Tuesday, July 25, 2017

LOVE WINS

Romance survives tech glitches in Cabrillo Stage's 'Beauty and the Beast'

Staging Disney's Beauty and the Beast for live theater is a massive undertaking. Along with the usual lavish musical production numbers, this show has magical spells, onstage transformations, aerial effects, video projections, and, not one, but two savage wolf pack attacks.

Just getting this unwieldy thing up onstage, with live actors and no CGI effects, is not a task for the faint-hearted. The trick is to make all these intricate components work and not overwhelm the love story at the show's heart.

The ambitious new production at Cabrillo Stage works hard to maintain this delicate balance, and is reasonably successful. There were bound to be a few technical difficulties on opening night, but that's the great thing about live theater: every new performance is a fresh start!

The good news in director-choreographer Janie Scott's production is a trio of strong performances at its heart — Mathew Taylor as Beast, Emily Mairi Marsilia as Belle, and Carmichael James Blankenship as the narcissistic villain, Gaston. There are many other noteworthy performers in the ensemble, but it's up to these three to sell the story.

Marsililia and Blankenship: no way, Lout
If they don't, all the effects in the world won't help. But if they do — as they did with gusto on opening night — then the glitches don't matter so much.

As the title implies, this is the Disney version of the 300-year-old fairy tale, based on the studio's hit 1991 cartoon feature. In Linda Woolverton's book (she also scripted the movie), Belle is considered "odd" in her French country village for reading books and not being married.

Gaston, a preening, muscle-bound lout, means to wed her because she's "the prettiest girl in the village" — while keeping up his dalliances with the other fawning village girls. Vain, pompous, belligerent Gaston is a horrible character, but a great role. And Blankenship is perfect, with his outsized, comic stage presence and powerhouse singing voice.

When Belle's adored father gets lost in the forest and stumbles into the castle occupied by Beast, Belle braves the forest to get him released — which Beast only agrees to if she takes her father's place.
Taylor and Marsilia: Beastie Boy Meets Girl
Marsilia (last seen at CS as Mary Poppins) plays Belle as an independent young spinster; she has a beautiful voice and her emotions are true. But Taylor's ferocious Beast anchors the emotional story, spitting out his lines with husky menace, or throwing an unexpectedly hilarious hissy-fit. He matures into rumbling nobility with a couple of powerful solos.

Nick Rodrigues is completely charming as chipper candlestick Lumiere, especially leading the ensemble of singing, dancing tableware and furniture in the rousing "Be Our Guest" production number.

Most opening-night glitches were from mics being smacked during the action, and some sketchy wire work. I guess the idea of using wires during the second wolf attack is so that Beast, in his fury, can hurl one wolf across the stage, but it's a cartoony idea that doesn't translate well; the choreography might work better without wires.

On the other hand, while the audience held its collective breath in the finale, with Beast spinning precariously above the stage, his transformation was triumphant. (Or not, if, like me, you don't want  soulful Beast to turn back into the handsome prince.)

(Read more in this week's Good Times)

Seeing this production (and the live-action Disney version earlier this year) reminds me again of how Disney has co-opted the tale. Belle's father doesn't steal a rose from the castle garden in this version; Beast throws him in the dungeon for no apparent reason.

Gaston is a complete Disney fabrication, a cartoon villain to replace the more subtle maneuverings of Belle/Beauty's imperious, conniving sisters.

(Although actors always have a great time in the role. Check out Gaston alums Hugh Jackman and Luke Evans in a Gaston sing-off on the Jonathan Ross show.)

And the idea that all the human servants were changed into objects in the same witch's curse that turned their selfish master into Beast takes some of the fizz out of the love story. The curse can only be lifted if Beast falls in love with a woman and earns her love back, so from the minute Belle wanders in, the entire corps of objects are ganging up on Beast to woo and win her — for all their sakes.

The problem is, this set-up doesn't give Beast and Beauty a chance to fall in love on their own — unlike most traditional tellings of the tale, in which they are all alone in the castle and develop feelings for each other honestly.

Of course, Disney is slavishly faithful to the bit about turning Beast back into the Prince. There's a touching moment in the Cabrillo production when Taylor's Beast, feeling his humanity slip away, mourns, "There's so little left of me." Completely ignoring the fact that the "me" he used to be was kind of a jerk.

But, you already know how I feel about that!



Monday, July 24, 2017

SALTY POD


That charming scalawag, Phil Johnson, proprietor of the salty piratical podcast, Under The Crossbones, interviewed me last year about my contributions to pirate lore, Alias Hook, and The Witch From the Sea.

Last week, he reached the milestone of Episode 100! And he generously invited me to participate in the celebration with a brief update on what I've been up to since.

And I wasn't the only one. This graphic hints at some of the novelists, historians, and musicians he's had on the air who are filling him in on what's new with their various swashbuckling enterprises.

So, hoist the colors, and let's wish Phil fair winds and fortune for his next 100 episodes!

Sunday, July 23, 2017

DATELINE: BEAST

Friends, you could be forgiven for thinking I've published several more books since Alias Hook, what with all my updates about manuscripts being rewritten and re-edited, and going off to the publisher.

But the sobering fact is, all of those announcements have been for the same book.

And now, due to a mysterious time/space anomaly  — okay, in real life, my publisher decided to restructure its publication schedule — my next novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge, has a new release date.

My Beast will make his debut on —ta-da! — July 10, 2018.

In the most recent flurry of activity from my publisher, Candlewick Press, Beast was intended to be a Spring, 2018 release. (March 6 has been the announced pub date for months.) That apparently is still true, it's just that their concept of "Spring" has changed.

Whereas Candlewick used to publish in two seasons — Spring and Fall — they have recently switched to a Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter lineup. And my Beast, noble soul that he is, has stepped back to make room for the others. (Yet another reason that my Beast is so much more qualified to be the hero than the Prince.)

Beast is coming — I promise!
Or maybe the folks at Candlewick are saving the best for last!

In light of all of this, the pre-order widget on my Amazon page for Beast has been temporarily disabled. (And big thanks to everyone who helped push up Beast's numbers while it was operational!)

On the other hand, I'm assured the Advance Reading Copies (ARCs) will be ready to send out to the press and book-bloggers on schedule next month.

Stay tuned!

Friday, July 21, 2017

FISH TALE

So, this just crossed my virtual desk.

Normally, of course, I wait until I actually see a movie before I start raving about it. But I think this just shot to the top of my list of (potential) favorite movies of 2017!

(Despite stiff competition already from Franck and Their Finest.)

From the great Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth), behold the new trailer for The Shape of Water.

Looks to me like a gender-reversed Little Mermaid meets Creature From the Black Lagoon, with a little Beauty and the Beast tossed in, just to spice things up!

And you know how much I love a good mer-folk tale!

Opens Dec 8 on a big screen near you.

I am SO there!


Sunday, July 16, 2017

COLD COMFORT

Are we psyched up yet for the Game of Thrones season premiere tonight?

Much has changed since last summer, when Season 6 ended. The Obamas were in the White House, and some determined stabs at social progress were still being made — like the international Paris Climate Agreement — despite the torporous just-say-no congress here at home.

But now everything has changed, to the point that our so-called "real" life has begun to mirror George R. R. Martin's art in sinister ways. The tagline for GoT Season 7 is "Winter Is Here," and boy do we know how that feels!

Winter has been here in our political landscape since January, and now that it's mid-July, it just keeps getting colder. That's just a metaphor, of course, as abnormal heat waves continue to ravish large pockets of the planet.

But in the GoT universe, the threat is very literal. A vast, unstoppable army of the undead, led by giant, frozen, immortal White Walkers, are advancing out of the North with but one objective — to obliterate every mortal in its path until the entire known world is reduced to frozen wasteland.

Jon Snow: blade-wielding
As metaphors go, this one is pretty acute for the destructive power of Nature unleashed on petty humans who have failed miserably as caretakers, and continue to ignore the warning that — yes — "Winter Is Coming." (Which dedicated Thronies will recall, was the tagline way back in Season 1.)

(There's actually a second tagline for Season 7, the even more ominous,"The End Begins.")

So now, along with the usual fear of fan-abuse that comes with every new GoT season, as we wait in dread for which of our favorite characters will be killed off, we also have to worry about the whole of the Seven Kingdoms getting overrun by the white menace.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, what armorer has forged the Valeyrian steel blade to vanquish our own White Walker-in-Chief, and his ghoulish, giraffe-killing sons? And where is our Jon Snow to wield it?

And who will step up with the savvy wit and the brains of Tyrion Lannister, and the passion for justice of dragon-girl Daenerys Targaryen, to lead us out of this morass?

Daenerys, Tyrion and company to the rescue!
Season 7 will run for only seven episodes (instead of the usual ten), followed by an even shorter final Season 8, next summer, which will be reduced to only six episodes. The days are literally numbered for the GoT universe.

Let's hope the same is not true for us!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

RUNNER'S HIGH

Smolin and Rao: mysterious
Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off season with uproarious 39 Steps

It's not exactly the Bard, but the 2017 season of Santa Cruz Shakespeare gets off to a ripping start with The 39 Steps.

Based on an adventure novel by John Buchan, famously made into Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller movie, the story gets another makeover in director Paul Mullins' uproarious production — long on sly wit, short on logic, and absolutely irresistible.

This 2005 stage adaptation by English playwright Patrick Barlow is an exercise in comic audacity. All the parts are played by a cast of four — three men and one woman —in a variety of costumes, accents, and disguises.

Gilmore, Ryan, Smolin: strangers on a train
Barlow takes his inspiration mostly from the movie (especially in the '30s period setting), and nudge-nudge, wink-wink references to Hitchcock and his oeuvre pop up throughout.

You don't have to know the film to enjoy the play, but those familiar with the Hitchcock version will get a special kick out of the sheer chutzpah of this interpretation.

At its center is Richard Hannay (Brian Smolin), a bored young man puttering around his London flat one evening who decides to distract himself by "doing something mindless and utterly useless — I'll go to the theatre!" It's the first step on the road to disaster.

At a music hall performance by a mentalist called Mr. Memory (Allen Gilmore) and his partner/handler (Mike Ryan), Hannay meets Annabella (Grace Rao), a sexy dame with a ripe German accent, who begs to come home with him.

Stagecraft: Smolin falls from a (ladder) train trestle
In short order, the mystery woman is dead in his flat. The police suspect him, the sinister men who were following her are now following him, and Hannay is on the run. All he knows is she was trying to convey secret information about an international spy ring to a colleague in the wilds of Scotland, so he grabs a map and takes the train north, hoping to sort it all out before the police can arrest him for murder.

But who cares about the plot? All the fun is in the playing. Smolin, who won hearts and cracked funny bones in the title role of The Liar a couple of seasons back, is the only cast member to play only one character, and his Hannay anchors the show with his determination to be a good sport, his insinuating double-takes, and his acrobatic dexterity.

(It's a riot when he limbo-slides out of an armchair from under a dead body.) The subtle ways he preens while running in place onstage as police bulletins describe him in ever more flattering terms is also very funny.
Name that Hitchcock reference!

Rao is also terrific as the three principal women —Annabella, the femme fatale, Pamela, an innocent Scottish lass married to a parsimonious old farmer, and Margaret, an angry blonde who winds up handcuffed to Hannay in his trek across the Scottish moors.

She and Smolin get a lot of comic mileage out of those cuffs, trying to go over, no, under, no, around a wooden stile out in the country, or traversing a bog — played by Ryan.

Ryan and Gilmore (their parts are called Clown 1 and Clown 2), play everybody else, and they're both hilarious. Gilmore is especially memorable as the ferociously self-abnegating farmer saying grace, or an ancient staffer at a political rally attempting to set up a podium. Ryan brings down the house in the rally scene as an elderly speaker with a miniscule voice.

Rao and Smolin: comic mileage
A lot of the biggest laughs come from the Clowns missing their cues, or struggling to change costumes fast enough — like their virtuoso duet on a train platform, playing three parts simultaneously by feverishly switching hats.

Scenic designers Annie Smart and Justine Law's rolling staircase set cleverly adapts to every locale, from music hall to train station to manor house. Special kudos are due to properties designer/master M. Woods for transforming objects like crates, chairs, and a ladder into a train, a car, a railroad trestle, and the Scottish Highlands. (One door frame on wheels is particularly ingenious.) B. Modern's period costumes are deft and impeccable.

Clearly, everyone involved in this production is having a high old time, and the audience can't help but be swept along.

(Fabulous photos by Jana Marcus.)

Monday, July 3, 2017

LET'S GET HITCHED

Fasten your seatbelts, folks! Next week, Santa Cruz Shakespeare kicks off it 2017 season with a stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's classic 1935 chase thriller, The 39 Steps.

(Full disclosure: by all accounts, this 2005 adaptation by Patrick Barlow is more of a romp than a thriller, with its three-man, one-woman cast playing all the parts, at breakneck speed. But more about that in my review next week!)

Hitchcock's legend looms large over our cultural landscape. Okay, he loomed large everywhere, but he cast a particularly long shadow around here, as a longtime resident of Scotts Valley (he owned the Heart O' the Mountain vineyard for 34 years).

The Bay Area also provided inspiration, as well as locations, for several of his most memorable films, including Vertigo, Psycho, and The Birds.


Dali's set for the Spellbound dream sequence: the eyes have it
In celebration of their upcoming production, and our local connection to the maestro, SCS is hosting Hitchcock Week, a series of film screenings and related events to be held at various venues around town.

First up, this Friday, July 7, is this year's first Noon at the Nick, the annual collaboration between SCS and the Nickelodeon, where SCS creatives meet the public to talk about their upcoming productions. A Q&A with SCS Artistic Director Mike Ryan about The 39 Steps begins at 12 noon. Admission is free.

Saturday, July 8, is opening night for The 39 Steps at the SCS Grove in DeLaveaga Park. Curtain time is 8 pm, but savvy patrons are encouraged to get there early for the pre-game wine tasting, beginning at 6pm, to sample Heart O' the Mountain Estate wines. Hitchcock's granddaughter, Tere Carruba, will be on hand to introduce the show.

Still thirsty? Fall by 515 Kitchen & Cocktails, downtown, on Sunday, July 9, for an evening of "Hitchcocktails." Drinks will be accompanied by a screening of Spellbound (1945) — although even teetotalers will feel woozy during the surreal dream sequence designed by Salvador Dali. Bar opens at 5 pm.

On Monday, July 10, strap on some protective headwear for an outdoor screening of The Birds (1963) at Santa Cruz Mountain Brewery .

Although it was based on a Daphne DuMaurier novel, Hitchcock relocated the action to a small Calfornia coastal town after a news report two years earlier that hundreds of seabirds (later discovered to be poisoned by toxic algae bloom) had flung themselves into buildings and structures all along the Monterey Bay — particularly in Pleasure Point and Capitola. Showtime is 8pm. You buy the beer, but the movie is free.

Tuesday, July 11, is a twofer: first, check out the exhibition, Hitchcock: A Look Back on display at the downtown branch of the Santa Cruz Public Library. Then stick around for a discussion of The 39 Steps — the book, the film, and the play — hosted by Maria Frangos, SCS Dramaturg, and Theatre/English professor at DeAnza College and UCSC, and co-hosted by moi, your humble movie critic.
The old McCrory Hotel: Santa Cruz Gothic

We'll be there to answer your burning questions about the SCS production, and the Hitchcock version. Questions like, what are the 39 Steps? And what the heck is a MacGuffin, anyway? So get ready to fire away! Discussion begins at 6:30 pm, and is free to the public.

On Wednesday, July 12, the Nickelodeon presents the one and only Psycho (1960), with special guest Tere Carruba, the maestro's granddaughter, to introduce the film.

Rumor has it that Hitchcock's inspiration for the seedy, Gothic Bates Motel was the old McCrory Hotel on Beach Hill, which has since been renovated into the Sunshine Villa. (Look here and here for background info and more images.) Showtime is 7pm. Visit the Nick, in person or online, for tickets.

The festivities wrap up on Thursday, July 13, with a screening of Vertigo (1958) at the Crepe Place. Showtime is 8:30 pm. Admission to the film is free, and Hitchcock's favorite cocktail, The White Lady, will be available.

Looks like it's going to be a thrilling week!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

HIGH SPIRITS

Ghouls just wanna have fun in Cabrillo Stage's funny 'Addams Family'

The summer theatre season gets off to a boisterous start with The Addams Family, the first of this year's musical productions from Cabrillo Stage.

Although it seems odd to apply words like "lively" and "exuberant" to characters so famous for their morbidity and ghoulishness, you can expect to have an, er, spirited time at this handsomely produced, enormously good-hearted, family-friendly show.

Crook and Saucedo: darkly funny
This is a relatively new property that opened on Broadway in 2010 and ran through the end of 2011. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, it is, of course, inspired by the macabre, darkly funny single-panel cartoons by Charles Addams that ran in The New Yorker for decades.

The classic TV sitcom from the 1960s, and a couple of more recent theatrical films, have kept these characters in the public eye since then, but the writers here cook up an original storyline that mostly takes its cues from the cartoons.

Director Bobby Marchessault gets us in the mood right off, inviting us to feast our eyes on William "Skip" Epperson's splendid proscenium arch decorated with skulls, dagger-shaped supports, and cobwebs above a row of headstones.

Fittingly enough, the show begins in a graveyard, where the entire Addams clan — led by proud patriarch, Gomez (Adam Saucedo) and his slinky wife, Morticia (a seductively deadpan Danielle Crook) — arrives for its annual celebration of the dear departed.


Calling forth various ghosts of Addamses past, from different eras (a flapper, a conquistador, etc.) they all sing a funny paean to their ghoulish life in "When You're An Addams." (These silvery-grey ghosts, called Ancestors, in cheeky but elaborate historical costumes by Chiara Cola, also serve as chorus line and stagehands throughout the rest of the show.)

Wednesday, Gomez, as Chas Addams drew them
The plot kicks in with the show's biggest departure from the source material: little daughter Wednesday, usually portrayed as a middle-grade moppet, is now a teenager (Gabrielle Filloux) in the throes of her first love.

Filloux makes droll teen angst out of her struggle to reconcile the joys of love with the family credo of gloom. The problem is, her boyfriend, Lucas (Ryland Gordon), is "normal."

But, of course, the point of the show is observing the Addamses at play. John G. Bridges all but steals the show as a delightfully sweet and goofy Uncle Fester. (Fasten your seatbelts for the funky, yet utterly beguiling bit of stagecraft when he flies up to cavort with the moon.)
   
t's a running gag that Wednesday routinely tortures kid brother, Pugsley (Michael Navarro), on a rack — and how much he loves it. Deborah McArthur can't do much with the underwritten part of screechy, witchy Grandma.

Astin as Gomez: Latin lover
But David Murphy's zombified butler, Lurch, always in slo-mo, provides the show's biggest, best surprise.

Lippa's songs are consistently clever, and the book is very funny. ("Wednesday's growing up," sighs Gomez. "She'll be Thursday before you know it!")

I'm pretty sure the concept of Gomez as a Latin lover originated with the delightful John Astin in the TV show (ably continued by Raul Julia in the movies) — beginning with that name.

(In Addams' cartoons, the characters are unnamed. If the patriarch, as drawn, resembles anybody, it's Peter Lorre, or, possibly, the Hunchback of Notre Dame.)

But whatever the character's origins, Saucedo plays Gomez with gusto, geniality, and a terrific singing voice. He couldn't be any better.


(Read more in this week's Good Times.)

Thursday, June 22, 2017

WISE GUYS & GALS

Their Finest: dueling typewriters
The recent popularity of Their Finest got me thinking about how to make writers dynamic in the movies.

Writing a novel in isolation is hardly a spectator sport. Sure, there have been good movies about novelists, but the act of writing itself is pretty much a snooze-fest onscreen.

But other forms of writing can be made more cinematic because they involve action — and humor.

A pair (or team, or pool) of writers bouncing ideas off each other verbally while concocting a film or television script is an idea situation: the act of creation is achieved as the jokes fly.

Boy Meets Girl: sell that story
One of my favorites in this genre is the 1938 screwball comedy Boy Meets Girl, with fast-talking James Cagney and Pat O'Brien as studio screenwriters hatching an elaborate movie scenario in double-time.

A more updated version was that venerable TV sitcom of the 1960s,  Dick Van Dyke Show, where staff writers Rob, Buddy, and Sally traded non-stop wisecracks while cobbling together a weekly comedy script for their TV star boss.

Another reliably visual writing genre is journalism. You can't go wrong with reporters out there tracking down a story — especially if they're cracking wise the whole time, as in The Front Page (1931, and remade many times).

Or better still, the 1940 remake, His Girl Friday, recasting the second lead as a female newshound played by Rosalind Russell, following leads and cracking the case alongside star reporter Cary Grant.

Wax Museum, Glenda Farrel: girl meets typewriter
One of my personal favorites, less well-known today than the others, is The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Sure, it's a horror movie, but it also features Glenda Farrell as a gal reporter with plenty of moxie, flinging snappy patter in all directions.

When her roomie (Fay Wray) disappears, right around the time the city wax museum begins exhibiting a bunch of new figures of dubious provenance, Farrell convinces her skeptical, hard-boiled editor (Frank McHugh) to let her track down the story — and, boy, does she ever!

The genre inspired its own homage in Woody Allen's Scoop (2006). Ian McShane is great as a recently deceased reporter who haunts cub journalist Scarlet Johansson with clues to a crime, because he — being inconveniently dead — can no longer get the story.

As long as writers are producing the scripts, tales of the writing life will be told onscreen. (Write what you know, and all that.) Here are some of my other favorites.


Monday, June 12, 2017

BEAST OF THE MONTH (JUNE)

The countdown continues — s-l-o-w-l-y — to the publication date of my next novel, Beast: A Tale of Love and Revenge.

Due date is March 6, 2018. Get in line now!

Okay, that's still 10 months away.

But in the meantime, I'm posting a Beast of the Month on this blog, sharing some of my favorite Beauty and the Beast images from the 260 intervening years since what we now think of as the classic version of the novel was published in France by Jeanne Marie Le Prince de Beaumont in 1757.

This month: feast your eyes on this gorgeous painting from contemporary African-American artist Thomas Blackshear!

This does not resemble my Beast, or my heroine, but I love, love, love the Klimt-like decorative element of the patterns and brushwork!

Seriously, could this be any more gorgeous?