(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Reverend's Reviews: Cinderella with a Wine Chaser


Cinderella is all over the place nowadays. The kindhearted but neglected stepdaughter/stepsister who ultimately triumphs with a little help from her fairy godmother currently stars in the #1 movie in the US that bears her name, and she recently played a significant role in the hit movie version of the stage musical Into the Woods. If that wasn't enough, Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella made its Tony Award-winning Broadway debut in 2013 after being limited to three television productions since the 1950's.

The R&H stage version is now touring nationally and just parked its magical carriage at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre through April 26th. Magical turns out to be an apt description of the production, thanks not only to its evocative woodland setting (complete with charming fox and raccoon puppets) but primarily due to a number of instant, on-stage costume changes that deservedly drew both gasps and rousing applause from the opening night audience. The fox and raccoon also transform impressively into Cinderella's human coachmen, played respectively by the athletic Adrian Arrieta and Blakely Slaybaugh.

Out playwright and screenwriter Douglas Carter Beane (Xanadu, The Little Dog Laughed, The Nance) has revised Oscar Hammerstein II's original book to such an extent that Beane receives a "new book by" credit. His new vision of Cinderella as a feminist who considers social reform a higher objective than marrying the prince will likely startle those most familiar with her Disney incarnations past and present. However, Beane actually drew from Charles Perrault's original story — written in 1697 but inspired by versions of the tale that date back over 2,000 years — while also injecting his trademark, lighthearted snark.

The current stage heroine (beautifully played, sung and danced by Paige Faure) remains the virtual slave of her wicked stepmother, Madame (Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame having fun in the mostly non-singing role). Only one of Cinderella's stepsisters, though, truly mistreats her and even she turns out to be not all that bad. Meanwhile, a local revolutionary named Jean-Michel (David Andino) is rallying their fellow downtrodden to rise up against the recently-ascended Prince Topher (Andy Huntington Jones, who wins over viewers pretty much as soon as he appears) for abuses that are actually being engineered behind Topher's back by his prime minister. There is also a crazy old woman (the crowd-pleasing Kecia Lewis) in the vicinity who has a trick or two, or twenty, concealed under her beggar's rags.

Hammerstein's and Richard Rodgers' score has been significantly overhauled in addition to the book, with the addition of several songs that were written for but dropped from other of the pair's shows. When the tunes aren't unquestionably rapturous they are winningly comic (especially the act two opener, "Stepsister's Lament") and, unlike most show tunes written today, immediately memorable. I was struck during intermission by how many men were whistling or humming songs from act I while we were all in the restroom!

While the amazing visuals — chiefly William Ivey Long's Tony Award winning costumes and Anna Louizos' sets — are what most audience members will be talking about, director Mark Brokaw and choreographer Josh Rhodes deserve major credit for respecting the integrity of the classic score and largely letting the songs stand for themselves. They wisely resist adding excessive dance or "business" to their staging. The result is a lovely and, yes, truly magical night at the theatre.

Cinderella also has a featured part in Stephen Sondheim's and James Lapine's fairy tale-inspired Into the Woods, which was finally brought to the big screen in December after 27 years of cinematic gestation. Anna Kendrick perfectly embodied their more neurotic, indecisive depiction of the classic character.

Rob Marshall corralled a mostly terrific all-star cast for the film, which will be available on home video and VOD from Disney on March 24th. In addition to Kendrick, there is Meryl Streep as the Witch (for which she received a record-breaking 19th Academy Award nomination), Emily Blunt as the Baker's Wife and James Corden as her husband, with Christine Baranski, Tracey Ullmann and Star Trek's Chris Pine in supporting roles. The weak link for both the cast and the film as a whole is Johnny Depp as the Wolf. His relatively brief appearance includes some amusing dancing and prancing but his singing voice has suffered since 2007's Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, perhaps as a result of smoking. To make matters worse, Depp and costume designer Colleen Atwood chose to dress the Wolf in an anachronistic zoot suit that threatens the otherwise timeless quality and look of the film. Fortunately, the overall story survives and the movie is otherwise beautifully designed and photographed.

It is worth buying or renting Into the Woods to check out a new Sondheim song that was written and filmed but ultimately cut. Streep sings "She'll Be Back" as a soliloquy after her beloved Rapunzel has left her. The song and Streep's performance of it are fine (Sondheim likely would have received an Oscar nomination as well), and in introducing the scene Marshall describes the agonizing process of deciding to remove it from the finished movie. It is a worthy bonus for musical aficionados.

Those readers who are not musical or fairy tale fans, or those who just need a break from the current spate of musicals and fairy tales, can chase things down with the ten-hour Mondovino: The Series. Newly available on DVD courtesy of Icarus Films' KimStim Collection, it is an epic exploration of the personalities, politics and economics behind the world's billion-dollar wine industry. Director Jonathan Nossiter gained unfettered and sometimes unflattering access to wine makers around the world, including the frequently vilified Robert Mondavi and numerous members of his family.

Mondovino is insightful and entertaining, and wine connoisseurs will probably have a field day with it. But, as much of the footage was shot a decade or more ago, it feels somewhat dated; after all, Robert Mondavi passed away in 2008. Nossiter also serves as the series' often irritating cinematographer, overusing shaky hand-held camerawork and odd extreme close ups of his interview subjects. While Mondovino: The Series makes for rewarding viewing in some ways, you may feel the need for a stiff drink afterward.

Reverend's Ratings:
Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella: A-
Into the Woods: B+
Mondovino: The Series: B-

Into the Woods and Mondovino: The Series are now available on Blu-ray and/or DVD:

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

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