Thursday, July 19, 2018

Something Wonderful is Happening in Auburn

There have been few times in my personal history when I have been more in need of a little spiritual uplift.  On Tuesday afternoon, my spirits soared, when we went on a joyous journey to Avonlea courtesy of the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival and its wonderful production of “Anne of Green Gables.”  Billed as a folk/rock musical, I found little folky or rocky about it.  What I found was musical theatre brilliance performed by a cast of mostly young people who sing and dance and act with their voices, their bodies, and their hearts.

McKenzie Custin as title character Anne Shirley is this musical.  This delightful young woman has a remarkable voice, a sweetly expressive face, and the ability to act, to be someone else, equal to that of older, more established performers.  Her performance was one of the best I have seen in the last several years, which includes two visits to New York to see FIDDLER, WAITRESS, and SUNSET BOULEVARD.  The next time the role of Elfaba opens in Broadways’s WICKED, McKenzie should get it.  She would be magical.

Tremendous credit should go to the other actors, too.  The five adults, two of whom take multiple roles, and the cast of kids cavorting about the stage for nearly 3 hours.  Director Jenn Thompson and Choreographer Jennifer Jancuska are so talented in creating movement, fashioning interaction, and drawing beautiful stage pictures.  Of course, the creators Matte O’Brien and Matt Vinson deserve huge applause for devising this magical adaptation of the novel.

Attending ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is like attending a world premiere.  I could find mention of only one other production since the show was birthed at “The Pitch,” which is FMT’s annual musical incubator two summers ago, I believe.  ANNE runs until the 25th of this month.  Get a ticket if you can.  Don’t be surprised if they are all gone.
Greg Ellstrom

Mckenzie Custin (National tour: All Hands on Deck, Regional: Newsies and Mary Poppins at Centenary Stage Co.) makes her festival debut as titular character Anne Shirley; with Nancy Anderson (Broadway: Sunset Boulevard, A Wonderful Life, Wonderful Town, A Class Act) and D.C. Anderson (Broadway: The Phantom of the Opera, National tour: The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Pippin, Martin Guerre, The Phantom of the Opera) as siblings Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert; Chris McCarrell (Broadway: Les Miserables, Off Broadway: The Lightning Thief) as Gilbert Blythe and Michelle Veintimilla (Broadway: The Visit) as Diana Barry. Dawn Troupe will be playing the role of Rachel Lynde; with Alan Ariano as Mr. Blythe/Mr. Phillips and Angela Travino as Mrs. Barry/Miss Stacy.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

How Bad Can Movies Be?: “The Open House” and “The Circle”

         I just finished watching the Netflix film “The Open House.” One thing good to report is that it is only an hour and thirty-seven minutes long. The plot: There's this financially strapped family made up of dad, mom and son. Dad gets run down by a car that is speeding in an alley. Mom now can’t afford the mortgage. Mom’s rather odd sister says use our house in the California mountains, but remember it is for sale so you’ll have to leave during open houses. They move there and meet a weird old woman at the local store. What crap might she be foretelling?  Got me.  They get to the house. Weird things happen. No reason. Uninteresting. Idiotic. Things get bad for mom, son.  There one friend gets his throat slit Then things get really bad for mom and son. I mean really bad. The Awful Ending all because of the open house?  I don't know.  There's no purpose. No reason. Dare I say, no logical motivation. It is a movie that shouts out “why was I ever made?” Why did you watch it, Greg? Because I am a sucker for scary movies. They can even be bad scary movies. But they must be bad/good! This was just plain bad/bad!

       Now “The Circle,” available on Amazon Prime, stars A-list talents Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. When those two watched the finished film they helped create, they must have run screaming from the screening.  It is the embarrassingly terrible tale of a sweet, bright young woman (Emma) who takes a job at vast tech/social media company run by a Steve Jobs-like, super-cool CEO (Tom).  The company (The Circle) is manufacturing a mini-cam system which will keep an eye on every single person in the world. No more bad people because everyone is traceable with facial recognition in the mini-cams. Pretty soon governments are requiring their citizens to wear these cams. No more crime. Everyone votes. Yada! Yada! And sweet, bright Emma, rather than being the hero that brings this ridiculous idea down, champions it. Ludicrously she goes from data enterer to the new CEO of the company. Two characters who were introduced early seem to be the ones that will show her the error of her ways. Nope! They both just disappear. Emma and the Circle take over the world.  There are two embarrassingly bad scenes. One when Emma’s mom and dad are caught in a sad sex scene involving a pump that is seen by the whole world, and two, the final scene, which made me want to shout, “Emma, fall out of that kayak and sink!"  When I finished watching "The Circle," I considered going back and watching the last half hour, thinking I had missed something that would give some logic to this blundering, tiny brained, stegosaurus of a movie. But I couldn’t stand the thought of it.

Doughnuts and Slavery

A couple years ago I did a post about a time many years gone by when I was teaching, and the student council was having a home room competition for something or other. The poster advertising the competition said that whatever homeroom won would receive "Three Dozen Dognuts." It's a great, funny memory. I saw another interesting and somehow wonderful poster last weekend when we went to watch a basketball game at a local high school. Not Chittenango. As I was walking through the gym area lobby, I saw a small poster which had a little picture of a cupcake and read "Bake Sale to Raise Money to Combat Human Trafficking." Talk about a challenge. Kind of like "Pea Shooters Needed to Take Down Rogue Elephants." Still it seemed so sincere and nice. Here are some safe, protected kids trying to do something about an unbelievably heinous crime. When you can't hire Liam Neeson, you go with the baked goods. I loved that poster. Dognuts for all!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Archie Andrews, Child of the Dark Side!

When I was a kid I loved comic books.  The market wasn’t flooded with superheroes then, so my favorites were the Dell Mickey Mouse/Bugs Bunny comics based on movie cartoons, Dennis the Menace comics based on the newspaper comic strip, and Archie Comics, an eponymous label about teenager Archie Andrews and the innocent, fun-loving denizens of the town of Riverdale.  When I heard last year that the CW, the network that aims at the youthful demographics, (18-49 years old), was airing a series called RIVERDALE based on the Archie comics, I just had to watch.    Even if I was out of the age range.  I have watched.  Let me tell you the CW’s RIVERDALE isn’t like any Archie comic you read in your well-spent or misspent youth.

In the new RIVERDALE,the characters, although physically resembling those of the past, are nothing like their cartoon predecessors.  Archie played by KJ Apa is a bulked up, 21st century version of the cartoon character with an up-to-date hairstyle.  Remember how cartoon Archie had those weird curls atop his head. No more.  And, not only does the beautiful, raven-haired Veronica Lodge, played by Camila Mendes, have wealthy parents, but her father Hiram made that wealth as a cold-blooded crime boss.  In the comics, Jughead was only concerned about pursuing a hamburger.  On RIVERDALE, Jughead is a fearless laptop-wielding student journalist writing for a school that apparently has no editorial taboos and is also a member of a motorcycle gang for which his often imprisoned father was once president.  He still wears the weird beanie, though.  Now, I think the TV Betty is my favorite character.  Lili Reinhart really looks like Betty, especially when she has her tied back in the signature ponytail.  She’s sweet, cute, and vulnerable as a good Betty should be.  Still, she is a tough young woman, a journalist like Jughead, and she’s not afraid to do battle with the psycho killer who stalks the Riverdale streets. She also often crosses pens with her nasty mother who is the editor of the local Riverdale paper as well as having a lot of nasty words with her at home.  As to some of the other characters of import in the comics, Reggie Mantle has a limited role in the show but is the go-to-guy if you need steroids.  Dilton Doily, comic book nerd, is now a potential serial killer.  And Miss Grundy, the old maid school teacher of years gone by, is now a hot, 20-something music teacher who teaches Archie a lot more than chords on his guitar.  (Miss Grundy was a short-term character in the show.  She got murdered already.)

Comic book Betty and Veronica were both always trying for romance with Archie.  Usually Veronica was successful.  That’s the case in the TV show, too.  Archie and new-girl-in-town Veronica fall for each other and go, as they used to say in the 50‘s, all-the-way!  (They probably still say it.) In the TV show Betty also has an in-depth relationship, really in-depth, with Jughead. . . although there’s still that sense that Betty would rather be with the red-headed kid.  Poor Betty.

The producers pulled some actors from 90’s kid-oriented TV shows to play the grown-ups in RIVERDALE.  BEVERLY HILLS 90210’s Luke Perry is Fred Andrews, Archie’s hard-working dad, Molly Ringwald of SIXTEEN CANDLES and PRETTY IN PINK is Archie’ ginger-topped mom, Skeet Ulrich, one of the two killers in SCREAM plays Jughead’s dad, and Madchen Amick of TWIN PEAKS is Betty’s mom, Alice Cooper.  (Was Mrs. Cooper really named Alice in the comics?)

I happily admit that I usually enjoy this show.  The young actors are great looking and fun to watch and just serious enough in their portrayals not to make the characters seem silly.  A scandal in the old Archie comics might have involved gold fish in the punchbowl at the prom.  On the CW, Season 1 dealt with, among other dark things, sexual abuse and football players, and Season 2 with an vengeance-seeking killer bent on murdering everyone in Riverdale who ever sinned.  Now that’s a big job no matter what town you are talking about.  Does this sound silly?  Does it sound like too much of a stretch?  Maybe. . . still I recommend RIVERDALE.  Watch it once, and if you hate it, never come back to this comic town again, but you very well might like it.  Care to try?  Season 1 is on Netflix and Season 2 is probably still on demand.--Greg Ellstrom

Friday, December 29, 2017

CDs You Never Heard Of!!!

I’m a CD person.  I don’t store music on any electronic devices or subscribe to any music services.  I like my music on the little plastic discs, and I have quite a pile. Because I directed so many musicals when I was teaching, a big chunk of my collection is of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.  My most recent Broadway CD is “Dear Evan Hansen,” the 2017 Tony Award winning show, which I got for Christmas.  I got “Next to Normal” recently, too, because it is the next production at Syracuse Stage.  Last spring, we saw “Waitress” on Broadway, a fabulous little musical, and we have been playing the disc ever since.  

I also like to buy the discs of lesser known shows, odd shows, virtually unheard of shows.  I have several collections called “Unsung Musicals,” that include songs that were cut from famous shows or songs that were part of shows that flopped.  Some of my favorite, little known show CDs are “Floyd Collins,” a musical about a guy who dies trapped in a mine, the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer Musical called “Once More, With Feeling,’ ” “Assassins,” Stephen Sondheim’s musical about all the famous American assassins and attempted assassins from John Wilkes Booth to Squeaky Fromm, “Phantom,” about, but not to be confused with, “Phantom of the Opera, “From Here to Eternity,” recorded only in England, which I hunted down on Amazon, and the truly awful rock opera, “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”  I could go on, but won’t.

A couple of months ago, I purchased through Amazon, two of the gems of my collection: The Premiere Cast Recording of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” and the World Premiere Cast Recording of “Heathers, the Musical.”  Back in the 80’s the “Carrie” musical opened for the first time on Broadway and closed a few days later.  It was so bad that a book about musicals that flopped was written called “Not Since Carrie.”  The reason for the title was that over the years so many reviews about bad musicals began with the line “Not since “Carrie’ has there been such a horrible. . .etc.”  Because it was so bad and so many people talked about it over the years, that a reimagined revival was all but definite.  It took decades, but it’s happened and based on the new CD. . . I imagine it is pretty bad, too.  I was so disappointed because I love Stephen King’s things, especially the early stuff.  And “Carrie” was his first.  “Heathers,” the movie, came out in 1988 and starred Christian Slater and Winona Ryder.  It was a hilarious, dark, dark comedy about the dangers of popularity in high school.  It was great.  And, hooray, the musical soundtrack is fun, too.  You can even go online and find lengthy scenes from the World Premiere.  Don’t anticipate glitzy Broadway glamour, though.  The costumes are nice, but the scenery is at the level of a respectable high school production of something with platforms.  (In doing my research for this post, I discovered that there is a “high school” version of “Heathers, The Musical” in Italian.  I can’t figure that out!)

But still, I treasure these two musicals, because they are such “pop cultural”. . . treasures, and  even though, they aren’t going to win any Tony’s, they are much better than “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.”  (The missing comma in the Andrew Jackson title isn’t my mistake.  It’s the way the title is written.  Maybe the authors thought they didn’t have commas back when Andrew Jackson was prez.)
Greg Ellstrom

Friday, December 9, 2016

Two Nights at the fantastiC citizenM

                                   An avant garde wall in the lobby of the citizen M
                                (at center an urban reimagining of "The Last Supper")
It was chance that led us to the citizenM Hotel on our trip to NYC last week. Geri VanAlstine, our terrific agent at AAA, did a search for reasonably priced places to stay in the Time Square area and came upon the citizenM. The citizenM where we booked our room is on 51 St. about 50 yards from Broadway. I know the name is odd. It sounds like the title of a dystopian novel or an old Peter Lorre movie. In fact, it is part of an international chain of “boutique” hotels.

Let me explain the philosophy of the citizenM. Simply, the citizenM folk believe that a hotel should be like your home. At home, you don’t spend a lot of time in your bedroom but rather in your living room or den. For this reason, the citizenM rooms are rather spartan, but their lobby is a joy to visit. The lobby is filled with comfortable furniture, desks for study, a refrigerator along one wall with snacks and cold drinks, an eating area, and a small, but well-stocked bar. The towering walls are covered with interesting art and shelves holding all sorts of unique stuff. This is a lobby designed for “hanging out.”

Also, when you go to the citizenM, you won’t bump into any management in 3-piece or power suits. You won’t see any bellhops, either. It appears that the hotel is staffed completely by great-looking young people of a variety of races all under the age of 30. They wear sort-of uniforms and are delightful to interact with to a person. Whether they are tending bar, being baristas, assisting at the check-in kiosk, or just walking around smiling and saying “hello,” these “kids” make the experience really special.
Now about your room at the citizenM. Staying there is your way of finding out whether you would be happy living in a tiny house like the ones that are the rage on HGTV. One end of your room is all big bed. There is only one side of the bed from which you can get out. This made it a little tough for older folks like us but will pose no problem for the spry. You can store your suitcase in the giant drawer under the bed. At the center of the room is a dresser of sorts which features a tiny sink for cleaning up and a really brightly-lit mirror. The bathroom chamber contains both toilet and hand shower or rain shower, with mood lighting. The water temperature is self-controlled by a thermostat built into the soap dish, basically. All of these necessities--lights, mood lights, heat, curtains, shades, media--are controlled by an easily operated iPad.
We hadn’t been to New York City in forever. Now I can’t wait to go back. . .like tomorrow. We saw great shows, had good food, and communed with wonderful friends. And I can’t wait to hang out in the lobby of the citizenM again.
Greg Ellstrom

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire, A Rockin' Time at the Merry-go-Round Theater

I’m here to praise the Finger Lakes Theatre aka Merry-go-Round Playhouse again.  Yesterday we went to see “Million Dollar Quartet,” the musical about the one evening that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis were together at Sun Records with Sam Phillips, the man who had or would launch their careers.  It’s a really interesting story, but I’m not going to tell it now.  Because the greatness of this wonderful production is in the music!  From the first chord to the third encore, the audience is rapt and part of this rock roll moment that happened on a December night in 1956.

I want to rave about the performers/actors in this show.  Individually, each is fine, but this is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts!  When these young men are rocking it together--I’m not sure how they keep the roof on the building out there in Auburn!  Noel Casey IS Jerry Lee Lewis.  This is THE performance of a cast full of terrific performances.  Casey brings the backwoods, piano-pounding Jerry Lee to life from the moment he enters the scene.  He pounds on the piano, plays it with his feet, his elbows, and his butt!  He climbs on it and dances on it, and it’s an upright.  Casey as Lewis is great as an actor, too.  He is a pain-in-the-ass country boy, 20 years old and already twice married, once to a cousin, who was 13.  James Bock’s Carl Perkins is nearly as fabulous as Casey’s Lewis.  He’s an occasionally brooding, pissed-off-at-how -success-has-failed-to-happen-in-his-world kind of young man.  He’s fearful that if something doesn’t come to him quickly, then the rest of his career will be spent playing gigs from the back of a flatbed truck at firemen’s carnival.  Bock’s a fine actor, but a better guitar player.  When his fingers launch into a lead guitar riff, the result is so powerful, yet so apparently effortless--one of those joys to behold!  Justin Figueroa as Johnny Cash is very good.  He’s got the voice, the, interestingly enough, innocence, and the gravitas I associate with Cash.  (I hate that word “gravitas,” but I couldn’t think of a better one.)  Then there’s Elvis as performed by Luke Linsteadt.  Elvis’ contract had been sold to RCA the year before so that Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records could keep the studio alive.  This is a troubled, innocent, naive, very likable King of Rock and Roll come back to visit Phillips, the one man he feels really understands him.  Linstead is very good.  He can sing and shake and dance about in the Presley way.  The only thing that distracts from his performance, and I hate to mention as it’s not his fault, is he is too short to play the King surrounded by strapping six-footers.  I don’t think he’s more than 5’9’, and is dwarfed by those he shares the stage with.  The most iconic figure in rock and roll history has to tower!!

Oher performers I have to mention include Dana Parker as Dyanne, one of Elvis’ girlfriends.  When she sings “Fever,” well, as the old saying used to go, it’s hot enough to melt your zipper.  Luke Darnelle is a wonderful Sam Phillips, charismatic, wise beyond his years, and very content in the little musical world he has created.  The drum and stand up bass background musicians were marvelous.  It was fun to look away from the main performers once in a while to watch these pros at work.

If you can get out to Auburn to see this show do it!  It’s bright, and fast, and loud! I raved about “From Here to Eternity” this summer.  Again, the Merry-Go-Round has spun out a production equal to what you could find in New York.