Of Love and Fishing: Musings on The River – February 1, 2015

As it is evident throughout this blog, I tend to gravitate towards musicals, but every now and then I do see straight plays – sometimes new works, other times classic works. Of course, these tendencies are thrown out the (figurative) window if there’s an actor (or actors) I admire in a particular production. Such was the case when one of my good friends took me to see The River, a new play by Jez Butterworth, starring Hugh Jackman, currently playing at the Circle in the Square Theatre. While he’s gained worldwide fame (and a legion of fans) from his diverse movie roles, I was first became aware of Hugh Jackman through his theatre work (most of which was in his native Australia) – he played Joe Gillis in the Australian production of Sunset Blvd., a production that sadly does not have an official cast recording (though I’m sure bootlegs exist out there in the dark…). He is a triple threat (actor, singer, and dancer) with enough star power to bring in box office records whenever he returns to the stage.

The River marquee

Admittedly, this was one of those rare times I purposely went into a show “blind” – I knew next to nothing about the plot of the play (except the fact that Hugh Jackman was in it), so I was anxious and curious to see how the play would unfold. Also, this was my first venture into the Circle in the Square Theatre, located next to/within (I’m not quite sure how the exact building layout is) the Gershwin Theatre, as well as my first time seeing a show where the audience occupies three sides of the stage. The play is set inside a cabin near a river and centers on an unnamed Man and his attempts to convince with two different (also unnamed) women to go fishing with him on a moonless night. The actual location is not specified (to my recollection, though given the accents used by the actors, I can hazard a guess that the location is somewhere in Ireland) and time seems to be somewhat out of joint (or at least is wibbly-wobbly), as the two women (differentiated in the playbill as The Woman and The Other Woman) enter and exit the stage, interacting with The Man without acknowledging one another. Much of the dialogue between the Man and both Women is conversational and (at times) confrontational, and leads to startling revelations and hidden truths. The poem “The Song of the Wandering Aengus” by W.B Yeats is prominent throughout the play, and (after doing some research about the poem, as I’m not an ardent fan of poetry) it’s poignantly symbolic within the context of the play.

The River cast list

The staging of the play was unique, as the layout of the theater is such that the audience surrounds the stage, which looked smaller and narrower than most other stage areas. Also, the sound and lighting design made it feel as if the audience was peering into that cabin near the river, with ambient sounds throughout, and absolute silence at the high dramatic points in the play. The latter sensation was a startlingly refreshing experience, helped by the fact that during the customary pre-show announcement, the audience was instructed to turn off their mobile devices (and not just to put them on silent) for the duration of the 85 minute play – and the audience complied. Aside from a smattering of applause for Hugh Jackman’s entrance, and some laughter at the more humorous bits of dialogue, there was absolute silence. In this non-musical role, Hugh Jackman was brilliant, playing the humor and drama of the interactions with the two women with honesty and emotion. Cush Jumbo and Laura Donnelly as The Woman and The Other Woman, respectively, played off Jackman’s performance with great intensity, bringing out a perfect storm of raw emotion as the play unfolded.

The stage door experience was great, with a throng of people patiently waiting for the cast to emerge to sign playbills. While the crowd outside waiting was large, there weren’t as many people waiting as I thought there would be, but then again, I hazard a guess that the snow and the cold deterred some from braving the elements. I didn’t linger at the stage door for too long (or as long as I usually do), as the weather forecast told of another round of snowfall in the hours to come – I had a long commute home and didn’t want to be stranded in the City.

Hugh Jackman

The River is in its final weeks – there are only a few more performances left until it closes on February 8th, and I kinda regret not going to see this play sooner, but I’m very glad I got the chance to see it. It’s a thought-provoking tale of a man contemplating his connection with the art (craft?) of fishing and how it applies to the relationships he has/had/having with the two women he’s brought to that cabin for a night of fishing. There is a lot of ambiguity in this play, which makes an audience question what exactly is going on, and gives them a puzzle to solve – or at least that’s the impression I got. As an avid mystery reader (and aspiring mystery novelist) I was waiting for a more sinister plot twist which never emerged, though my personal headcanon will adhere to the darker path I deduced (one about which I might just write) – whether or not it’s correct is beside the point. Not knowing the actual linear progression of the play (or even if the events actually occurred) makes for a very interesting time at the theater, leaving an audience to wonder and make their own conclusions.

The River playbill

Singing the Song of Angry Men: Initial Reactions and Impressions of the Les Miserables film – December 28, 2012

As stated in my previous blog, Les Miserables is my all time favorite musical that I have seen live on stage, and one of my favorite novels – being as such, I have very high expectations for any adaptation I come across, be it in print or on-screen. So, hearing that there was to be a film adaptation of the musical filled me with much elation and trepidation – a musical as epic and in scope and with such a universal theme as Les Miserables has all the potential to be conveyed without the limits of a theatre stage, and yearns to be told on the epic scale a major motion film can deliver.

[Disclaimer: Much of this blog will inevitably be comprised of my quasi-ranting about how it seems that style over substance (outward appearance and box office draw over innate talent and experience) is the overriding rule (and rarely the exception) in the casting of recent movie adaptations of musicals. While I do understand that big name Hollywood movie stars can generate more box office revenue than say, theatre-experienced actors, it still annoys me that a less-than-stellar (in my opinion) performance is preserved for all time on film, whereas a brilliant stage performance is not captured, at least not legally. Yes, I know that a film adaptation of a musical cannot be exactly identical as the stage production and certain aspects that work well on stage would not work the same way on-screen, and that much more can be done on a movie location/set than on a theater stage. And yes, I know that there have been recent film adaptations of musicals with much of the original Broadway cast intact (namely Rent and The Producers). So this is advanced warning that much of what I will write may come across as childish complaining and nitpicking. Also, please be aware that these musing are just based on my initial viewing of the film – my thoughts and opinions may (or may not) change upon repeated viewing. Of course, for those who know me, the fact that I am planning to see this film again can be taken as a sign that the film wasn’t as bad as I first presumed it would be.]

Unfortunately, movie adaptations of musicals lately have been lackluster and disappointing, often cast with big name (i.e. box office draw) movie stars with little to no musical training to be able to adequately and convincingly sing the musical score (regardless if it’s in the same key as was sung in the stage production) and are (in my opinion) just pretty people to look at. There are times I wish movie musicals were cast as they used to be, with some of the show’s original cast (or at least the main leads), so that what had been seen on stage could also be seen and preserved on film; alas, that’s not how the film industry works anymore – now it’s all about the box office revenue.

But I digress.

When the main cast for the film had been announced I was a bit assuaged – most of the main cast had musical theatre experience (or at least theatre experience), and were age appropriate to their respective roles; also, the fact that the singing would be recorded live on set, instead of the usual method of the actors pre-recording the songs and lip-synching upon filming was a plus. Moreover, several West End actors were cast among the ensemble, and most excitingly (for me, at least) was the fact that Colm Wilkinson, the first actor to play Jean Valjean in the West End and on Broadway was cast as the Bishop of Digne, a pivotal character that proves to be the catalyst in Jean Valjean’s life. My only real worry with regards to the singing portion of the film (of which, of course, there is a lot) was the casting of Russell Crowe as Inspector Javert, and the fact that the order of some of the songs would be different from the stage production. With a running time of about two and a half hours (the stage production is roughly three hours), there was bound to be cuts here and there, and I was curious as to what these changes and cuts were, and how it would affect the overall telling of the story.

My initial and gut reaction to this film was that it was pretty good – though not spectacular, and not totally awful either, though there were spectacular moments that moved me to tears (this happened at four instances during the film) and cringe-worthy moments that made me shudder and groan (this happened more times than it should have). Again, I know that there were bound to be differences from the stage production and the film adaptation, but I had not expected that there would be changed lyrics (some changes made sense, others did not), added lyrics (most of which were lyrical moments taken from the novel, which was fine) and chunks of verses and even entire songs omitted from the score (“Turning” was far too short, I’m not sure why this song constantly gets shortened with succeeding recordings I’ve heard, and “Dog Eats Dog” was omitted entirely, though the non-inclusion of this song does not impact the storytelling as much as the abridged inclusion of “Turning”). If the lyrics worked well for twenty-five years, why change them now? The changed order of some of the songs worked well and made sense within the context of the storytelling, and there were added moments not from the stage musical, but rather from the original novel, which was a lovely and fitting homage to that classic. The visual look of the film was fantastic, showing sweeping vistas of France as well as well filmed close-ups during solo songs; hearing the score in a THX-equipped, surround sound theater was a thrilling experience as well. The ensemble singing in “At The End of the Day”, “Look Down” and most especially ” Do You Hear The People Sing?” was nothing short of spectacular (and the placement of “Do You Hear the People Sing? within the film was inspired and poignant – a placement that could not be done on stage due to the limitations of a theatre space).

Among the standout performances were Anne Hathaway as Fantine – her direct and highly emotional rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” was astounding – her pathos enveloping her performance and radiated in every scene she was in; Eddie Redmayne as Marius – his vocal were surprisingly strong, as was the emotions conveyed during “A Little Fall of Rain” and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” (two of the instances wherein I was moved to tears); Daniel Huttlestone as Gavroche, a character whose role has been pared down of late in the stage production, but fully fleshed out in the film, he comes to symbolize the students’ revolution and embodies the ideals for which the students are fighting, which makes his fate all the more tragic. It goes without say that Aaron Tveit and Samantha Barks, Enjolras and Eponine, respectively, (both actors with a wealth of stage experience) were fantastic in their respective roles – Barks’ rendition of “On My Own” was heartbreaking; Amanda Seyfried was a splendid Cosette, albeit with far too much vibrato in her singing (but then most actresses I’ve seen as Cosette often have tinges of vibrato in their voice, so I was accustomed to it).As the scheming Thenardiers, Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter provided comic relief with subtle undertones of their treacherous nature, though much of the levity imparted during “Master of the House” was a bit too lewd for my taste, and second comic turn during “Beggar at the Feast” was well done albeit a bit too short. The inclusion of Colm Wilkinson as the Bishop of Digne was far too short, yet still impactful and a truly inspired bit of casting, and provided a wonderful circle-of-life moment as a former (original) Valjean guide the present Valjean to the path of righteousness.

As for the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe as Valjean and Javert, respectively, I was mildly disappointed by the former and truly disappointed by the latter. While Hugh Jackman has a wealth of acting and singing experience, his vocal choices were fine, though a bit nasal at times (and several keys lower than I am used to). The acting component of his vocal delivery was top-notch, yet his rendition of “Bring Him Home” did not move to tears, which was a first for me, as upon hearing any and every other rendition of the song always does, without fail; nevertheless, his voice during the “Epilogue” made up for the lack of tears on my part (the Epilogue being another moment where tears flowed freely). At first glance, it would seem that Russell Crowe would be a fitting antithesis to Valjean as the dogged Inspector Javert, stern and forbidding; Crowe’s acting ability is stellar – he excels at playing angry, angst-ridden characters. However his singing, about which I was correct to be worried, and sounded more like rhythmic speaking, was lackluster – there was hardly any emotion in his renditions of “Stars” and “Javert’s Suicide”, his voice even and unfeeling, as if he were reciting the lyrics mechanically; he almost looked uncomfortable when rhythmically speaking… I mean singing. I am aware that there are worse actors that could have been cast in this role, but surely there could have been better casting?  I will give him props for the kind of singing that seems to be out of his comfort zone. (Yes, I’m aware he has a history of singing in a rock band, but singing rock songs and singing musical theatre songs are two different things, I presume the technique is different for each genre).

All in all, I did enjoy the film as a whole, and compared to most of the recent film adaptations of musicals, Les Miserables was done well. I suppose I’m far too accustomed to the structure (and key) of stage production and perhaps much of my initial reaction will change after seeing the film again, now that all the changes and such are not so much of a surprise. The critical reviews of the film are positive, and with the box office success thus far, it has been confirmed, (according to Broadwayworld.com) that another stage revival will return to Broadway in 2014, so I guess there is some value in big name movie stars generating much box office revenue.