Guys And Dolls

May 18, 2006

Oh, how I would’ve loved to say I saw Ewan McGregor (pictured above) in the London production of Guys and Dolls.  Sadly, by the time I got around to seeing the show, he’d been replaced by Adam Cooper.  Don’t get me wrong, Cooper does a great job in the role, he may even be a far superior singer, but he’s still no Ewan McGregor.

Star-struck wishes aside, I have to say that Guys and Dolls is currently the best musical production in town.  Everything about the show is perfect.  The cast (even without Ewan), the sets, the lighting, the choreography, the songs and even the band.  All perfect.  I really can’t find a single fault with this show, which is amazing considering how much I usually love ripping live theatre to shreds in these reviews.

If you’re not familiar with the show (or haven’t seen the Frank Sinatra/Marlon Brando movie version), the plot surrounds a bunch of two-bit 1930s gangsters (happy pin-strip-wearing-illegal-gambling gangsters, not depressing chain-you-to-a-block-of-cement-and-throw-you-off-the-pier gangsters) and a series of bets they make with each other revolving around romance and an underground craps (dice) game.

The show was written by Frank Loesser, who is probably my second-favorite muscial composer of all time (after Jule Styne).  It’s one of those extremely rare shows where every song is a memorable toe-tapping number.  The only other musical I can think of that’s so consistantly reliable from start to finish is Gypsy.  Like Gypsy, the songs in Guys and Dolls are well-integrated into the plot.  There’s nothing here that’s done just for the sake of needing a big production number.  It’s also one of those weird musicals (like Babes in Arms) where you know all the songs, but somehow forgot that they came from this show.  Songs like, “Bushel and a Peck”, “Take Back Your Mink”, “If I Were a Bell” and “Ever Loving Adelaide”, “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat”.  And, of course, “Luck Be a Lady”

The only problem with “Luck be a Lady” in the show is that we’re so familiar with the loud, brassy, swingin’ Sinatra version (which ironically he doesn’t sing in the film), that the original stage version always seems like a bit of a let-down.  Seriously, after you’ve stood on the Las Vegas Strip, listening to Sinatra belt it out over loudspeakers while the Bellagio fountains sway in time and shoot 100 feet into the air on the trumpet blasts… well… even Ewan McGregor couldn’t top that.

Back on the plus side, I have to mention the superb staging.  The lights, the scenery, the costumes… all brilliant.  The producers decided to go for a slightly exaggerated realism, usually missing from most of the (traditionally more cartoony) productions.  It was a perfect choice.  You could almost smell the grime of the sewer set, and feel the tropical breezes on the Havana set.  I only wished they had offered up Dulce de Leche cocktails in coconut husks at the intermission bar!  (But, how long would that queue have been!)

If you’re in London, go see it quick, before (gack) Patrick Swayze joins the cast on July 10th.

More info: Guys and Dolls


Madrid (Part 4 – Palacio Real de Aranjuez)

May 16, 2006

For our last day in Spain, we met up with Derek’s friend Antonio and took a day trip to see Aranjuez, a small town south of Madrid, famous for its royal palace.  Unfortunately, the palace was closed when we arrived.  So, we took a walk around the town, had a real Spanish lunch (which was actually pretty good), and strolled through the palace’s gardens (which were beautiful, but also teeming with clouds of small gnats that seemed to follow me everywhere).  Overall, it was a bit of a letdown.  But, it was still nice to get out of the city for a day.

Our only other big highlight of Madrid (for me at least) was eating dinner at the famous Botin retaurant.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records,Sobrino de Botin is the oldest continually operating restaurant in the world.  Hemingway was a frequent diner, and the place is mentioned in his novel The Sun Also Rises.  Suckling pig has had pride of place on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1725.  I dragged Derek there after having it recommended to me by a coworker in Slough.  It’s not much to look at, either outside or in.  Most folks end up eating in the brick-vaulted cellars.  We ate in an tiny “overflow” room off the kitchen, literally.  You had to walk through the kitchen to get there.  We partook of the famous suckling pig, and we both agreed it was one of the few “touristy” dining experiences that lived up to (and maybe even exceeded) it’s reputation.  If you’re ever in Madrid, you have to go at least once.

More info: Palacio Real de Aranjuez
More info: Sobrino de Botin


Madrid (Part 3 – Zoo Aquarium)

May 14, 2006

After the thrillingly tacky experience of the Parque de Atracciones, we decided to try to redeem the day’s outing by visiting the Madrid Zoo-Aquarium next door.  Unfortunately “next door” (as it appeared on the map) was more like a quarter of a mile away, which normally wouldn’t be that bad, were it not for the sweltering heat.  Things weren’t improved by the fact that there were no signs at all telling you where to go.  Nor was there any walkway, unless you count the dirt trail worn through the crabgrass next to the road.

The zoo was quite large, but the environment was as dry and as “concretey” as downtown Madrid (minus the traffic).  With temperatures soaring and a dearth of shade trees, most of the animals looked like they were literally dying in the heat.  I had to wonder about the logic (and humanity) of having penguins and brown bears standing out in the hot Spanish sun all day. 

One bear (pictured above) stood motionless on the edge of his concrete habitat, looking wearily into the pit that separated him from throngs of kids who were pelting him with peanuts.  He had a look on his face that made me wonder if he was contemplating suicide, jumping into the concrete abyss head-first to end it all.  Ultimately, he just turned around and rolled over on his side.

There was an aquarium too, a building half-buried in a giant mound of grass, topped with a Logan’s Run-style glass pyramid.  Of course, with the heat outside, it was crowded beyond capacity inside.  Everyone was pushing and shoving and stepping on the feet of the people next to them.  The air was curiously still, humid and not much cooler than outside.  In fact it pretty much was the same feeling as outside, but with the added bonuses of claustrophobia, darkness and fish.

The fish were impressive.  There were some pretty large sharks.  But, the layout was confusing and uninspiring, with hardly any information available about what you were looking at.  What kind of sharks were they?  I’ll be damned if I know.  Even worse, the only exit was through the (too small) gift shop (yes, you can blame Disney for that), which only served to create a massive bottleneck for people trying to get out.

Speaking of Disney, there was (for no apparent reason) a bronze bust of the man himself right in the middle of the park.  Two little brats were busy sticking gum up his nose while their parents took pictures. Oh, how enchanting.

(Continued in Part 4.)

More info: Zoo Aquarium Madrid


Madrid (Part 2 – Parque de Atracciones)

May 14, 2006

 

I guess it’s the Disneyland junkie in me.  Whenever I go abroad, wherever I go, I want to check out the local theme park.  Madrid has two major ones as it turns out: the very American-sounding “Warner Bros. Movie World” and the more “authentic” sounding “Parque de Atracciones”.  I wanted to see them both of course, but Derek wasn’t about to spend half his time in Spain on roller-coasters.

Truth be told, I don’t like roller-coasters either.  What I love about theme parks is the immersive environment.  I love the gardens, the fountains, and the genre architecture, be it futuristic, Western, medieval, or what have you.  The rides (non-stomach-churning ones) are just icing on the cake.

We ended up at the Parque de Atracciones because a) it was closer to downtown, b) it sounded more “authentic”, and c) you can get (most of the way) there by aerial tram.  The Parque itself is not bad, but also not great.  It reminded me of a half-size Paramount’s Great Adventure, crossed with something like Seattle Center’s Fun Forest.  In other words, something less that a full amusement park, but more than your local county fair.

It was a blazing hot day, and the sweat poured down my back.  Keeping with the county-fair feeling, you could either pay per-ride with tickets from vending machines, or you could get an unlimited day-pass.  We opted for the pass, which turned out to be a sort-of temporary tattoo thing that you stuck on with water from a little fountain near the entrance.  If you want to see a video of this in action (courtesy of themeparkreview.com), click here. (Note: This video is about 3.3MB.)

We quickly learned that the down-side of an “authentically” Spanish experience is that nothing is in English.  No park maps, nothing.  We took some photos of the roller-coasters (which were oddly all lumped together in one part of the park), and then headed for the boat rides.  First up was a ride in a tiny circular “boat” that cruised through a winding canal past some kind of troll story.  However the trolls all looked like they were freakishly deformed people with deep-set features and peeling “skin”, like something out of The Elephant Man or maybe Silence of the Lambs.  It seemed to me like the kind of ride that Ed Gein would’ve conceived, especially as the “boats” kept spinning around in the current, adding to the sickening feeling.

Next was the Spanish version of the Jungle Cruise.  This was pretty much a carbon-copy of the ride in Disneyland.  It had the natives appearing from behind the bushes, it had Trader Sam with his shrunken heads, the elephant bathing pool, the hippos, the Cambodian temple, and the rhino getting his “point” across to the safari climbing the tree.  The main difference was that there was no comedy narration, and no skipper as the “boats” were actually rafts.  Without these elements, the ride was painfully boring.  The only thrill came at the end when the boat returned to the dock, passing under a bridge that was so low you practically had to lay down in your seat to avoid decapitation.  No OSHA in this place!

The third and final (that we went on anyway) boat ride was something called “Fantasia”.  (I should point out here that the Spanish guide map had no descriptions of the rides either.  Every ride for us was really a shot in the dark, or at least what you could see from the queue.)  “Fantasia” turned out to be the Spanish version of It’s a Small World.  Most people would tell you this is a fairly annoying ride in English ,but they’ve obviously never experienced the Spanish version, where the singing dolls have a bloated “Cabbage Patch” look, the robotics are non-existent and the song is even more cloying (if you can imagine).  The nice folks at themeparkreview.com have a video of it here.  (Note: This video is about 13.1MB.)

Overall, it was the kind of park that made me wish I had gone to Warner Bros. Movie World instead.  Even with the low-budget Disney knock-offs, it was still a let-down.

 (Continued in Part 3.)

More info: Parque de Atracciones
More info: Review of the Parque (with lots of pics)
More info: Warner Bros. Movie World


Madrid (Part 1 – The Golden Triangle)

May 12, 2006

 

For our first big out-of-the-country experience, Derek and I took a week off and visited Madrid.  After spending a few days in Barcelona last year and being pleasantly surprised with it’s cosmopolitan style and beauty, we were both keen to see Spain’s capital city.

Sadly Madrid wasn’t as esthetically pleasing as Barcelona.  It felt much more urban; it was louder; there was more traffic; and the architecture was a boring mish-mash of old buildings that had seen better days and newer buildings that already looked outdated.  Even though Madrid boasts some enormous parks, there are no trees lining most of the streets, and the city feels curiously “concretey”.

But, of course, none of that matters too much for folks like me who come mainly for the art.  Madrid boasts three of the world’s greatest art museums.  First and foremost, of course, is the Prado which ranks with the Met in New York and the Louvre in Paris in terms of the vastness and importance of its collections.  It’s home to just about every Goya, El Greco and Velasquez you’ve ever seen in an art book (and a lot more you’ve never heard of). 

It’s also where you’ll find Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych Garden of Earthly Delights.  I’ve always been fascinated with this work, not only because it’s so bizarre, but because it was painted in 1504.  It’s hard to believe that this painting, with all its freaky surrealism and airbrush-like technique, which looks like it could’ve come from a 1940s contemporary of Salvador Dali, was in fact painted over 500 years ago. As you “read” the painting from left to right, you move from the Garden of Eden, to Earth, to Hell.  It’s a relentless downward progression from which there is seemingly no escape.  In many ways, it’s like the painted equivalent to Requiem for a Dream.

While the Prado concentrates mainly on Spanish Baroque art, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum across the street takes a broader view, and covers everything from medieval portraiture to post-modern abstraction.  The collection is wonderful precisely because it was a private collection.  Unlike museums that have to deal with conditional bequests of art (For example, Mark Rothko donated his Seagram Murals to the Tate Museum in London, under the condition that they be permanently on display, in their own room, under low lighting.), the Thyssen was organized mainly by one couple, Baron and Baroness Hans Heinrich von Thyssen-Bornemisza, he a millionaire industrialist and she a former Miss Spain.  This means that the collection has a continuity about it that is lacking in big impersonal vaults like the Prado and the Louvre.  In addition, I have to say that the building (an old palace that was gutted inside and rebuilt expressly to house the collection) is gorgeous.  All the art is hung carefully, and lit perfectly.  This museum is about as far away from the fluorescent harshness of the Tate Modern as you can get.

The final museum in Madrid’s “golden triangle” is the Renia Sofia.  This is the city’s official “modern art” museum.  It’s a converted hospital, just south of the Prado, and it contains works by Miro, Picasso, Dali, and many, many others.  But sadly, everyone comes just to see one painting, Picasso’s Guernica.  The artwork is a representation of the German (with the help of Spain’s fascist General Franco) bombing of the Basque town of Guernica in 1937.  It was a completely unprovoked attack on a small farming town; the bombing lasted over three hours; the town burned for three days; 1600 civilians were wounded or killed.  For Americans, it’s hard not to make the comparison with 9/11.  For his part, Picasso insisted that the painting would never be exhibited in Spain so long as the fascists were in control.  It resided at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until 1981.  After the fall of Franco, it was briefly at the Prado until 1992 when the Renia Sofia opened to house most of the Prado’s modern art.  This move caused some grumbling since Picasso himself specifically requested it be displayed in the Prado before his death.  All the same, the Basques now want it transferred to their own modern art house, the Guggenheim Bilbao.  I guess you can’t please everyone.

(Continued in Part 2.)


The Rat Pack

May 6, 2006

From the same folks who gave us Dancing in the Streets,another “tribute” show.  This one’s a little bit different in that Dancing is a tribute to Motown, a record label that promoted dozens of acts and artists.  The Rat Pack is devoted to only three: Sammy, Frank and Dean.  And, unlike the Temptations, who most of us remember as a group but not as individuals, Sammy, Frank and Dean are known better as individuals than as a group. 

What I mean by this is that you can have four miscellaneous guys singing in red satin suits and call them The Four Tops, and it’s believable for most of the audience.  But to go out there and “be” Sammy Davis Jr. requires a lot more work.  We may remember what The Four Tops sounded like, but we remember what Sammy looked like, acted like, danced like and sounded like.

So, how did they do?  Generally okay.  “Frank Sinatra” fared the best overall.  “Dean Martin” sounded and moved like Dino, but you had to squint to get the visual effect.  “Sammy” didn’t really sound or look like Sammy, but he had the moves down and was quite a good dancer.  He also had the height (or lack thereof).

The only real problem with these sorts of shows is the audience.  Everyone is here to finally get that moment with the stars they never got to meet in real life, so they think this show is about them.  People sing, they hoot, they talk back to the players.  If you’re there just to see the show and listen to the music, it can be downright annoying.  Dancing in the Streets solved this problem by turning the second act of the show into something like a gospel revival, encouraging everyone to stand, clap, dance and sing along. 

Oddly enough, when everyone in the audience is doing this, it’s far less intrusive to the show than when the six middle-aged drunk women out on their hen night two rows behind you are doing it.  A tipsy “Dean Martin” on stage, slurring his way through That’s Amore is funny (for a little while anyway).  A gaggle of gals from Croyden drowning out “Frank” on My Way isn’t.


One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

May 4, 2006

I’ve always felt that Christian Slater built his early career as little more than a young Jack Nicholson impersonator.  I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way.  If you watch him in Heathers (still his best film role), he’s doing “Jack” full-on, and it’s marvelous.  Seventeen years later, it looks like he’s up to his old tricks on stage in Cuckoo’s Nest, in a role made famous on film by Jack Nicholson.

The pleasant surprise here is that Slater has managed to escape from the memory of the film (and Jack) and make the role his own.  And, considering all the difficulties he’s gone through (drugs, alcohol, separation, and most recently, chicken pox), he still looks great in only a towel and gives a spellbinding performance to boot.

The production is better than you’d expect, with some pretty interesting lighting and set design.  The asylum “inmate” characters all to a decent enough job, and bring a lot more humor to the play than they did to the film (or the book).  Oddly, the silent Native American serves as the narrator/Greek chorus, speaking directly to the audience (with lighting changes straight out of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, so Joe Blow in the audience doesn’t think his monologues are part of the narrative) in staccato mystical poetry that reminded me a little too much of the narrator in Blood Brothers.

If there was a weak spot, it was Alex Kingston (the sexy Brit doctor from ER) as the evil Nurse Ratched. The makeup crew have done their best to drain the color out of her rosy cheeks and give her austere hair, but unfortunately she just doesn’t come off as evil enough for the play.  Unlike Louise Fletcher (who won an Oscar for her performance in the film), Kingston never really makes you believe her heart has turned to stone.  She comes off more like a snippy librarian than an icy psych-ward matron.  Personally, I’ve seen more intimidating women behind the cash register at Tesco.

All in all though, it was a great show, and it’s nice to see Christian Slater back in form.

More info: Christian Slater’s Video Blog 
(Four words I never expected to type.)