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Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

JOAN NEVER DISAPPOINTS

In Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 at 6:10 am

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Just when I thought I had seen every juicy Joan Crawford film clip extant, this one – maybe the funniest, most appallingly wrong one of them all – pops up.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GS7YIC8F2Ec

Now pick your jaw up off the floor and watch it again!

JOHN GRUEN’S FABULOUS LIFE, VALENTINA’S FABULOUS CLOTHES

In Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 at 5:06 am

Read all about ‘em in my column, IN THE NOH, in GAY CITY NEWS

http://www.gaycitynews.com/site/index.cfm?newsid=20299740&BRD=2729&PAG=461&dept_id=568864&rfi=8

THE WORLD OF VALENTINA

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The Valentina exhibit at Museum of the City of NY, those are Katharine Hepburn’s pajamas on the far right

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Kohle Yohannon’s magnificent book, VALENTINA: AMERICAN COUTURE AND THE CULT OF CELEBRITY

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The designer, in one of her signature coolie hats

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with her husband, George Schlee, in their apartment, playing Chinese Checkers

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The Schlees, with ever-present friend, Garbo, taking a back seat

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Valentina’s classic draped jersey, photographed by her friend Horst

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Valentina, fitting client and friend, mezzzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout

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As brilliant a costume designer as she was a couturiere, Valentina designed the single greatest opera costume of all time for Rosa Ponselle in CARMEN, 1935, which made the cover of Time magazine.

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Katharine Hepburn on Broadway in THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, 1939. The laced girdle was a Valentina trademark. Duplicates of Valentina’s costumes were still being ordered by clients decades after the show closed.

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Hepburn with Van Heflin and Joseph Cotten

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Hepburn with Joseph Cotten

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When Adrian designed the MGM movie version in 1940, you could not miss the “resemblances.”

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Hepburn, with Cary Grant

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Hepburn with Ruth Hussey and James Stewart

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Hepburn with Cary Grant and James Stewart

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Hepburn with George Cukor on the set

Copying Valentina was nothing new for Adrian; he had also done this when MGM made IDIOT’S DELIGHT with Norma Shearer in 1939. Adrian had a long look at what Valentina had done for Lynn Fontanne on the stage. Incidentally, Fontanne based her impersonation of a phony Russian countess in the play on Valentina.

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Fontanne with Alfred Lunt in IDIOT’S DELIGHT on Broadway

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Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in the 1939 film version

In 1942, Hepburn returned to Broadway in WITHOUT LOVE again gowned by Valentina. When MGM filmed it in 1945, Designer Irene also took inspiration from her stage looks, copying Valentina’s attached draped scarf effects.

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Copyright: davidnoh2009

MUSICALS, FROM THE SUBLIME TO …

In Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 at 4:28 am

The official theatre season is drawing to a close and the shows are opening, fast and furiously…and I’m just talking about the musicals.

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Cheyenne Jackson and Kate Baldwin, FINIAN’S RAINBOW

I’m still rather basking in the glow of Encores! revival of FINIAN’S RAINBOW. If there’s a more endlessly delightful music score than this one by Burton Lane and genius lyricist E.Y. Harburg, with so many hits – virtually every one of its songs – they can’t even all be squeezed into the overture, I would like to know what that is, and conductor Rob Berman extracted every bit of its charm from the Encores! Orchestra.

Warren Carlyle’s direction and choreography perfectly served the piece, snappy and alive to every sexy/comic possibility. John Lee Beatty’s simple set was perfectly serviceable and worked perfectly. Indeed, as the joyous word comes that this will indeed have a Broadway transfer, the producers really don’t have to change a thing, for the now very real sake of economy, as well as its very real stage effectiveness. As for the show’s much-maligned book, a brilliantly easy solution was reached by having black actor Ruben Santiago-Hudson simply take over the part of bigoted villain Senator Rawkins, rather than have Phillip Bosco put on the dreaded, verboten tarbrush. Indeed, one wonders what all the fuss and fury was about concerning the original script by Harburg and Fred Saidy, which helped to stymie a proposed 1990s revival in a more fascistically P.C. era. Lines like “I never read the Constitution, I’m too busy defending it!” and “We got credit! That’s better than cash!” as spoken by the suddenly “enriched’ inhabitants of sleepy, rural Rainbow Valley have a very real timeliness now which the Encores! audience happily lapped up like cream.

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Kate Baldwin and the girls of Rainbow Valley

With one exception (an unimaginatively pompous Bosco, who couldn’t remember his lines, even when they were on the script he was reading throughout), we all must fervently hope that there will be no Broadway cast changes, either, as the show was near-faultless in terms of its performers, from top to bottom. As heroine Sharon McLonergan, Kate Baldwin had a highly accurate Irish brogue, and the same could be said of her lilting soprano, making her an entrancing and feisty colleen. As her rapscalion father Finian, Jim Norton mercifully did not overdo the codger adorableness and made the character quite attractively human. Cheyenne Jackson made the ideal dashing, tuneful, good ole boy lover for her, as Woody Mahoney.

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Jeremy Bobb and Baldwin

Jeremy Bobb was an utter, surprisingly sexy delight as the leprechaun Og, worlds away from the feyness of David Wayne who originally played him in 1947, and the screeching obnoxiousness of Tommy Steele in the 1968 movie version. Toni-Leslie James wittily costumed him in tight striped shorts which grew suggestively ever shorter as he beecame more and more a mortal. Bobb gave that rare kind of performance, so brimming with sheer likability, originality and pure actor’s joy that it made you really love the performer.

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Cheyenne Jackson and the boys of Rainbow Valley

Alina Faye’s dancing of Carlyle’s fresh steps, as the mute Susan Mahoney, who can only express herself choreographically, was so effortlessly lyrical and beautifullycommitted that she completely undercut the snark-inducing silliness of the role.

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Bernard Dotson, Joe Aaron Reid and Devin Richards as the three Passion Pilgrim Gospeleers did smiling justice to “The Begat” with its irresistibly catchy, smart lyrics (“They begat the babes of the bourgeoisie/Who begat the misbegotten G.O.P.) And there was one wonderful wild card in the cast: Broadway vet Terri White (BARNUM, AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’), who, with her elemental growl, ecstatically rocked the distaff soul anthem of the score, “Necessity,” backed up by the most fetching tobacco-shucking female chorus imaginable. (It was White who incited the most passionate discussion among the cognoscenti during the fevered intermission.)

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Terri White, absolutely rocking “Necessity”

Baldwin and Jackson certainly did not disappoint when it came to the song everyone most wanted to hear, “Old Devil Moon.” At that point, romance suffused every inch of City Center as every couple present grabbed each other’s hands (like music maestro Steven Blier and his partner sitting in the row in front of us, and, I’m sure, a beamingly content Michael Feinstein with husband Terrence Flannery, elsewhere in the house), making this one very special Saturday night in Gotham.

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At this point, I’d also like to make a case for the 1968 film version, Francis Ford Coppola’s directorial debut, which, like so many of the late ’60s Hollywood musical adaptations, took a severe critical drubbing. I saw it as a kid in Hawaii, at the dear old Deco Kuhio Theatre (across the street from the location legendary gay bar Hula’s would later move into, now, alas, a Niketown). I loved it then and continue to do so. It was Fred Astaire’s cinematic dancing swan song and he went out in glory, having a grand time with the brogue, the songs and, of course, his still miraculously adept stepping.

Petula Clark had a wonderful combative chemistry with him, in the first of her two radiant appearances in the twilight of the Tinseltown musical (the other was in the quite wonderful GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS). I must confess to much preferring Ray Heindorf’s arrangements of the score to – sacrilege! – the 1947 original. Heindorf’s career encompassed work on movie musical classics like 42ND STREET, GOLDDIGGERS OF 1935, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY, the Judy Garland A STAR IS BORN and THE MUSIC MAN. He combined classicism with a savvy, jazz-inflected approach to material, akin to Nelson Riddle, which resulted in some very tasty, tasteful work, indeed. The film’s score has a bigness and excitement that is pure Hollywood, in the very best sense, making the original cast album seem a rather thin, poky thing.

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Don Francks and Petula Clark in the sexiest movie musical number ever

This is never more apparent than in the “Old Devil Moon” sequence, which was so sexy to me at that age that I swear it initiated my puberty in that theater. Rather than the sprightly, dance hall rhythm of the original, Heindorf gave it an almost unbearably sinuous, lush treatment – schtup music if e’er there was. Petula Clark gave it the full benefit of her fetching, melisma-ridden brand of white soul and her partner, Don Franck’s sexily weathered Woody, matches her sensuality with a crooning raffishness that bears more than a whisper of Dean Martin. (And, yes, you will get over the bad toupee.) Although they perform it on a patently obvious studio set – unnaturally green carpeting for grass and a stream that looks like a remnant from some faux Japanese teahouse restaurant – the young Coppola, along with veteran Astaire choreographer Hermes Pan, infuse it with a mesmerizing wealth of physical intimacy and heat in their interplay which make it still the sexiest musical number in screen history.

watch it here:

I will be adding to this post my thoughts about HAIR, TOXIC AVENGER, ROCK OF AGES, FIREBRAND OF FLORENCE and other recent musicals…stay tuned!

Copyright: davidnoh2009

LIZA MINNELLI: STALKER!

In Uncategorized on April 29, 2009 at 2:08 am

It was a Monday like any other in Gotham, with one small difference: LIZA WAS STALKING ME!

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First, at the 23rd Easter Bonnet Competition for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids (which raised $3,407,858), Seth Rudetsky and Julia Murney were bemoaning the lack of really big stars present before parting like the Red Sea to reveal Ms. Minnelli, resplendent in black Halston sequins and pencil slim slacks showing off the bird legs she famously inherited from Mama, Judy Garland. She launched into what she referred to as “the hardest part” of “New York, New York” to a thunderous ovation. (Does she ever get any other kind?)

Then, a mere few hours later, after I dashed from the Easter Bonnets at the Minskoff for the NY Pops 26th Birthday Gala at Carnegie Hall, who should be dogging my tracks again but Liza, who popped up on stage for her “best friend,” Michael Feinstein, who, with his club, Feinstein’s at the Regency, was being honored. She read a heartfelt speech in which she described meeting Feinstein at the suggestion of her godfather, Ira Gershwin, for whom he was then working as assistant, and was astounded at his encyclopedic knowledge of the Great American Songbook.

Feinstein then introduced a raft of stars who’ve all performed at his club. Barbara Cook sang a plangent rendition of Sondheim’s “No One is Alone,” proving yet again that, at 81, her voice remains one of the world’s inexhaustible, evergreen wonders. Ashford and Simpson rocked the hall with their “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and Brian Stokes Mitchell performed a powerful, unamplified “This Nearly Was Mine,” from SOUTH PACIFIC, which he performed in concert a few years ago at Carnegie with Reba McIntire. He sounded terrific, but I wish he’d done either “Bali Hai” or “Some Enchanted Evening,” instead, and really made magic. Am I alone in my disdain for this Rodgers and Hammerstein dirge, which combines their least attractive attributes of ponderousness, repetition and lyric banality, like “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”? (Maureen McGovern is another singer who’s just crazy about the song and will sing it at the drop of a hat, despite the fact that it was written for a man, one of the few male torch songs.)

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Somehow, it’s all about Cheyenne, and not just for the obvious…
It was Cheyenne Jackson who really stole the show, in one of the most electrifying Carnegie debuts in the history of the hall, with a soulfully impassioned “Feeling Good” that showed off every one of his myriad vocal colors, from heroically blazing belt to melting falsetto. His interpretation was wholly inspired, and the Pops orchestra never sounded better or more powerfully spirited under the baton of their charming new music director, Steven Reineke.

What a year Jackson has had, from XANADU to Encores! productions of DAMN YANKEES and FINIAN’S RAINBOW, his sold-out cabaret appearances at Feinstein’s, and now this. Feinstein promised he’d be back, in fact, in June, in a show which will feature both of them.

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“How DARE you? WHO do you think you are?”

Back to the Easter Bonnets: the humor was low-down and dirtier than ever, with certain leitmotifs, like no less than three Liza impersonators (more stalking!), Arthur Laurents’ insistence on Spanish being used in WEST SIDE STORY, and the current punchline du jour, which is Patti Lupone’s outraged reaction at a fan’s snapping photos during GYPSY: “How dare you? Who do you think you are?”

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Lockstock and Little Sally (Photo by Michael Portantiere)

Audience favorites, URINETOWN’s Officer Lockstock (Don Richard) and Little Sally (Jen Cody), were actually a bit more subdued in a year which, with so many flops, would have seemed ripe for reading to filth. But they definitely got their digs in.

“This is our eighth Easter Bonnets appearance!” “Yeah, that’s one performance more than all the ones Amy Spanger’s missed in ROCK OF AGES.”

“How about Malcom Gets’ show [THE STORY OF MY LIFE]?” The 24 Hour Musical?”

Re Kristin Chenoweth’s memoir “A Little Bit Wicked,” in which she says she couldn’ love her dog more than if it had come out of her own vagina: “That’s why she called it ‘Summer’s Eve,” and “She should should ask God, ‘Why does my self-tanner make me look like an Oompa-Loompa?'”

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“And, Little Sally, what have you learned from Patti LuPone [not present at the benefit]. “That fund-raising is someone’s else’s job?”

The funniest skit was the CHICAGO company’s “Chopping Block Tango,” which focused on the unfortunate six shows which were shuttered in last January’s Broadway bloodbath: “We saw it coming, we saw it coming!” HAIRSPRAY’s crew cited their show’s once relevant theme of racial equality and the beauty of full-figured femmes now vanquished by “a brother in the White House and a fat girl as Secretary of State. I guess thay can stop the beat!” An arrogantly jejune cast member of SPRING AWAKENING bemoaned having to leave “the Tatum O’Neal Theater.” SPAMALOT’s people sang, “You bring in Clay Aiken (or Drew Lachey) one more time…!”

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Doris Eaton

The eternally jaw-dropping Doris Eaton, the true Easter Bonnet muse, was featured in BILLY ELLIOT’s presentation. At 105, this former Ziegfeld Follies girl sang and led the chorus in “Ballin’ the Jack,” with a verve and spice miraculous to witness. She recalled being Ann Pennington’s understudy. Pennington introduced the dance “The Black Bottom” f’chrissakes, and Eaton’s sister, Mary, starred in the Marx Brothers’ first movie THE COCONUTS in 19-freakin’-29! The woman makes Elaine Stritch look like a presumptuous ingenue.

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Ann Pennington dancing “The Black Bottom”

33 VARIATIONS was the predictable winner of the competition. It started with its cast muttering about their difficult star, “Monster-in-Law” aka Jane Fonda, who refused to learn their real names, referring to them all by their stage characters’ monickers: “She’s touchier than LuPone and meaner than Stritch.”

And then Fonda, swept on, swathed in sable, to call for a special aerobics rehearsal, whereupon she flung the fur off to display a still pretty spectacular spandex-clad body at 71. (She may well have possessed the most gorgeous figure in movie history). I mean, what could possibly compete with that?

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Copyright: davidnoh2009

NIGHTS AT THE OPERA

In Uncategorized on April 18, 2009 at 6:14 am

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Natalie Dessay and JUan Diego Florez in LA SONNAMBULA

“Why are they booing?’ asked the nice lady in the expensive seat one row in front of us as the final curtain fell during the opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s LA SONNAMBULA.

“They are serious admirers of the opera who are offended by what that woman bowing up there, the director Mary Zimmerman, did to it,” I told her. Indeed, Zinneman’s onstage curtain call appearance elicited immediate aural disfavor – the loudest heard since Robert Wilson’s LOHENGRIN – despite star soprano Natale Dessay’s gallant, frantic attempts to shush the outraged.

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Opera’s No. 1 Enemy: Director Mary Zimmerman

Zimmerman updated Bellini’s bel canto work, setting it in a rehearsal studio said to be an exact replica of that used by American Ballet Theater, and mixing things up with a putting-on-a-Bellini-show premise. On the surface, this did not seem unreasonable (the opera admittedly does have one kooky libretto) and things started off with a sprightly brio. But it soon became obvious that Zinneman’s take was arbitrary and sloppy – you never knew when the singers were performing as themselves, with their real emotions and interactions, or as characters in this purported SONNAMBULA production. This slipshod convention also evidently puzzled certain prominent cast members who, I was told, mentioned this essential confusion to Zimmerman, who merely shrugged and said, “I don’t care about that.”

Zimmerman said the same thing, I heard, in response to remonstrations that having Dessay begin her great final aria “Ah! Non Credea” by scrawling “A-R-I-A” on a rehearsal blackboard was not only gratuitous – I say just plain infuriatingly smart-ass, the gesture of someone who detests opera – but rather disrespectful to Conductor Evelino Pido and orchestra. Then there was the utterly senseless, crazy carryings-on of the entire company trashing the rehearsal hall which closed Act I, supposedly inspired by the break-up of heroine (Dessay) and hero (Juan Diego Florez). (“We need some action in this thing!” one could almost hear Zimmerman thinking.) The cast finally appeared in traditional costumes for the finale, but they were Tyrolean-Disney, another example of the director’s condescendingly smug idea of cutesiness. After her clueless hack job on LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR and now this, one shudders to think what she’ll do to ARMIDA, scheduled next season with Renee Fleming. (A little bird told me that General Manager Peter Gelb was so eager to have Zinneman direct LUCIA – her very first opera – yet unwilling to pay her astronomical fee, that he caved in to her demand that she then be given a three-opera contract instead.)

On the plus side, Dessay’s voice was plangent and penetrating, and she brought her considerable acting skills to both the opportunities for comedy – lots of rather amusing temperamental diva antics – and pathos – as a confused young woman in love – in her role. And who else around today possesses the histrionic bravado to make her sleepwalking entrance from the back of the house down the aisle? Florez hit every high note smack on target, like a sharpshooter taking down ducks, driving the always tenor-crazed Met audience wild, but I find his tight, yelping voice devoid of essentially expressive colors.

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Black Party 2009? Nah, It’s the Met’s new TROVATORE

Things were undeniably redeemed with the Met’s magnificent new production of IL TROVATORE which sent the definitely non-booing audience out on that rare, happy, collective cloud of ecstatic satiation which can only be achieved by seeing a great opera, perfectly done. Director David McVicar, in his company debut, deserved much credit, especially after two nigh-unbearable takes on Verdi’s warhorse in 1987 and 2000. (I’ve tried unsuccessfully to blot out memory of the last one, in particular, which had heroine Leonora “planting” five obviously fake looking calla lilies in the stage before singing her first aria, and the final duet between hero Manrico and his tortured gypsy mother Azucena taking place on what looked like a huge mushroom out of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, just missing that hookaah-smoking caterpillar.)

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McVicar set the opera in the bloody, dusty war-torn Spain of Goya and made brilliant use of the Met’s revolving stage which kept things moving briskly at all times, sans pauses for set changes. The “Anvil Chorus” I don’t think has ever been as effectively done before: the sublimely over-the-top virility of the music was matched by a posse of half-naked sweaty hunks banging away with their hammers in rhythmic time, who looked to be enjoying themselves as fully as if they were at some Miami circuit party.

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Marcelo Alvarez, Sondra Radvanovsky

From the moment Bass Kwangchoul Youn, as Ferrando, set the performance bar very high with his gripping account of that gypsy burnt at the stake, the cast could be best described in one word : “dream.” Incidentally, everyone in the cast physically fit their roles, which undoubtedly added to the evening’s effectiveness and undoubtedly made Gelb veery, very happy. (Such a crime that this very “cinematic” production, which should be enjoyed by thousands more in the Met’s theatrical HD presentations and could certainly bring a new audience to opera, isn’t on that schedule for some reason.) Sondra Radvanovsky was, dramatically, the best Leonora I have ever seen, making her not the usual, somewhat tiresome victim-dupe but a strong-willed mistress of her own tragic fate which bore a certain devastating kinship to RIGOLETTO’s likewise uncannily inner-directed Gilda. Dmitri Hvorostovsky made the Leonora-obsessed Count dashing but definitely psychotic in his single-minded ferocity. And what a pleasure it was both to see and hear Marcelo Alvarez perform Manrico with real, throbbing Italianate passion and fraught desperation, exactly what Verdi had in mind. He had convincing, heartbreaking chemistry with Dolora Zajick’s Azucena, a role this great mezzo is still singing after all these years with undiminished power and emotion, as well as ever more insight. (Indeed, she owns this role as surely as Leontyne Price ever did Aida.)

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Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Radvanovsky

We’re saying farewell to the Otto Schenk rock-happy production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle this season and, although it will be missed by many – who knows what the new production will be like – as far as Gil Wechsler’s original, maddeningly dark lighting scheme for it, which the Met has unaccountably held on to, all I can say is good effin’ riddance. Do you remember as I do, all those pretentious, obscuring conceptions at the Met in the 1970s-80s, with their goddamned scrims, of which Wechsler’s work here – so contemptuous of audiences, not to mention the work of the designers – is a muddy hangover? Even from the tenth row of the orchestra at DAS RHEINGOLD I had trouble seeing the Rhinemaidens, and God only knows what could be recognized from the balcony.

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Can you nake anything out? Neither can I, even from the 9th row at DAS RHEINGOLD

Otherwise, DAS RHEINGOLD was well-done, with cast standouts being Kate Lindsay, Lisette Oropesa and Tamara Mumford a radiantly silver-sounding trio of Rhinemaidens, and Richard Paul Fink a marvelously flavorful, even sympathetic Alberich, so totally into the character, that he did a delightfully grotesque little jig at the curtain call. Kim Begley made an effectively energetic Loge, but I, for one, will definitely not miss his costume – so ’80s Billy Idol rock star.

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James Morris, Irene Theorin

DIE WALKURE was even better, particularly for the exciting company debut of Swedish Irene Theorin, a last minute replacement for Christine Brewer as Brunnhilde. Filled with bracing energy of both body and voice, she was an utterly convincing goddess-Amazon, and it was a sheer tonic to hear her indisputably full, healthy sound effortlessly ride the thunderous Met orchestra, conducted by James Levine, always in his utmost element with this music. Johan Botha proved himself a true, ardent heldentenor, confidently big in voice and even bigger in body. (But such is the magic of Wagner well-sung that, as with, say, an aging Lauritz Melchior, you could give two sticks for what they look like as a supposed youthful hero, as long as they aurally deliver with such expressive richness.) Waltraud Meier may not possess the world’s most gorgeous sound at this stage – it’s pretty dry – but her passionate commitment to the role of Sieglinde and emotive communication were inescapably impressive.

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A Met Star is Born: Irene Theorin

Yvonne Naef, as in DAS RHEINGOLD, was a commanding, forceful Fricka who actually made you understand her disgruntlement as a cuckolded goddess trying to uphold “traditional family values,” and not see her as a mere meddling shrew. James Morris was, for me, a real revelation here. He, of course, has owned the role of Wotan for decades but this time, perhaps inspired by Theorin’s verve and intensity, he seemed to rouse himself and, instead of just standing and delivering with oak tree impressiveness (read woodenness, which often made him the Gregory Peck of opera), he really became her doting, disappointed father and moved me. He was completely present dramatically throughout, whether suffering Fricka’s complaints like any hard-ridden husband, frightening in his fury at Brunnhilde’s defiance and, finally, meltingly poignant in his farewell to her.

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Waltraud Meier, Theorin

So far, so very good, and I am definitely looking forward to GOTTERDAMMERUNG as performed by these powerhouses, all at the very top of their game.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

TWO GOOD FILMS

In Uncategorized on April 17, 2009 at 3:46 am

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Hollywood has finally gotten it right, for STATE OF PLAY, unlike the torturous, unmagical DUPLICITY, really delivers in terms of smart adult entertainment. From a snappy, topical script by three writers, Director Kevin MacDonald has fashioned a crackling show which combines the genres of sassy newspaper comedy with gripping murder mystery.

It’s been superlatively cast with Russell Crowe playing a blue-collarish equivalent of old school journalist, who amusingly disdains the ego and faulty facts perpetrated by bloggers, and is perfectly content with his 16-year-old computer and rusty Saab. Crowe – in a gesture all of us journalists I suppose shouldn’t take too personally – has let himself go physically to pot, with anything-but-buff torso and tangled, unwashed-looking mass of hair. (Indeed, he’s almost the visual embodiment of the name of his erstwhile real life rock group, 30 Odd Foot of Grunts.) However one may feel about his well-publicized anger issues, he’s undeniably one hell of an actor and a true star in the rare traditional sense, that singular performer able to instill empathy into a wide variety of heroic roles even in crap movies, from GLADIATOR and the 18th century swagger of MASTER AND COMMANDER to brainier roles, such as in THE INSIDER, A BEAUTIFUL MIND and this one.

He has great chemistry with his two female co-stars. Helen Mirren, as his tough, eye-on-the-bottom line editor, enjoys herself – as do we, the audience, thoroughly enjoy her – barking out orders and disapproval like a distaff Edward G. Robinson, while Rachel McAdams is a good enough actress to largely remove any traces of tiresomeness from her part as a callow, newbie Internet reporter, while simultaneously conveying a hint of physical attraction for Crowe. The fact that this aspect of their relationship is not overstressed is alone cause for hosannahs and testament to the film’s admirable lack of audience condescension. (No sudden, over-scored syrupy romantic interludes to break up the essential working relationship between these two.)

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Ben Affleck, with his callow handsomenessand general aura of displacement, is perfectly cast as the politician who becomes embroiled in the mysterious death of his mistress, and the part of an odious White House power monger fits Jeff Daniels like a suede driving glove. Robin Wright Penn – strangely resembling Sarah Jessica Parker here – manages to do small, deep wonders in the thankless role of Affleck’s wronged wife who shares a certain past with Crowe. Jason Bateman provides a small, but richly detailed comic portrait of a public relations honcho, whose druggy pansexuality defines sleaze.

The whole thing is handsomely filmed, moves at a swift absorbing pace and is even tastefully scored, music-wise, a real exception these days. MacDonald’s sense of the romantic informs and enriches many of the relationships here, but it’s never more evident or more effective than in the film’s ending montage – of real honest-to-God newspapers you can actually hold in your hands as you read them, coming off the presses. There’s nothing particularly new in this imagery but, after what the film has been trying to say about real news reporting, coupled with the current decimation of print media all over this country, I found the footage particularly stirring and myself brushing a tear away.

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EVERY LITTLE STEP is one of the best backstage musicals ever made, never mind that it’s a documentary. It covers the process by which the 2006 revival of the beloved musical A CHORUS LINE, brilliant brainchild of the late choreographer-director Michael Bennett, made its way to Broadway, specifically through the arduous rounds of auditions by desperately hopeful actors, whose all-encompassing obsession exactly matches that of the characters for which they are trying out.

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Marvin Hamlisch, Michael Bennett, 1975 (Photography by Martha Swope)

Directors Adam Del Deo and James D. Stern obviously have a deep love for their subject and they’ve elicited marvelously informative stuff from the many interviewees they film, from original creators, Bob Avian, John Breglio, Marvin Hamlisch, Donna McKechnie, and Baayork Lee to everyone involved in or trying to be involved in the later revival. Although it’s a story that’s been repeated and published ad infinitum, the gestation of the 1975 A CHORUS LINE, from early, informal taping sessions conducted by Michael Bennett over a jug of wine in someone’s apartment to the revolution it created in the theatre, still has the power to thrill. The movie is also filled with humor, in the hard-bitten showbiz kind of sass easily bandied about by the veterans. The new kids provide laughs as well, some inadvertently, as one especially over-confident tyro is seen spouting egotistical, my-own-boss-ness platitudes, when his name is suddenly called by a casting director, and he suddenly jumps to attention like an obedient puppy.

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Donna McKechnie, 1975 (Photography by Martha Swope)

The film swiftly achieves the compelling watchability and suspense of AMERICAN IDOL or DANCING WITH STARS, with the significant difference that here you are seeing contestants all possessing considerably more than a modicum of talent to match considerable ego, with all of them willing to fit themselves into the specific demands of characters written more than thirty years ago, who have somehow remained timeless. Call it closer to real art, if anything. The heartbreak and frustration of failure is real, as when one very experienced gypsy loses the key role of Sheila (“Tits and Ass”) because she blows the last of several auditions held over a long period of time, being unable to recall what she had done that had so excited the casting people earlier on. In a mirroring instance of life imitating art, established Broadway star Charlotte D’Amboise snagged the McKechnie’s seminal part of former star Cassie and we see her elatedly receiving the thumbs up phone call in the house of her adoring, adorable father, veteran dancer Jacques D’Amboise. (She may have had experience on her side, but her eventual, finished performance was not all that, like her puzzlingly unmemorable SWEET CHARITY, and I still wish I could have seen what her closest contender might have made of the role.)

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Jason Tam, as Paul

But there’s triumph, as well, like when all hope seems to be lost in ever finding the right “Paul,” the homosexual former burlesque dancer who’s the most memorable, ground-breaking male character, young Jason Tam walks in and nails the audition so beautifully that Avian bursts into tears before saying “Sign him up!” Tam, who confided being gay to me in an early interview and who went to Hawaii’s Punahou School, the alma mater of Obama, as well as myself, did indeed provide one of the few highlights of the actual production when it did finally, indifferently open. The ultimate irony is that this film about its creation is infinitely more enjoyable and rewarding than what made it onto the Broadway stage.

COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

THE IRENES

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2009 at 11:54 pm

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The most touching moment at this year’s Irene Sharaff Awards for theatrical costume design (March 27, Henry Hudson Theater) was when Lifetime Achievement award winner William Ivey Long read a telegram: “Thanks for helping me make Blanche the moth of our dreams and also your understanding about all my demands. Tash.” It was from the late Natasha Richardson, who had worked with Long on A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE in 2005, and Long was quick to point out, “They were not demands – this is what designers do,” attesting to the wholly collaborative nature of his work with the star.

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Natasha Richardson in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (2005)

Richardson may not have been demanding but she certainly had her particular tastes. For the birthday party scene, she appeared in a rather revealing sundress in strong contrast to the more traditional, modestly covered-up, ladylike image of Blanche familiar from Jessica Tandy’s, Vivien Leigh’s and Jessica Lange’s takes on the role. This was in tune with what designer Albert Wolsky once told me about working with her. She was always drawn to a certain very youthful image of herself and, indeed, when they did MAID IN MANHATTAN together, came to him with lots of clippings from fashion magazines of California-type blondes in tight jeans and sexy wear. “But your character is supposed to be a rich Upper East Side matron!” he remonstrated, and a compromise was reached. (Richardson may indeed have been a bit presciently ahead of her time – take a look at the way THE REAL HOUSEWIVES OF NEW YORK dress.)

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Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in GUYS AND DOLLS (1992), William Ivey Long’s greatest costume moment

Long, ever the industrious showman, also produced in his acceptance speech an elaborate presentation of a tree, the leaves of which bore the names of everyone who’d helped or inspired him through the years. He was introduced by Director Jerry Zaks, who claimed to be the only person who calls him “Willie” and observed that, despite his carefully cultivated preppie sartorial image, “at heart, he’s a good old boy.”

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Jennifer Ikeda and Geraint Wynn Davies in WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, costumes by Clint Ramos (photography by Carol Rosegg)

Other tributes went to Clint Ramos (the always gay giggle-inducing Young Master Award), for, among others, his staggeringly elaborate Restoration work in WOMEN BEWARE WOMEN, presented to him by wholly admiring cast member Jan Maxwell, and Sally Ann Parsons (Artisan Award), the first to work with Willa Kim’s groundbreaking dance fabric discovery: lycra spandex. Parsons’ lengthy (and that’s an understatement) acceptance speech generously mentioned, by name, every single person in her company.

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Sherie Rene Scott in AIDA (2000), costumes by Bob Crowley

The Robert L. Tobin Award for Lifetime Achievement went to Bob Crowley, presented to him by fellow feisty, funny Irishman, Director Jack O’Brien. Crowley will design the sequel to THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, LOVE NEVER DIES, to be set in Coney Island at the turn of the last century.

A highlight of the evening was Suzy Benziger’s eye-ravishing documentary film about Irene Sharaff (1910-93), which encompassed her achievements, from earliest work with Eva LeGallienne and on Irving Berlin’s AS THOUSANDS CHEER to THE KING AND I, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, WEST SIDE STORY, FUNNY GIRL and, finally, MOMMIE DEAREST. Along with her canny stylization, which sifted out the absolute essence of a period, and Renaissance-rich color palette, Sharaff’s moody, dusky sketches alone were complete works of art, and Long proudly displayed a gorgeous one he had recently acquired – lucky duck – for a song at Christie’s House Sale, stressing that it was coming home with him and not being donated to the Theatre Development Fund. The God-like, problem-solving omniscience of Sharaff was evoked with the mantra that seemingly every designer chants at some problematic point, “What would Irene do?,” and Long observed “We’re afraid to get up in the morning because she set the stakes so high,”

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Benziger recounted a hilarious reminiscence of once visiting costume maker Barbara Matera’s workshop at a time when three formidable designers, Florence Klotz, Theoni Aldredge and Patricia Zipprodt, all of whom had worked under Sharaff at various times, happened to show up simultaneously, sniping about each other: “What’s taking her so long?” “When is she leaving the big studio?” “Why isn’t MY dress done yet?”

Word came that Sharaff was on her way to the studio, as well and, suddenly, Benziger said, “One of the ladies remembered she had to be somewhere else immediately, another burst into tears, and the third just hid.”

Here’s part of the reason why, i.e.,

THE SHEER BRIILLIANCE OF SHARAFF

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Judy Garland, MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS

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NOTE: This rare original vintage photo is currently for sale on Ebay; click here to see it

http://cgi.ebay.com/JUDY-GARLAND-MEET-ME-IN-ST-LOUIS-ORIG-DOUBLEWT-PORTRAT_W0QQitemZ120405535051QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item120405535051&_trksid=p3911.c0.m14&_trkparms=72%3A1205%7C66%3A4%7C65%3A12%7C39%3A1%7C240%3A1318%7C301%3A0%7C293%3A1%7C294%3A200

No one did that most popular era of musicals, the early 1900s, better than Sharaff. A quarter of a century after MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS, she was still undisputed mistress of the epoch with HELLO, DOLLY!

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Director Gene Kelly, Sharaff and Barbra Streisand confer on the set

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Rita Moreno, WEST SIDE STORY 1961

NOTE: This photo is currently for sale on Ebay; click below to see it:

http://cgi.ebay.com/RITA-MORENO-WEST-SIDE-STORY-CHORUS-IN-AMERICA-OSCAR_W0QQitemZ120405590644QQcmdZViewItemQQptZLH_DefaultDomain_0?hash=item120405590644&_trksid=p3911.c0.m14&_trkparms=72%3A1205%7C66%3A4%7C65%3A12%7C39%3A1%7C240%3A1318%7C301%3A0%7C293%3A1%7C294%3A200

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Ray Bolger, George Church and Tamara Geva in the “Slaughter on 10th Avenue” ballet from ON YOUR TOES (1936)

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Eddie Albert and Jimmy Savo in THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE (1938)

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Gertrude Lawrence, singing “The Saga of Jenny,” in LADY IN THE DARK (1941)

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Director Mervyn LeRoy and Greer Garson on the set of MADAME CURIE (1943)

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Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and Harold Russell in THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVes (1946)

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Lucille Ball, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES OF 1946

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Virginia Mayo in THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (1947), photo by Peter Stackpole for LIFE

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Talk about diva vagaries: in THE BISHOP’S WIFE (1947), Loretta Young had a phobia about her famous, swanlike neck and so for her, Sharaff had to devise a special body suit worn under her garments which raised her entire shoulderline, thereby shortening that “offensive” feature.

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The ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951) was the climax of Suzy Benziger’s documentary film

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Donald O’Connor, Ethel Merman, George Sanders, Vera-Ellen in CALL ME MADAM (1953)

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Judy Garland in the “Born in a Trunk” sequence from A STAR IS BORN (1954)

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Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in BRIGADOON (1954)

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Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando in GUYS AND DOLLS (1955)

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Ethel Merman in HAPPY HUNTING, 1956

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Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, THE KING AND I ((1956)

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Pat Suzuki in FLOWER DRUM SONG (1958)

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Elizabeth Taylor, CLEOPATRA 1961

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Elizabeth Taylor in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF (1966): Sharaff’s transformation of the 33-year-old Taylor into the much older character of Martha undoubtedly contributed to the actress’ winning the Oscar that year.

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1966

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Barbra Streisand as Fannie Brice playing Baby Snooks, FUNNY GIRL (1968)

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Barbra Streisand, A HAPPENING IN CENTRAL PARK (1968)

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Debbie Reynolds, Patsy Kelly and George S. Irving in IRENE (1973)

Sharaff never actually worked with Joan Crawford but, amazingly, she did two Crawford pastiches 48 years apart, when Marilyn Miller played Crawford in a satirical sketch in Irving Berlin’s AS THOUSANDS CHEER in 1933

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and, in 1981, with MOMMIE DEAREST

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Faye Dunaway, lame’ed as Joan Crawford, in High Hieratical Hollywood Priestess Mode, MOMMIE DEAREST (1981)

THE LOVE OF HER LIFE
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Mai-mai Sze

Someone who is often privately discussed but rarely formally mentioned at the Awards every year is Sharaff’s longtime companion, Mai-mai Sze (1910-92). The Peking-born Sze had a mother who was lady-in-waiting to the last Dowager Empress of China and her father was ambassador to the Court of St. James and later the United States. She was raised in London, went to the National Cathedral School in Washington D.C., graduated from Wellesley College in 1931 and was active during WWII organizing the first Chinese War Relief Committee in New York.

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“China,” from the United Nations Series (1944)

Her first career was as a landscape painter and she had shows in New York, London and Paris. But her most memorable work was a drawing of her friend, Eugene O’Neill, which he liked so much he allowed it to be reproduced on book jackets, playbills and in magazines.

A Renaissance woman, she also modeled for Schiaparelli and acted on Broadway in the role of “Honorable Reader” in LADY PRECIOUS STREAM, a play by S.I. Hsiung, which opened at the Booth Theater in 1936, with costumes by Mei Lan-Fang. She wrote books: her autobiography in 1945, ECHO OF A CRY: A STORY WHICH BEGAN IN CHINA; a novel, SILENT CHILDREN (1948),;CHINA, and THE TAO OF PAINTING: A STUDY OF THE RITUAL DISPOSITION OF CHINESE PAINTING, her translation of a 15th century Chinese text which is still in use today.

She was a journalist with a column in THE NEW YORK POST and reviewed books for THE NEW YORK TIMES, and lectured about conditions in China and its people.

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Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, February 12, 1940

Sze lived to be 82 and, in 1993 The New York Society Library received a bequest from the estates of both women of some 400 books. There were also bequests to the Music Pavilion of Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University.

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Photographed by Carl Van Vechten, Dec. 29, 1935. Sze wrote to the photographer: “Thank you so much for sending the pictures – I especially like the profile. You are the only person who has ever made me feel I had one. [Plus} something of a nose!”

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COPYRIGHT: davidnoh2009

BEST FILM OF 2009…SO FAR

In Uncategorized on April 3, 2009 at 4:37 pm

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Gianni Di Gregorio’s debut feature film, MID-AUGUST LUNCH, has you hooked from its very first scene. It is August in a desultory Rome deserted by all save the most dogged tourists, and Giovanni (Di Gregorio) is, as always, caring for his aged mother Valeria (Valeria De Franciscis), with whom he lives. He reads “The Three Musketeers” to her and she stops him, asking for a description of D’Artagnan, so she can visualize him in her mind’s eye. He patiently turns to the beginning of the book and begins to rattle off Alexandre Dumas’ verbal portrait of his hero. A high forehead, a strong jaw – all of these please Mama, until Giovanni gets to D’Artagnan’s hawklike nose. “No!” the old lady cries, “I don’t like that!”

In a nutshell, you immediately get Giovanni’s enclosed, reasonably happy, dutiful bachelor life, which is complicated when his building manager (an amusingly brusque Alfonso Santagata) dumps his mother Marian (Marina Cacciotti) and aunt Maria (Maria Cali) on him so he can take a holiday with his girlfriend. Giovanni, who owes money for his apartment maintenance, has no recourse but to accept, and then a doctor friend (Marcello Ottolenghi) adds his own mother, Grazia (Grazia Cesarini Sforza), to the mix, when he finds he has to work late hours at the hospital.

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Di Gregorio (a leading Italian screenwriter), in both his performance and direction, sustains an irresistibly droll, dry, improvisatory tone here which keeps a smile on your face throughout, with frequent intervals of laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s all in the splendidly observed human behavior on view – the ravenous way the doctor’s mother, forbidden just about every kind of food, devours a plate of ham upon entering Giovanni’s home, the inevitable battles over the TV and the toll it takes on him moving the set from room to room with variable reception, the utterly genteel way Valeria expresses her desire to stay in her room and not mix with these unwanted boarders. Di Gregorio’s poker-faced reactions to the ladies’ varied, unpredictable antics are absolutely priceless.

The actresses playing his charges are all, amazingly, non-professionals, making their acting debuts. De Franciscis as Valeria is imperiously regal, even in a blonde wig which looks like a dead animal act on her head. Cacciotti is a haughty, bawdy presence, wholly unwilling to go gentle into that good night, even attempting to seduce Giovanni at one point. Cali has a sweet old maid-ish quality, reminiscent of great character actor Elizabeth Patterson, never more so than when she shyly models a festive hat forced upon her by Valeria. The birdlike Sforza makes a literal meal of her role as the ever-hungry Grazia.

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Along with the hilarity, the film is also a sensitively etched portrayal of aging, without a trace of condescension. It’s the kind of film Hollywood may very well snatch up and remake, i.e., ruin, with someone like Robin Williams in the lead, and biddies from Joan Plowright to Rue McLanahan. Do yourself a complete favor, and don’t miss this wonderfully humane and funny film before that happens.

MID-AUGUST LUNCH is being shown as part of the NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS festival:
Fri Apr 3: 6:15 (WALTER READE THEATER)
Sat Apr 4: 3:45 (MUSEUM OF MODERN ART)

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