Friday, March 27, 2009

Rudd and Segel a comedic duo to 'love'

Paul Rudd, a reliable supporting comedic actor for more than a decade, continues his transition to leading man in the very funny “I Love You, Man.”

“I Love You, Man” is the latest in the recent trend of films being termed bromances. These are films that take the outrageous frat boy humor of films like “Old School” and “Anchorman” and graft it on to a romantic comedy structure. Just as much, if not more, time is spent with the male lead hanging with his guy friends as courting the female lead.

Writer, director and producer Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) is responsible in some way for the vast majority of these movies, which play to a large cross-section of moviegoers because the sweetness and positive values buried at their core counterbalances the coarser, low-brow humor.

“I Love You, Man” takes the concept of a bromance and runs with it. This time the central relationship is the male one. Rudd stars as Peter, who after proposing to his finance (Rashida Jones, “The Office”) realizes he has always only had female friends and begins a quest to find a guy friend to be his best man.

Peter goes on a series of failed man-dates until he meets Sydney (Jason Segel, “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) and they instantly hit it off despite, or because of, the fact that they are opposites. Peter is repressed and painfully awkward while Sydney is the sort of free spirit who justifies not cleaning up after his dog because it is good for the environment.

The film has their relationship go through all the romantic comedy clichés: the meet cute, the first few dates, and the inevitable break up over a misunderstanding followed by the even more inevitable reconciliation. Some may complain this makes the film predictable, but having the platonic male relationship play as a romantic one yields laughs as familiar conventions are tweaked.

John Hamburg, the writer of “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers,” co-wrote and directed the film. After being stuck in PG-13 world, Hamburg seems to be liberated now that he is in the R-rated realm.

Hamburg is dealing with the same sort of humor that made the “Meet” films popular, but here it seems less forced and more sincere. A lot of that has to do with Rudd and Segel, who both have a natural ease on screen and an inherent likability.

Rudd makes Peter’s awkwardness sublimely funny, but never to the point of being annoying. Watching him desperately try to be nonchalant and cool by making up nonsensical nicknames and expressions gets big laughs, but it is a credit to Rudd’s performance that he has the audience rooting for him.

Segel is also very good here. His Sydney could have come up off as obnoxious or grating, but like Rudd’s performance, he emanates a sweetness. Segel and Rudd have a great comedic chemistry together that is easygoing and fun. Much of the film is them just hanging out, which could drag except we enjoy spending time with these guys.

It isn’t just their show. The film is populated by a good supporting cast including Jon Favreau (“Four Christmases”) and Jamie Pressly (“My Name is Earl”) as a bickering couple, and J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) and Jane Curtin (“3rd Rock from the Sun”) underused as Peter’s parents.

Andy Samburg (“Saturday Night Live”) amuses in a low-key performance as Peter’s gay brother that busts all the gay stereotypes. Then there is Lou “The Hulk” Ferrigno playing himself. He is worked into the movie because Peter is a Realtor selling Ferrigno’s house, but whatever the excuse it is cameo that could’ve been gimmick that turns out to work.

Rashida Jones’ finance character is underwritten, but she’s very good here and thankfully isn’t written or played shrill. We like her and want Peter to be with her. Jones, in her first major film role, is funny and warm, and it will be interesting to see what she does with a bigger role.

“I Love You, Man” offers further prove that its leads are two of the funniest comic actors working today, and that should be enough to warrant seeing it. Thankfully, the movie holds together quite nicely as a whole.

'Warmth of the Cold' hits close to home

M&D's latest production set in Berlin, N.H.

M&D Productions’ latest show opened Thursday at Your Theatre in Willow Common in North Conway, and it hits close to home. “The Warmth of the Cold” is a family drama set in Berlin, New Hampshire during the year’s worst snowstorm.

The play, directed by Neil Pankhurst of the Winnipesaukee Playhouse, deals with issues perhaps all too familiar: the closing of a mill and the devastating effect it can have on a family. The press materials released for the show quoted the Tennessee Williams’ expression, “the thundercloud of a common crisis.”

The evocation of Williams’ work is an accurate one as New Hampshire playwright Lowell Williams’ script deals with a dysfunctional family very much in the same way Tennessee Williams did in such works as “The Glass Menagerie,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Each member of the family has a different reaction to the mill closing. Hal (Dan Tetreault), the husband and father, takes to the road as a truck driver to support his family. Carol (Rae McCarey), the mother and wife, becomes mentally unstable, forever clinging to the idea that the mill will reopen.

Daughter Samantha (Katie Gustafson) retreats into her studies in hopes of earning a college scholarship. Son Robbie (Kyle Mulcahy) feels the pressure to be the man of the house in his father’s absence and takes a path of easy money to help support his family.

There is a major plot point and reoccurring theme that wouldn’t be fair to reveal here because its discovery within the play is something the audience should not be robbed of. It does make discussing some of the finer details of the play more difficult.

The dynamic between the two siblings is an interesting one, which is a polite way of saying their relationship will make people ill at ease. Robbie is very emotionally dependent on Samantha, and the idea of her leaving leads to some vehement arguments.

Although her children are in their teens, Carol is far more childlike than they are, in think in a complete role reversal they often send her to her room. Carol’s mental state has good days and bad days and Robbie placates and feeds into his mother’s fantasies, which becomes another point of confrontation with Samantha.

All the performances are first rate. These actors are dealing with heavy emotions and are involved in intense scenes that leave them exposed and vulnerable. There is a good deal of shouting in the play, and there is a danger of actors coming off as shrill or simply yelling instead of getting at the emotion behind the screaming, but that is definitely not the case here.

McCarey does a good job portraying Carol’s mental instability in a way that doesn’t become cheap, over-the-top or insincere. It is a sympathetic portrayal that should make audiences care about her.

Mulcahy plays Robbie’s struggle to keep his family together well. You can sense the pressure to stay strong for his family tearing at him until, in a pair of climatic scenes in the second act, he can no longer hold it together.

Gustafson’s Samantha is the play’s most stable character, but even she struggles with insecurities that she won’t be able to get into college. Samantha fears she will be stuck in town working at Wal-Mart for the rest of her life. Gustafson registers these fears in subtle ways such as a facial expression or the way she carries herself.

Tetreault’s Hal is romanticized for much of the play as being a great husband and father, but it is revealed in a flashback with Mulcahy that he was far from perfect. His ideas of how men and women should interact were outmoded. Tetreault is effective at hinting at Hal’s darker side behind a seemingly ideal façade.

“The Warmth of the Cold” is a challenging night of theater, but one with rewards for those that accept the challenge. For tickets or information call 662-7591 or e-mail

Friday, March 20, 2009

Rourke is astounding in 'The Wrestler'

Mickey Rourke may not have won the Oscar for Best Actor for his astounding performance in “The Wrestler” but he won nearly every other major film award including the BAFTA, the Golden Globe and the Independent Spirit Award and deservedly so. Don’t miss this performance.

Rourke was a promising young actor in the 1980s who became a star with performances in such films as “Diner” and “The Pope of Greenwich Village,” but several bad career moves and a detour into professional boxing left him on the outs in the film industry.

In recent years he has slowly been making a comeback with strong supporting roles in films such as “Sin City” and “Domino.” “The Wrestler” marks his return as a great actor.

In “The Wrestler,” Rourke plays a washed up professional wrestler named Randy “The Ram” Robinson, who is barely staying afloat and desperately trying to make a comeback. It is easy to see why Rourke was drawn to this material and he taps into raw emotions that few actors do. There’s a speech toward the end of the film where he could easily be talking about himself.

Randy has a strained relationship with the daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, “Across the Universe”) he walked out on years ago. This is familiar material, but rarely are scenes like this written with such honesty and performed with so much intense, seemly real emotion. Wood and Rourke share scenes that could make even the toughest tough guy shed a tear.

The other relationship in Randy’s life is with Cassidy, a striper (Marisa Tomei, “My Cousin Vinnie”) at a club he frequents. They have a rapport that could be more than simply her being nice to him because he’s a costumer and he would like to create a real relationship. She’s guarded about this, but slowly let’s herself become involved.

Tomei does strip in the film, and not just typical “movie striping” this is the real, nasty deal. The amazing thing about her performance is that she makes Cassidy a full character. She’s a tender, compassionate person with a daughter. She stripes as a means to an end. Again, this may sound familiar, but the script by Robert Siegel instills all these scenes with authenticity.

The film is a departure for director Darren Aronofsky whose previous films “Pi,”
“Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain” were full of visual trickery. The filmmaking here is more simplistic, restrained and less showy. Aronofsky simply trusts the story and character instead of the visual gimmicks that while effective in his other films would’ve been distracting here.

This is not a wrestling movie although there are scenes in the ring and for those who are wrestling fans there are scenes that show some of the tricks of the trade and post-show clean up that are fascinating. Those who aren’t wrestling fans should not dismiss the film because of the occupation of its title character.

"The Wrestler" is a study of someone who is broken by life and just struggling to make it through each day. Rourke’s Randy is a man who is desperately reaching out for some sort of emotional connection whether it is with his daughter or a striper turned potential girlfriend. It is a movie about how much a person can take before they just give up.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spread the word

Arts in Motion Youth Players and the Kennett Drama Club present 'Grease'

There is a great debate over what the word is. The Beatles said it was love. The Trashmen claimed it was bird. For the next two weeks at Kennett High School’s Loynd Auditorium in North Conway there is no question that the word is “Grease.”

“Grease,” a collaboration between the Arts in Motion Youth Players and the Kennett Drama Club, opened Thursday and will be performed March 19-21 as well as March 26-28.

The 1950s-set musical first appeared on Broadway in 1971, and, thanks to the 1978 film adaptation starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, has had staying power. “Grease" has slipped into our greater cultural consciousness and, whether they like it or not, most people are at least familiar with some of the songs.

For those who have managed to avoid “Grease,” it tells the story of Danny (senior Ged Owen) and Sandy (senior Molly Paven) who meet over the summer and fall in love only to find that when school starts they run in different social circles. Danny is a greaser with a reputation to protect, and Sandy is a goody-two-shoes who doesn’t fit in with the tough, fun-loving Pink Ladies.

Three new songs were written for the film including the popular “You’re the One That I Want.” In Broadway revivals of the show, these songs are often included — and that’s also the case with the production at Kennett.

In the film as well as on stage, the roles have almost always been played by adults, so one plus that a high school production of “Grease” has is that all the actors are age appropriate for their roles.

This production directed by Glenn Noble is bright and lively with some spectacular choreography by junior Rebecca Sciola.

“Born to Hand Jive” features some nicely incorporated swing dance moves that are well performed by the cast. “Greased Lightning,” featuring choreography by junior Shannon Reville, is a show highlight with many of the guys doing some impressive flips.

All the show’s most popular songs are presented and performed here well. “Summer Nights,” with Danny and Sandy telling contradictory version of their summer romance to their gossip-hungry cliques, starts the show off with high energy and the right tone of humor.

Senior Casper Van Coesant is a standout as Teen Angel serenading the ditsy Frenchie (freshman Shelby Noble) on the cheeky “Beauty School Dropout.”

The two leads, Owen and Paven, carry the show nicely, with Owen effective as a greaser with a softer side and Paven playing uptight and love sick just right. Owen and Paven are particularly strong in their big final number, “You’re the One That I Want.” Paven, who was forced to play prude for most of the show, has fun unleashing Sandy’s repressed bad girl and helps to end the show on a high note.

Part of the fun of a high school production is for students and parents to see their classmates and children on stage. The environment in the audience is less reserved than the traditional theater experience as parents and friends hoot, holler and cheer when the person they’ve come to see graces the stage.

“Grease” is successful on that level and should leave students plenty to talk about in the school halls.

For more information visit

Thursday, March 12, 2009

You should be watching the 'Watchmen'

After years of claims of being un-filmable, director Zack Synder (“300”) has found a way to bring Alan Moore’s acclaimed graphic novel “Watchmen” to the screen and retain most of the scope, humor and message.

“Watchmen” is perhaps the most highly regarded graphic novel ever written, so much so it is respected as a piece of literature. It won the Hugo Award and was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 best English language novels since 1923 and has had such heavyweight directors at Terry Gilliam, Darren Aronofsky and Peter Greengrass attached to it.

The film, like the source material, is set in an alternative 1985 in which the
United States won the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon is still president. A group of masked heroes known as the Watchmen were outlawed in 1977, but when one of these retired heroes is brutally murdered the team is reunited and a complex plot involving possible nuclear war is unraveled.

A team of superheroes is hardly an original concept, but those expecting the Fantastic Four or the X-Men are in for a rude awakening. The heroes in “Watchmen” have some serious issues. Moore structured “Watchmen” not only as an indictment of the political environment of the 1980s, but as a satire of comic book heroes.

If you thought Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne had their demons, just wait until you meet Walter Kovacs (Jackie Earle Haley, “Little Children”) and Edward Blake (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, “Grey’s Anatomy”) and their alter-egos Rorschach and The Comedian.

Rorschach and The Comedian are borderline sociopaths that sometimes cross the line. In this world the heroes are a very fine thread away from being villains. “The Dark Knight” played in this playground last year too, but “Watchmen” takes the question of how far do you go to protect humanity from itself much further than "The Dark Knight" did.

The film is often brutally violent. Synder doesn’t shy away from the book's more unsavory visuals, but the violence isn’t without purpose. The disturbing images on display force the audience to ask serious questions about human nature and morality.

The characters are well cast. Patrick Wilson (“Hard Candy”) brings a nice weariness and reluctant heroism to Nite Owl II, perhaps the most normal of the bunch, but even he has his problems that bring a whole new twist to role playing in bed. Matthew Goode (“Match Point”) plays Adrian Veidt, the world’s smartest man, with an appropriate level of arrogance.

The cast’s standouts though are Haley and Billy Crudup (“Almost Famous,” “Big Fish”) as Dr. Manhattan, who after a freak accident becomes a demigod with the power to manipulate matter, space and time. Crudup spends most of the film as a computer-enhanced creation, but he brings a lot of depth to Dr. Manhattan’s struggle with a humanity he is becoming further disconnected from.

Haley is nothing short of fantastic. He delivers the majority of the movie’s film noir-esque narration to sheer perfection. Although his face covered in an ever-shifting inkblot mask for the majority of his screen time, his presence is undeniable.

The only weak link in the cast is Malin Akerman (“The Heartbreak Kid”) as Silk Spectre II. Michael Philips of the Chicago Tribune called her “possibly the worst actress in Hollywood.” I wouldn’t go that far, but there are certainly more talented actresses that could have filled the role. She does look great in a skin-tight outfit as well as her birthday suit. My more cynical side thinks that’s where her audition ended.

Synder has done a good job of distilling the book into a cohesive film. It clocks in at nearly three hours, but Synder keeps the film moving briskly with compelling visuals that effectively recreate the graphic novel. There’s a lot going on here, and the film is just as much several character studies as an action film.

Some of the harsher reviews of the film have claimed the film is incoherent and confusing. Even some fans of the film are claiming those unfamiliar with the graphic novel will get lost. At the time I saw the film I hadn’t read the book and I had no problem following it.

While the film is told in a non-linear fashion with a lot of flashback, I would question the ability of someone to follow any story if they are unable to keep up with “Watchmen” as this is pretty clear storytelling. Yes, it is at times puzzling, but that is to be expected. After all, the film is structured as a mystery. In the end when things are explained, everything clicks in a way that doesn’t feel like a cheat.

High marks for 'Henry V'

Advice to the Players brings Shakespeare to Conway, N.H.

Advice to the Players brings history to life in William Shakespeare’s “Henry V.” The play opened Thursday at the Interlakes High School Community Auditorium in Meredith, N.H. and will be performed there again Friday before moving to the Salyards Center for the Arts in Conway, N.H. for performances Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 1 p.m.

“Henry V” focuses on the titular king’s invasion of France and the climatic battle of Agincourt in which the underdog English miraculously defeated the French. Shakespeare gives the audiences scenes of both sides in the trenches as well as unexpected scenes such as Princess Katherine of France learning English.

In the last decade or so the trend has been to do contemporary updates of Shakespeare or to put some sort of twist on the material. I’ve seen “Othello” on a military base, “Two Gentleman of Verona” and “A Midsummer’s Night Dream” set in the 1960s and “Richard II” in the corporate world. At this point, it is almost braver to do a traditional interpretation of the material.

“We started doing them traditionally from the very start because we were dealing with a population up here who had never really seen these plays at all and it just struck me that really a lot of the fun is to have costumes,” said Caroline Nesbitt, the artistic director of “Henry V.” “It also means we can use broad swords, which in all our productions is a very large drawing point.”

The broad swords, and more specifically how they are used, certainly are a drawing point for this “Henry V.” The fight scenes choreographed by Kevin Coleman, the director of education at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, Mass., are thrilling and elaborate, but not confusing. They are worth the price of admission alone.

Thankfully, though, this is production is more than just battle scenes. Mark Woollett as Henry is a dynamic lead. He was appeared in other Advice to the Players Shakespearean productions including “Taming of the Shrew” and “Macbeth,” and his ease with the language is evident.

Woollett delivers the play’s most famous passages in which he rallies his troops into battle with great bravado, but also shows an assured knack for light comedy when he awkwardly attempts to woo Katherine (Mimi Gindoff).

Gindoff gives a fine low-key comedic performance. The previously mentioned scene in which she is attempting to learn English is a highlight of the show. She plays her frustration with the ugliness of the English language just right.

The performance I saw was a dress rehearsal and some of the performances were still in a formative state, so it wouldn’t be fair to nitpick too much. The cast includes actors as young as 13, and, although some of these younger performers don’t quite have the gravitas for some of the more dramatic scenes, their ability to handle the language is impressive.

Even though Nesbitt refers to the costumes as being “motley,” they are actually quite successful at hinting at the Elizabethan era. The production features a moody original score by Patrick Hornig that is sparingly but effectively used throughout the production.

Those accustomed to Shakespeare being a lengthy night out at the theater will be relieved to know that this performance is under two hours with a 10-minute intermission. It is a fast-moving, well-mounted production that makes for a good night (or afternoon) of theater.

Tickets are available in Tamworth at The Other Store, in Sandwich at Mocha Rizing, at the door, or by calling managing director Rebecca Boyden at 986-6253.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

'Frost/Nixon' a rich character study

“Frost/Nixon” is a fascinating look at the infamous multi-day televised interview between British talk show host David Frost and former President Richard Nixon, but the film is more about the lead up to the interview than the event itself.

The film is closest in spirit to George Clooney’s “Good Night and Good Luck” which also recreated a famous television event. As with Clooney’s film, “Frost/Nixon” is more then mere recreation. While we do get reenactments of the interview toward the end of the film they don’t take up the majority of the running time.

Director Ron Howard’s film and Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) screenplay adapted from his play is a behind-the-scenes look at the research process of Frost’s writing team as well as a character study of the title figures. By the time the film gets to the interview there’s a clear understanding of what is at stake.

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen (“The Queen”) both reprise their roles from the play. It is clear that both actors, having played the characters nightly on stage, are quite comfortable playing these men. Langella won a Tony award for his stage portrayal of Nixon and it's easy to see why.

Nixon has been portrayed by many great actors from Anthony Hopkins to Rip Torn to Dan Hedaya. What makes Langella’s Nixon stand out is that there’s a sense that he’s captured the essence of the man. This is more than just impersonation.

Some may be upset that the portrayal of Nixon here is a sympathetic one. Morgan and Howard are hardly condoning his actions, but merely reminding that he was a human, perhaps a tragically flawed one, but a human none the less.

As portrayed by Langella, Nixon is even sort of likable. As a viewer you certainly don’t agree with the illegal actions he took as president, but the film does a good job of painting a portrait of the man that made them.

The film is just as much about Frost as it is Nixon and Sheen does an excellent job at playing Frost as a man who has ambitions beyond his station in life. His public persona was that of a shallow playboy and he wasn’t taken serious when he under took the Nixon interviews endeavor. Sheen adds subtle layers to his characterization and makes Frost’s struggle to be taken seriously worth watching.

The two leads have an excellent supporting cast behind them. Oliver Platt (“Pieces of April”), Sam Rockwell (“Confessions of Dangerous Mind”) and Matthew Macfadyen (“Pride and Prejudice”) are wonderful as Frost’s writing team. The three actors have a great chemistry together and their scenes with Sheen are some of the most interesting in the film as you see the process behind the interviews.

Kevin Bacon plays Nixon right hand man who can’t stand the way “liberals” are so disrespectful to the former president. It is the kind of solid, non-flashy performance we’ve come to expect from Bacon.

Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) has the thankless role of Frost’s girlfriend, but even she gets to shine in a couple scenes. She doesn’t have much screen time, but she makes it count and offers further evidence that she is an actress to watch. Her flirtatious first encounter with Frost is well written and played.

The film takes some dramatic license for the sake of making the film more entertaining. Each day of the interview had a specific subject matter and the order of these was altered for the film to have Nixon's apology during the Watergate interview be the climatic final interview. It certainly is more dramatically satisfying that way and this is ultimately an entertainment not a documentary.

A scene of complete fiction features a drunken Nixon calling Frost in the middle of the night before the night of the Watergate interview. The scene is perhaps the most compelling in the film as Langella’s Nixon discusses how he and Frost aren’t really that different. More so than in any other scene, Langella is completely riveting.

For a generation of people who actually lived through this and might be thinking “I was there I don’t need to see this” you’d be wrong. This is rich and enthralling look at two men and the historic moment that brought them together.

Loosen up with 'Footloose'

M&D Productions’ lively production of the musical version of the 1984 film “Footloose” opened Thursday at the Loynd Auditorium at Kennett High School in North Conway, N.H.

The large cast features actors from both Kennett and Fryeburg Academy as well as performers from the community, under direction from Christy Hikel and musical direction by Tracy Gardner.

Confession: I haven’t seen the “Footloose” film in its entirety. The 1980s dance movies such as “Footloose,” “Flashdance,” “Fame” and “Dirty Dancing” never really appealed to me. So, being upfront with this bias, I can still say I had a decent time with this largely student-based production.

With its premise of a city kid moving to a rural town where dancing is banned, “Footloose” seemed to be a throwback to 1950s rock 'n' roll rebellion films — albeit with contemporary music. The musical is written with nostalgia for the 1980s songs at its center, so essentially the show is a throwback to a throwback.

It has been a popular trend for Broadway to do musical adaptations of films. For every “Lion King,” "The Producers” or “Spamalot” there are head-scratchers like “The Wedding Singer” or “High Fidelity.” “Footloose” makes sense as a film to stage transfer. The film was essentially a musical, except the songs were not sung but used in montages or as background music.

The screenwriter, Dean Pitchford, also wrote or co-wrote nearly every song on the soundtrack including the title track, “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” “I’m Free,” “Almost Paradise,” “Holding Out for a Hero” and “Somebody’s Eyes.”

All those familiar songs appear in the musical version, as well as new songs that were added to fill out the show. These new songs, also by Pitchford, range from fair to great in at least one case. Of the songs written for the musical “Learning to Be Silent” and “Mama Says” are highlights.

“Learning to Be Silent” is a powerful ballad featuring the two mother characters (Kelly Karuzis and Caryn Robinson) and the female lead, Ariel (Courtney Phelps) singing about how their marriages and relationships have become repressed as things are left unsaid to avoid confrontation. The song is well performed and emotionally resonates.

“Mama Says” is a comedic number about all the things Willard (the Chris Penn character in the film, here played by Jake Dunham) learned from his mother. There are some very funny lyrics here, including: “Mama says don't use a toaster while standing in the shower.” Dunham delivers the song well and gets some of the show's best laughs.

Rafe Matregrano as Ren, the role originated by Kevin Bacon, gets to show vocal range on “I Can’t Stand Still,” which features him doing Michael Jackson-esque falsettos and hitting bluesy lower ranges. He also shines during his duet with Phelps on “Almost Paradise.” Their voices complement each other nicely.

Taylor Hill as Ariel’s best friend and Willard’s maybe girlfriend, Rusty, is a stand out on “Let’s Hear It for the Boy.” She has a strong voice that is also showcased nicely on “Somebody’s Eyes” where some of the town girls warn Ren of the town’s watchful eyes.

Dan Phelps in the John Lithgow role of Reverend Moore gives a strong performance as a man who genuinely thinks he is doing right by his town. Phelps and Matregrano share an affecting scene where they discuss loss and moving on.

Katie Gustafson is worth noting as well. She plays three small roles in the show but as the roller-skating owner of a burger joint she secures the show's biggest laughs and reminds that it isn’t the size of the role, but what you do with it.

“Footloose” is not a perfect show or production, but it is an entertaining one. The actors are good throughout. A lot of the performers are still learning and are rough around the edges, but there is some real talent here and that is always nice to see.

For more information visit

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Broadway National Tour of 'Sweeney Todd' bloody good fun

Blood was running freely in Portland as a vengeful barber took his wrath out on his patrons, at least on stage that is. Merrill Auditorium presented the Broadway National Tour of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” Feb. 27 and 28.

“Just from an aesthetic stand point this is one of the better Broadway productions I’ve seen at Merrill,” said Tom Ayres of PCA Great Performances, the exclusive presenters of Broadway through Merrill.

“Sweeney Todd” is the third of a four-show Broadway series at Merrill and was preceded by “Stomp” and “Chicago” in the fall. The last show in the series, “Spelling Bee,” is coming to Merrill for three performance March 27 and 28 and will feature celebrity guest spellers including recent “Survivor” winner Bob Crowley.

“Sweeney Todd,” as with Sondheim’s other musicals, is astounding to just listen to. The complexity of the lyrics, music and overlapping harmonies make it one of the bigger challenges an actor will encounter. The songs are operatic in scale and seeing them performed live is quite literally spine-tingling and hair-raising.

The sheer talent on display in this staging of the show is extraordinary. In addition to acting and singing, all the performers also accompany themselves with instruments on stage in place of the traditional orchestral accompaniment. Actors step forward from out of the band to take their leads. It takes a moment to adjust to, but it is a daring and original staging.

The show’s two leads, Merritt David Janes as Sweeney Todd, who seeks vengeance on all of humanity for having his wife and child taken away from him, and Carrie Cimma as Mrs. Lovett, Todd’s accomplice who bakes his victims into meat pies, are excellent.

This is tricky material that flips from dark satire to ironic tragedy and Janes and Cimma make it look easy. Janes is fabulous on songs such as “Epiphany” and “A Little Priest,” his cheeky duet with Cimma.

Saturday’s performance brought in a broad cross section of patrons from pre-teens to senior citizens something Ayres also noticed as he walked around Merrill’s lobby.

“It was a very diverse audience across the age spectrum,” said Ayres. “Part of my speculation about that, particularly with the younger audience that was there, is that I think it is some residual effect of the Johnny Depp movie, which really introduced ‘Sweeney Todd’ to a whole new audience and whole new generation.”

Those who were familiar with only the film didn’t simply get a retread as the film version removed several songs including “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd,” which bookends the show and several love songs. Some of Sondheim’s satire on consumerism was removed for the film and the stage version has a few more twisted laughs than the film.
Ticket sales for “Sweeney Todd” were a couple hundred below expectations Ayres said, but overall he hasn’t seen a significant drop in ticket sales due to the economy.

“In tickets sales for other genres, we also present popular music, classically music, theater and dance, tickets sales have actually been holding fairly steady,” said Ayres. “Where I do know arts organizations, ours as well, are having some issues right now is in fund-raising and development.”

Even with this challenge Ayres is hopeful that there will be a place for the arts.

“I think in times like these the arts become a refuge or a haven,” said Ayres.

For more information about upcoming shows at Merrill Auditorium, including “Spelling Bee,” visit