Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Ladies of "The Help" Win at SAG Awards

The Directors Guild honors directors, the Writers Guild honors writers, and the Screen Actors Guild honors actors. Pretty simple, right? But because of the "ensemble" prizes at the SAG Awards, it's easy to think they're handing out a Best Picture award, too. But they're not. They're celebrating the actors' part of the movie, and in a way, how the entire cast functioned as an ensemble, not so much how one or two individual performances added up.

And that's why "The Help," plus actors Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, took home "The Actor," the statue the Screen Actors Guild hands out. "The Help" took its entire cast to Mississippi, asked them to bond, to live on location in each other's pockets for the duration of the shoot, and to become their own little village. Or ensemble. It worked, too. "The Help" may not be my #1 favorite movie of 2011, but I can certainly see why Davis and Spencer picked up their individual awards and why the actors in "The Help" were given the award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. Does it change the odds for who is expected to win at the Oscars? Well, it means Spencer is even more of a lock to win Best Supporting Actress, and Davis is starting to look like a good bet, too, edging out Meryl Streep for Best Actress.

But for Best Picture? I still think it will be "The Artist." "The Artist" has a great ensemble, too, but the success of the movie rests on the shoulders of Jean Dujardin, who plays a smooth leading man from yesteryear whose life changes when the movies start to talk. At the SAG Awards, the fact that Dujardin dominates the movie may have meant it missed the "Best Ensemble" mark. But Dujardin took the Best Actor award that pundits had been calling for George Clooney for "The Descendants," putting that Oscar race in doubt, and making me think that both Dujardin and "The Artist" will walk away with Academy Awards on February 26th.

Rounding out the film awards, Christopher Plummer won the Best Supporting Actor award for his performance in the film "Beginners." Like Spencer, Plummer seems a lock to win at the Oscars, too.

On the TV side of things, "Boardwalk Empire" and "Modern Family" won the Best Ensemble awards for drama and comedy television, respectively, with Steve Buscemi from "Boardwalk Empire" and Jessica Lange from "American Horror Story" taking individual awards for drama, Betty White of "Hot in Cleveland" prevailing as Best Actress in a Comedy Series, and Alec Baldwin winning as Best Actor for "30 Rock" for the sixth year in a row. Time out while I boo the Screen Actors Guild for giving it to Baldwin again and overlooking Steve Carell again. Carell did great work in his last season in "The Office," and he was more than worthy. Baldwin? Same old, same old.

Paul Giamatti took the award for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries for playing Ben Bernanke in "Too Big to Fail," with Kate Winslet picking up an Actor statue (in absentia, anyway) for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries for her performance in "Mildred Pierce."

SAG also honored the stunt men and women who worked on "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" and "Game of Thrones" as the best stunt ensembles in movies and TV.

As for the SAG fashions, I thought the ladies of "The Help" made a very good showing. Viola Davis (at left) looked stunning in her white and gold Marchesa gown avec beaucoup de cleavage, while Jessica Chastain, wore an electric blue Calvin Klein column dress (also with a lot of cleavage) that looked amazing with her red hair, Octavia Spencer was all elegance (love the up-do) in Tadashi Shoji, and Emma Stone rocked the place in a short black Alexander McQueen party dress that was adorable on her.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Let's Keep Celebrating Sondheim

If 2010 year was one long Sondheim Fest, what do we call 2011 and 2012? A lot of the celebrations in 2o1o were directly related to Stephen Sondheim's 80th birthday, which happened in March, 2010, but it seems as if nobody wanted the party to end. So in 2011, we got a second volume of Sondheim lyrics and musings about those lyrics, a revival of "Follies" that moved from the Kennedy Center in DC to Broadway and spawned a terrific cast recording, another "Follies" right here in Chicago, an all-star concert version of "Company" at the New York Philharmonic, and then a filmed version of that "Company," starring Neil Patrick Harris that toured movie theaters from coast to coast.

And now, as 2012 gets going, the Broadway "Follies" is preparing to move to LA, with the wonderful Victoria Clark now playing Sally instead of Bernadette Peters. That "Follies," with Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein and Ron Raines still in the cast, is scheduled to play LA's Ahmanson Theatre from May 3 to June 9. Clark is a Tony winner herself, and she has played Sally before, when it was an Encores! show in 2007, opposite Donna Murphy as Phyllis. If you're in LA, if you can get to LA... Don't miss this "Follies," which played to SRO crowds in New York.

Plus the open-air "Into the Woods" built into a tree in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in England in 2010 is coming to New York this summer. Will the show look like it's playing in a giant tree house in Central Park? I hope so!

We're also getting a production of "Company" closer to home, as the Station Theater opens its production this week. Directed by Karma Ibsen Riley, with Debra Dobbs as Musical Director (and playing Joanne), the Celebration Company's "Company" features Dallas Street as Bobby, the guy surrounded by married friends who has just never found his way to a committed relationship. Should he have married Amy, Jenny, Sarah or Susan, all married to other men by now? Should he have tried harder with April, Marta or Kathy? Is it better to be a) alone, b) partying with a passel of friends, or c) cozy at home with one partner? What will Bobby figure out?

The Station's "Company" runs February 2-18, with all performances at 8 o'clock. For more information, click here.

And "Merrily We Roll Along," the backwards show about a composer named Frank and his two friends, Mary and Charlie, who start out with all the promise in the world and then somehow lose the strands of the friendship along the road to fame, is gearing up for Encores! at New York's City Centre, directed by James Lapine. The Encores! MO is to revive overlooked or underappreciated pieces of American musical theater, putting on terrific "staged readings" (that are really a lot more than readings) using first-rate casts with only a couple of weeks of rehearsal.

For this "Merrily," stars Colin Donnell (Frank), Celia Keenan-Bolger (Mary) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Charlie) are already hard at work in rehearsal, and Broadway.com and Playbill.com went behind the scenes to share rehearsal video of their "Old Friends." Click here or here to see it yourself. Fabulous! (The Broadway.com one even has a little intro by Miranda.)

Playbill also has a photo gallery to give you a sneak peek at how Donnell, Keenan-Bolger and Miranda, as well as Betsy Wolfe as Frank's wife Beth, will look in some of the eras that fly by in the show, and Theater Mania has an interview with Colin Donnell about what it's like to play charismatic-but-seriously-flawed Franklin Shepard.

NYCC is also offering an inside-rehearsals blog from ensemble member Mylinda Hull, with all kinds of cool info.

"Merrily We Roll Along" plays 14 performances at New York City Centre between February 8 and 19. For lots more information, you can visit the NYCC site here. "Merrily" asks the musical question "Who wants to live in New York"? and with this kind of show happening there, the answer is a resounding, "Me!"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Awards, Awards... DGA Last Night

As the Awards Season continues on its merry way, we need to thank the Directors Guild for scheduling their ceremony on a Saturday night instead of piling up on Sunday like everyone else. (I'm looking at you, Screen Actors Guild, with your ceremony later tonight.)

But, meanwhile, last night...

The Directors Guild honored directors in ten categories, with additional Special Awards given to Ed Sherin (DGA Honorary Life Member Award), Katy E. Garretson (Frank Capra Achievement Award) and Dennis W. Mazzocco (Franklin J. Schaffner Achievement Award).

The competitive categories include commercials, children's programs and reality programs, but let's get serious. The one everybody wants to know about is Feature Film. The DGA awards are a better predictor of the ultimate Oscar winner than just about any other award. It doesn't always hold that the winner of the DGA award also wins the Directing Oscar, but it almost always does. And this year... No surprise, Michael Hazanavicius, director of "The Artist," was the big winner, taking home the award for Best Director of a Feature Film. Hazanavicius may want to start clearing a space on his mantel and penning his acceptance speech.

In the other film category -- Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Documentary -- James Marsh won for "Project Nim," which was not nominated by the Academy in their documentary group. "Project Nim" is about a chimpanzee raised by humans to behave and communicate as much like a human child as possible, which means it is so up my alley. I'm going to have to find this one on a screen somewhere.

In the TV Movie or Mini-Series category, Jon Cassar won for "The Kennedys," which appeared on the Reelz Channel, with Patty Jenkins named the winner for a TV Dramatic Series for the pilot episode of "The Killing" on AMC and Robert B. Weide the winner for a TV Comedy Series for the "Palestinian Chicken" episode of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" on HBO. Glenn Weiss won in the TV Musical Variety category for last year's Tony Awards show on CBS.

Among reality TV shows, Neil P. DeGroot was honored for his direction of an episode of "The Biggest Loser" on NBC, while Amy Schatz took honors for her work on "A Child's Garden of Verse" on HBO in the Children's Programs category.

The award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Commercials went to Noam Murro of Biscuit Filmworks, who directed ads for Heineken Premium Light, DirecTV, Volkswagen Tiguan and EA Battlefield 3 that you may've seen on TV. This Handlebar Mustache ad definitely looks familiar.

The only one that I've left out is the Daytime Serial award, which went to director William Ludel for an episode of "General Hospital" wherein daytime icon Luke Spencer was subjected to an intervention by family and friends. It was an okay episode, but I kind of hate "General Hospital" in general, with special distaste for what they've done to Luke and Laura and their kids. Decimated might be a good word. Meanwhile, ABC canceled "One Life to Live," a much better show with much better writing, performances and direction. And better ratings, as well. But the DGA couldn't even see fit to give their award to OLTL in its last season. No, they lauded GH just like they always do. Thanks a bunch, DGA. I'm sure none of that is Mr. Ludel's fault. He's probably a lovely person and no doubt a talented director who richly deserves his award. Yeah, whatever. I'm still bitter about that whole "One Life to Live" thing. I believe at this point, there are a total of four Daytime Serials left. Perhaps now would be a good time for the DGA to excise that category completely.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

U of I Opens the Semester With "Judas Iscariot"

Next week, the University of Illinois Department of Theatre offers its first production of 2012 with "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot," by Stephen Adly Guirgis. You couldn't miss Guirgis's name last year when his "The Motherf*cker with the Hat," starring Chris Rock and Bobby Cannavale, hit Broadway, scooping up six Tony nominations.

Guirgis is co-artistic director of the LAByrinth Theater Company in New York City, and that's where "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" had its first production in 2005. Directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Judas" was named one of the ten best plays of the year by both TIME Magazine and Entertainment Weekly. That off-Broadway production starred Sam Rockwell as a catatonic Judas and Eric Bogosian as Satan, the real star of the show, with Mother Teresa, Mary Magdalene, Jesus, several apostles, and Sigmund Freud among the other characters.

U of I's press info labels the play "a metaphysical courtroom drama." Set in a courtroom in a small corner of purgatory, the play probes big issues issues of faith and despair, innocence and guilt, good and evil, as attorneys argue both sides of Judas's case in front of a cranky judge from the Civil War era, bringing in a parade of witnesses from a variety of times past. Can Judas be forgiven, find redemption, and get out of Hell after all these years? Can he even get his case heard?

Guirgis uses his own brand of poetry, including street slang and urban idiom, to give a contemporary, irreverent feel to the speeches of saints and sinners alike. CurtainUp called Guirgis's characters "wildly inventive," while Michael Billington, in his review of the London production for the Guardian in 2008, noted that "What gives the play its life is that Guirgis handles big issues with comic flair."

For U of I, "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" is directed by Associate Professor Lisa Gaye Dixon, with Nick Narcisi as Judas, Julian Parker as Satan, Kelson Michael McAuliffe as the prosecutor, Tyrone Phillips as the judge, and Neala Barron as Judas's feisty defense attorney, one Fabiana Aziza Cunningham.

"The Last Days of Judas Iscariot" opens Thursday, February 2, and runs through Sunday, February 12. For more information or to reserve tickets, click here. You can even get a sneak peek at the program here in case you'd like to read up on the cast or director (or read the dramaturg's notes) before you go.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The "Sheep" Musical: February 3

Yes, that's right -- one week from tonight may be the only opportunity you will have in your lifetime to see a musical about sheep. Well, sheep and lambs. And whatever the Theatre of Ted has concocted to go along with sheep and lambs. A little mint jelly?

"Sheep's on the Lamb," a musical comedy, comes to Capen Auditorium in Edwards Hall on the ISU campus next Friday and Saturday, February 3 and 4, with performances at 7:30 pm.

The Theatre of Ted describes their new musical as "an original musical comedy featuring terrible puns, silly songs, and some very talented people. It both makes fun of musicals and is proudly a part of the genre. With characters like Wool Smith and Baaaaaab Marley, Sheep's on the Lamb is goofy to say the least. The first act resembles a romantic comedy while the second is a post-apocalyptic sheep-dominated war story. It has everything you want and more. Oh and sheep, it has a lot of sheep."

So... Pretty Mutton meets Goattaca? (They didn't really say there would be goats. It's just that "Goattaca" sounds better than "Leg of Lamb's Run" or "Soylent Sheep.")

In any event, tickets for this musical about sheep are only $2 at the door, so you can hardly go wrong. Proceeds will be directed to the Theatre of Ted's Scholarship program.

The cast for "Sheep's on the Lamb" will include Alex Kostner and Robert "Cug" Leahy as Wool Smith Sr. and Jr., Kelsey Bunner as Mary, who I'm guessing has a little lamb or two, and Becky Solomon as Bo Peep. Max Zuckert, Jake Pollock and Ethan Goldman penned the script; Goldman also directs, with Andy Hudson as Musical Director.

You are warned that, this being Theatre of Ted, there may be baaaad words and woolly situations.

Click here for further info and instructions.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Oscar's Best Pics: "The Help"

I've already talked in this blog about "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris," two of the nine films nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. They're both wonderful.

I've seen most of the others on the list, too, but wasn't moved to write about them at the time. Now that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has deemed them worthy of nominations for Best Picture, however, I thought I would give a couple of them a whirl.

First up: "The Help."

"The Help" is based on the best-selling book of the same name, written by Kathryn Stockett. The story goes that Stockett wanted her childhood best pal, Tate Taylor, to write and direct the film version of her novel, and he held the option on the book even before it was published. Both Stockett and Taylor have said that they really did have "co-mothers," much like the black servants in the novel, who are the ones who really raise the children, wipe the runny noses, cook the meals, clean the houses and keep everything running smoothly on the homefront.

"The Help" is set in Mississippi in the 1960s, when even middle-class women had domestic help, and shows both the awful treatment the black women faced on a day-to-day basis as well as the friendships which evolved between these African-American caretakers and their white charges. As a device to get into the story, we start with a young woman named Skeeter, played in the movie by current It Girl Emma Stone, who isn't interested in the whole husband-house-and-baby thing that consumes every other socially acceptable white girl in town. Instead, Skeeter wants to be a writer. She gets a try-out writing a column on homemaking hints for a local newspaper, but it's not really anything she knows anything about, so she turns to her friend's extremely capable housekeeper, Aibileen, given fierce life by Viola Davis, for help. And then Skeeter is appalled when she hears about a campaign to require the black ladies, the help, to use separate bathrooms rather than spread their alleged germs to their white employers. So Skeeter comes up with the idea of writing an exposé that will accomplish several things -- it will reveal the hypocrisy and craziness of people like Hilly Holbrook, the head of the Junior League, who launched the "Home Health Sanitation Initiative," i.e., the separate bathroom campaign; put a spotlight on how poorly treated the ladies who make up "the help" are; and also get Skeeter a book contract and open the door on her literary career.

Aside from the Best Picture nod, Viola Davis is nominated as Best Actress for her warm and honest performance as Aibileen, with Octavia Spencer, who plays mouthy maid Minny, and Jessica Chastain, in the role of Celia, a trashy outsider who has married one of the town's golden boys, both in the Supporting Actress category.

All three turn in terrific performances with a lot of energy and personality. Davis's Aibileen is deservedly the heart of the movie, with Spencer (another old friend of Tate Taylor) adding humor and irreverence as the maid who always gets in trouble for her temper, but usually gets out of it because she is such a good cook. Chastain, another It Girl of the moment, is also funny and fresh as the loud, awkward Celia, who strikes up a friendship with Minny that helps them both survive. Yes, Minny and Celia are stereotypes, but Spencer and Chastain transcend those stereotypes just by sheer force of personality.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Sissy Spacek also add vivid performances to the mix as the awful, awful Hilly and her poor senile mother, with a cameo from Cicely Tyson late in the movie that broke my heart.

A lot of critics have raised issues with the film and the fact that the black characters are all maids, while the plot provides that they need a white girl, Skeeter, to come to their rescue. Both are film clichés that certainly deserve mention and discussion. And, yes, it is unacceptable that the only roles African-American actors could get for so long were maids and hookers. But Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer looked at the roles in "The Help" and saw something that they wanted to play, something beyond just stereotypical "Beulah, peel me a grape" kinds of roles. If the roles go to the heart of what it is to be a maid, if they are three-dimensional and compelling characters, does it really matter that they are maids?

The white savior thing is more troubling. Why does Hollywood (and I guess the publishing industry, as well, since it was that way in the book, too) feel the need to begin and end with the white character who will fix everything for the black people? Couldn't we get the servants' stories from them, instead of from a white translator? Still, Davis and Spencer are so ferocious and riveting that it's hard not to see this as their movie, not Emma Stone's, no matter who got top billing. And that helps a little.

"The Help" makes Mississippi in 1960 look luminous and bright, diffused with bright colors and dappled sunlight, courtesy of cinematographer Stephen Goldblatt and production designer Mark Ricker. It's a pretty, warm film all-around, with messages of conciliation and friendship to bind up the wounds suffered in the Jim Crow South. As the last images of the movie indicate, Aibileen still has a long row to hoe, a long way to walk, even if there has been a little comeuppance and a little justice earned over the course of this story. That last image of Viola Davis stayed with me for a good, long time.

Small side note: Viola Davis shares my birthday. Growing up, I was always looking for an interesting celebrity co-natalist. My sister had Robert Redford and my mom had Sophia Loren, and all I got was Jerry Falwell and Hulk Hogan. (Alex Haley also shared our birthday, but he had passed away by the time I was looking for co-natalists, and that didn't seem to count.) So, anyway, thank you, Viola Davis, for being awesome and talented as well as being born on the same day as me!

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dear Lord Grantham... How Have You Missed the Gossip About Your Daughter Mary?

Do you want to chat with Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey? Who doesn't want to chat with Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey?

Masterpiece is inviting interested parties to join "Downton Abbey" star Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, for an online chat on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012, at 1 pm Eastern/noon Central time. Bonneville will be available to take questions about his character, Season 2 of "Downton Abbey," and presumably anything else people want to ask him that isn't rude or annoying.

As played by Hugh Bonneville, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is rich and powerful and a member of the social elite in early 20th Century Britain. He has a lovely wife he is also in love with, and together they have three beautiful daughters. He seems like a decent sort of fellow, doing what is right more than what is convenient, always defaulting to compassion and integrity and all that good stuff. And he lives at the impossibly gorgeous Downton Abbey, with servants attending to his every need.

But there is one big catch in Lord Grantham's power. He needs a son. He holds his estate in fee tail, with only male heirs able to inherit Downton Abbey. And Lord Grantham has only daughters.

Nice, stable people with absolute power and everything they ever wanted are not very interesting in drama, as it happens. So giving Lord Grantham the inheritance problem is key to making him interesting. Well, that and the fact that the charming life he and his family have been leading is already being changed mightily by World War I and the pressures of the new century, with cars and planes and telephones and movies and penicillin and indoor plumbing and electricity and all the other modern conveniences, some happening already, some coming soon, smashing the old ways to smithereens. (Hint: The British Empire is also going to take a beating in the 20th Century.)

Which is exactly why Lord Grantham is fascinating. Hugh Bonneville does a dandy job with the character, in what is a bit of a departure from the other roles I've seen him do. He's been in tons of things, but I admit I've only noticed him in sort of sweet but awkward roles before this, like Elizabeth Bennet's father in "Lost in Austen," Bernie, the kind friend of the hero in "Notting Hill," and most notably, as the young half of John Bayley opposite Kate Winslet as the young Iris Murdoch in "Iris."

Some critics have commented that Lord Grantham is much too nice, that he represents creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes' romanticized view of the aristocracy, or perhaps an apologia for them, all sweetness and light, treating servants like people and being all, well, noble, in a way real British toffs would never have done. My feeling is that there had to be at least one cool member of the nobility in England in the 1910s and 20s. So he's it. He may not be representative, but he's fun to watch, appealing in all the right ways, and he makes us care about the Crawley family in a way we wouldn't if the Earl was a jerk or a crazy person.

But if you side with the "too good to be true" folks, this is your chance to ask Hugh Bonneville himself. Is Lord Grantham nicer than he should be? Is he realistic? Should he be more strict with his daughters? How has he possibly missed all the gossip about Mary (which provides all kinds of plot points involving his manservant Bates, his middle daughter Edith, Mary herself, and the Turkish Embassy)? Does he have a clue what's going on with youngest daughter Sybil and the chauffeur? How is the war changing him? Would he rather be fighting at the front or at home with the fam? How can someone with a mother and sister like he has be such a nice guy? Has Bonneville created a backstory for the character including what his father was like and who, if anyone, he loved when he was young (since we know he only fell in love with his wife after they were married, and her dowry was the big attraction before that) and anything else that has shaped his psyche?

See, I have lots of questions. I better show up for that online chat and get my typing fingers ready.

Masterpiece promises more chats later with other cast members, including Allen Leach, who plays Branson, the Irish chauffeur with a rebellious spirit and an eye for a lady above his station. For this one, visit the Masterpiece site here. You can also sign up for the Masterpiece e-newsletter to get advance notice of chats and other information.

Thanks, Sarah, for the heads-up!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Oscar Nominations Are Here!

I was trying to decide between "Here it is, lads -- 'Smell the Glove'" and "Hot off the press, strictly a mess" for a lead for this piece about the newly announced Academy Award nominations.

Neither is quite right, though. Yes, these nominations are a little odd and a little stinky in some ways (Where is Michael Fassbender? Where is Ryan Gosling? Why doesn't the Academy like Stephen Spielberg and what is this inexplicable love for Brad Pitt and "Moneyball"?) but these nominations aren't fun or irreverent enough for a "Spinal Tap" reference. And they're not really enough of a mess or related to Broadway or musicals for the "Follies" nod.

So I guess I'll just go with, well, here they are... Another year, another set of Oscar nominations that err on the side of the sad, sentimental or portentous ("Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close," "War Horse," "The Tree of Life"), love the screen veterans and comeback stories (Christopher Plummer, Max von Sydow, Gary Oldman, Nick Nolte) and overlook comedy that isn't Woody Allen ("Midnight in Paris" or foreign ("The Artist"). It's not a surprise, really, but why no love for "Crazy, Stupid, Love"? Personally, I would take six "Crazy, Stupid, Loves" over one "Bridesmaids." And while "Moneyball" was okay, it was no great shakes, even in my household, where my husband once spent a great deal of time on Bill James and baseball Sabermetrics and still has a fondness for that general area, which is what "Moneyball" is about. It's a fine movie, a decent movie, and Brad Pitt is fine and decent. And that's it. No great shakes. Not really Oscar bait. Or clearly Oscar bait and I am once again not on the same wavelength as Oscar voters.

In a side note, this year's two big movies based on well-regarded stageplays --"Carnage," from Yasmina Reza's "God of Carnage" and "The Ides of March," from Beau Willimon's "Farragut North," went away pretty much empty-handed. "Ides" earned a nomination for its screenplay, but otherwise zippo. Why so little love for products of the legitimate stage?

So, anyway... Here they are... Or at least the ones that interest me...

The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

I loved "Hugo" and "Midnight in Paris," and "Hugo" would probably be my pick if I were voting. But "The Artist" is the odds-on favorite here. Overall, "Hugo" leads the pack with 11 nominations, while "The Artist" is right behind with 10. That can give a film momentum within the voting and create a kind of tsunami effect. If anybody is going to get a tsunami, it's "The Artist."

Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist)
Alexander Payne (The Descendants)
Martin Scorsese (Hugo)
Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris)
Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)

Malick is a bit of a surprise; I expected to see David Fincher's name for "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," since he got a Directors Guild nomination, or Stephen Spielberg for "War Horse," since Oscar prognosticators were trumpeting his odds. Still, I'm betting Hazanavicius will win.

Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs)
Viola Davis (The Help)
Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady)
Michelle Williams (My Week with Marilyn)

I'm expecting Meryl Streep to take this, although Viola Davis's heartfelt work in "The Help" might just knock Meryl (Oscar's most-nominated actress) off the podium. Glenn Close gets a nomination in the somewhat traditional "pretending to be a gender you are not" category, which earned an Oscar nod for Dustin Hoffman for "Tootsie," a SAG nomination for Nathan Lane for "The Birdcage," and a Golden Globe win for Robin Williams for "Mrs. Doubtfire."

Demián Bichir (A Better Life)
George Clooney (The Descendants)
Jean Dujardin (The Artist)
Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)
Brad Pitt (Moneyball)

Which of these things is not like the other? Brad Pitt in "Moneyball." Okay, I will stop ragging on Mr. Pitt. But he really doesn't belong. Not for "Moneyball," anyway, in which he was competent and cute, but hardly revelatory. Maybe this is really a nomination on the order of "We're sorry we didn't like you better in 'The Tree of Life,' so 'Moneyball' it is." Anyway, George Clooney is widely expected to take this, with some folks thinking that Jean Dujardin could ride "The Artist" train to victory if it builds up a big enough head of steam. Leonardo DiCaprio ("J. Edgar") and the aforementioned Michael Fassbender ("Shame") were considered likely to be nominated, but didn't get into that select group.

Bérénice Bejo (The Artist)
Jessica Chastain (The Help)
Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids)
Janet McTeer (Albert Nobbs)
Octavia Spencer (The Help)

Just take that award over to Octavia Spencer right now. She was terrific in "The Help," she already won the Golden Globe and a spattering of critics awards for the role, and she is nominated for and expected to win the SAG award in this category, too. I suppose Bérénice Bejo (in what is really a leading role) or Melissa McCarthy (fresh off her Emmy win) could have a shot, but I really think this is Octavia Spencer's year.

Kenneth Branagh (My Week with Marilyn)
Jonah Hill (Moneyball)
Nick Nolte (Warrior)
Christopher Plummer (Beginners)
Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close)

Max von Sydow is always amazing, and longevity certainly seems to be a factor in Academy voting. That will also help Christopher Plummer, though, and he is getting a lot of notice for a showy role. And his character dies in "Beginners," which always helps garner sympathy from voters.

The Descendants (Screenplay by Alexander Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash)
Hugo (Screenplay by John Logan)
The Ides of March (Screenplay by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon)
Moneyball (Screenplay by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Story by Stan Chervin)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Screenplay by Bridget O'Connor & Peter Straughan)

Playwright Beau Willimon is nominated for his work helping to adapt his play "Farragut North" into "The Ides of March" for the screen, and playwright John Logan ("Red," "Hauptmann") is nominated for his work as a screenwriter on "Hugo." "The Descendants" was adapted from the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, while "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" comes from the John le Carré spy novel of the same name, and "Hugo" began its life as a children's book called "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick. The oddsmakers think Clooney et al. will win for "The Descendants," but I am pulling for Martin Scorsese.


The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius)
Bridesmaids (Annie Mumolo & Kristen Wiig)
Margin Call (J.C. Chandor)
Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen)
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi)

Although I applaud the Academy for recognizing comedy, my preference would be more cerebral stuff than the girl-gross-out comedy in "Bridesmaids." Potty humor is not ma thang, not from the guys and not from the girls. So all the acclaim for "Bridesmaids" (Who knew women could be funny???? What a surprise!!!! Except, COME on. Women have always been funny. Sometimes even with poop.) strikes me as decidedly odd. Oh well. I would vote for Woody Allen's charming and creative "Midnight in Paris," and who knows? Maybe the Academy will agree with me and recognize that movie and Mr. Allen in just this one category, since they are figuring so much else will go to "The Artist."

All of my kvetching aside, I know when all is said and done, I will be tuning in on February 26th with a good chunk of the rest of the world to see whether Meryl Streep remembers her glasses, Marty Scorsese and his love of film preservation take him over the top, Viola Davis and her choice of gown knock 'em dead one more time, and Jean Dujardin brings the dog onstage if "The Artist" wins Best Picture. Maybe I should start a drinking game...

Monday, January 23, 2012

Producers Guild Honors "The Artist" (And Oscar Noms in the AM)

Yes, the 84th Annual Academy Awards nominations will be announced tomorrow morning. This year, Jennifer Lawrence (nominated last year as Best Actress for her performance in "Winter's Bone") and Academy president Tom Sherak will reveal the official Oscar nominations in about half the categories at 7:30 am Central time from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

And, yes, the Oscars are clearly the main event when it comes to movie awards. But the Producers Guild did their own awards thing just two nights before the Oscar nods come out, handing out both TV and movie commendations. In case knowing who the Producers Guild chose to honor helps you with last-minute Oscar-nomination predictions or helps you figure out what to watch on the crowded TV schedule, I thought I'd keep you up to date.

Long story short: "The Artist" won again, making that film a prohibitive favorite to win big with the Academy, too. And "Boardwalk Empire" upended "Mad Men," even as we (okay, I) anticipate the new season the latter.

Here's a more complete list:

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Animated Theatrical Motion Pictures:
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN producers Peter Jackson, Kathleen Kennedy and Steven Spielberg

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Competition Television:
THE AMAZING RACE producers Jerry Bruckheimer, Elise Doganieri, Jonathan Littman, Bertram van Munster and Mark Vertullo

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Documentary Theatrical Motion Pictures:
BEATS, RHYMES & LIFE: THE TRAVELS OF A TRIBE CALLED QUEST producers Debra Koffler, Frank Mele, Edward Parks and Michael Rapaport

The Danny Thomas Award for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television, Comedy:
MODERN FAMILY producers Paul Corrigan, Abraham Higginbotham, Steven Levitan, Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Morton, Jeffrey Richman, Dan O’Shannon, Brad Walsh, Bill Wrubel and Danny Zuker

The Norman Felton Award for Outstanding Producer of Episodic Television, Drama:
BOARDWALK EMPIRE producers Eugene Kelly, Howard Korder, Stephen Levinson, Martin Scorsese, Rudd Simmons, Tim Van Patten and Terence Winter

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Live Entertainment & Talk Television:
THE COLBERT REPORT producers Meredith Bennett, Stephen Colbert, Richard Dahm, Tanya Michnevich Bracco, Tom Purcell and Jon Stewart

The David L. Wolper Award for Outstanding Producer of Long-Form Television:
DOWNTON ABBEY producers Julian Fellowes, Nigel Marchant and Gareth Neame

The Award for Outstanding Producer of Non-Fiction Television:
AMERICAN MASTERS producers Susan Lacy and Julie Sacks

The Darryl F. Zanuck Award for Outstanding Producer of Theatrical Motion Pictures:
THE ARTIST producer Thomas Langmann

Get That 10-Minute "Playing Games" Play in Before February 1!

Heartland Theatre Company's annual 10-Minute Play Contest is still accepting entries... But only through February 1st!

This year's theme, "Playing Games," has proved popular with playwrights, with almost 300 plays from around the world already entered for consideration. But there's room for a few more, as long as:
  • The play strongly reflects the theme "Playing Games."
  • There are no more than four characters.
  • Those four characters can be played by actors who range from 18 to 80.
  • It would play at ten minutes or less if performed. (On the page, that's no more than ten pages formatted in Heartland's official style.)
  • The action in your play can work in Heartland's physical space.
  • Something happens. Something compelling, entertaining and altogether wonderful happens.
And that's all it takes to enter Heartland's 10-Minute Play Contest!

Once all the entries are judged (through two rounds of in-house Heartland judging) and finalists are selected, those 15-20 finalist scripts will be sent to a nationally-known playwright to select the eight winning entries to be produced on Heartland's stage in June.

If you've always wanted to see your work live and breathe on stage in the hands of accomplished actors and directors like the ones who are part of the "company" in Heartland Theatre Company, this is your chance. Just spruce up that entry, pay attention to the rules, please make sure it has something to do with playing games, and send it on in before February 1. Entries should be submitted online, through the Heartland Theatre Company website.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Secrets" Goes Behind the "Downton Abbey" Manor House

My friend Sarah, who comments here occasionally, has introduced me to this blog, Jane's Austen's World, which offers intriguing information about, well, Jane Austen's world, as well as British life in other eras.

It is a lovely blog, and today it features a review and recap of a PBS companion show to "Downton Abbey" called "Secrets of the Manor House."

"Secrets of the Manor House" is billed as "a fascinating glimpse of life inside the great homes of Edwardian England."

PBS says, "Secrets of the Manor House looks beyond the fiction to the truth of what life was like in these ancient British houses. They were communities where two separate worlds existed side by side: the poor worked as domestic servants, while the nation’s wealthiest families enjoyed a lifestyle of luxury, and aristocrats ruled over their servants as they had done for a thousand years."

You'll find out a little about how Britain's aristocracy came to be (warrior class) and how they displayed their power and elite status through their homes, as well as how they refilled their coffers by marrying American women, AKA the Buccaneers. All of that dovetails nicely with "Downton Abbey," although we don't know who the soldier was way back when who scored the real estate that Downtown Abbey sits on. We do know, however, that the current Earl married an American heiress to keep the property stable financially, and those finances are at the very heart of the romances and conflicts swirling upstairs at Downton Abbey. The "warrior" business also informs the current generation(s) of servants and masters, as so many of the principal characters have been pulled into World War I, either as soldiers or nurses or support on the homefront. This time, however, war is acting as a great equalizer, not a way to rise to the top of the social heap or gain favor from the king. Fascinating, indeed!

You can see a 9-and-a-half minute teaser video here, along with other information about the program. I especially like the little pictures on the wall to illustrate the hierarchy inside the aristocracy.

Or you can scan Jane Austen's World's more detailed info, including screencaps, here.

"Secrets of the Manor House" airs at 7 (central) on our local PBS stations WTVP from Peoria and WILL from Champaign-Urbana, with the third episode of this season of "Downton Abbey" immediately after at 8 pm.

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Merrily We Roll Along" Gets Its Miranda Right!

"Merrily We Roll Along" (book by George Furth, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim) is one of those famous problem musicals. Although Sondheim's score includes "Not a Day Goes By" and "Good Thing Going," two of his best-known songs, the show only made it to 52 previews and 16 performances on Broadway in 1981, and since then, it's been revived sporadically with a lot of changes here and there and decent, if not spectacular, results.

One of the problems is that, like the Kaufman/Hart play it's based on, "Merrily" moves backwards. That means the same actors have to play 40-something at the beginning and 18 at the end. The other is that its theme is how fame and fortune ruin friendship, which is not exactly a cheery idea to leave audiences with.

When "Merrily" opens, we meet Franklin Shepard, Charlie Kringas and Mary Flynn when they are 40-ish, with songwriter and movie producer Franklin a big success in Hollywood, but his old pals Mary, a writer, and Charlie, Franklin's former songwriting partner, did not come along for the ride. As we go backwards in time, we see how their friendships splintered, how Frank's marriage broke up, and exactly how far from his early ideals Frank has strayed.

I've seen "Merrily" a few times, with mixed results. But personally, I love the music and, yes, the story of lives gone off the rails, early promise not fulfilled, and in general, asking the musical question "How did I get to be here?" It's a familiar Sondheim refrain, and I buy into every time. I am also a sucker for the backwards thing, so I was never bothered by when or where we were, plus the performers I saw were mostly 30-somethings, I think, as opposed to the fresh faces (young Jason Alexander and Liz Callaway, among them) used in the original production.

It's cool that "Merrily" is one of this year's Encores! choices, to play at City Centre in February, with Rob Berman as musical director. And it's even cooler that they have assembled a wonderful cast for the two weeks of performances. Encores! supposedly does staged readings, but they turn into far more than that, using pretty much all-out stagings and fully realized performances from people who seem like they've had more than a few rehearsals.

This time out, the handsome and charming Colin Donnell (you can catch him on youtube singing bits of "Anything Goes" without much effort) will play Frank, with sweet and lovely Celia Keenan-Bolger ("The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "The Light in the Piazza") as Mary. The real kicker is who's playing Charlie, the good guy/good partner that Frank abandons in favor of fame. It's Lin-Manuel Miranda! Yes, that Lin-Manuel Miranda, famous for writing and starring in "In the Heights" and then doing a Sondheimy rap as a thank you speech when he won the Tony for it. He's irrepressible, adorable, and sure to steal the show as Charlie Kringas.

If you are lucky enough to be in New York when Encores! offers this "Merrily," you can find performance and ticket information about the production here.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Last Chance Reminders: Hauptmann, Gruesome, Come and Get It and Humana

It's Last Chance time for a few things around here (and one further afield), and I thought I would remind you...

Right here in B-N, Community Players' production of John Logan's "Hauptmann" takes its last bows tonight through Saturday the 21st. That's three last chances to see this gripping drama about the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the man who may or may not have committed the crime. For Community Players, Brian Artman plays Bruno Hauptmann, who bears most of the weight of the show, talking directly to the audience to plead his case, with local favorites John Bowen, Vicky Hallstrom, Mindy LaHood, Joel Shoemaker, Gary Strunk and Joe Strupek in supporting roles. Did Hauptmann do it? Guilty or not guilty? Only Bruno Hauptmann knew, and his execution in the electric chair in 1936 ended any chance of finding out from him. Still, I know I have my own opinion after watching the show.

Over in Urbana, the Celebration Company at the Station Theatre prepares to finish up its run of Rajiv Joseph's "Gruesome Playground Injuries," about a boy and a girl and a lot of emotional and physical baggage between them during a series of encounters over the years. I interviewed director Mathew Green and his two actors, Katie Baldwin and Rob Zaleski, about their "Gruesome" experiences earlier this month. You can see Baldwin and Zaleski on stage through the 21st, with all performances at 8 pm.

The McLean County Museum of History has announced that its "Come and Get It" exhibit is down to its last eight days. Museum staffers invite you to visit this examination of the "eating habits, cooking equipment, methods and diverse food traditions" in McLean County from 1830 to 2008 before it closes January 28th. As they suggest, a stop at the indoor winter Farmers' Market from 10 am to 12 noon at the Museum this Saturday would segue nicely into a look at the other food-related items and recipes in the "Come and Get It" exhibit.

And Actors Theatre of Louisville has sent out a reminder that the Early Bird rate for Humana Festival packages ends January 30th. So if you want to get tickets to ten new shows in one weekend and save $50 while you're at it, now is the time to make your reservation. Yes, Louisville is a bit of a drive from Bloomington-Normal. But the Humana Festival is still the best place to see new work -- a lot of new work -- in one place and in one weekend. For me, it's a don't-miss. Here is package pricing information.

Once Upon a Midnight Dreary There Were Edgar Nominations...

The Edgar Awards, named in honor of Edgar Allen Poe, recognize excellence in mystery writing. These awards are handed out every year by the Mystery Writers of America, honoring novels, biographies, nonfiction, short stories, YA, juvenile books, plays and teleplays. If you enjoy mysteries, reading the Edgar nominee list can be a good way to find new authors or new TV shows or catch up with old favorites.

This year, the nominees for Best Novel pretty much travel the world, with the American South, Nazi Germany, Cuba, England, Japan and Norway all on the Edgar map. The nominees are:

THE RANGER, by Ace Atkins. The first in Atkins' new Quinn Colson series, "The Ranger" involves an Army Ranger on leave to attend the funeral of his uncle, who happened to be the sheriff in a seedy Northeast Mississippi county.

GONE, by Mo Hayder. As Bristol (England) homicide detective Jack Caffrey investigates a carjacking, he begins to suspect that it wasn't the car, but the child in the back seat, the thief was really after. And that this kidnapping is only one of a series of horrifying crimes.

THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X, by Keigo Higashino. An award-winning novel published first in Japan in 2006, "Suspect X" is a battle of wits between Higashino's sleuth Dr. Yukawa (a physics professor nicknamed "Professor Galileo" who steps in to help out an old friend on the police force) and the "whodunit" the reader knows from the beginning, a man who helped out a neighbor who just killed her abusive husband.

1222, by Anne Holt. "1222" is the 8th book in Norwegian author Holt's Hanne Wilhemsen series. Retired police inspector Wilhemsen, more than a bit of a misanthrope, has a bullet in her spine, which means she must (reluctantly) do her sleuthing from a wheelchair. That is especially problematic in "1222," an almost Agatha Christie-like puzzle about a remote mountain hotel, stranded guests from a train derailed by a snowstorm, and a murderer who is knocking them off one by one.

FIELD GRAY, by Philip Kerr. Kerr's book is the lone historical among the nominees, traveling from 1954 Cuba and New York City to France, Germany and Russia during World War II, as he unravels the past of Berlin PI Bernie Gunther, once an SS officer in Hitler's army.

The nominees for Best First Novel are a bit closer to home, with four of the five featuring US settings. The fifth makes up for that, however, with its espionage-around-the-world tour.

RED ON RED, by Edward Conlon. Conlon is the author of "Blue Blood," a memoir about life on the New York City police force, and "Red on Red" returns to that milieu with this character study about two very different detectives, partners who must come together to deal with a suicide, a gangland murder and a troubled Catholic schoolgirl.

LAST TO FOLD, by David L. Duffy. "Finder" Turbo Vlost is Duffy's hero, hiring himself out in New York City when somebody loses something. In "Last to Fold," the lost item is a 19-year-old girl named Eva, and Vlost's search brings him up back up against a whole lot of Russian mafia and other types he once knew as an undercover guy for the KGB.

ALL CRY CHAOS, by Leonard Rosen. Interpol agent Henri Poincare is at the center of a world-wide investigation into a bizarre crime: Mathematician James Fenster is murdered in his Amsterdam hotel room -- his room is burnt to a crisp while the rest of the hotel is untouched -- on the eve of a World Trade Organization speech.

BENT ROAD, by Lori Roy. Set in Kansas farmland during the 1960s, "Bent Road" has been described as "Midwestern noir with Gothic undertones." Roy's story involves a family that moves from Detroit to to Kansas, the place the father escaped 20 years before, dredging up secrets from the past, in-law problems, and issues of claustrophobia and fear in rural America.

PURGATORY CHASM, by Steve Ulfelder. In "Purgatory Chasm," ex-NASCAR driver Conway Sax is part of a 12-step group whose members always help each other out. Always. That vow to help sets Sax on a free-wheeling trip around New Hampshire to find a car, a serial killer, a lost fortune, and a whole lot of eccentric characters.

Best Paperback Original nominees are another diverse group, with elements of science fiction, Africa, dogs, baseball, psychiatry and sex crimes among them:

THE COMPANY MAN, by Robert Jackson Bennett, about a struggle between members of a union and the ultra-powerful company that owns their souls in a fantasy/science fiction version of 1919 Washington State that almost sounds like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis."

THE FACES OF ANGELS, by Lucretia Grindle, is set in Florence, Italy, when an art student who was attacked two years before, now supposedly recovered, returns to the scene of the crime.

THE DOG SOX, by Russell Hill. This one is a comic mystery about a terrible baseball team, its 10-year-old pitching ace and his abusive father, and the ancient manager looking for answers (like how to get rid of the bad dad) in the Torah.

DEATH OF THE MANTIS, by Michael Stanley, wherein Detective David “Kubu” Bengu investigates murders amidst the Bushmen of Botswana.

VIENNA TWILIGHT, by Frank Tallis. Yes, it's set in Vienna, in 1903, with Dr. Max Liebermann, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, using his skills as a psychoanalyst to try to solve the murder of an artist's model stabbed with a hatpin immediately after sex.

This year, the Best "Fact Crime" Book nominees -- for books based on real crimes, although I tend to think of them as the Colon: Subtitle books, since their titles are almost always extended with a colon and a subtitle containing an exciting whiff of Sex! or Scandal! or Madness! or Murder! -- are:

The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City and Sparked the Tabloid Wars, by Paul Collins. This "Murder of the Century" is in the 19th century, when William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer battled each other in print over who could better exploit the "Scattered Dutchman" murder case. (Note: Collins also wrote "The Book of William," about the history of Shakespeare's First Folios, which I absolutely loved.)

The Savage City: Race, Murder, and a Generation on the Edge, by T.J. English, about New York City's "Career Girl" murders in the turbulent 1960s, and how three different men -- the scapegoat for the crime, a corrupt cop, and a militant member of the Black Panthers -- define that violent period in American history.

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. The President in question is James Garfield, felled by an assassin's bullet and thereafter the center of a medical drama that involved Alexander Graham Bell, of all people.

Girl, Wanted: The Chase for Sarah Pender, by Steve Miller, about the pre-crime and post-crime life of a woman apparently dubbed "the female Charles Manson" who was convicted of two murders, escaped from jail, and eluded capture for several months.

The Man in the Rockefeller Suit: The Astonishing Rise and Spectacular Fall of a Serial Imposter, by Mark Seal. In this case, the astonishingly long title tells it all: German con man Christian Gerhartsreiter came to America, created cool identities and new accents for himself, and eventually passed himself off as Clark Rockefeller, one of the Rockefellers, landing himself a fancy job, a fancy wife, and all the trimmings, until it all fell apart.

You can see all the other nominations here, including the ones for Best Play, just in case you thought nobody was writing mysteries for the stage anymore and your theater is tired of reviving "Sleuth" and "The Mousetrap." (There are only two in the Best Play category, with Ken Ludwig's "The Game's Afoot" taking on Jeffrey Hatcher's "Sherlock Holmes and the Adventures of the Suicide Club." But still... That's two!)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Get a Sneak Peek at NBC's "Smash"

The new NBC show "Smash," which premieres in February, has been getting a lot of good press and a lot of splashy (smashy?) coverage ever since critics got a look at its pilot episode last June. It's been touted as a perfect choice for just about everybody, mixing familiar Broadway performers (Christian Borle, known for "Spamalot" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," as well as the recent off-Broadway revival of "Angels in America," Megan Hilty, who's played Glinda in "Wicked" and the Dolly Parton role in "9 to 5: The Musical," and Brian d'Arcy James, who was Shrek in "Shrek the Musical" and has credits in "Titanic," "Carousel," "Blood Brothers," "Next to Normal, "Time Stands Still," and "Pardon My English" at Encores) with TV stars (Debra Messing from "Will & Grace'), film stars (Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston and Brit Jack Davenport, memorable in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) and one Reality-TV princess (Katharine McPhee from "American Idol.")

That's a lot of star power. Especially since most of them can sing really, really well, which is part of the plot on "Smash."

"Smash" involves a composer/writer team (Borle and Messing) trying to put together a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Their attempts to get "Marilyn" going are complicated by a tough producer (Huston) whose personal funds are frozen by a rocky divorce, a mercurial, somewhat slutty director (Davenport) who can't stand Borle's composer, two choices for the lead role of Marilyn (Hilty as a Broadway regular who desperately needs a leading role and McPhee as a dewy-eyed newbie), and a scheming intern (Jaime Cepero) who doesn't mind playing dirty if it gets him to the top.

We also see a bit of their personal lives, with James as Messing's character's handsome husband who gave up his own career to keep their home lives afloat (they have a teenage son and have been trying to adopt a baby from China, a familiar trope in exec producer/writer Theresa Rebeck's playbook) and British theater star Raza Jaffrey as McPhee's character's sweetheart of a boyfriend.

Although "Smash" doesn't start until Monday, February 6th, NBC is doing a roll-out of the premiere episode now, letting pretty much everybody who wants to get a sneak peek. I watched it on Comcast On Demand (for free), and they're also offering it on airplanes, via iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and some other options now, with NBC.com and Hulu joining the party and streaming it after January 23rd.

So, yes, I watched the pilot. And I'm sorry, but I didn't like it much at all. On paper, I'm down with all the stars and I was certainly looking forward to a backstage look at Broadway. What could be more perfect for me than show about a musical in development, as its creative team tries to get it on its feet for workshops and out-of-town tryouts (season 1) to hit the Great White Way (season 2)?

Well... I found myself wanting to smack both Messing's Julia and Borle's Tom for making what seemed like indefensible choices (Why did she jump into a show after promising her husband she wouldn't? Why is he so set on Hilty's Ivy to play Marilyn and why doesn't anybody else let him want her? Why are they using Davenport's Derek as the director when Tom hates him and he hates Tom and Derek is a sleazebag to boot?) and not seeing what was so special about McPhee's Karen, who is supposed to be knocking our socks off with her fabulous potential. First, they had her sing a Christina Aguilera song for her Broadway audition, which seems unlikely to impress Broadway types. Plus she didn't seem luminous and unforgettable to me. She seemed... Kind of surly and smug. I would've given the role to Ivy, someone we saw singing and dancing and doing very well as a Marilyn type, while Karen just sang Christina Aguilera, stood around looking awkward, while being a waitress, snarking at her parents and making out with her cute boyfriend. She did thrust her boobs out to try to get into a Marilyn frame of mind, and she donned a man's shirt with no pants to show the director she could be sexy, but if I had to pick a the starlet from yesteryear she was channeling, it would probably be Barbara Parkins or Diane Baker, nowhere near the Marilyn wattage.

And then... Well, her name is Karen. I don't know any 20-somethings named Karen, although I'm sure there are a few out there. The operative word being "few." In my mind, Karen sounds like someone I went to high school with. In the 70s. There were lots of Karens in the 70s. Karen Carpenter. Karen Allen. But now? Not so many. I suppose they were just trying to make her sound like a sweet, simple, plain girl from the sticks. But to me, that girl's mother should be named Karen, while she should be Lauren or Ashley or Jessica.

Yes, I am well aware that is a very fine point. But when I find myself picking at the small things rather than leaping over the threshold of disbelief, it's not a good sign. It means I didn't really buy the premise, I wasn't willing to jump on-board and care about these characters and their problems, and more importantly, that I wasn't really rooting for anybody to achieve his or her aims within the plot.

That's a problem for me.

I should note, however, that friends whose taste I very much respect have reported that they liked "Smash," the pilot, a lot, and that it well exceeded their expectations. And it may be that by trying to set up so much in one episode, Rebeck and her writers pushed too hard for me, and I will like further episodes much better. Let's hope so. I want to like a show about Broadway, if for no other reason than to get people who've never been there to take an interest, take a trip, buy a ticket. Maybe by crossing over an "American Idol" alum, NBC will attract people who would otherwise not try a show about Broadway. (And they are definitely pushing Katharine McPhee as the main draw. See the poster up top, and how she is at the top of the heap. Oscar winner Anjelica Huston is practically falling off the side.)

NBC's site for "Smash" is here, with all kinds of info about the cast and crew, as well as a chance to see that pilot episode starting January 23rd. I can't wait to hear what the rest of you think.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Mad Men" Returns March 25

If you look at the poster for season 5 of AMC's "Mad Men," you will notice two things.

1) The figure that represents Don Draper, our protagonist, is in free fall.

2) New episodes begin March 25.

Forgive me while I take a moment to make happy noises. (Sorry, Don, about that free fall thing. I'm paying attention to the second piece of information.) "Mad Men" is back! Finally!

It seems like it's been forever since we last saw dapper Don Draper (Jon Hamm), smarty-pants Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), hard-drinking Roger Sterling (John Slattery), luscious Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks), ambitious Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), and the rest of the crew at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce, the 60s ad agency hanging on by its fingernails (or by the manicured fingernails of dapper Don Draper) in a changing world.

If I recall correctly, when we left "Mad Men," Don (or his alter ego Dick. Or possibly both of them.) had just (shockingly) married his secretary, toothy Megan, and dumped smarter, all-around cooler Faye; Joan had discovered she was pregnant while her odious husband was off in Vietnam and she got a promotion that gave her more responsibility but no extra money; Roger was hanging out with Joan even though he was married to a chippy named Jane, his former secretary, plus he'd lost the all-important Lucky Strike account; Cooper (Robert Morse!) was ticked enough to walk out on the agency; Betty (January Jones) had finally moved her nasty, shallow self (and the Draper kids) out of the house she once shared with Don, firing beloved nanny/housekeeper/surrogate mother Carla (Deborah Lacey) on her nasty, shallow way out the door, making it abundantly clear to her new husband just how nasty and shallow she really was; Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) was 10-going-on-25; and Peggy had shown the moves and smarts to score a pantyhose account that the ailing agency desperately needed. I remember absolutely nothing about what Pete Campbell was doing. And I like him. Sort of. He's kind of a punk, but he has an adorable wife, Trudy (Alison Brie), and I will always remember the two of them dancing a delightful Charleston at a garden party. That's almost enough to save Pete as a character. Almost.

All of that was back in October of 2010, with the world inside the show up to October 1965. Since I have vivid memories of 1966 and 1967, I am hoping they don't jump too far into the future when the new episodes begin. I want "Star Trek" and "The Monkees" and "Mission: Impossible" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." Not to mention "Sweet Charity" on Broadway, "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" on the big screen, and "The Sounds of Silence" from Simon and Garfunkel in the background of the characters' lives.

In the past, "Mad Men" creator Matthew Weiner has hit some of the big cultural events while overlooking others, managing a good mix, so that "Mad Men" doesn't come off as a time travel vehicle, but instead, a story of specific people of the period and how they're affected by the times they live in. So if I'm hoping for some Monkees, I will also understand if they don't make it into Weiner's world.

I am also hoping that Bertram Cooper and Robert Morse come back, that Betty is out of the MM universe for good, that Carla comes back, that Peggy gets a decent boyfriend, that Roger dumps his secretary/wife and marries Joan, and that Don dumps his secretary/wife at the precise moment Rachel Menken's husband dies, so those two can be all reunited after all this time. Rachel Menken was totally his best match.

But mostly I am just happy to have Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and "Mad Men" back. March 25. With a two-hour season premiere. Given that poster, I'm not expecting a whole lot of instant happiness. And that's just fine.

Monday, January 16, 2012

My Night of January 16th

Given the date, I could not stop myself from commenting on a lesser-known piece of the Ayn Rand oeuvre, a stageplay called "Night of January 16th." It happens to be the first play I was ever involved with, back in junior high. It's about a trial, wherein the long-time mistress of a wealthy man is charged with his murder. He was a Bernie Madoff type, with pots of money, less than legit business dealings, and many enemies. Did his mistress push him out a window? Did he jump? Did the gangster (colorfully named "Guts" Regan) who is also in love with Karen knock him off? Those are the questions the audience is supposed to try to answer.

The gimmick of the play, the reason it made a name for itself, I would imagine, is that the jurors are drawn from the audience and they decide the fate of the defendant right then and there, on stage, at the end of the show.

I desperately wanted to play the character (one of the parade of witnesses in the trial) who refers to herself as a "terpsichorean," which I took to mean "stripper." I was 14, skinny, gawky, odd, and not very attractive (most 14-year-olds are not, so I don't think I'm being too hard on myself by saying that) and absolutely nothing like a slinky or sleazy club dancer/mobster's moll from the 1930s. I still wanted that role with the white-hot passion only an awkward 14-year-old can muster to play a sleazy dame with a thick accent and no morals.

You may be asking yourself what kind of junior high puts on a play with some guy's mistress on trial for basically being a slut (everybody judges her for sleeping with her married boss for years and years and then hooking up with the gangster), along with a floozy of a nightclub dancer in support. I don't have an answer to that. I would probably not choose "Night of January 16th" for a cast of 12-to-15-year-olds.

I was not cast as the "terpsichorean," you will be happy to hear, but instead as the court stenographer. I had no lines. I spent the entire play sitting at a little desk, furiously tapping some sort of keys and inserting many highly animated facial expressions into the proceedings whenever any of the other actors revealed anything salacious as part of their testimony.

There are two bits of back story that make my experiences with "Night of January 16th" stand out in my memory. The first was that, perhaps because I was so disappointed not to get the role of the stripper, who actually had lines, the drama teacher/director who was in charge told me that I would be the designated understudy for all the other female roles. There are not a lot of female roles in "Night of January 16th." The defendant, Karen Andre, is female, and so is the deceased man's wife, who appears as a witness, plus an elderly Swedish housekeeper. Those are the only female roles listed in the current version of the play, according to Wikipedia, but we also had an extra housemaid, who was another witness, and, of course, my stenographer. Unfortunately, one of the actresses cast in this junior high "Night of January 16th" was somewhat unreliable. After she skipped a rehearsal or two, the teacher/director told her that if she missed any more, I, as the designated understudy, would be given her role. Neither she nor her friends took kindly to that threat, and one of her friends spotted me in the hall between classes and right then and there, punched me. This person (the puncher) told me that she would make me very sorry if I "stole" her friend's role in the play. This was more drama than I was really prepared for at the age of 14, and I asked the teacher/director for help. He told me I was on my own. Thank goodness the girl showed up for rehearsals after that, because, seriously, I would probably just have dropped out of school rather than face fistfights in the hallway.

The other piece of drama at this, the absolute beginning of my theatrical career, was that we were, as I recall, actually performing the play in January. If not, perhaps December of February. In any event, I lived outside of the town in which the junior high and its auditorium were located, and of course I didn't drive yet, being only 14 and in junior high, at least a year away from driver's ed. So my parents were on the hook to drive me in for evening rehearsals.

And then the weather got very dicey. The teacher/director had made it very clear to all of us that anybody who did not appear in the dress rehearsal would not be allowed to be in the show. I should tell you at this point that, no matter what my other failings were, like not being a very good actress, I was an A student. An A+ student. I turned in papers on time. I occasionally faked an illness to stay home and watch old movies on TV, if there was something I particularly liked in the TV Guide, but I was still as responsible, steady and reliable as any 14-year-old out there. So when a blizzard hit the day of our dress rehearsal, I was beside myself. How could I miss dress rehearsal? Our teacher had made it very clear that anybody who didn't show up for dress would be banned from the show! And this was my first show! And I had the huge, important role of the court stenographer! How would anyone in the audience know how to respond to the testimony of the various witnesses if I wasn't there to raise my eyebrows, gape, gasp, goggle, double-take, tremble and otherwise represent the first stages of a stroke?

Well, my father said, given the blizzard, that he saw no reason to drive me nine miles to get to what was just a rehearsal for a school play. I pleaded. I cajoled. I feel sure I must've wept. Whatever weapons I had at my disposal, I used them. Eventually, my dad said, "Okay, I will drive you." I made it to dress rehearsal.

And the next night, when the weather was much less dire, our production of Ayn Rand's "Night of January 16th" opened as planned. I do not remember if the students chosen for the jury found Karen Andre guilty or not guilty. I do not remember if the person playing my beloved terpsichorean found her inner stripper. (I think she didn't. I think she shoved her hair over her face and mumbled through the role because she was embarrassed. But I could be making that up.) And when all was said and done, and my parents had witnessed my debut as an actress, my dad was howling with laughter. "You had me drive through a blizzard so you could be in a play where you don't have any lines?" he asked. "That's hilarious!"

Oh well. I was assured that my court stenographer histrionics were very well received. By my parents, anyway.

And that is what I remember of my "Night of January 16th." I have a feeling that is not what Ayn Rand intended.

In Case You Missed the Golden Globes...

I admit I don't pay much attention to the Golden Globes as awards. It's hard to take them seriously when there are only 93 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association deciding them. Oh well. They're fun because they happen before the Oscars, because they combine TV and movie people, because the gowns tend to be cool, and because everybody there seems about half-lit, meaning there are always gaffes, stumbles, bleeping-outs and general hilarity. (I doubt anybody expected Meryl Streep to be the one getting bleeped, but there you are. Hilarity.)

This year, I thought the fashion was pretty nice in general, host Ricky Gervais was pretty funny, if much less snarky than last year, and who got what was the least interesting part of the evening. But in case you are keeping track, here are the major award winners from last night's ceremony:

Best Motion Picture (Drama):
THE DESCENDANTS. (Translation: The Hollywood Foreign Press loves them some George Clooney.)

Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical):
THE ARTIST. (Even though most of us have not seen this movie yet, the HFPA loves European movies. This movie is different, artsy and very, very French. It was a lock.)

Best Performance by an Actress (Drama):
Meryl Streep in IRON LADY. (Another lock.)

Best Performance by an Actress (Comedy or Musical):
Michelle Williams in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN (Nobody knows why this was classified as a comedy. Perhaps so Michelle Williams didn't have to compete with Meryl Streep?)

Best Performance by an Actor (Drama):
George Clooney in THE DESCENDANTS. (See: HFPA loves Clooney, above.)

Best Performance by an Actor (Comedy or Musical):
Jean Dujardin in THE ARTIST. (See: HFPA loves "The Artist," above.)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Octavia Spencer in THE HELP. (Spencer had a showy role in 'The Help," a movie that was well regarded by critics for the most part, and she was very good in that showy role. She has been cleaning up awards in supporting categories, and this one is no surprise.)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture:
Christopher Plummer in BEGINNERS. (Another fine performance in a showy role in a movie not likely to win anything else. Plummer shoots and scores!)

Best Director of a Motion Picture:
Martin Scorsese for HUGO. (Well-deserved in my book. Who knew Martin Scorsese had a 12-year-old?)

Best Screenplay of a Motion Picture:
Woody Allen for MIDNIGHT IN PARIS. (See how they're spreading their awards around so everybody gets something? When you only have 93 voters, you can do that. Really, really liked this movie and not gonna quibble about it winning for its screenplay.)

Best Television Series (Drama):
HOMELAND on Showtime. (Not even one major network choice in the nominations. "Homeland" is an excellent choice.)

Best Television Series (Comedy or Musical):
MODERN FAMILY on ABC. (Look, a network got something! "Modern Family" is a smart, funny show, and again, I'm not going to quibble. I would've chosen "Parks and Recreation," myself -- it didn't even get nominated -- but thank goodness they avoided the twee nightmare that is "New Girl" and the muddled mess that is "Glee.")

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series (Drama):
Claire Danes in HOMELAND on Showtime. (Danes is working her derriere off in "Homeland" as a woman with serious mental issues and a mission to out a terrorist everybody else thinks is a hero. Definitely deserved. And another win for a cable show.)

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series (Comedy or Musical):
Laura Dern in ENLIGHTENED on HBO. (I have not seen "Enlightened." Note that it, too, is a cable program. But again, kudos for avoiding the Manic Pixie Dream Girl who is the "New Girl.")

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series (Drama):
Kelsey Grammer in BOSS on Starz. (I'm sure Kelsey is fab as a Mayor Daley type big city boss. Cable wins again. James Vincent Meredith, a former Champaign-Urbana actor who is now a member of the company at Steppenwolf, is a supporting player in "Boss," so the more notice it gets, the better.)

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series (Comedy or Musical):
Matt LeBlanc in EPISODES on Showtime. (Go, Cable!)

Others: My beloved "Downton Abbey" won Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, Kate Winslet won Best Actress in a Mini-Series, etc., for "Mildred Pierce" on HBO, and Idris Elba took the Best Actor in a Mini-Series award for "Luther," which came from the BBC.

Best Supporting Actors and Actresses must compete in a catch-all of "Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television." Jessica Lange, in "American Horror Story," and Peter Dinklage, in "Game of Thrones," were named the winners.

And "The Adventures of Tintin" won Best Animated Feature. I would've picked "Puss in Boots." But I am not now and never have been a member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, so I don't get a say.

You can see all the nominees and winners here, and check out the fashions at Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide or at the home of Tom and Lorenzo, who blog about fashion all the time, not just during Awards Season. My pick for Best Dressed of the evening? Helen Mirren, seen above.

Friday, January 13, 2012

"Elizabeth Rex" Dazzles at Chicago Shakes

There's been a lot of interest in what Shakespeare might have done in his downtime, even including a run-in with Queen Elizabeth I herself, in the film "Shakespeare in Love."

In "Elizabeth Rex," currently playing at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, playwright Timothy Findley took a different path, however, sending the Virgin Queen, Gloriana, into a barn where Will Shakespeare and some of his cast are resting after a performance. It's an unlikely idea, that such a grand queen should dirty her hem in a barn, but Findley gives her a reason. She needs a distraction.

To keep Shakespeare and his actors (along with a bear, a pet of one of the actors) stuck, Findley supplies a curfew, which means that nobody is allowed to leave this barn adjacent to the great hall where they performed. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth's one-time favorite, the Earl of Essex, as well as Shakespeare's former patron, the Earl of Southampton, are imprisoned in the Tower, with Essex set to be executed in the morning on the Queen's order. So Elizabeth takes her trip to the barn, too, to pass the hours till morning, when her lover will meet the ax.

As Findley's "Elizabeth Rex" opens, we see a bit of the end of "Much Ado About Nothing" as the Queen, majestically played by Canadian actress Diane D'Aquila, also watches. When the Queen arrives in the lowly barn, she tells the assembled crew how much she liked the play, and she particularly wants to meet handsome Jack Edmund (Andrew Rothenberg), who played Benedick, and Ned Lowenscroft (Steven Sutcliffe), the actor who played Beatrice. Lowenscroft, we are told, is the premiere performer of his time when it comes to Shakespeare's female roles. But Ned is ill. He suffers from a deadly pox (presumably syphilis) and he seems to be failing a bit more every day.

As the hours wear on, the Queen engages in conversations with Will Shakespeare, here nicely played by Chicago Shakespeare favorite Kevin Gudahl, as well as several of his company, but the major battle of wits and exchange of ideas comes with Ned. Elizabeth has repressed many of her female traits in order to be a strong, fearsome regent, and she asks Ned, who so often portrays women, to fill her in on how a women should act.

There are issues of mortality, passion and love here, as well as the obvious feminine/masculine, strength/weakness questions arising from pitching a battle-hardened queen against a man who always plays women. The specter of Essex hangs heavily over Elizabeth, as Southampton's fate hangs over Shakespeare, and memories of a captain he once loved, probably the one who gave him the pox, hang over Ned Lowenscroft. And while all of that is going on, Shakespeare is working on "Antony and Cleopatra," drawing from the Queen in the room to fashion Cleo.

Barbara Gaines, Chicago Shakes' Artistic Director, takes the directorial reins on "Elizabeth Rex," giving it a sense of urgency and movement that helps the arc of the play a great deal. By the time we get to the morning, beautifully lit by Philip S. Rosenberg on Daniel Ostling's charmingly scruffy barn set, "Elizabeth Rex" has definitely cast its spell and hit its target.

Findley's play is smart, witty, and an actors' showcase, with Gloriana herself front and center. You can see how she's dressed for much of the play in the poster image reprinted above, and it's hard not to look at someone dressed like the sun, especially when D'Aquila gives her Queen so much charisma and strength. Wigged or bald, made-up or bare, in her golden gown or a much less grand Beatrice costume, D'Aquila commands the eye.

Sutcliffe's role as Ned is trickier. He has to be sick, saucy, inconsistent, lovestruck, angry, and heartbroken, all in the same room as Queen Elizabeth, the ultimate drama queen. Again, the role is an actor's dream, and Sutcliffe takes it on with energy and abandon.

Roderick Peeples, seen quite a few times at our own Illinois Shakespeare Festival, is funny and fulsome as reprobate Luddy, Bradley Armacost capers sweetly as senior trouper Percy Gower, and Eric Parks, someone I remember seeing on stage during his tenure at the University of Illinois, makes a good impression as Matthew Welles, the one who plays Claudio and the other juvenile leads in the company.

Jude Roche deserves special mention for 1) playing his entire role buried in a huge bear suit, and 2) managing to convey weariness, pain and affection from deep inside that bear. Amazing.

"Elizabeth Rex" continues at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier until January 22. Findley wrote the play in 2000, and it has had a few productions since then, but this one is very special. Sterling acting, terrific production values, and one unbeatable bear... Ticket info here.

(As a side note, I would love to see "Elizabeth Rex" played in repertory with "Much Ado About Nothing," which begins this play, and "Antony and Cleopatra," which is supposedly being written during this play, with some of the same actors who are supposedly playing roles in "Much Ado" taking those roles in "Much Ado," and the actor we see as Benedick and reading a few of Antony's lines taking those roles, too. Maybe we should even throw in "The Winter's Tale," so the bear has something else to do?)


By Timothy Findley

Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Director: Barbara Gaines
Scenic Designer: Daniel Ostling
Costume Designer: Mariann S. Verheyen
Lighting Designer: Philip S. Rosenberg
Sound Designer: Lindsay Jones
Wig and Make-Up Designer: Melissa Veal
Original Music by Jenny Giering
Dialect Coach: Eva Brenneman
Choreographer: Tammy Mader
Fight Director: John McFarland
Production Stage Manager: Deborah Acker

Cast: Bradley Armacost, Brenda Barrie, Diane D'Aquila, Matt Farrabee, Kevin Gudahl, Torrey Hanson, Anthony Kayer, Eric Parks, Chase Pavlick, Roderick Peeples, Jude Roche, Andrew Rothenberg, Steven Sutcliffe and Mary Ann Thebus. (At the performance I saw, Wendy Robie went on for Mary Ann Thebus in the role of Kate Tardwell.)