Reviews

Matchmaker seeks meal ticket in storied musical

Hello, Dolly!
Betty Buckley as Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! (Photos by Julieta Cervantes)

By Richard Ades

When comes to falling in love, timing is everything. That holds equally true when the potential object of your affection is a Broadway show.

Case in point: Decades ago, I encountered at Les Miserables at just the wrong time, when a tired and creaky touring show brought the musical back to Columbus long after its first visit. (And I mean literally creaky: The “turntable” was noisy enough to be heard over the orchestra.) The result is that I didn’t fall in love with the revolutionary tale until an incredible local production revealed its full power.

On the other hand, I encountered Miss Saigon at just the right time, via an early touring show that remains the best of the three productions I’ve seen.

All this is my way of saying it might be too late for me to fall in love with Hello, Dolly! Amazingly, I had not seen the chestnut until it toured its way into Columbus this week. The upshot: I admired the familiar Jerry Herman tunes, the spirited Warren Carlyle choreography and the giddily colorful, Santo Loquasto-designed scenery and costumes. But those attributes didn’t make up for a nearly nonexistent plot that was undercut by over-the-top comedy and spectacle.

Surprisingly, the New York Times reviewer who caught the original Broadway production back in 1964 had some of the same objections. In the end, though, the critic was won over by Carol Channing’s portrayal of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker and Jill-of-all-trades who was tired of scraping by in turn-of-the-20th-century New York.

Channing was an incandescent presence who could simultaneously project charisma and vulnerability. That combination probably helped to carry the audience along as Dolly hatched a desperate plan to court and marry Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy and miserly Yonkers storekeeper who neither loved her nor was loved by her. Her bravura performance buoyed the tale right through to its bittersweet conclusion.

Over the years, the role has been taken on by a variety of stars ranging from two who originally turned it down—Ethel Merman and Mary Martin—to the divine Miss Bette Midler. In the current touring show, the task falls to Broadway veteran Betty Buckley. Buckley has proved her theatrical chops over the years playing iconic roles such as Cats’s Grizabella and Sunset Boulevard’s Norma Desmond, but here she doesn’t seem to generate the necessary wattage. Though her sweetly aging voice carries the tunes well enough, we just don’t buy the power Dolly seems to hold over Lewis J. Stadlen’s grumpily reluctant Horace and everyone else in sight.

Hello, Dolly!

Directed by Jerry Zaks, the touring show accompanies Dolly’s efforts with the same combination of silly humor and glorious spectacle that won the original Broadway production a mixed Times review and a bevy of Tony Awards, including Best Musical. The silly humor includes Morgan Kirner’s honking portrayal of Horace’s niece Ermengarde, whose desire to wed artist Ambrose (Colin LeMoine) becomes Dolly’s cause du jour and is subsequently forgotten for most of the play.

Also silly is a hide-and-seek sequence involving Horace’s thrill-seeking employees Cornelius and Barnaby (Nic Rouleau and Sean Burns), hatmaker Irene (Analisa Leaming) and her assistant, Minnie (Kristen Hahn). But the four ultimately make up for it with help from Hahn’s comic expertise, Rouleau’s vocal pipes and Burns’s agile footwork.

Down in the pit, Robert Billig conducts a large orchestra bolstered by a number of local musicians, allowing tunes such as “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and, of course, “Hello, Dolly!” to be delivered with all the richness they require.

Though I failed to fall in love with Hello, Dolly!, I do appreciate the scenic and vocal attributes that reward those who are. And who knows? Maybe one day a particularly persuasive Dolly will come along and win me over.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Hello, Dolly! through May 12 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $39-$119+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Presidential rom-com mixes satire with sex and drug jokes

Long Shot
Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen) helps Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) loosen up in a scene from Long Shot.

By Richard Ades

The two main criteria for judging a romantic comedy are, naturally: (1) Is it romantic? And (2) is it funny?

In the case of Long Shot, the answer to both questions is “sometimes.”

Directed by Jonathan Levine (Snatched), the rom-com concocts a potentially intriguing matchup. On the one side is Secretary of State Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron), who begins planning a presidential run after learning the current commander-in-chief (Bob Odenkirk) won’t seek a second term. On the other side is Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a liberal journalist who leaves his job when his publication is sold to a conservative media conglomerate. When the two meet at a party and Charlotte realizes they were childhood neighbors, she impulsively hires Fred as a speechwriter.

On the surface, the glamorous, powerful Charlotte and the scruffy, laid-back Fred are a typical rom-com odd couple. Beneath the surface, however, there’s an actual connection. Years ago, 13-year-old Fred secretly had a crush on 16-year-old Charlotte, who served as his babysitter when she wasn’t running to be their school’s student-body president.

Now that they’ve been thrown together as adults, it’s obvious that Fred still has a crush on Charlotte, but he’s too aware of the difference in their positions to let on. Instead, he starts plying her for information about herself, explaining that a speechwriter needs to know his subject. Apparently charmed by his interest, Charlotte is happy to oblige. Even if you’re not a rom-com fan, you’ll have no trouble figuring out where this is headed.

Is Charlotte and Fred’s roundabout courtship romantic? Well, it may be for some, but not for me. It just seems too contrived and predictable, especially with sappy music telegraphing every development.

Well, is the film at least funny? Parts of it are, especially the early slapstick scenes featured in the commercials. Whether later scenes tickle your funny bone depends on your affinity for R-rated gags involving sex and drugs. They may produce a few reflexive chuckles, but they’re not nearly as satisfying as humor that grows organically out of characters and situations.

Appropriately for a film coming out in 2019, Long Shot also takes a stab at political satire, though its efforts are pretty tame compared to what’s aired on late-night TV. Like Donald Trump, Odenkirk’s President Chambers earned his fame on television (as an actor rather than a reality star). But unlike Trump, he has no political ambition and is simply using the presidency as a steppingstone to his actual career goal of breaking into the movies.

Screenwriters Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah likewise take aim at Trump’s favorite show, Fox & Friends, with a clone that lambastes liberals and feminists and is part of a network run by the Stephen Bannon-like Parker Wembley (Andy Serkis). To make sure the flick doesn’t alienate conservative viewers too much, though, their script aims other barbs at the liberal Fred, who is shamed for not knowing that his black best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a Republican—a Republican whose political philosophy is along the lines of “Believe in yourself.” Edgy!

Perhaps the movie makes the strongest political statements about the special challenges faced by a woman like Charlotte who’s trying to break through the ultimate glass ceiling. But it may go too far when it has Fred apologize for not realizing that such challenges sometimes force her to sacrifice her ideals. That’s probably not a message that real-life women candidates would appreciate.

Long Shot does benefit from two likable star turns. Theron adds enough humanity to the regal Charlotte to prevent her from becoming an ice queen, while Rogen plays the chemically adventurous Fred as an extension of his usual persona. It’s just too bad the script didn’t find more interesting ways for these two likable people to interact.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Long Shot (rated R) opened May 3 at theaters nationwide.

Film recalls historic setback for democracy

PETERLOO
Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear, center) prepares to speak at a fateful pro-democracy rally in Peterloo. (Simon Mein photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

By Richard Ades

If you know British writer-director Mike Leigh only through contemporary tales such as Secrets & Lies (1996) or Happy-Go-Lucky (2008), Peterloo may take you by surprise. Based on actual 1819 event, the period piece brings out a different side of the filmmaker’s personality.

This time around, rather than creating indelible characters involved in highly personal struggles, Leigh delivers a panoramic history lesson stocked with multitudes of conniving bureaucrats and idealistic commoners. The result is an epic film that, for most of its running time, is far less involving than the aforementioned earlier works.

That is, unless you are as committed to the subject as Leigh apparently is. The title refers to a military attack that disrupted a peaceful pro-democracy rally in his hometown of Manchester, leaving several dead and many others wounded.

Leigh’s depiction of the attack itself is painfully effective, but the road he takes to the tragedy is long, slow and meandering.

The movie begins at the end of the Battle of Waterloo, when a British bugler named Joseph (David Moorst) is stumbling around a field filled with fallen comrades. Another early scene takes place in the office of the British home secretary, where Gen. Byng (Alastair Mackenzie) is being assigned to deal with suspected seditious activity in northern England. Both scenes help to set the stage for what’s to follow.

In between them, however, is a detour to the halls of Parliament, where a more illustrious general, the Duke of Wellington, is being awarded a large sum of money for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo. Since Wellington actually plays no role in the film, we can only surmise that this scene is meant to explain Byng’s obvious dissatisfaction with his new assignment. In any case, it’s clear that he has little interest in keeping order in northern England, which may be a contributing factor to the coming disaster.

Leigh spends the bulk of the film spelling out the conditions that created the “seditious” feelings that Byng has been assigned to quell. The shell-shocked Joseph returns to his native Manchester to find wages falling and jobs nonexistent due to a mixture of industrial developments and governmental policies. The residents are keenly aware that they have no representative in Parliament and therefore can expect no help from London. In a series of public meetings, they discuss strategies for seeking redress.

At the same time, those in power seek ways to squash what they see as the beginnings of a dangerous rebellion. Having witnessed the bloody chaos that revolution created across the channel in France, everyone from local magistrates to the prime minister is determined to keep order at all costs.

This volatile situation could have made for a fascinating historical tale if Leigh had taken a less preachy approach. For starters, he could have had his characters spend less time preaching, as those pushing for democracy are constantly giving speeches at each other. Though their oratory is as powerful as their cause is just, the film begins to feel like an endless political campaign.

The sheer size of the cast gives few characters a chance to stand out. One who eventually does is Henry Hunt (Rory Kinnear), a London-based radical who’s given a hero’s welcome when he arrives in Manchester to headline a huge pro-democracy rally. However, the film suggests that the ultimate heroes are the handful of journalists who cover the event. If it were not for them, the world might never have known how horribly wrong it all went—or why.

Despite the film’s shortcomings, Leigh likewise deserves credit for carrying on the noble task of reporting a historic injustice.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Columbus showings: Peterloo (rated PG-13) opens April 19 at the Drexel Theatre and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.

Good Samaritan’s generosity doesn’t extend to herself

DIANE_Still6
Mary Kay Place plays a determined do-gooder in Diane. (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

By Richard Ades

The title character in Diane is selfless to a fault. Played by a stalwart Mary Kay Place, she ignores her own needs while looking after her addicted son, visiting ailing friends and volunteering in a soup kitchen. In return for these efforts, she’s rewarded with resentment, long-held grudges and only an occasional “thank you.”

A rough parallel can be drawn between Diane and Place herself, who has rarely received much attention despite the many years she’s spent both in front of and behind the camera. Unlike Diane, though, Place has finally been rewarded.  Portraying the long-suffering Diane allows her to reveal her talent for inhabiting a struggling character without indulging in excessive histrionics.

Written and directed by Kent Jones, the film follows Diane as she drives along rural Massachusetts roads from one disappointing encounter to another.

The most painful moments involve son Brian (Jake Lacy), who insists he’s kicked his drug habit though it’s all too clear he hasn’t. “Can’t you leave me be?” he begs. Maybe it would be better for him if she did, as her attempts to help by supplying him with food and clean clothes only turn her into an enabler. But ignoring someone in need is simply not in her nature.

Also painful is her relationship with her cancer-stricken cousin, Donna (Deirdre O’Connell), who harbors a resentment over a long-ago indiscretion. Other people in Diane’s life are more appreciative, including best friend Bobbie (Andrea Martin). Maybe Diane would benefit from their support and advice if she weren’t so busy beating herself up over what she sees as her own failings.

Jones’s low-key film boasts the participation of several skilled actors, including Estelle Parsons and other veterans who are less recognizable. The result is a convincing slice of rustic New England life. After it was over, though, I couldn’t help wishing it had been more.

People struggle, people disappoint each other, people die. In the process, neither Diane nor anybody else seems to learn anything. Unfortunately, the same goes for the viewer, unless you count the realization that Mary Kay Place is a very fine actor.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Local showings: Diane (rated R) opens April 5 at the Gateway Film Center in Columbus.

Capital punishment: D.C. garage tests visitors’ resolve

By Richard Ades

Note: I’m taking a break from reviews to offer a real-life adventure from a recent visit to the District of Columbia.

If you think the government in Washington is dysfunctional, you should try visiting a D.C. parking garage. My girlfriend Marilyn and I patronized one last Saturday night and ended up having an experience that reminded me of the recurrent nightmares I used to have about getting lost in one of those cavernous Meijer stores.

We parked in the underground garage about 7:30 p.m. to attend a joyous gathering held by some friends to celebrate their elder daughter’s bat mitzvah. When we returned around 10:30, we were surprised to find the entrance ramp blocked by a large grating that had been lowered from the ceiling. We went back to the restaurant and were told matter-of-factly that the garage closed at 10 p.m. “Then how can we get our car out?” we asked. They told us to enter through another entrance half a block away and keep heading toward the exit signs until we found our car.

We followed the instructions, stopping to pay the ticket machine on the way in, but it soon became clear we needed more help. Marilyn had made a mental note that we were parked in the B1 section, but it was nowhere in sight. Fortunately, we eventually ran into a knowledgeable stranger, who pointed us to an office where we could find a garage employee. This employee said we should walk toward the darkened area off in the distance, turn left and walk as far as we could, then turn right and head up a ramp.

We did all this and ended up in section B2, but still couldn’t find either B1 or our car. However, we did find a door, which opened up to another door, which led to a little hallway, which led to another pair of doors, on the other side of which was a stairway. Marilyn told me to hold the first set of doors open (to make sure we didn’t get locked in) while she went up the stairs to investigate. A minute or so later, she called down that she’d found the car!

Now our only problem was getting out of the garage. The ramp we’d originally driven in on was now open, but a gate blocked the way. We presented our prepaid ticket to the adjacent machine, only to be told we still needed to pay $5. What? While we were pondering this mystery, the aforementioned grating rumbled down from the ceiling and once again blocked the ramp.

Now in full panic mode, we pressed the “help” button on the machine. No one came or answered, but the grating soon rumbled back up into the ceiling. At this point, Marilyn decided she should walk up the ramp and out of the garage so she could run back to the restaurant for help if necessary. Meanwhile, I theorized that the machine was demanding more money because we’d been wandering around the garage for 30 or 40 minutes since making the first payment. I inserted my credit card, paid the $5 and finally was allowed to drive out.

The only bright spot in all this: If I ever have another nightmare about being lost in a Meijer store, I’ll think, “Well, at least it’s not a D.C. parking garage.”

Beloved comedy duo tries for a comeback

By Richard Ades

stan & ollie
John C. Reilly (left) as Oliver Hardy and Steve Coogan as Stan Laurel in Stan & Ollie

Stan & Ollie is an entertaining story for all viewers, but it’s a special treat for anyone who’s seen old Laurel and Hardy flicks. Besides being physically transformed to look like these iconic comedians, stars John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan do a great job of incorporating the pair’s mannerism into their portrayals.

Reilly’s Oliver Hardy is especially spot-on, right down to his eye-rolling exasperation at his friend’s antics. Coogan’s Stan Laurel is slightly less recognizable, but that’s partly because he’s revealed to be the duo’s leader, the hard-working guy who creates their routines and arranges their business deals. It seems the real-life Laurel had little in common with the simpleton he played in films and onstage.

Screenwriter Jeff Pope bases the story on an actual tour Laurel and Hardy undertook in the UK in 1953, a few years after their cinematic career had faded to black.

We learn that Laurel is convinced the tour will spark a comeback by helping them land a deal to film their own take on the Robin Hood legend. In order to accomplish this, however, he and Hardy have to prove they can still attract and amuse the paying public. Unfortunately, tour organizer Bernard Delfont (Rufus Jones) has booked them in second-rate theaters that garner little attention. Only after they agree to take part in publicity stunts that recreate old comedy bits do they begin to catch fire with the British public.

Director Jon S. Baird lends a gentle and loving touch to the tale, whether it delves into nostalgic comedy or bittersweet drama. Flashbacks reveal that a contract dispute some 16 years in the past nearly broke up the team, sparking resentments that still linger. Hardy’s health is another concern. He always presented a rotund contrast to his thin partner, and he’s gained even more weight over the years. The grueling tour proves to be a challenge, first to his stamina and eventually to his very existence.

Every cast member delivers a well-crafted portrayal, even in minor roles such as a doting fan or a hotel clerk who marvels that the pair is still performing. In a welcome addition to the tale’s second half, spouses Lucille Hardy (Shirley Henderson) and Ida Kitseva Laurel (Nina Arianda) arrive from America to reunite with their hubbies. The Russian-born Ida, a frankly outspoken former performer, is particularly amusing.

For Laurel and Hardy fans, the flick offers the chance to revisit the kind of comedy routines that made the pair beloved the world over, along with insights into the real-life people behind the laughs. For everyone else, it’s a warm-hearted but never maudlin reverie on age, fame and friendship.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Stan & Ollie (PG) opens Jan. 25 at AMC Lennox Town Center 24, AMC Easton Town Center 30, the Drexel Theatre, the Gateway Film Center and Marcus Crosswoods Cinema.

A portrait of the jurist as a young woman

OTBOS_06794_R
Felicity Jones (center) as a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg in On the Basis of Sex

By Richard Ades

After seeing last year’s documentary RBG, it was easy to understand how Ruth Bader Ginsburg nodded off during President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. The film depicts the Supreme Court justice as a lifelong workaholic who treats sleep as a low priority. Though she admitted that wine played a role in her televised catnap, it could also be that the long hours simply caught up with her.

For an understanding of just why Ginsburg is such a sleep-deprived dynamo, see the new biopic On the Basis of Sex. It suggests that late hours became a habit when she was a young law student.

As depicted in the film, Ruth (Felicity Jones) and husband Marty (Armie Hammer) are attending Harvard Law School in the 1950s when Marty is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Rather than allow him to fall behind in his studies, Ruth starts attending Marty’s classes as well as her own. Add the motherhood duties required by their baby daughter, and sleep becomes a luxury.

Despite a dire prognosis, Marty somehow survives his cancer. So does the movie, though it’s touch and go for a while. Director Mimi Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman take advantage of Marty’s illness to depict Ruth as a loving, selfless wife and mother. Doubtless she was, but their syrupy, sentimental approach reduces her to little more than a generic romantic heroine rather than the determined woman who would one day become a groundbreaking supporter of sexual equality.

Ginsburg’s feminist sentiments do come out in scenes that show the challenges she faces as one of Harvard’s earliest female law students. In an incident that would be unbelievable if it weren’t verified by the documentary, the dean (Sam Waterston) asks the female students why they’re taking up spots that should have gone to men. Subtly mocking his patriarchal mindset, Ginsburg responds that she wants to understand her husband’s field so she can be a more “patient” wife.

Despite such scenes, the flick doesn’t really hit its stride until Marty, as an established tax lawyer, introduces Ruth, as a law professor, to the case from which the title is derived. A Colorado man (Chris Mulkey) wants to claim a tax deduction to help pay for nursing care for his invalid mother, but the law says the deduction is available to women but not to single men like himself.

Recognizing a chance to start questioning the myriad of laws that discriminate on the basis of gender, Ruth is eager to take on the case. The struggle that ensues, exacerbated by the realization that she’s going up against decades of precedents that support traditional gender roles, is historically fascinating.

Speaking of gender roles, actor Hammer offers a sympathetic depiction of Marty Ginsburg as a man ahead of his time when it comes to his support and appreciation of his talented wife. As that wife, Jones is hampered by a Brooklyn accent that comes and goes and by the aforementioned scenes that are more sentimental than realistic. But once Jones’s Ginsburg starts taking on legal impediments to gender equality, she becomes a convincing combination of trepidation and determination.

RBG remains the definitive portrait of a judicial superhero, but On the Basis of Sex complements it by providing an inspirational origin story.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

On the Basis of Sex (PG-13) opens Jan. 10 or 11 at theaters nationwide.