writer-director Gregg Araki has continued to make some of the rowdiest, no-holds-barred movies featuring gay and bi characters. The Doom Generation, Splendor, Totally F***ed Up and Kaboom are a few examples of these, and Araki has included gay if often troubled men in his more mainstream-leaning efforts like Mysterious Skin and Smiley Face.
Araki is back after a four-year hiatus with White Bird in a Blizzard, now playing in select cities and available though iTunes/On Demand. An adaptation of Laura Kasischke’s 1999 novel of the same name, the film stars Shailene Woodley (little Miss Deviant herself) and a number of A-listers who constitute Araki’s biggest-name cast to date: Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Thomas Jane, Gabourey Sidibe and, as a psychiatrist who is “more like an actress playing a shrink,” Angela Bassett. It is also truly the filmmaker’s most mainstream work thus far, despite some graphic dialogue about sex of the mainly heterosexual variety.
Woodley plays Kat, who is 17 when her mother Eve (Green) mysteriously disappears one day in 1988 while Kat is at school. Her father, Brock (Meloni, effectively cast against type), is at a loss as is Detective Theo Scieziesciez (Jane), the surly but hunky police investigator assigned to the case. Kat initially reacts to her mother’s vanishing act as a form of sexual liberation, acting out both with her “straight-C” neighbor/boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) and Detective Theo. As the years pass, Kat goes off to college but is troubled by recurring dreams of her mother, speechless and naked in a snowy landscape. It is during a holiday break back home in 1991 when Kat finally unravels the disturbing truth behind her mother’s disappearance.
As a story largely centered on one’s repression of the truth, White Bird in a Blizzard is something of a piece with Araki’s earlier Mysterious Skin. Its plot also makes the film an interesting companion piece to the current hit Gone Girl, in which another woman’s mysterious disappearance sets off all manner of theories and allegations. Alas, White Bird isn’t as compellingly-crafted as Gone Girl, although Araki works in a degree of twists and surprise revelations. The main difficulty is that Kat isn’t shown to be a very likable person, despite the presence of bff’s played by Sidibe and Ugly Betty’s Mark Indelicato. She matures a bit once she hits college but remains something of a spoiled cipher, even as the talented Woodley gives the role her best. Most of the film’s other characters aren’t any more complex.
From a visual standpoint, though, White Bird in a Blizzard is Araki’s most accomplished and eye-pleasing film so far. He utilizes a vivid color scheme in the sets and costumes throughout, all the way down to the M&M’s on therapist Bassett’s coffee table. The snowscape in Kat’s visions is nicely stylized, and the 1970’s-early 90’s fixtures and appliances are period perfect. Araki also hits all the right notes musically-speaking, filling the soundtrack with retro tunes by Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, New Order and the Jesus & Mary Chain, among others. If I can’t give the movie a rave review, I can at least recommend its soundtrack.
With just a week to go til Halloween, plenty of us are looking for spooky classics and new releases to watch. Hollows Grove, just released through iTunes, desperately wants your download attention. It contains a few effective scares but unfortunately ends up being overly familiar stuff.
Writer-director Craig Efros takes a found-footage approach to his tale of a documentary filmmaker, Harold Maxwell, who is following a ghost-hunting reality show crew as they investigate reports of sinister goings on at a long-abandoned orphanage. One of the show’s stars readily admits to Harold that the apparitions regularly encountered by S.P.I.T. (Spirit Paranormal Investigation Team) are rigged by a retired special effects master played by Aliens’ Lance Henriksen. It isn’t long after they all arrive at the old Hollows Grove Home for Children, though, that they begin to realize this haunting is the real deal.
Los Angeles’ actually-haunted Linda Vista Hospital served as one of the film’s shooting locations and this definitely gives Hollows Grove an aura of authenticity. What undermines the promising premise are the so-so acting, badly-improvised dialogue and an unnecessary framing device starring Mykelti Williamson of Forrest Gump fame. On the plus side, many of the movie’s “live” visual effects are excellent and much more convincing than the digital ghost FX. And while they tend to be irritatingly “bang” rather than bump in the night, the sound effects are suitably creepy. Hollows Grove isn’t a total waste of time, especially at just 80 minutes, but there are plenty of better chillers available to get one in the Halloween spirit.
Reverend’s Ratings: White Bird in a Blizzard: B Hollows Grove: C
Disney’s 1996 animated adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame may well be the storied studio’s most gay-relevant production to date. The movie was controversial in conservative Christian circles upon its release for that very reason, as well as for its inclusion of more adult than usual topics like faith, lust and religious hypocrisy.
While it was an international hit, Hunchback has taken a while to make it to the American stage, unlike such Disney predecessors as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. However, that is about to change as the theatrical version finally makes its US premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse from October 26th through December 14th.
A stage musical based on the Disney film ran in Berlin, Germany for three years starting in 1999, but has been completely re-worked for its California run. Academy Award-winning composers Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz have reunited for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and it marks their only stage collaboration thus far despite such prior, individual successes as Newsies, Little Shop of Horrors and Aladdin (Menken) as well as Wicked, Godspell and Pippin (Schwartz). Stephen’s son, Scott, is directing this Broadway-bound story centered on Quasimodo, the deformed bellringer of Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and his love for a persecuted gypsy, Esmeralda.
Acclaimed playwright and author Peter Parnell was selected to write the book for this new adaptation. Among Parnell’s past credits are the recent gay-inclusive Broadway revival of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, QED and the stage version of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules. Parnell also co-wrote with his husband, Dr. Justin Richardson, the 2005 book And Tango Makes Three. Its kid-friendly, illustrated depiction of the true story of two male penguins at New York’s Central Park Zoo who fathered a chick together has consistently landed this charming tale on the American Library Association’s Top Ten List of Most Banned Books.
“It’s been translated into many languages and only two months ago there was a controversy over it in Singapore, where homosexuality is illegal but not prosecuted,” Parnell revealed during a recent interview. “The Singapore government said they were going to remove all copies of the book from libraries and pulp them. There is a prominent court case there trying to make homosexuality legal, so there is a cultural push back from conservative forces. Our book has become a cultural touchpoint there, which is both good and bad. Ultimately, the government decided not to remove And Tango Makes Three but move it to another section of the library. Next year, we’ll be publishing a 10th anniversary edition.”
After sharing my admiration of the Disney film with Parnell, I asked him how he became involved in the stage musical of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. “I have a similar feeling about the movie as you do,” he replied. “I had seen the premiere in New York and actor Tom Hulce (who provided the voice of Quasimodo for the film) is a good friend of mine. I think it’s an under-appreciated movie with an amazing score, a darker tone and great animation. I had met with Disney Theatricals a few years ago and when I heard they were moving on Hunchback, I really wanted to do it.”
Helping to cement the deal was Parnell’s association with composers Menken and Schwartz through the Dramatists Guild of America, which Parnell currently serves as Vice President to Schwartz’s President. Menken serves on the governing council of the esteemed organization. “They’re amazing,” gushes Parnell of his collaborators. “They are both extraordinary talents, obviously, but they are consummate professionals. They both work quickly but are very sensitive to others’ input and concerns. It has been a wonderful collaboration.”
Whereas much of their original, Oscar-nominated film score remains — including “Out There,” which became something of a gay anthem at the time of its release — Schwartz and Menken have written several new songs for the US stage production. “It’s very different (from the movie and German incarnations),” Parnell revealed. “The director, Scott Schwartz, wanted to take a different approach than the German version, which was very operatic and big. Scott wanted to focus much more on the four main characters — Quasimodo, Esmeralda, Phoebus (the heroic Captain of the Guard) and Frollo (Quasimodo’s villainous caretaker) — and kind of have them tell the story in simpler theatrical terms.” Even so, Hunchback remains very much a work in progress just a few weeks before its premiere. “We’ve done workshops of it and gotten it on its feet for a few days at a time, but we continue to re-think it,” said Parnell.
A terrific cast of Broadway heavy-hitters has been assembled for the La Jolla Playhouse production: Michael Arden (Big River) as Quasimodo; Patrick Page, who recently played the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, as Frollo; Ciara Renee (Pippin and Big Fish) as Esmeralda; and Andrew Samonsky (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) as Phoebus. Parnell noted too that the story’s gargoyle characters, primarily used for comic relief in the Disney movie, live on in the ensemble of the new stage musical but have a somewhat more serious purpose.
Finally, Parnell assured me that his book retains the film’s pro-LGBT undercurrent. “I would say that the element of the outcast and the gypsys’ situation of persecution at that time (15th century France) is even stronger in the stage version.” This will undoubtedly make The Hunchback of Notre Dame more resonant for gay theatregoers than traditional Disney fare.
Tickets may be purchased by visiting the La Jolla Playhouse website or by calling (858) 550-1010.
Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, a.k.a. Erasure, have been pioneering figures in both electronic dance music and LGBT visibility for nearly 30 years now. They have made occasional diversions into acoustic recordings, ABBA covers and even a Christmas album, but the pair has remained consistently dedicated to pushing musical and cultural boundaries.
Erasure is making a triumphant return to dance territory with their newly-released CDThe Violet Flame. I asked Bell during a recent e-mail exchange whether this was intentional. “It was totally intentional,” he replied. “Vince and I wanted to make a dance album. It was written on synth instead of guitar and piano in sunny Miami, which I think rubbed off on us.” From the opening track, “Dead of Night,” to its slightly more subdued finale, “Stayed a Little Late Tonight,” the duo’s 16th studio album is chock full of high-energy greatness.
They are currently on an international tour in celebration of The Violet Flame and will be making several stops in Southern California this month including San Diego on October 22nd and Los Angeles on October 24th and 25th. Full tour details can be found at Erasure's official website.
Bell was coy when I pressed him for intel about their upcoming shows, but he did allow “my costume is Disco Dickensian.” He was more forthcoming when asked about his and Vince’s obviously successful songwriting process.
“Vince will play through a series of chord progressions and I will ad lib top lines to these chords,” Bell shared. “Vince will arrange what we have and creates a demo. I will re-sing the completed song then go away to work on the lyrics. It is usually a mixture of fantasy-based reality.”
Since they burst upon the pop music scene in 1985, Erasure has had numerous Top 40 hit singles in their native UK and the US, and has sold over 25 million albums worldwide. The duo’s name is rumored to have been inspired by a sound technician who accidentally wrote “erasure” on the demo tape of what would become their debut single, “Who Needs Love Like That.”
Bell has been openly gay throughout his and Clarke’s three-decade partnership, and has also been outspoken in support of LGBT rights and marriage equality. I asked him how he felt about the growing legal acceptance of same-sex marriage in the US, something neither of us imagined would happen so quickly when I last interviewed Bell in late 2012. “It just goes to show that public opinion is usually swaths ahead of the government,” he wrote. “And those that are unwilling to get real and participate need a good shove.”
In recent years, several of Erasure’s contemporaries from the 1980’s have written stage musicals. These include Cyndi Lauper (Kinky Boots), Pet Shop Boys (Closer to Heaven), Dave Stewart of Eurythmics (Ghost the Musical) and, most recently, Sting (The Last Ship, scheduled to premiere on Broadway this season). What would be the chances of seeing Erasure on the Great White Way some day?
“I would love to do some kind of musical theatre collaboration but the road is very hard,” Bell replied. Perhaps he was thinking first and foremost of U2’s famously problem-plagued journey getting Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to the stage. Still, that show proved to be a hit in New York and a Las Vegas edition is reportedly in the works.
The Violet Flame arrives ten months after Erasure’s last, surprising albumSnow Globe, a sometimes joyous, sometimes cynical tribute to the holiday season. It combined electronic renditions of such Christmas classics as “Silent Night,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” and “Silver Bells” with darker original tunes entitled “Blood on the Snow” and “There’ll Be No Tomorrow.” Bell and Clarke even produced some charming Claymation-inspired videos for some of the songs à la TV’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus is Coming to Town.
Bell stated there are no plans “as of yet” for a follow up to Snow Globe despite my argument that there are so many traditional Christmas songs out there begging for the Erasure treatment. “Maybe we’ll do an Easter record!” he teased.
It’s especially inspiring to see Bell and Clarke return to full-out dance mode on The Violet Flame since Bell has weathered some serious challenges in recent years. His longtime partner, Paul Hickey, passed away in 2012. “I am fine but (the loss) never goes away, especially when I am traveling for some reason,” Bell reports. He has also found new love with Stephen (last name unknown), whom Bell credits with helping to inspire the new CD.
Bell continues to live with HIV as well as avascular necrosis, an unrelated but debilitating condition. He has had to have both of his hips replaced, which is why he is no longer able to go “pogoing around” on stage as he regularly did during previous Erasure performances.
Looking to the future, Bell is excited about Erasure’s current tour, the upcoming holiday season and “hopefully finishing” a long-in-the-works album with DJ/remix king Dave Aude. I expect Erasure’s flame will continue to burn brightly.
Actor J.K. Simmons has carved out quite a career for himself playing an array of characters we love to hate, including Oz's neo-Nazi gay rapist Vern Schillinger and hardboiled newspaper editor J. Jonah Jameson in the first Spider-Man movie trilogy. Simmons reaches new heights with his ferociously manipulative, borderline bipolar performance as a university music professor with ethically-questionable teaching methods in Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, now playing in Los Angeles and New York before expanding nationally. One of the rare winners of both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival, it is an intensely exciting, unforgettably dramatic ride.
Professor Terence Fletcher (Simmons), of the esteemed though fictional Shaffer Conservatory of Music in New York, recognizes great potential in sophomore drummer Andrew Neiman (the most impressive turn yet by rising star Miles Teller, of Rabbit Hole and Divergent), who makes a naïve mistake in confessing "I want to be one of the greats." Fletcher accepts Andrew into his award-winning jazz ensemble and immediately begins a process of battering his pupil psychologically and even physically. Tears are shed, motivations are questioned, rental cars are wrecked and blood is vividly spattered on white drum heads by the time Neiman finally gains the upper hand on his well-meaning but deeply disturbing (and possibly closeted) mentor.
"Precision" is the name of the game in Whiplash, both on screen and behind the scenes. Between Chazelle's direction and tight script (expanded from his original, award-winning short film), the terrific lead performances as well as Paul Reiser's brief but impactful appearance as Andrew's concerned father, Sharone Meir's golden-hued cinematography and Justin Hurwitz's superb jazz score (arguably the best of its kind since Elmer Bernstein's for 1957's Sweet Smell of Success) there are few false notes/moves. Unfortunately, Andrew's budding relationship with movie theater snack bar attendant Nicole (Melissa Benoist) is the film's weakest element, especially since Nicole ultimately serves as little more than a pawn in the increasingly high-stakes chess game between her bf and Fletcher.
Chazelle writes in the film's press notes, "I wanted to make a movie about music that felt like a war movie, or a gangster movie, where instruments replaced weapons." In this unusual regard, he has definitely succeeded. Whiplash could well garner end-of-the-year awards attention, of which Simmons' performance is especially deserving.
Another male, real-life figure currently being shown behaving monstrously on theater screens in LA and NYC is Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler's right-hand man before and throughout World War II. The Decent One (German title: Der Anständige), an extraordinary if necessarily unpleasant documentary by Vanessa Lapa, recounts Himmler's life story largely through his own words via personal diaries, letters and home movies discovered after he committed suicide.
Born in 1900 and raised Roman Catholic, the seeds of discontent were apparently sown in Himmler early on. "People don't like me," he wrote while a teenager. "I never reveal my troubled thoughts and struggling soul." This is also the time period when his radically nationalistic, xenophobic leanings began. Himmler's disgust of Jews and homosexuals (he especially abhorred the "idealization" of Oscar Wilde), despite his belief that "the man of the Nordic race is the most beautiful man," was honed during his college fraternity years.
Himmler joined the Nazi party in 1923 even though he accurately predicted their political stance would "lead to bloody war," and quickly found favor with Hitler. He organized the soon-to-be-Führer's early rallies and was appointed both head of the fearsome SS and Chief of Police. In this capacity, Himmler ordered construction of the first concentration camp at Dachau and ordered that all Communists and gay men (before Jews even) be rounded up and sent there.
Much of the archival footage in The Decent One is of excellent quality including, tragically, scenes of Jews being executed in mass graves. The documentary concludes with the horrific views of piles of dead, naked bodies that confronted Allied liberators of the camps, while voice over narration from a letter Himmler wrote to his wife during the war reads "Depite all the work, I am doing fine and sleep well." Insightful and infuriating by turns, Lapa's film is one of the most potent exposés to date — as well as one of the few surviving insider accounts — of Nazism and its self-described "decent" architects.
Meanwhile, both men and women behave badly in the current, deserving blockbuster Gone Girl. I am loathe to reveal any of the numerous twists and turns of David Fincher's film adapted from Gillian Flynn's bestseller, with Flynn herself providing an excellent screenplay. Suffice to say it is the best, most satisfying mystery/psychological thriller in a long time. It also works as a wicked satire of married life, police procedurals and modern media's tendency to report "the facts" without first verifying them.
Out actor Neil Patrick Harris plays a shadowy supporting role, and his gay fans may be shocked by both the (hetero)sexual lengths to which he goes as well as his character's ultimate fate. If you haven't seen Gone Girl yet, what are you waiting for?
Two of this year’s more acclaimed international gay-themed films, Tomasz Wasilewski’s Floating Skyscrapers and Hong Khaou’s Lilting, are now available in the US thanks to their current DVD and/or theatrical release. Both spin bittersweet stories of thwarted love, in one case due to cultural constraints and in the other to premature death. While neither makes for light viewing, they serve as significant steps in the ongoing evolution of two talented young filmmakers.
Floating Skyscrapers, from Poland, is the story of a talented but sexually-conflicted young swimmer, Kuba (the photogenic Mateusz Banasiuk). Though beholden to his devoted girlfriend, Sylvia (Marta Nieradkiewicz), and his controlling mother, Kuba regularly fools around with other guys at the pool complex where he trains. Trouble begins to brew once Kuba develops stronger feelings for the openly gay Michal (Bartosz Gelner), an attraction that isn't lost on Sylvia. Sadly, what initially seems promising — with Kuba confessing "Man, I adore you" to Michal in one of the film's sexier scenes — doesn't end well for the pair.
There is no shortage of man-flesh on display in Floating Skyscrapers, given its swim meet setting. More than that, the film is perceptive (much is said/conveyed during largely dialogue-free scenes) and well-photographed, comprised of numerous tracking and POV shots from moving vehicles that give viewers the distinct feeling the characters are being carefully observed. A funny coming-out-over-dinner scene is also featured, and the film's enigmatic title is explained toward the end.
Writer-director Wasilewski depicts his native country as a still far-from-tolerant or accepting place when it comes to LGBT people, as the potent ending makes especially clear. I wouldn't plan a trip to Poland in the near future, but I do recommend watching Floating Skyscrapers (on DVDfrom TLA Releasing/Canteen Outlaws) as well as seeing what Wasilewski does next.
Another country known for not having a spirit of openness toward its LGBT citizens is Cambodia. This supplies the intimate East-West conflict at the heart of Lilting, now playing theatrically in Los Angeles and New York courtesy of Strand Releasing. Openly gay actor Ben Whishaw (who plays Q in Skyfall and the upcoming James Bond films) stars as Richard, a young British man grieving the recent death of his partner, Kai (Andrew Leung, seen in flashbacks and "hallucination" scenes). Kai's Cambodian-born mother, Junn (Cheng Pei-pei, better known as the villainous Jade in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), resides in an assisted living home outside London and doesn't speak any English. This doesn't prevent her, however, from finding romance with a fellow resident who doesn't speak Cambodian.
Motivated by his desire to keep a connection to Kai alive, Richard begins to visit Junn. She first ignores him but slowly begins to indulge Richard, especially once he employs a translator for her to better communicate with her boyfriend. But Junn becomes resistant, and sometimes downright angry, whenever Richard mentions details about the true nature of his relationship with her late son. With time and understanding, though, they eventually overcome their differences and connect.
Lilting is beautifully acted by Cheng and Whishaw and is often genuinely moving. To its detriment, it is very slow-paced and I found myself increasingly frustrated by Richard's tiptoeing approach the longer it goes on. One could say the film is very Asian in style, which is appropriate given writer-director Hong Khaou's own nationality and cultural upbringing. To fully appreciate Lilting demands patience, something admittedly lacking in the western culture of which I am a product/victim.
Watch the skies this October, for Aliens are Among Us in this month's Movie Dearest Calendar Wallpaper!
From the good (E.T., Klaatu) to the bad (Audrey II, various Martians) to the ugly (Predator, the Thing), visitors from distant galaxies have been landing on our planet in sci fi flicks for decades now. Whether they wanted to be taken to our leader or just wanted to phone home, these classic aliens are out of this world.
All you have to do is click on the picture above to enlarge it, then simply right click your mouse and select "Set as Background". (You can also save it to your computer and set it up from there if you prefer.) The size is 1024 x 768, but you can modify it if needed in your own photo-editing program.