Falling Slowly Onstage

The touring version of Once: The Musical is now in residence at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre through February 15th. Since that’s just up the street from me, I attended their first preview performance on Tuesday night.

I’d forgotten that the play originally began its dramatic life at the American Repertory Theatre (ART) back in Cambridge. It’s not surprising that the play found further success, where ART has successfully repositioned itself over the last few years (under the shrewd leadership of Diane Paulus) as a major feeder of new or reimagined stage work into the Broadway and national theatre conversation.

Of course, Once takes its story from the movie of the same name. If you’ve seen the film, you know the basic story about the Guy meeting the Girl who inspires him to refocus on his songwriting and use his songs to convey his emotions… and that doesn’t change here on the stage. The play does, however, adroitly open up the story to more of an ensemble production, with a modest band starting the experience with pre-show songs and several scenes featuring ensemble members (either in one or multiple roles) interacting with the protagonists.

The play also creatively invites the audience to come more directly into the story, in that drinks are served onstage before the start of the show and during the intermission. My friends and I enjoyed the pre-show option, and I found it to be a fresh and fun way to get into the story, standing onstage for a few minutes with fellow audience members, and then being allowed to stay there for a few more minutes while the cast came onstage and began their pre-show medley.

I can’t say that the story creates a revelatory level of dramatic depth. But I would say that the play is worth attending for its fun and fresh onstage experience, and the chance to take in some very well-done acoustic songs in a refreshingly intimate story setting.

Movies, Theatre

Rita Moreno visits Detroit (another classy evening at the Redford Theatre)

IMG_20140927_192324This past weekend, I was pleased to join a large and nearly sold out crowd at the Redford Theatre to welcome acclaimed actress Rita Moreno to Detroit. The theatre offered three opportunities to meet Moreno and watch her classic West Side Story on their beautiful screen, and I’m sure that the Saturday night screening I attended was the most popular. I first heard about this event over six months ago at the theatre’s similarly festive winter evening to honor Pam Grier (recapped in a blog post) and didn’t think I would attend. But a few days before the weekend, I thought about it again and figured it was worth it, especially since Moreno is a Bay Area resident who I had not encountered during my time there, though she appears semi – frequently at events related to Berkeley Repertory Theatre. I did not expect her to be so classy and elegant in all aspects of her presence, which was a wonderful surprise.

IMG_20140927_195123The theatre was packed as I scanned the main level for a place to sit. Surprisingly, there were several seats left in the first couple of rows, and so I snagged a spot in the second row. Once the lights went down and Ms. Moreno appeared alongside a local radio interviewer, I realized I’d gotten the best seat in the house! The two of them stayed in that far stage right area and did not move around the stage, which made for optimum photo taking from my seat just six feet away or so.


IMG_20140927_201336Moreno offered numerous past and present anecdotes from her career in a warm, honey silk tone of voice. When the two of them returned at the film’s intermission, she playfully used his sweaty state as a way to raise the tension and immediacy as they talked in full view of the audience. The interviewer (wish I’d written down his name, but he’s definitely based in Ann Arbor) guided Moreno through what seemed to be some repetition from the previous night’s topics and some new material. She seemed to particularly appreciate The Electric Company‘s historical place in her career, while also noting later roles such as her work in Oz and multiple series work with Fran Drescher.

Regarding West Side Story, Moreno’s stories focused on the understandably grueling process of learning difficult choreography from (the reportedly difficult) choreographer Jerome Robbins, who took no favorites among the cast and crew, and was reportedly not well liked by anyone involved in the production. But at the same time, she noted that his keen visual sense contributed to the film’s precise and enduring visual style. She also noted that her most well – known song, America, featured a style of dancing different than what she was accustomed to at the time.

The Redford later played a recap of her amazingly brief 1962 Academy Awards acceptance speech, and Moreno seemed slightly embarrassed to revisit the memory, saying that she had made peace with the moment in her past, but would have honored more of her Puerto Rican and Hispanic compatriots if she could do it again. She noted that her receipt of a SAG lifetime achievement award early this year, presented by her past co-star Morgan Freeman, felt like a more fitting tribute for her and opportunity to pay homage to her entire industry work as opposed to a single performance.

The Redford had a surprise up their sleeves for Ms. Moreno and those of us in the audience. The West Side Story intermission included a special performance by a local dance troupe perfuming new choreography to America, with Moreno watching in the audience from a seat specially engraved with her name. The troupe members appeared to be mid to late high school age, and deftly navigated the stage with style and flair in their movement. I’m sure it was a thrill for them to meet Moreno directly following their performance and get a photo with her, while being witnessed by those of us in the audience.

IMG_20140927_223540Ms. Moreno’s verbosity, appeal and good humor almost overshadowed the screening of West Side Story itself. She and the interviewer even left their pre-show conversation by saying “we’ve got to show this movie!”

I found it appealing and intense to see a classic in its rightful place on the big screen. Elements of the film, including its choreography and slightly psychedelic 1960s visual moments, seemed to POP more on the big screen. On the other hand, my more mature viewpoint observed various acting choices I most likely did not notice in my early viewings of the film as a pre-teen. And, later, I found myself wondering about the career trajectories of various members of the cast, most notably Natalie Wood, who died in 1981 under mysterious circumstances.

But Rita Moreno’s in-person presence and integrity stood out in the film viewing – the audience erupted into applause on several occasions when she appeared onscreen – and proved why she has been and continues to be an enduring legend in the entertainment world.

Kudos to the Redford Theatre for another memorable tribute evening. I’m greatly looking forward to seeing who they next line up to visit their movie palace.


An actress lightens up and the summer screens get tuneful

I often forget that British actress Keira Knighley is one year younger than me. She has more or less pigeon-holed herself into a dour screen persona that rarely expresses a happier state of mind, which also makes her seem older than her age. So when she does lighten up, as in the current release Begin Again, it’s a breath of fresh air.

I was pleased to catch an early screening of this film at Landmark’s Main Art Cinema in Royal Oak, which often gets first dibs on independent film releases in the Detroit area. Knightley gets top billing as Greta, a British ingenue who is making her way in New York City with her rapidly ascending rock star boyfriend, played by Adam Levine. One night, a series of circumstances leads her to a grungy club somewhere in the city, where her path intersects with Dan (Mark Ruffalo) – a down on his luck music executive who feels like her song could hit the big time.

The rest of the film follows their journey to get Greta’s record made, which takes several twists and turns as she does not want to sacrifice her own vision while Dan navigates a modest midlife crisis. They are joined by several memorable characters as the film unfolds, including James Corden as a friend of Greta’s, Mos Def as Dan’s business partner, Halle Steinfeld as Dan’s estranged daughter and Catherine Keener as Dan’s estranged wife.

The film is a cheery tale that is hard to be critical about… but I’ll try to make a few comments. It bears a number of similarities to the director’s previous film, Once, and could almost serve as a sequel to that project with Knightley taking the role of the female singer in the previous film. There are probably too many montages in the film, with most accompanied by songs from the soundtrack, as the story attempts to cover a large amount of narrative in a 90 – 100 minute time frame.

The storytelling does yield one interesting choice in the use of a “flash-forward/flash-back” structure to set up both Greta and Dan’s story lines. I always appreciate when films or plays choose that particular narrative, as it keeps the audience members guessing and anticipating, and sometimes creates some surprises along the way. As well, the film keeps the audience guessing if Greta and Dan will keep things platonic or get to know each other on a more intimate level.

In spite of the formulaic approach, the actors seem to be having fun with their process, with Ruffalo taking on a familiar character (in the context of his previous roles) but showing more humanity and older mentor-style energy than before. Keener only gets a few notable scenes, but continues to maintain her strong screen presence and mature character persona. Steinfeld leads the rest of the cast, and while more emphasis is placed on her character in the first half than the rest of the film, she continues to show strong command of her roles and great potential for future opportunities.

I’m sure this film will take its seat as the Summer Indie Crowd Pleaser of 2014.