Getting Through the Journey – Thoughts on the Into the Woods film – December 31, 2014

“Once upon a time in a far-off kingdom, there lay a small village at the edge of the woods…”

Into The Woods film

So begins the film adaptation of Into The Woods, written by Stephen Sondheim [music and lyrics] and James Lapine [book], directed by Rob Marshall with a star-studded cast. Into the Woods is among my favorite Sondheim musicals, having seen the 2002 revival production and the 2012 production in Central Park.

[Minor disclaimer: Per usual, a good percentage of this blog will be quasi-rambling musings of my personal opinion of the film adaptation and inevitable comparisons of the stage production.]

When it was first announced that there would be a film adaptation of the show, I was anxious about the transition from stage to screen, as 98% of the more recent film adaptations of musicals were tolerable at best or horribly cast at worst. It’s no big surprise that I prefer to spend my time (and money) watching live theater over movies. There’s (almost) always something wanting when there’s a film adaptation of a musical: either it’s horribly miscast (in my opinion) with (usually young, eye candy) big name movie stars with limited singing abilities or certain aspects of the story and/or songs are shortened, rearranged or omitted to “improve” the overall narrative. That Disney was the studio to produce and distribute the film was worrying: how would Disney, the epitome of happiness and optimism, handle the darker, cynical aspects of this particular Sondheim musical? The point of the latter portion of Into the Woods is to show that “happily ever after” doesn’t necessarily happen: things might not turn out as well as expected.

Nevertheless, when the casting was announced, I was slightly mollified as there were theatre-experienced actors along with big name movie stars, though even with the likes of Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Johnny Depp among the cast, I was still (slightly) worried about their singing competency, especially tackling a Sondheim score. Thankfully, for the most part, I was not disappointed, or at least I wasn’t cringing in my (plush, reclining, leather) seat (a lovely perk found at my local movie theater). My only (minor) quibble about the film cast’s singing was that much of the score was sung within one (middle C) octave, the tempo at times seemed slower and the key was lowered, most likely to accommodate the film actors’ singing abilities. Other (quasi-minor) quibbles are the slight story changes, song omissions, and cut verses: while I understand that a film adaptation is (by definition) an adaptation and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be exactly the same as the original source material, some of the poignancy of the aforementioned darker, cynical aspects of the story is lost or watered down (whether or not that’s the doing of the Disney execs to lighten a quasi-dark story).

A quasi-short rundown of general observations are as follows:

[SPOILER ALERT if you have not seen the film adaptation or do not know the musical’s plot.]      

Having the Baker (James Corden) serve as the Narrator kinda makes sense, as he ends up telling the tale to his son, but then again, as he’s one of the characters within the overall story, he would not be able to narrate aspects of the story of which he is not present or have any knowledge. Moreover, the near removal of the Mysterious Man (the Baker’s Father), and having the song “No More” (one of my favorite songs) appear as incidental score (though the instrumental interlude is gorgeous albeit shortened) is a shame, as the character and song adds to the poignancy of the Baker’s story and serves as a better motivation to break the cycle his father started. That being said, James Corden is amazing in portraying the different facets of the Baker’s personality and his rapport with his wife (Emily Blunt) is fantastic.

Meryl Streep is a fantastic Witch, but she’s no Bernadette Peters. Then again, no one is.

While the Witch’s (over)protectiveness of Rapunzel is highlighted in the film with the beautifully sung “Stay With Me”, the (subtle, probably Disney-decreed) change to let Rapunzel ride off into the sunset and into safety with her Prince, and not have her fall victim to the Giantess’ rampage diminishes the Witch’s motivations to find Jack in order to hand him over to the Giantess, and her vehemence when she turns on Cinderella, The Baker, Little Red and Jack in “Last Midnight”. To allow only Rapunzel to (presumably) live “happily ever after” while all the other characters suffer and struggle makes no sense whatsoever.

As the two Princes, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s performance of “Agony” is ridiculously over the top and perfectly encapsulates their superficial personalities in their lament in pursuing the unobtainable (respectively Cinderella and Rapunzel). However, the absence of the second “Agony” duet undermines their shallowness and (seemingly) ingrained pursuit of the unobtainable. Though Cinderella’s Prince still strays (“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.”), Rapunzel’s Prince remains the perfect Prince Charming, which seems contrary to the point of the latter part of the film.

While there have been reviews stating that Little Red (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were cast too young, for once (!) I disagree – they look the right age, and act their age accordingly, especially in the scene where Little Red dares Jack to go back up the beanstalk to steal the harp. Their youth is a kind of counterbalance to Cinderella and The Baker, the two adults remaining to battle the Giantess, and act as a kind of mirror to reflect the situation in which they find themselves.

Hearing this Sondheim score with a full orchestra is amazing, and I enjoyed the brief insertions of two melodies from “A Little Night Music” (it took me a few seconds to recognize them). The end credits instrumentals of “Stay With Me” and “Last Midnight” were glorious.

Overall, I rather enjoyed this film adaptation, despite the aforementioned (quasi-Disneyified) changes. The film has gotten critical acclaim and has done rather well at the box office. I recommend seeing it, and afterwards going to find the DVD of the stage production of the original Broadway cast that was (legally) filmed and (legally) distributed to compare and contrast the differences.

Greeted with Thunderous Acclaim: Further Musings on Annie – July 6, 2013

Cast changes are an inevitable occurrence in long running productions – while there are actors who will remain with one show for long stretches of time (this is often the case with ensemble cast members), most actors will depart from a production (for variety of reasons, though there have been instances when said actor returns to that production, either reprising the role he/she once played or perform in a different role), and the replacement actors will often bring their own sensibilities and interpretations to their roles, with the opportunity to bring a fresh new perspective to the production while at the same time stay true to the intent of the production. Of course, then there’s the “business” side to show business, wherein cast changes are a component of marketing a production to attract potential theatergoers; for that, I do feel that there are two types of such casting: stunt casting, (usually when a big name celebrity best known for their work on television, film and/or radio is cast in a leading role for a short period of time) and star casting (wherein an established theatre actor is cast in a leading role for a short period of time). Both methods of casting are effective on the financial side of things, though sometimes not as successful in their intent; this quite long-winded explanation is a roundabout rationale for my second visit to Annie, still playing at the Palace Theater [my initial thoughts can be found here], which was to see Jane Lynch (best known as “Sue Sylvester” on the television show Glee), who was cast as Miss Hannigan for roughly three months (she is set to leave the production July 14th).

Annie Marquee Jane Lynch

When I arrived in Times Square, there was a long line at TKTS, and there were a good amount of shows listed on the TKTS board, Annie included at 40% off; however, I bypassed TKTS this time (I wasn’t in the mood to wait on the long line in the blistering sunlight – it was a quite a hot and humid day), and made my way to the Palace Theater where, to my delight, there were general rush tickets available for a reasonable price. I’ve already mentioned my thoughts on the production aspects of the show in my previous blog about the show, so I won’t reiterate them here, and the cast was essentially the same as when I last saw the show, save for the fact that understudy Sadie Sink was on as the titular character.

Annie cast list summer 2013

Needless to say Jane Lynch was astounding as Miss Hannigan, who played the role quite differently than Katie Finneran – Ms. Lynch’s approach to the role was not unlike her television alter ego Sue Sylvester, a mean bully of an authority figure with a penchant for blowing a coach’s whistle, and there were some clever references to her television role included throughout the show as well. Her tall stature also provided many humorous moments when interacting with the orphans, especially with Emily Rosenfeld, the smallest (and youngest) orphan Molly. Attention must be paid to the young actress playing the orphans, who all are, in my opinion, Broadway stars in the making should they choose to pursue this in their future. Sadie Sink, who went on as Annie was outstanding, and I’m glad that she will be one of the two girls succeeding Lilla Crawford as the optimistic titular character [the other being Taylor Richardson]. Though I had mentioned it in my earlier blog post, I do feel the need to reiterate the awesomeness that is Anthony Warlow as Oliver Warbucks, who exudes charm and heart in every scene he is in, and genuinely looks like he’s having an utterly marvelous time onstage.

The stage door experience was great as always, and as the performance I attended was a matinee, and there would be another performance later that night, the adult cast did not come out the stage door, though (once again) all the girls did. The stage door area was once again packed with people, mostly young children and their parents, who were all thrilled to see and to praise the girls for their wonderful performances.

As stated previously, I thoroughly enjoyed Annie and its message of optimism during hard times, and would highly recommend seeing the show while Jane Lynch is in the show (though Ms. Lynch will be succeeded by noted Broadway actor Faith Prince, so the odds of my seeing Annie again are high).

Annie playbill signed

More information for the show can be found on their official site: http://www.anniethemusical.com/

Never Fully Dressed Without A Smile: Annie CD signing at Barnes & Noble – June 18, 2013

Another new cast recording, another CD signing at Barnes & Noble – while I don’t (and sometimes can’t) attend every one of these CD signings, I do make an effort to attend the ones in which I have a vested interest (or even a mild interest), so long as I’m aware of the time and place it is happening beforehand. I actually found out about the CD signing for Annie yesterday, via a post on the show’s Facebook fan page, which does highlight the importance and omniscience of social media in these modern times (or perhaps it just illustrates how much time I spend on Facebook).

Annie CD Signing

Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, as I had written about my thoughts on Annie, my primary reason for attending the CD signing was to meet Anthony Warlow, of whom I am a great fan, and thought was a fantastic Oliver Warbucks. Of course it was also a great treat to meet the creative team as well as the cast, including newer cast member Jane Lynch, most famous for her role as “Sue Sylvester” on Glee. This CD signing was at a different Barnes & Noble store than the CD signings I previously attended, and the time of this signing was also much earlier than previous ones I have attended (at 12:30PM opposed to 5PM) so it was nice for a change to not have to spend all day waiting. Nevertheless, I arrived early, and (per usual) was first in line (and this time there was a nice bonus for this distinction, which I will mention shortly); interestingly, there were no wristbands given out with the purchase of the CD (and apparently there was also no limit to the number of CDs one person could get signed).

As the time of the CD signing was approaching, I heard (all right, overheard) some of the representatives from the show mention that Mr. Warlow would not be able to attend due to illness (apparently from food poisoning the night before), which (honestly) distressed me a bit, but it wasn’t his fault that happened (and I suppose I’ll find another opportunity to meet him). Nevertheless, the popular draw for the signing was Jane Lynch, and sure enough a good number of people waiting on line were Glee fans, and as the morning progressed, the line started to grow and wrap around the shelves. Shortly before the signing began, Lilla Crawford, who plays the titular orphan, appeared with a hand camcorder recording a video for Broadway.com.

The cast, and creative team, which consisted of composer Charles Strouse, lyricist Martin Charnin, and book writer Thomas Meehan, as well as record producer Thomas Z. Shepard, soon appeared and after a quick photo session for the press, the signing started in earnest.  The line moved steadily, and as I approached the creative team, I took the opportunity to shake Mr. Charnin’s hand and thank him (and also Mr. Strouse and Mr. Meehan) for this wonderful show. As I made my way down the end of the line, Douglas Denoff (another one of the record producers was at the other end of the line and asked to take a photo of me with the signed CDs (as he had learned that I arrived early for the signing and was first in line), which was a nice gesture, and a nice reward (if you will) of my dedication.

Annie Cast and Creative Team

 

The Creative Team behind Annie: (from left to right) Thomas Meehan (book), Martin  Charnin (lyrics) & Charles Strouse (music)

Fully Dressed With A Smile: (from left to right) Thomas Meehan (book), Martin Charnin (lyrics) and Charles Strouse (music)

There was no opportunity to linger about, as there was a long line behind me, and everyone was being ushered out after their CD booklets were signed. Nevertheless, it was a lovely experience to meet the cast and also the entire creative team of such an iconic show, and to have the opportunity to thank them for their wonderful work.

Annie Signed CDs

Clears Away the Cobwebs and the Sorrow: Musings on Annie – January 13, 2013

Economic uncertainty and high unemployment rates, resulting in an overwhelming resentment towards the previous presidential administration that failed to live up to its promises of prosperity, with the new President struggling to find a viable solution to stimulate the economy – this scenario could apply to the sentiments felt by many Americans in recent years. However, this is the state of the nation in the world as depicted in Annie, currently playing at the Palace Theatre, which is set in New York City in the midst of the Great Depression.

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[Disclaimer: Once again, in the spirit of full disclosure, my sole interest in seeing Annie was primarily based on the fact that Anthony Warlow, an acclaimed singer and actor best known for his remarkable performance in Phantom of the Opera in his native Australia, was finally making his Broadway debut in Annie as Oliver Warbucks. Having only heard him on various cast recordings and solo albums, not to mention rave reviews from my Australian friends, I was looking forward to seeing him perform live on stage. So, some advanced warning that there will most likely be some mild fan-girly moments within this blog post.]

Nowadays there seems to be a lot of cynicism and resignation everywhere you look, so the optimism and hope the title character exudes even when her life at the orphanage seems bleak, and turns out to be quite infectious. This is the first time I have seen this musical on stage, only having only seen the 1982 movie and the 1999 TV movie version, albeit many years ago. Interestingly, Annie was not among the discounted shows on the TKTS board, though it did appear on the TKTS boards roughly a half hour before show time, which was after obtaining balcony box seats via the box office; the balcony box seats (on the left side) had a full view of the stage, albeit at an angle. The show was fantastic, and started off humorously with the usual pre-show announcement literally barked out (by a dog) and translated by that usual omnipresent voice. The set design was inspired, with the set pieces depicting the various rooms in Oliver Warbucks’ mansion magically unfolding like a large storybook, in contrast to the single, stark set for the orphanage from where Annie manages to escape. Another interesting change (at least from the aforementioned movie versions I’ve seen), the orphans all sang and spoke with distinct New York accents, which added a bit of the realism of the piece.

The cast was amazing – Lilla Crawford as the titular Annie was fantastic – her  spunk and tenacity shone through her poignant renditions of “Tomorrow” and “Maybe”. Anthony Warlow brought humor and heart to what is usually a more austere role, and his lovely baritone voice was just as wonderful to hear live my friends have extolled – his charm is ever-present from the moment he walks on stage, and his comedic timing is impeccable. Katie Finneran gave a spectacularly outrageous performance as the Miss Hannigan, playing the role in a uniquely madcap (and drunken) manner, she, along with Clarke Thorell as Rooster Hannigan and J. Elaine Marcos as Lily St. Regis provide the comic relief, as well as a dose of pragmatism as the recount their plot to get to “Easy Street”. Of course, Sunny, as Sandy the dog more or less upstaged his human counterparts, getting cheers and applause from the audience, which predominantly consisted of young children (mostly girls) and their parents.

The stage door experience was fine as always, composed mostly of the aforementioned children and their parents – as the newer schedule has two performances on Sunday (most shows usually have one performance on Sundays, if any), many of the adult cast did not come out the stage door, though all the girls did, which was fine, as the crowd of girls that surrounded me wanted to meet them (and Sandy as well, though we were informed that the dog would not come out). The nice thing that happens at the Palace Theatre stage door is that there is someone (usually one of the security personnel) hands out (silver, this time) sharpies to the actors upon their exiting the stage door, which is always helpful to those waiting at the stage door to help identify cast members from the crew or visitors who also exit out the stage door.

All in all, I enjoyed Annie, and would recommend it (if only to witness the sheer awesomeness of Anthony Warlow and the absolute fabulousness of Katie Finneran), and it’s one of the few (inoffensive) family friendly musicals left on Broadway that’s guaranteed to leave the audience singing the songs upon leaving the theatre.

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