Love Song

February 8, 2007


All four of the actors in Love Song were at the top of their game.  In fact, they were all far better than the play they were performing in.  In brief, Love Song is basically an existential comedy about a mildly insane struggling artist-type (Cillian Murphy), his constantly bickering parents (Kristen Johnston and Michael McKean) and the girl of his dreams (Neve Campbell) who may or may not exist only in his dreams.  That’s really about it.

There’s no “plot” per se (except for the story arc of Murphy’s character trying to live more in reality), but it doesn’t matter.  Seeing these four actors on the stage was a thrill.  And, as much as I’d love to give Cillian Murphy and Neve Campbell their due (and they both deserve it), I can’t help but heap the bulk of my praise on Kristen Johnston and Michael McKean.

It may seem totally obvious to say that these two should have their own sitcom (seeing as Johnston is best known for Third Rock from the Sunand McKean for Laverne and Shirley), but they really should.  They’re written as a comedy-without-the-tragedy version of George and Martha, but they take that idea and run with it as far as they can go.  While Murphy is brooding and intense, and Campbell is mysterious and ethereal, Johnston and McKean are, well, just plain fun to watch.  Somehow, they make their scripted roles look like improv comedy, and even better, they hold back a little, keeping things a little dark, because they know what play they’re in.  After all, this isn’t Saturday Night Live.

 I hope they do get a hit sitcom.  And, I hope Cillian Murphy keeps getting great film roles, like Breakfast on Pluto and The Wind that Shakes the Barley.  And, I really hope Neve Campbell gets to be in something that makes people forget about the Scream movies.  After seeing them live on stage, I know that they all deserve it.



January 29, 2007


The idea of the “reboot” has gotten pretty popular lately.  The idea is to take a tired, old story and breath new life into it by “re-imagining” the story in a new setting.  Batman Begins and Battlestar Galactica are probably two of the best examples.  But, can the idea work on stage?

Enter the latest incarnation of Cabaret; not so much of a reboot as a remix. See, the problem with attempting a “new” interpretation of Cabaret is that the show has been around for so long, performed so many times, by so many struggling theatre companies and Pop Idol contestants that, well, there’s really nowhere else to go.  It’s a bit like when some d-list songtress sings the “Star Spangled Banner” at a baseball game.  It’s boring to sing it traditionally, but it’s a horrible cliche to insert gratuitous key and octave changes which only serve to show off how self-deluded you are about your own vocal range.

The other problem with “reinventing” Cabaret is that there is already an ultimate version of the show out there: Bob Fosse’s 1972 film version starring Liza Minnelli.  True, the film takes liberties with the stage script, but isn’t a mark of the film’s influence that songs written specifically for the film (like “Money, Money”) have weaseled their way on stage?  And isn’t it odd that even in a British production, Sally Bowles is portrayed as an American (not as a Brit as the part was originally written before it was changed for Liza in the film version).  In fact, the film (and especially Liza’s Oscar-winning performance) loom so large over any production of Cabaret that trying something different will probably only serve to let down the audience.

The audience I saw it with in London wasn’t let down.  All the actors hit their marks; the singers all hit their notes.  It was enjoyable, sure.  Almost as fun as watching the movie.  Almost… which isn’t saying much for the supposed “electricity” of live theatre.

Nevertheless, having said all that, I do give them credit for trying.  However, despite the provocative posters and ads, most of the changes are superficial: replace the fishnet stockings with leather harnesses, replace some of the sexy girls with hunky guys… in effect, replace the Cabaret Bob Fosse with the All That Jazz Bob Fosse.  But, when all is said and done, it’s still Fosse, and it’s still Liza.  And, that’s just the way it is.

The Mousetrap

January 23, 2007


Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has been running continuously in London since the year 50 BC, or so it seems.  This is the murder mystery against which all other sterotypically British murder mysteries are judged (and from which most have copied, borrowed or stolen).  All the elements are here: the random assortment of suspicious weekend guests, the remote country house, the washed out bridge, the cut telephone lines, the Scotland Yard inspector.  All that’s missing is the butler, and I’m convinced he’s absent only because in a play this archtypal, there’s no way the butler couldn’t have done it, had he existed in the script.

So, what do you get for the price of your ticket to London’s oldest show?  Well, at the weekday matinee I attended, you got an audience of about a dozen old-age pensioners (that’s British for “senior citizens”) and me.  Still, even with a mostly empty, mostly hard-of-hearing audience, the actors gave it their all, emotng through the type of British accents you only hear in Agatha Christie plays these days. 

One thing that struk me was how the social dynamics of the play have changed over the years.  One of the first characters we’re introduced to is a somewhat spastic gay-acting (they never state explicity in the play, but you get the idea) young man named (amusingly enough) Christopher Wren.  In 1952, when the play debuted, you can bet that this character immediately came under suspicion from a sizable chunk of the audience, long before a murder was even committed.  This was a time when homosexuality was still classified as a mental illness, and an illegal one at that.

If I might pause here for a little background and perspective… Also in 1952, Alan Turing was arrested and prosecuted for homosexuality.  He was forced to choose between going to jail, and a probation with hormonal treatments (injections of estrogen, working off the junk-science theory that homosexuality was caused by an excess of testoterone) which caused side-effects including growing breasts.  Humiliated and degraded beyond all belief, he took his own life two years later.  If the name Alan Turing is unknown to you, it shouldn’t be.  This man (along with Charles Babbage) is the father of modern computing.  His early computers and methods were used to break German codes including the Enigma code in World War II.  It has been said by many historians that without the work of Alan Turing, World War II would have been lost.

Flash forward to today.  How many military translators has the United States fired (not only fired, but sometimes dishonorably discharged, meaning after years of service to the country, often in the most dangerous front-line units, they don’t get any veterans’ benefits) because they were gay?  (The answer, by the way, is 58 and counting.) Last year alone, 742 service members were discharged for being gay.  In 2001, the number was 1,273.  In the past 10 years since the American “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy went into effect, well over 11,000 gay men and women have been discharged.  At least we’re no longer using hormone “therepies” worthy of Josef Mengele.  So, as George W. Bush is so fond of saying about Iraq, we’re making progress.

Back to the play… So, “Christopher Wren” is mincing aroung the stage.  The actor portraying him is doing a dead-on perfect impersonation of the late actor Kenneth Williams, who found an outlet for his personal struggle with sexuality by playing flamboyant sterotypical gay men on stage and in film.  I’m taking it that the “Kenneth Williams-type” is merely British shorthand for “gay” on stage.  It’s a character everyone in the audience is old enough to remember from the Carry On films.  And, unlike Agatha Christie’s original intentions in including this caracter, it’s a character most people remember fondly as a campy clown.  As I noted, we’re making progress.

The rest of the play is “bog-standard“, as the British would say.  Shots are fired in the dark, bodies are discovered, everyone has a motive, and the ending… well, I’m not supposed to tell you the ending, though it’s easy to figure out.  I guess that’s another thing that’s changed since 1952.  Just as we’re no longer quick to label the gay man a homocidal maniac, we’re also quick to suspect the “least suspected”.  It’s become a cliche, of course, and mystery authors have had to circle around the problem so many times that now it’s something of a surprise to discover that the butler is the murderer after all (though obviously not in this play).

Seeing The Mousetrap in London’s West End is one of those things you have to do once in your lifetime, if only just to check it off the list.  The play is fun, the cast (which obviously has rotated a bit in the past 50 years) keeps the material fresh, and the famous admonition from the stage to keep the ending a secret is one of those collective experiences that makes you feel like you’ve just been inducted into an exclusive private club.  In short, go see it.

More info: The Mousetrap


January 22, 2007


As the title suggests, Frost/Nixon dramatizes the encounter between two larger-than-life historical figures, David Frost and Richard Nixon, played respectively by two larger-than-life actors, Michael Sheen and Frank Langella.

Of course, back when Watergate was originally unfolding, I was barely a few months old.  I was three years old by the time Nixon sat down for Frost’s questions.  I’ve never lived in a world without Watergate, so it’s hard for me to think of a time when the president was assumed to be “pure”.  Or at least, not a crook.  In my mind, all politicians are a little dirty, and the only differences are in how dirty they get and over which issues.

George W. Bush falsified evidence for the Iraq War.  Bill Clinton lied about having oral sex in the Oval Office.  Ronald Reagan illegally sold weapons to Iran.  Richard Nixon ordered break-ins and the bugging of his opponents’ offices. 

Certainly other presidents back as far as Thomas Jefferson have been touched by scandal.  But, Watergate was different because it marked the first time a president was not only participating, but directing a crime.  And, the crime itself wasn’t political favoritism or siphoning money, but the decidedly grimier category of burglary and wiretapping.

Stripping all the politics away however, the most damning thing about Watergate — the aspect that caused the public to react with shock and disbelief — wasn’t the crime itself or even the cover-up.  It was the irrational motivation of fear.  When you boil it down, Watergate was really about one man’s unimaginable personal insecurity.  Everything else was just a consequence.

Similarly, the Frost/Nixon interviews are important not so much because David Frost sort-of succeeded in getting Richard Nixon to sort-of admit he sort-of had something to do with Watergate, sort-of.  No, Frost’s real achievement was getting Nixon to reveal his true nature.  He was not a political giant.  He was a essentially a frightened little boy.

At the time, the interview was a coup for Frost.  He was perviously regarded as no more a serious “journalist” than Barbara Walters or Regis Philbin, specializing in cocktail chatter and softball questions.  The playwright of Frost/Nixon suggests it as exactly this fluffy reputation that led Nixon to agree to the interview in the first place, and which allowed him to be “ambushed” by letting his guard down.

Unfortunately, the legacy of the Frost/Nixon interviews is that politicians are now pretty uniformly presumed guilty of something.  (You can blame Nixon for that.) And, journalists are now honor-bound to get the dirt on their subjects, no matter what the cost.  (You can blame Frost here.)  More than anything, Frost/Nixon is about this shift in the dynamic between intervewer and interviewee, between the president and the press.

The play is simple; the writing clear and efficient.  One blank set, two chairs, a bank of video monitors.  That’s it.  But with a play as heavy as this (and with two absolutely pitch-perfect actors in the leads) that’s all you really need.


January 18, 2007


Every year on Broadway, there seems to be a show that gets the annointed title of “next big thing”.  This is nothing new.  Oklahoma! was probably the first, back in 1943.  Wicked is the latest.  “Next big things” have a lot of anticipation to live up to.  Sometimes they succeed, sometimes they don’t.  I walked away from Wicked feeling a little let down.

As most folks know, this is the story of how the Wicked Witch of the West got her start — a sort of prequel to The Wizard of Oz — based on the novel by Gregory Maguire.  The music and lyrics for the stage show were written by Stephen Schwartz, who’s still best known for Godspell and Pippin, from back in 1972.  Okay, I’ll say it: 30-plus years is quite a career break (granted, he did some intermediary work, including a few movies for Disney).

Overall, I liked the show, but I felt it was a tad over-produced.  Yes, it was a beautiful looking show, but “More! Bigger! Flashier!” seemed to be the overarching style.  The numbers ranged from bombastic opera pieces to forgettable teen-angsty pop tunes that will no doubt be covered on the next Raven-Symone album. 

On the one hand, it felt like a clear case of style over substance, with the flashy sets, costumes and special effects over-compensating for an otherwise dull show.  On the other hand, there was a lot of substance.  In fact, the plot is surprisingly heavy and complex.  But, I kept scratching my head wondering why we should care about any of this.  I mean, take away the Wizard of Oz connection, the Emerald City, the Munchkins, and you have… well, a two-hour episode of My So-Called Life (which isn’t surprising since the book for the musical was written by the creator of that TV show, Winnie Holzman).

What I saw on stage was a spashy, beautifully produced show, elaborate staging, and some brilliant acting and singing from the entire cast, especially Idina Menzel, who originated the lead role on Broadway.  But, the songs and book didn’t seem to match the rest of the talent in the production.

More info: Wicked (London production)

Mall of America

December 10, 2006


I often joke to people that when I visit a new city for the first time, be it Milan or Hong Kong, London or Lompoc, I immediately head for the mall.  This isn’t really true, but I have to confess I’ve been to malls in Paris, Budapest and Helsinki: places where malls aren’t really the main attraction.  When Derek and I moved from London to Reading, my first comment about the new town was: “At least they have a good mall.”

I guess my mall-ophile nature stems from my southern-California upbringing.  Just as in the movie Mallrats, hanging out at the mall was about the only exciting thing to do in some of the towns I grew up in.  When I was a little kid, we lived for a year in Littleton, Colorado.  There was a mall there I’ll never forget: the Cinderella Mall, which despite it’s cheery name was actually a pretty creepy place.  It had a basement level of mostly closed shops, which someone had the brilliant idea of retheming as “ye olde Englishe streete” complete with cobblestone floors and gas lamps.  But, being in the dark basement, the effect was less Charles Dickens and more Jack the Ripper.

My favorite mall of all time is still the South Coast Plaza in Costa Mesa, California.  For quite a while, it held the title of largest mall in the world.  In addition to the carousel and requisite fountains, they had a restaurant (sadly, no longer there) called 20th Century Limited, which (as the name suggests) was themed like a train station.  You walked down brick platforms strewn with prop luggage, past giant black engines spewing steam, and dined aboard gently rocking train cars with rear-projected scenery outside the window and the click-clack sound effects of the train tracks.  I loved it!

It should come as no surprise then that when I needed a relatively short trip to reach the magical number of airline miles required to keep my Silver Elite frequent-flier status, I chose Minneapolis and the Mall of America as my destination.  Seriously though, for the number of miles I needed (and wanting to travel non-stop), the choice was between Minneapolis and Detroit, and who in their right mind would choose Detroit?

So, yes, I traveled from London to Minneapolis, got off the plane, checked into my hotel, spent the entire day at the Mall of America, went back to my hotel, slept, and got back on a plane for London the next day.  Crazy perhaps?  Maybe, but I got my frequent flier points, and now I don’t have to stand in any lines at the airport, so ha!

How was the Mall of America?  Not bad, but also not as exciting as I hoped.  For one thing, it felt smaller that I expected.  I’m not sure why.  It is huge.  Maybe it’s because so much of the space is taken up by the amusement park (see photo above) in the center.  Either way though, it was a beautiful mall, and it was fun to be back (even if only for a day) in the land of American excess.

I say “excess” because I think the most fundamental difference between Britain and the US is the idea of, “how much is enough?”  Eat at any restaurant in America, and you’ll always get more than you can eat.  There are even whole chains, like Claim Jumper, that base their reputation on this philosophy.  In the US, quantity trumps quality almost every time.  The food and drink seem to flow from some unstoppable spigot somewhere in the kitchen.  Try taking a sip of water without someone immediately refilling your glass.  Try eating all your steak fries without someone asking, “Would you like some more fries?”  And, there’s always that awkward situation where you pay the bill, gulp down the last of your Coke, gather your stuff to leave, and suddenly, before you can say “no thanks”, there’s a whole new glass of Coke on the table.

I call it the Costco mentality: if one of something is good, then 1,000 of something must be fabulous. I recall a New Yorker-ish cartoon of a man and his wife shopping at Costco.  He’s carrying a gigantic box, and the caption reads, “But honey, if we get this now, we’ll never need to buy straws again!” And indeed, it’s hard not to walk out of Costco without a supposedly lifetime-supply of something.  The really insidious thing is that now that you have so much of whatever it is you’ve bought, you use it like it’s water, and your “lifetime” supply runs dry in a few weeks.

Anyway, back to the Mall of America.  For my EDE (“excessive dining experience”), I chose the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, which I was delighted to finally eat at after having passed it over in Hong Kong.  I wasn’t disappointed, either in terms of the food, the excess, or the theming (which of course, all had to do with the movie Forrest Gump) .  As I sat down, the waitress brought me the drinks menu… on a ping-pong paddle.  Then, I was quizzed on Forrest Gump movie trivia.  It felt a bit like a pop-quiz in high school, but I managed to get about half of them right.  Maybe you get a free dessert if you answer everything correctly?  On the table were two metal Alabama license plates (one said “Run, Forrest, Run”, the other “Stop, Forrest, Stop”) used to signal the wait staff in case you need something.  It was excessive and goofy, and excactly the type of thing you’d never get in a million years in Britain.  I have to admit, I loved it.  (Oh yes, and the shrimp was delicious.)

Exploring the rest of the mall, it was nice to see all the Christmas decorations.  In one rotunda, a temporary stage was set up, and live entertainment, from a high school drill team to a local chamber orchestra, performed.  Further along sat a life-sized replica of the train engine from the animated film The Polar Express, steam issuing from its smokestack.  And, last but not least, the “world’s largest gingerbread house”  which stood about 60 feet tall and had several rooms you could tour though, complete with audio-animatronic elves and gumdrop “stained glass” windows.

Overall, it was a fun trip, worth a day’s visit, but it will be a while before I’m back.  Excess in small doses is fine, but excess to excess… well, that’s just excessive.

More info: Mall of America

Hong Kong: Day 6 – Ngong Ping

November 16, 2006


Here it is: my last day in Hong Kong.  After indulging in the lavish breakfast buffet at my hotel (everything from waffles to eggrolls),  I left Disney property and rode the metro out to the end of the line at Tung Chung.  From there, it’s a short walk to the terminal for the Ngong Ping 360 skyway.

The skyway is brand new, only about 5 months old and a real marvel of engineering.  Where the Ocean Park skyway was a rickety, rusting open-air nightmare, the NP360 is about as sleek and modern (not to mention enclosed and air-conditioned) as you can get.  I shared a compartment with four women, some local, some visiting friends.  Rising dramatically from the station, we pass by Hong Kong International Airport, then over a huge bay toward the mountains of Lantau Island

The amazing thing about this part of the journey is that there are no support structures anywhere over the water.  It feels a bit like a magic trick, like your levitating, floating along a cable that appears to be held up by nothing.  It’s also a bit disconcerting.  You count 10, 12, 14 cabins on the wire, and wonder just how many cabins can this stretch of cable hold before it snaps and sends us all plummeting into the water below?

Pretty soon, the cables begin climbing up the side of the mountian, and before you have a chance to think about it, your cabin is plunged into a dense white fog.  It’s a weird feeling.  There’s no motor noise and nothing to see except blank whiteness all around you.  It’s impossible to tell how high you are or if you’re even still moving.

About this time, my cabin-mates strike up a conversation.  “Pretty amazing, huh?”  “Yeah,” I replied.  “Of course, you must ride these all the time where you’re from.”  Huh?  This seemed to make no sense.  “You mean in America?” I ask.  “Oh, you’re American?  We thought you were from Europe.”  Upon learning I was American, they launched into a spiel about how most folks hate George W. Bush, but they love him because his foreign trade policies have been so good for China.  I confessed that I didn’t know much about international economics, but that Dubya wasn’t one of my favorite presidents.  They seemed surprised and a little embarrased, having assumed that I as an American would naturally be a big Bush-backer.  They also asked me if I’d had any trouble with the language barrier.  “Everyone speaks English,” I said.  One of the other women spoke up, “Yes.  My husband made me learn Cantonese, and since we moved here, I haven’t used it once!”  For what it’s worth, I tried to learn a few phrases but gave up after discovering that I had no ear for tones.

In an instant, we emerged from the clouds on the other side of the mountain, and in the distance, perched on a hilltop, sat the famous Big Buddha of Lantau Island.  “Isn’t he beautiful?” one of the ladies asked rhetorically.  “He’s so peaceful.”  I looked at the statue and realized she was right.  And, suddenly I gained a new appreciation for religious iconography.

After a lifetime spent looking at the crucuifed Jesus, painfully dying for my sins, the idea of looking at a religious icon and sensing nothing but peace and relaxation was kind of novel.  And, it struck me that this kind of “calm down, everything’s going to be okay” feeling was exactly what you should be getting from your religion.  Even as we crossed the last giant chasm, looking at the Big Buddha, I lost all apprehension about the cable snapping and plumetting to my death.

The skyway lets you off in the “village” of Ngong Ping.  I put that word in quotes because what lay between the station and the statue was a completely artificial, rather Disney-esque, fake “village” composed of trinket shops and (yes, indeed) a Starbucks, and a little further along, the 700th 7-Eleven store in Hong Kong.

Also in Ngong Ping are two attractions that were included in the price of my tram ticket. (I sprung for the package.)  These too are straight out of the Disney design guide.  The first was the Monkey’s Tale Theatre, which was an animated film shown in a theatre made up to resemble a jungle ruin.  The film (without any dialogue) tells the story of three wacky cartoon monkeys, one of whom tries to be greedy and take the fruit left on a Bhudda-as-monkey statue as an offering.  He keeps getting zapped with lightning as he tries ever more complex ways (think Wile E. Coyote) of getting the “forbidden” fruit.  Only when he agrees to stop being greedy and share the fruit with his friends is he allowed to eat it, and all the monkeys are rewarded with more fruit for having learned the lesson.

The second attraction, “Walking With Buddha” was more elaborate.  You get headphones so each person can hear the narration in his/her own language; mine had a British accent.  First stop was a lanai that looked suspiciously like the one at the Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland, complete with artificial mist and an audio-animatronic tree-spirit.  Next was another animated movie that told the Cliff’s Notes version of the life of Siddhartha.  Then, there was a walk through an indoor forest which reminded me of the queue area for the old E.T. ride at Universal Studios.  Finally, there was another short film about how the lessons Siddhartha learned can be used in everyday life today.  After the film, you were lead into a long temple-like chamber with a giant “crystal” (probably clear plastic though) Buddha statue at the end.  Along the walls of the chamber were wooden bowls filled with “leaves” made from paper, printed with great Buddha quotes.  We were encouraged to take a leaf at random and insert it into an ATM-like slot at the base of the statue.  My leaf said something like, “The richest man is he who has nothing.”  I insterted into the slot, and watched in amusement as a light-projection image of my leaf swirled around the inside of the “crystal” statue before shooting heavenward in a beam of white light.

Visually impressive, yes, but ultimately leaving you with the same feeling you get by tossing a penny over your shoulder into a wishing well.  Amusingly, after being treated to two films, a mechanical tree and a video-projected leaf telling you that greed is bad and helping the needy is good, the tour lets out into… a tacky giftshop, where you can buy all manner of crass commercial knicknacks at vastly inflated tourist prices.  So much for lessons learned.

Leaving the “village”, it’s a short walk up the road to the Big Buddha itself.  There’s a small suggested donation to see it up close, but your ticket also entitles you to a free lunch at the nearby Po Lin Monastery.  Trudging up the stairs (I lost count of how many there were.) starts easily enough, but ends up knocking the wind out of you.  All along the ascent, I passed elderly tourists ready to give up on the challenge.  I persevered though, and I have to say that the view from the top is worth it.  Not only is there a magnificent view of the monastery and the village below, but seeing the statue close up (and even going inside, where there’s a sort of crypt) was breathtaking.  The bronze statue (supposedly the largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha in the world) is surprisingly modern, dating from only 1993.  It looks like it’s been there forever.

Working my way back down to earth, I headed over to the monastery for lunch.  The setting wasn’t as exotic as you might think; it pretty much felt like your typical hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant.  Lunch was a vegetarian set-menu, and I appeared to be the only white person eating there.  First up was a bowl of mushroom soup that was clear and disturbingly gelatinous.  It dripped from my spoon like thick, lumpy corn syrup.  Next, was some mushroom tempura.  Then, a mushroom-and-veggie stir-fry.  About this time, I was really, really getting sick of mushrooms.  The next course was sort of meaty, probably a giant slice of Portobello mushroom, but I couldn’t tell for sure.  All I remember was that my initial response to learning the meal was vegetarian was, “that’s too bad, I was hoping for something meaty”, and now it was, “thank God, at least I know that whatever this is I’m about to eat never had legs.”  Eventually, after five courses of Jello-y, rubbery, mushroomy mystery “meat”, I must confess I skipped out.  Hey, it was free anyway.  And, at least I can say I had lunch at a Buddhist monastery.

And, there you have it: my trip to Hong Kong.  After the monastery, I checked out of my Disney hotel and caught the plane home.  The only other weird thing that happened was that I was accosted by two seperate survey people in the airport while I was waiting for my flight.  The first asked me about the “dining service” in the airport, which, since my “dining” experience consisted entirely of a single cup of Starbucks coffee, wasn’t much of a survey.  “So, did the chef do a good job in preparing your [coffee]?”  “Was the presentation of your [coffee] too elaborate, not elaborate enough, or just right?”  Hey, it’s just a cup of coffee!  The second survey was for the Hong Kong tourist board, and checking off the list of all the things I’d seen and done on this trip made me realize for the first time how much I managed to pack into a week.  Seeing all the other un-checked boxes made me realize how much more there was to see, and how much I wanted to come back, before I’d even left.