Sunday, February 26, 2017

Quick takes on 2016 Best Picture nominees

Sunny Pawar in Lion

Here are my impressions of the movies I have seen on the Best Picture list, plus Snowden which should have been included but wasn't (too political, I guess) and a huge thumbs up to Hell or High Water  
(already reviewed). 

La La Land - is for la la brain dead. After the first scene on the highway, it descends and never recovers.  A chick flick.  If you like dancing and singing, this one's for you but it doesn't have much meat.  No to Best Picture. (Attention: Carla:  Rafi will not like.)

Manchester by the Sea - yes, as depressing as rumored. A good story but if there's a movie with a more unpredictable, worse ending, I can't recall what it is other than, maybe, Ole Yeller.

Skip Manchester if you are experiencing an emotional upset, are downfallen, sick, sad, disturbed about the presidency, Ziki, alt-right, global warming or romantic ventures, need a pedicure, money, drugs, or can't find the remote. No to Best Picture (Carla:  I'm not sure how Rafi will like Manchester.  Better to stay at home.)

Lion - great all the way around.  Will win Best Picture unless (likely) overtaken by Fences (the trailer looks so mundane) or Hidden Figures, two movies of color and Figures about women, both very much in vogue today.  Neither movie have I seen but that's not stopping me to predict Hidden Figures (women and black women) will win.  

The prime weakness in Lion (they all have weaknesses) was the rush to finish the search.  More time should have been devoted to the hunt for his homeland rather than the buildup.  You'll understand if you see it.  

Nicole Kidman in Lion is good, but not good enough to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress, let alone  win. (Carla: Lion is a yes for Rafi.)

The Salesman - nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.  Dull.  One of those you keep hoping will take off, but it never leaves the runway. Acting, commendable, but nothing to write Aunt Frances  about. This is a "psychological thriller"?  Maybe to friends of the producer, to Iranians, or the critics (they are so predictable) but not to those of us accustomed to "psychological thrillers." (Carla:  No)

And that's all she wrote!


Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Olney's 'Sweeney Todd' is a thriller chiller and (update) prices, slashed!

"Darling!  I have a grand idea!" Mrs. Lovett (E. Faye Butler) sings her brainstorm to Sweeney Todd (David Benoit) at Olney Theatre Center. Photo: Stan Barouh

From the moment the blood starts trickling down the red curtain, flowing from the title Sweeney Todd, you know you're in for a spine-tingling, delicious treat, different from the happy, sunny shows you often see on stage, and you shall not be disappointed at the Olney Theatre this fortnight. 

I loved, loved, loved Sweeney Todd! But then, the macabre has always been an attraction for me.
"Watch that razor, laddie" Judge Turpin  (Thomas Adrian Simpson) tells Sweeney Todd  (David Benoit) in Olney Theatre Center's production. Photo: Stan Barouh

Readers, the Olney has done it again:  With lights, camera, and action, the legendary tale of Sweeney Todd, the butcher barber of Fleet Street, unfolds in music before you to devour and admire.  

For theatre fans, Sweeney Todd is must-see.

David Benoit is Sweeney, who, I am certain, will earn a Helen Hayes nomination.  He's strong, he's passionate, and he's consumed by revenge on the conceited, the arrogant Judge Turpin (Thomas Adrian Simpson), whom you grow to detest for the evil the judge has wrought: sending Sweeney to prison for a crime Sweeney didn't commit,  brutalizing Sweeney's wife and then becoming the guardian of the couple's young daughter, Johanna (Gracie Jones), whom, as years pass, Judge Turpin, has grown to admire and desire to become his own wife.

Sweeney will have none of it!  And returns to London from prison determined to right his wrongs. 

The tone of the show descends, like a roller coaster running down a  mountain while gathering momentum and more energy and sinking faster and faster before it hits rock bottom, ending in a pile of destruction.

The star of the Olney's Mary Poppins, Patricia Hurley, is back for Sweeney, this time as little more than a startling pile of rags upon the floor, a role she performs with her usual dexterity and mastery.  

The voices are strong and powerful, none finer than that of Anthony (Jobari Parker-Namdar) who is Johanna's boyfriend.

Mrs. Lovett (E. Faye Butler) is the funny, vivacious and buxom wannabe girlfriend of Sweeney whose eyes almost pop out of her  haid when she dreams up a special concoction for treats for her home menu. (Helen Hayes Nomination:  Best Supporting Actress.)

I am convinced Sweeney's lighting by Colin K. Bills will earn Bills a Helen Hayes nomination.

The set by Milagros Ponce de Leon beautifully transitions from a dark and shadowy gallows, a prison, and insane asylum in tandem roles on the darkened stage which never relinquishes its underground atmosphere of a mole's hole.

A brighter day for Sweeney Todd?  There is none.

Music by the unseen and much appreciated 12-piece orchestra under the direction of Christopher Youstra with Doug Lawler conducting is spot-on, per custom.

Jason Loewith, Olney's artistic director, directs with masterful strokes, putting all the talents of his fine cast on display. 

Seth Gilbert's costumes are fitting, dark, and brown with barely a trace of color in keeping with London's underground tomblike environment.  

The play shows the power of revenge and its consequences.  If you want to see a different revenge ending, try The Salesman, an Iranian film nominated for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, however lacking in Sweeney's passion and force, power and intensity (a little too bland for some of us).

Sweeney is so horrible it is bound to be based on (partial) truth because, as Mark Twain wrote: "Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't." 

Wikipedia says Sweeney Todd comes from legend and none other than Charles Dickens and his Pickwick Papers  (be careful of  kitten pies), which was followed ten years later, in 1846 by a serial (different author) about the gristly tale. 

Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd opened on Broadway in 1979 and is it any wonder after seeing this marvelous presentation that it captured eight Tony Awards?

Sweeney Todd  bears a resemblance to another chapter in the annals of debauchery, namely Eating Raoul , a film distributed in 1982, sure to delight black comedy lovers and highly recommended.

Sweeney is not a show for children under age 12 but certain to make an impression on those who are older and possibly instill in them a lifelong love of theatre like a high school presentation of Bye, Bye, Birdie did for me in the ninth grade.  (Which seems so tame for today's high schoolers.  Still, lots of fun!)

Sweeney Todd is a story to be enjoyed by all who are hungry for a little more to taste than plain and happy Broadway tales.

Bon appetit! 

Other cast members are Michael J. Mainwaring, Frank Viveros, Rachel Zampelli,Kenneth Derby, Jade Jones, Benjamin Lurye, Quynh-My Luu, Alan Naylor, Adam Strube, Janine Sunday, Joseph Torello, Melissa Victor, and Laura Whittenberger.

And crew: Tommy Rapley, choreographer; Zach Campion, dialect coach; John Keith Hall, production stage manager; Casey Kaleba, fight director; Matt Rowe, sound; Debbie Ellinghaus, managing director; Zachary Borovay, projection director; Dennis Blackledge, director of production, and Anne Nesmith, wigs and hair.

What:  Sweeney Todd:  The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

When:  Wednesday through Sunday eves at 8 p.m. with a Wednesday matinee at 2 p.m., Feb. 22,  and weekend matinees at 2 p.m. with the last show at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 5, 2017


Where: Olney Theatre Center, 2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, 
Olney, MD 20832

How much: Tickets begin at $38 with discounts for seniors, groups, military, and studentsUpdate:  Prices cut in half!

Select Performances of Sweeney Todd

Get 50% off Adult tickets to these performances of Sweeney Todd:
Wednesday, March 1 at 8:00 pm
Thursday, March 2 at 8:00 pm
Friday, March 3 at 8:00 pm
Saturday, March 4 at 2:00 pm
Saturday, March 4 at 8:00 pm
Sunday, March 5 at 2:00 pm
To redeem, visit, select ADULT ticket type and enter the code ST50 or call the Box Office at 301.924.3400 and mention the code. Valid only for select Sweeney Todd performances. Subject to availability. Not to be combined with any other offers. Not valid on previously purchased tickets. All sales final. This offer expires at 12:00pm on March 5, 2017.

Duration:  Two hours, 45 minutes with one intermission 

Refreshments:  Available and may be taken to seats

Parking:  Free and plentiful on-site

For more information and tickets: 301-924-3400 for the box office or 301-924-4485



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Russian composers invade D.C.

Haochen Zhang plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Piotr Gajewski conducting the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

It was last month, and I do not think the Trump/Putin bromance (or sanctions or something worse?) had anything to do with the presentations since they were planned long before those two got together, and whatever, it was heaven!

The front row? The front row?

I got the last ticket on the front row at Strathmore.
Haochen Zhang plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with Piotr Gajewski conducting the National Philharmonic at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Starting off that weekend was the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center which played the Eighth Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) to celebrate what would have been the 90th birthday year of cellist and former NSO conductor and music director, Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-1997)

Shostakovich was one of the honoree's teachers whom Rostropovich called "the most important man in my life, after my father."

In the program, "A Salute to Slava" (the nickname for Rostropovich), violinist Gidon Kremer played a concerto by  Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-1996) under the direction of the renowned NSO Christoph Eschenbach (who's leaving the place, thanks to the perfectionists in this town who are never happy). 
 National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Kremer, one of the world's leading violinists and winner of many international prizes, began studying music at age four with his father and grandfather, both distinguished musicians themselves.  

Never have I seen as many people at the NSO as were there that Friday night, and half, I think, were Russians.  Many newcomers were in the hall, made known by their clapping between movements. But, they were there.
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, right, and guest artist Haochen Zhang congratulate each other and the orchestra at the conclusion of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Then, two days later at Strathmore was my favorite composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943), whose Piano Concerto No. 2 was played by the young and debonair, Haochen Zhang, under the direction of Piotr Gajewski for the National Philharmonic.

Was it possible, a dream that I sat on the front row? On the pianist's side?
Haochen Zhang completes Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2 with National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Only when I arrived at the Concert Hall did I realize the 
superb placement of my seat, the very last "cheap seat" ($23) which was available to me for purchase on Saturday, a gift to be seated just below Mr. Zhang's whip like fingers which I could watch move up and down the keyboard while he and Conductor Gajewski frequently exchanged meaningful glances.  

Or maybe that's the way it always is, between maestro and artist but my golden eagle's eye of what was happening lay before me.

Before Mr.Zhang touched one key, a hush filled the house, attendees knowing what pleasure awaited them (who did not clap between movements). 
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, left, and Haochen Zhang congratulate each other at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie
National Philharmonic Conductor Piotr Gajewski, left, and Haochen Zhang receive acclaim at the Music Center at Strathmore/photo by Patricia Leslie

Mr. Zhang did not have to watch his hands on the piano.  He frequently looked up at the conductor, waiting for a nod (or perhaps it was the other way around) while his fingers raced up and down the keyboard, and I believe his eyes were sometimes shut while he played, since my perspective, below and behind him, did not lend itself to confirm exactly what or where his eyes were doing or going.

But I could see his hair rustle when he leaped a few inches off the bench after a heavy pounding as if he had received an electrical shock. Meanwhile, the conductor weaved and bobbed and curled as if in Olympic competition, batonless, nodding, smiling when he turned halfway around to lock eyes with the guest star.

Pictures were verboten, but as I sat there and listened, I realized I would have to suffer the consequences and the anticipated verbal blows from those around me, because it was a gift, a gift, I tell you that I was there, right in that very seat, forced by circumstance to "fire away," and I did!

Heave ho!

Please forgive the poor quality of the photographs, but in stealth did I snap. And no one came to bid me "adieu" or much worse.

The best photograph would have had Mr. Gajewski standing in the background while he and Mr. Zhang exchanged glances, but I had to carefully choose timing for the crime (last movement, without clapping) in order to incur less wrath.  

(Before the performance began, I asked a startled usher who remained speechless but tried to smile, if I could take photos, please, during the presentation, and realizing my gaffe, told her: "We'll pretend we never had this conversation.")

Would anyone be surprised to learn Mr. Gajewski has a law degree, a license to practice law in two states, and formerly served on the city council in Rockville, Maryland?  He studied under Leonard Bernstein, Seiji Ozawa, Andre Previn, and is also the principal guest conductor of the Silesian Philharmonic in his native Poland.

Meanwhile, Mr. Zhang, 26, of China, a graduate of Philadelphia's Curtis Institute of Music, won a gold medal at the Thirteenth Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in 2009 and performs around the world.  

Also on the program and not to be overlooked was the memorable Symphony No. 8 by Antonin Dvorak, born (1841) and died (1904) in his native Czech Republic.

I was in love.  Just in time for Valentine's Day.

Next up for the National Philharmonic at Strathmore this Saturday, February 18, will be Brian Ganz to play Chopin's Nocturnes, Polonaises, Mazurkas, and Etudes, under the direction of Conductor Gajewski.

And over at Ken Cen February 16 - 18, violinist Hilary Hahn will join the NSO to play Mendelssohn, Strauss, Janacek, and Dvorak.

I believe I can attend both.