Thursday, April 12, 2012

Run For Your Life

Extenuating circumstances can force a person to take desperate measures. While quick thinking can save the day, not everyone who must flee an intolerable situation is guaranteed the support of a witness protection program.

Whether one flees a sinking ocean liner, an abusive husband, or a crime scene, fear and paranoia remain close behind. Like a thief avoiding capture -- or a delicious-looking piece of prey trying to outwit a powerful predator -- a heightened awareness of one's surroundings is the key to survival.

In today's world of GPS devices it's much easier to track down a fugitive. Last month, the digital footprints left by Tyler Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, helped the jury convict Ravi on 15 charges, including bias intimidation, evidence tampering, and invasion of privacy.

Plenty of films have been based on the urgent need to run for one's life. From James Bond and Indiana Jones to Captain Jack Sparrow, from the car chases in Bullitt and Christine to Thelma and Louise, desperate men and women have tried to outwit and outrun their pursuers.

My favorite chase scene has less to do with guns and automobiles than it does with a highly-stylized piece of musical theatre. In the following clip, students from the Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey, do a splendid job of performing "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet from The King and I, with Laurie Chrochet recreating the original choreography by Jerome Robbins.

In two recent productions, distressed parties on the run included the lowliest and holiest of fugitives. In one story, the people are the run are close to penniless. In the other, the escapee is one of the wealthiest and most powerful people in the world.

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In 1959, a new film by Billy Wilder became a smash hit thanks, in large part, to its hilarious script and some great performances by Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, Marilyn Monroe, and Joe E. Brown. Some Like It Hot told the tale of two out-of-work musicians who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When Joe and Jerry witness a gangland murder in a Chicago parking garage during the famous St. Valentine's Day Massacre, the only way to save their lives is to dress up in drag and join up with an all-girl's band leaving town for Miami. Along the way, Joe falls in love with the band's lead singer and ukulele player, Sugar Kane while Jerry (disguised as Daphne) is wooed by an elderly millionaire. The film's final scene became an instant classic.

Several months before moving from Providence to San Francisco, I caught a performance of Sugar during its Boston tryout at the Colonial Theatre. Based on Some Like It Hot, the show starred Robert Morse and Tony Roberts, with Elaine Joyce in the role made famous by Marilyn Monroe. It had a book by Peter Stone (who had worked on Skyscraper, 1776, and Two By Two) and music and lyrics by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, (who had collaborated on 1964's Funny Girl and 1971's ill-fated Prettybelle). Sugar was produced by David Merrick and directed and choreographed by Gower Champion (who had worked together on Hello, Dolly! in 1964, I Do! I Do! in 1966, and The Happy Time in 1968).

The show had a solid pedigree, heavy group sales, and the promise of a big, old-fashioned musical to please the proverbial tired businessman. It also had some major problems.

Few if any people knew who Elaine Joyce was. Although Cyril Richard (who played Osgood Fielding, Jr.) was a popular Broadway star, few people knew anything about Sheila Smith who, after having understudied Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur in Mame  (I saw Smith perform as both Mame Dennis and Sally Cato in the original Broadway production) and Elaine Stritch in Company, had been cast as the bandleader, Sweet Sue.

Unfortunately, early performances in Boston were a letdown and the show developed a reputation on the road as being in deep trouble. T.E. Kalem, the critic for Time magazine, was a lot nicer than Clive Barnes (the critic for The New York Times) when he wrote that:
"Sugar has been so thoroughly processed, refined and filtered that it has lost the natural energy that makes a good musical strong and healthy. If hummable songs are a plus, Jule Styne's songs are hummable, though you may not know quite which homogenized number you are humming. As for Bob Merrill's lyrics, they are the labored products of a man hovering over a rhyming dictionary. Sugar is almost a textbook case of a musical born after its time. It may well enjoy great wads of audience favor. But in the past three years, Company and Follies have altered the critical perspective by providing a musical form that is spare, intelligent, ironic, mature and capable of sustaining three-dimensional characters. This is not to say that the big, old-fashioned musical is irrevocably doomed, but it must have a singular mood, manner and meaning all its own. Otherwise, all that remains, as Sugar indicates, is a sterile display of high-gloss techniques."
While the show's book, lyrics, and music met with lukewarm reviews, there was little if any criticism of theatrical technique. Gower Champion had furnished the show with some hot tap numbers (which were eclipsed in his 1980 staging of 42nd Street). The notorious scene stealer and talented comic flirt, Robert Morse, had himself a field day mugging in drag as Daphne. In the following clip, Morse and Roberts recreate their big number at Carnegie Hall.

In 1992, the musical finally made it to London. Retitled Some Like It Hot, the production only lasted for three months. In the following clip, its star, Tommy Steele (who was so charming in Half A Sixpence), sings the title song during his nightclub act.

Dyan McBride recently staged Sugar for San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon (a company dedicated to "lost Broadway musicals) and, although the cast worked extremely hard, it was clear that Sugar had not improved all that much since its Boston tryout.

Despite solid performances by Darlene Popovic as Sweet Sue, Scott Hayes as Osgood Fielding, Jr., and Riley Krull as Sugar, the show ultimately rests on the shoulders of its two male leads. Both Michael Kern Cassidy (as Joe/Josephine) and Tony Panighetti (as Jerry/Daphne) worked hard to entertain the audiences and hit comic gold.

Tony Panighetti, Riley Krull, and Michael Kern Cassidy
in 42nd Street Moon's Sugar (Photo by: David Allen)

Unfortunately, the real problem is the show itself. While 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of Sugar's Broadway premiere, other than "The Beauty That Makes Men Mad" and "Doin' It For Sugar," the hard truth is that there are other neglected Jule Styne scores -- in particular, Subways Are For Sleeping (1961), Fade Out, Fade In (1964), and Hallelujah, Baby! (1967) -- that are far more worthy of 42nd Street Moon's attention. Here's the trailer:

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Although I have precious little respect for the Roman Catholic Church, I found Nanni Moretti's new film, We Have A Pope, deeply moving. The reason is simple: It depicts the agony of a complex, conflicted cardinal who exhibits all of the humility, humanity, and integrity that Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) so sorely lacks.

Michel Piccoli as Cardinal Melville

The movie opens on a somber note as Catholics mourn the death of their Pope. All thoughts soon turn to the College of Cardinals, who must meet in a Papal conclave in order to choose a successor. As the vote is tallied, a surprise winner emerges: Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli).

But there's a problem.

Just as Cardinal Melville is being dressed in the Pope's finery and is about to greet the crowd from the balcony facing St. Peter's Square, he suffers an anxiety attack which is far more troubling than mere stage fright.  It's a crisis of confidence which leads to the sight of the Pope-to-be running through the halls of the Apostolic Palace in search of a place to hide. From the official Vatican perspective, this is no time for any "Rope-A-Pope" or "Pope-On-A-Rope" jokes.

Michel Piccoli as the Pope-to-be

Nothing like this has ever happened before and no one in the Vatican knows what to do. After the Vatican's resident physician gives the Pope a clean bill of health, Professor Brezzi (a nonreligious male psychotherapist played by the filmmaker, Nanni Moretti) is brought in from the outside to consult on the case. He quickly learns how difficult it is to question his patient when:
  • A sizable number of cardinals insist on watching and commenting on his every move.
  • Many of the questions he needs to ask are considered inappropriate under the circumstances.
  • Protocol requires him to call his patient "Holiness."
Melville is refreshingly blunt about the fact that he does not want to become the next Pope. Some of his reluctance is due to his fears of inadequacy; some of it involves his need for more time to think about whether he is even qualified to perform the job.

When Melville escapes from his chauffeur and goes rogue, he leaves behind  a college full of baffled cardinals and a Vatican spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) struggling to do damage control. While Melville rides around Rome on public transit, he watches ordinary people going about their lives in relative peace and anonymity. After checking in with the Vatican via cell phone, he finds himself sitting in a theatre, watching a rehearsal of Anton Chekhov's drama, The Seagull (in which his sister had once performed).

A nonreligious psychotherapist (Nanni Moretti) tries to
distract the anxious cardinals with a volleyball tournament

Meanwhile, Brezzi has organized a volleyball tournament to keep the cardinals distracted. A member of the Swiss Guard (Gianluca Gobbi) has been recruited to stay in the Pope's apartment and jiggle the drapes so that the public thinks the new Pope is, at the very least, alive and well. As the filmmaker explains:
"The cardinals' conclave is from our imagination, but we respected the actual rituals and liturgies of a real conclave. I wanted to depict Cardinal Melville as a fragile man who feels inadequate in the face of power and the role he's called to fill. I think this feeling of inadequacy happens to all cardinals elected Pope (or at least that's what they say). The Pope escapes from the Vatican and strolls around the city where he finds himself in situations which he had not experienced for a long time. His wandering around Rome leads Melville and the audience to ask themselves certain questions. Meanwhile, the psychoanalyst remains a prisoner inside the Vatican where, after initially feeling disoriented, he ends up appearing almost at ease."
Piccoli delivers a beautifully layered performance as the confused, frightened, and lonely Melville. Margherita Buy has a nice supporting role as Brezzi's wife (whom the Pope secretly visits in her role as a female psychotherapist). From a visual standpoint, Moretti's film is a knockout (the Swiss Guards are hot, the Vatican palace is magnificent and, if you like bright red costumes, they're everywhere).

However, at the core of We Have A Pope is a man who clearly knows his limits and is terrified that his God might think better of him. Feeling hopeless and helpless, Melville's solution offers a ray of hope for the Roman Catholic Church which, I imagine, they're far too stubborn to seize and use as a lifeline toward any future relevance. Here's the trailer:

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