Tuesday, December 31, 2013

My "Spoilers" for TV in 2014

Looking ahead into 2014, we expect things to continue to be crazy, outrageous and unbelievable on our favorite TV shows. That's part of why we keep tuning in, right? Since they've already filmed their episodes, even the most secretive shows have given hints to what's coming. Some of it is pretty mysterious and some just plain annoying. I think my crystal ball is a lot more fun (and a lot more satisfying) than the real deal, anyway. So here are my faux spoilers -- foilers, if you prefer -- to answer some of the burning questions left behind when we last saw our favorite shows.

Cliffhanger: How will American Idol come back from drooping ratings, limp tour sales and unpleasant, unwatchable judges?  
A Modest Proposal: Runners-up Clay Aiken, Lauren Alaina, David Archuleta, Bo Bice, Crystal Bowersox, Diana DeGarmo, Justin Guarini, Kree Harrison, Adam Lambert, Blake Lewis, Katharine McPhee and Jessica Sanchez fight it out Hunger Games style to see who wins the right to perform in a live broadcast of Li'l Abner on NBC at Christmastime. Everyone sings either "I Don't Want to Miss a Thing" or "Against All Odds" every week with the lowest vote getter blasted into space, thrown into a pit with hungry tigers or some other appropriate fate. "Judges" J-Lo, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. get to decide which trial is best for which loser.

Cliffhanger: Why the heck is Red so interested in Liz? He must be her dad, right? And what is the deal with her husband?
My answer: Red is not Liz's father. He is Tom's father!

 Cliffhangers: Sonny's in jail because his idiot kid Morgan shot the bodyguard and Sonny took the rap. Robin is back from the dead. And Sabrina is preggers.
My solution: A special flesh-eating bacteria geared to specific DNA, created by Obrecht, takes out Sonny, Carly, Morgan and every reference to Jason remaining in Port Charles. You know, tombstones, leather jackets, motorcycles... This is a very specific and targeted bacteria. Oh, and Sam's son Danny is really another product of a Dante-and-Lulu embryo, so he's fine. Sabrina is really Sonny's child from Lily, who wasn't as dead as she seemed but is now, so Sabs is a goner. Robin and Patrick shed one small tear but are otherwise happy. Emma writes a children's book called "Didgeridoo & You," dedicated to her granddad.

Cliffhanger: It's been rough sailing for new firm Florrick Agos as the old one, Lockhart Gardner, won't let go, including all kinds of dirty tricks, crimes and misdemeanors. And the Governor's Ethics chick is preggers.
The perfect pay-off: Florrick Agos hires Bob Benson away from Sterling Cooper & Partners to make a brand new combo law firm/ad agency called Florrick Agos Benson, or FAB. Bob Benson takes care of that little Damian Boyle problem in about three seconds. As for the father of the Ethics chick's baby, I don't care, as long as she goes far, far away.

Cliffhanger: Brody was executed. Saul left government service. And Claire is preggers.
What Should Happen: Brody isn't dead. Claire is pregnant, but when Brody tracks her down, she swears it isn't his. She says it's Saul's!

Cliffhanger: Marshall finally arrived. The mother sent Ted a drink. (You call that a cliff-hanger? This plot is proceeding so slowly Marshall and Lily will be grandparents before we actually see anybody at the altar.)
Happily Ever After: Barney leaves Robin at the altar and she really isn't all that sorry considering what an emotionally stunted cretin he is. Meanwhile, we see a LOT more of the Mother, filling up all that screen time left after Barney's departure.

Cliffhanger: Teddy's looney tunes wife was shot down. Will was staring down a train, trying to decide whether to off himself because he is living a lie.
The Flip Side: Yeah, I don't care about Teddy or his wife, either. Will is saved by the man of his dreams, Luke Wheeler, who admits that he, too, is gay and the two of them can chart a path together. Deacon's new solo career goes gangbusters, especially when he has a megahit single with his daughter Maddie. Now that she knows the truth about Luke, Rayna hankers in Deacon's direction. Scarlett goes on the road with Gunnar, both pretending it's professional only. Juliette and Avery get together while Scarlett is away, and the two of them become a real power duo. Scarlett and Gunnar sort of wander back together without really paying attention. "Oh, look. We're a couple. How did that happen?"

Cliffhanger: Everybody got booted back to the Enchanted Forest. Everybody except Emma and Henry, who were sent to live as a normal life in NYC without any memory of Storybrooke.
The Next Chapter: Emma awakes from hot (and inexplicable, to her) pirate dreams to find out that Henry hears a Who. Who? I'm going with one of the Seven Dwarfs, reduced to 1/100th his normal size and stuck on a dandelion in Central Park. When the Who calls, it will pull Emma and Henry away from their boring real world and back to the Enchanted Forest pronto.

Cliffhanger: Leslie got fired, sending her back to Parks & Rec. Ditto Ben, who flirted with a job as an accountant before also going back to Parks & Rec. Ann and Chris left town.
Justice: Councilman Jamm gets jammed between a giant tooth and a giant toothbrush at a dental conference, getting brushed a little too roughly. He ends up in a coma. Jerry/Garry/Larry is appointed to fill his position. Leslie now has her way with the City Council due to her inside man, Jerry/Garry/Larry. Ben sells his Cones of Dunshire game to German game company Hans im Glück and wins the Spiel des Jahres for it. He also makes a lot of money, which allows Leslie and Ben to buy Sweetums, bringing back Sweetums heir Bobby Newport (Paul Rudd) who must now work as their butler in the wake of his brother, Nick Newport Jr., running off with stepmom Jessica Wicks and taking the Sweetums spokesdog, Shoelace. Nick Jr.'s supposed children Denver and Dakota are revealed to be fakes, anyway

 Cliffhanger: Emily got shot and dumped in the sea at her own wedding.
 Coming Attractions: Previews tells us Emily is alive and in a hospital, suffering from (dun dun dun) AMNESIA. Well, I say she doesn't have amnesia. Which means she's faking it because she wants REVENGE again.

Cliffhanger: Olivia's mom is alive and back in DC. She's also probably BAD. Quinn went over to the dark side after some dental work from Huck. Jake replaced Olivia's dad at the top of B6-13. Cyrus is back together -- sort of -- with his husband. And the Vice President murdered her husband for sleeping with Cyrus's.
What's Next: Huck gives up the torture biz and helps Jake take down B6-13 from the inside. The VP is bonkers and her job will be taken by... Cyrus! Fitz isn't the real Fitz. When he was sent to Iceland to shoot down that plane, the Russians stole the real Fitz and replaced him with a lookalike mole. Olivia's mum was in on it and now she's the only one who can out him. Well, except for the REAL Fitz. When he shows up, everything is up in the air. Who's President? Who's in love with Liv? Who's the father of Mellie's children? Well, probably Big Jerry.

I can't wait to see if any of this actually happens. Wouldn't that be amusing?

Monday, December 30, 2013

Plotting an ESCAPE for New Plays from the Heartland

Heartland Theatre has announced the theme and some of the details for its second new play contest. The first one -- this year called FOWL PLAYS -- is looking for ten-minute plays with some connection to birds, with eight winning plays to be presented in June, 2014. The second contest, NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND, involves one-acts, here defined as 20 to 35 minutes in running time, or approximately 15 to 30 pages long.

In memory of Heartland's former Artistic Director, Mike Dobbins, who passed away last summer, the name of this contest, one which was very dear to Dobbins' heart, has been officially changed to the Mike Dobbins' Memorial NEW PLAYS FROM THE HEARTLAND Midwest One-Act Play Competition.

The theme chosen for these news plays is ESCAPE, and here's how that's defined:
Escape can be wonderful. But it can also be difficult or even desperate, whether you’re planning a vacation to Tahiti, taking steps to get out from under a dead-end job, dreaming of the day you can leave a terrible relationship, digging a tunnel one spoonful of dirt at a time, scrambling to flee a room with a ticking bomb, hanging upside-down in midair in front of a packed audience trying to pick seventeen locks and untie a strait jacket, looking for a way off a 4th story hotel balcony without giving up the diamond jewelry you just pinched from Lady Astor, wielding a sword to get away from post-Apocalyptic warlords, or simply looking for a path to the roof to see the stars.
Whether the escape in your play is good or bad, positive or negative, is up to you. As long as it's dramatic. So what else do you need to know to write a play for NEW PLAY FROM THE HEARTLAND?

This "Midwest" playwriting contest is open to playwrights in Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. If you live in one of those nine states, you are eligible.

The end result is a three-day event, including staged readings of the winning plays scheduled for July 18, 19 and 20, 2014 at Heartland Theatre, a master class for winning playwrights on Friday the 18th, and a public forum on Thursday, July 17, to introduce the "master" playwright to Heartland audiences.

Other requirements for your play: No more than six characters and no fewer than two, no musicals or children's plays, electronic submissions only, and only new plays. Oh, don't forget that Escape theme.

Another good piece of news is that Heartland is offering a prize of $150 to each of the three winning playwrights whose work is chosen.

Those three winners will also earn the right to participate in the master class at Heartland Theatre in July. This year, that workshop will be under the direction of New York playwright, director and actor Scott Klavan. Klavan has appeared as an actor on and off-Broadway and in many regional theaters, plus he acted as Script and Story Analyst for legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward for twenty years. He also worked in that capacity for companies including HBO, CAA in Los Angeles, Viacom, Warner Brothers and Universal. He now teaches therapeutic arts classes to seniors and teens and writes theatre reviews for "Escape Into Life," an online journals of the arts. Klavan is indeed a master of his craft(s) and his presence at the workshop at Heartland Theatre in July should be a big incentive to new and emerging playwrights.

Kathleen Kirk will act as dramaturg for the New Plays from the Heartland this year, and she will guide the scripts through the judging process as well as oversee the special master class with Klavan.

If you have a one-act play that fits the Escape theme and you live in the Midwest, this is a very special opportunity to hone your craft, see your work performed in a staged reading and win a cash prize along the way. For all the details, click here for the scoop on the theme and deadlines, here for rules, guidelines and entry info, and here for a general overview of Heartland's NEW PLAYS project.

If you have questions, you are directed to email newplays@heartlandtheatre.org

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Spoilers Aplenty -- DOWNTON ABBEY in 2014

The Season 4 Cast Photo
The delicious Downton Abbey, the confection that showcases the privileged classes in England enjoying their privileges (and occasionally enjoying their servants) in the first part of the 20th century, will begin airing its fourth season on PBS stations next Sunday, January 5. If you didn't know that, you haven't been paying attention, what with previews, sneak peeks, and behind the scenes video on new characters, current characters and how they get the history right.

There's even a spoofy musical version of a Downton Season 4 episode, performed at New York's 54 Below with glimpses of Laura Osnes and Jeremy Jordan -- she's the ghost of Lady Sybil and he's one of the new characters -- with Colin Mochrie playing creator Julian Fellowes, the narrator of this funny piece. Spoilers are sort of imbedded in that, although you pretty much have to have a scorecard to figure them out.

Still, with all the previews and casting news floating around, plus, of course, the fact that the episodes have already aired in England, there are lots and lots of spoilers out there if you want to find them. And I did. That means you will learn a whole bunch of things about who's doing what to whom in Season 4 if you keep reading past this point.


Are you ready? Okay then. Let's go.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Tom Branson (Allen Leech) are still mourning the loss of their spouses, but also exploring the possibility of new love. No, not with each other. Mary is faced with a series of unsuitable suitors, from an engaged man, Anthony, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), who also comes with an odious valet (Nigel Harman) who creates great difficulty for Anna and Bates; the return of the Honorable Evelyn Napier (Brendan Patricks), someone Mary once found too boring to consider; and Napier's boss, Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), a dishy if somewhat abrasive type who arrives as part of a new economic plan for Downton. That plan involves pigs, of all things, which does not gladden the heart of Mary's father, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville).

Lady Mary and Branson juggle their responsibilities
Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) may be overdue for a few moments of serenity, but she's not going to get it. In fact, Edith's affairs of the heart get even stormier when her married boss, Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) larks off after the elusive prospect of a divorce. When trouble looms and Gregson is out of sight, Edith finds herself sharing secrets with her aunt, Lady Rosamund (Samantha Bond) and (reluctantly), her grandmother, the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith), to chart her course.

Violet, the Dowager Countess, is also engaged in the usual battle of witticisms and insults with Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton), but Isobel may attract an admirer of her own when all is said and done. (Tally ho, Isobel!)

Jack Ross the jazz singer
At the other end of the family tree, young and impressionable Rose (Lily James), the wild child in the family, is entranced by all the wrong sorts of men, including Jack Ross, a handsome African-American jazz singer (Gary Carr).

We also get to see more of Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern) and her free-spirited American mum (Shirley MacLaine), with another member of the family – Cora's reckless brother Harold, played by Paul Giamatti – added to the mix.

The formidable Harriet Walter pops up as Lady Shackleton, a  pal of the Dowager Countess, and opera singer Kiri te Kanawa appears as -- you guessed it -- an opera singer!

Lady Rose and the Prince of Wales
Plus we'll get a peek at the Prince of Wales. This is Edward, the eldest son of George V and Queen Mary, the one who will eventually abdicate the throne so he can marry Wallis Simpson. That's years in the future, of course, but still fun to get to see him here, portrayed by actor Oliver Dimsdale as a bit of a lothario who needs help from a coterie of Crawleys.

Below stairs, there is no lack of love, but also no lack of heartache for Anna (Joanne Frogatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle) -- see note above about Gillingham's evil valet -- plus the usual maneuvering and manipulation from Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and the return of Branson's stalker, that saucy minx Edna (MyAnna Buring) now playing at being a lady's maid.

Alfred (Matt Milne), the "hobbledy-hoy" footman, dreams of a life higher up the food chain, Molesley (Kevin Doyle) continues to try to find a spot (any spot!) for himself, and Jimmy (Ed Speelers), Ivy (Cara Theobald) and Daisy (Sophie McShera) hanker after each other (and Alfred) in a love quadrangle of sorts set around the kitchen, to the consternation of Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol).

All that leaves is Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Carson (Jim Carter), who are in serious need of a day at the seashore.

Well, it also leaves death, disappearance, cheating, assault, illicit love, a baby, blackmail, a train ticket, a stolen letter opener, stolen letters, and a few stolen kisses. It wouldn't be Downton Abbey without a tempest over the teacups, would it?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

BROADCHURCH, American Style

We all know the British are very good at the mystery thing. Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, P.D. James, Simon Brett, Elizabeth George, Ruth Rendell, M.C. Beaton and Colin Dexter are just a sampling of the names that have graced the fronts of popular British mystery novels. And quite a few of those books have been adapted for television show that we can see on PBS or BBC America.

Agatha Christie and her Miss Marple set up the classic rules for what we now call the cozy, set in a charming small town with eccentric residents, where an equally charming amateur sleuth manages to ferret the truth of whodunnit out of the locals over afternoon tea. Later writers like Elizabeth George and Martha Grimes deepened the psychology of the characters as they added a sense of creeping darkness, cynicism and urban decay borrowed from the hardboiled side of the detective fiction aisle.

Broadchurch, a mystery series that first aired on ITV in Great Britain before finding a spot on BBC America here in the States, straddled the line between the cozy and the hardboiled. So, yes, Broadchurch was set in a small seaside village with eccentric locals, but it also featured both a male and a female sleuth from inside the ranks of the police department, a shocking crime -- the murder of a young boy -- at its center, and seamy details of sex, drugs, tabloids and unpleasant secrets at every turn.

Chris Chibnall, a playwright and television writer who'd worked on Doctor Who and Torchwood, created Broadchurch, and it starred Doctor Who No. 10, David Tennant, as one of its two sleuths. Tennant played Alec Hardy, a big-city detective with a murky past who came to Broadchurch looking for a quieter life. Detective Inspector Hardy is immediately paired with Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, a woman who has lived her entire life in this small Dorset town. She is not happy to see him, since he's been given the position she hoped to be promoted to herself. But the murder of young Danny Latimer, the best friend of Ellie's son, means they must work together. It also means that Ellie will be investigating, questioning and poking into the secrets of her friends, relatives and neighbors if there is any hope of finding out what happened.

Broadchurch and its murder mystery played out over eight episodes, racking up ratings good enough to earn it a second season in Britain and an American remake from Fox called Gracepoint. It was immediately announced that Tennant would again star as the tortured detective attempting to solve the crime, although this time he'll be American. His compatriot from the British series, Olivia Colman, will no longer be at his side, however. BBC America announced that Anna Gunn, who played the wife of Bryan Cranston's drug lord in Breaking Bad, will instead portray the American version of the local detective trying to balance her loyalty to her family and friends against the reality of a murder investigation.

Also announced: Nick Nolte as a man who "runs the kayak rental on the beach as well as the local wildlife observation program," Josh Hamilton as Ellie's husband Joe, Michael Peña as the father of the murdered boy, Jacki Weaver as Susan Wright, "a mysterious townswoman who may know more about the crime than she’s telling," and Kevin Zegers as "a handsome, clever and extremely laid back young reporter on the local town newspaper."

So far, the characters seem to share the general names and descriptions of their British counterparts, indicating that the landscape of Gracepoint will resemble the one we saw in Broadchurch. So, for example, Gunn's and Hamilton's characters will still be called Ellie and Joe Miller and Weaver's Susan Wright matches Pauline Quirke's Susan Wright, the testy, secretive busybody who kept acting in a suspicious manner. Nolte's Jack Reinhold sounds a lot like David Bradley's Jack Marshall, who ran the "Sea Brigade," the boating and wildlife program for kids that Danny belonged to, and Michael Pena's morally ambiguous dad has become Mark Lasseter instead of Latimer. Reporter Olly Stevens has been changed to the more American-sounding Owen Burke for Kevin Zegers, but the character outline sounds the same.

One major exception to this soundalike trend: Tennant's Alec Hardy has inexplicably morphed into Emmett Carver, which makes him sound like a brawny backwoodsman who whittles wooden monkeys and bears for a living. David Tennant looks a lot more like an Alec Hardy if you ask me.

Names aside, the big question is how closely the Gracepoint mystery plot, and especially the ending, will hew to the British original. Leaving it the same may be problematic for viewers in the United States who already saw Broadchurch on BBC America, letting the cat out of the bag in a major way when it comes to the identity of the murderer. Strict secrecy was maintained during the filming of Broadchurch, after all, which indicates they expected suspense and surprise as they neared the end. And that means they may have to change Whodunnit and Why He or She Dunnit if they want the same effect for Gracepoint.

Filming is expected to begin in Canada in January, with the series to air on Fox as part of the 2014-15 season. Stay tuned for more casting and more clues...

Friday, December 27, 2013

Another Chance to See MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG at Digital Theatre

Did you miss the Merrily We Roll Along, the backwards musical from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, when last year's British production was screened in movie theaters for one night only? The filmed versions of live performances, like Neil Patrick Harris in Company or the National Theatre's Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, come and go quickly, so you have to be on top of things to catch them.

The ones from Digital Theatre, however, are available to rent, buy or otherwise get a look at. That includes David Tennant and Catherine Tate taking on Benedick and Beatrice in a West End production of Much Ado About Nothing, the musical Into the Woods as performed outside in Regent's Park in London, and John Copley's 2009 production of La bohème from the Royal Opera House.

Merrily We Roll Along is the newest choice. Maria Friedman directed this 2012 London version of Merrily, the story of three friends traced backwards from the late 70s to the night they met on a rooftop in 1957 as Sputnik soared overhead. This Merrily began its life in the intimate space of the Menier Chocolate Factory before moving to the Harold Pinter Theatre in London's West End. It was filmed during its West End run, with its cast -- Mark Umbers, Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley as "Old Friends" Franklin Shepard, Mary Flynn and Charley Kringas, Clare Foster as Frank's wife Beth, and Josefina Gabrielle as bad girl Gussie who snares Frank at a vulnerable moment --all captured on screen.

I was part of a viewing party that drove to Peoria to see Merrily We Roll Along in October, and we had mixed reactions. Yes, the material is terrific, and all three leads were very good. We were split on which one we liked best, although my favorite was Humbley's Charley, who was sympathetic, sweet, funny and an excellent match for songs like "Frank Shepard Inc." and "Good Thing Going." Umbers did a good job making Frank both attractive and a little twitchy, as if his emotions were close to the surface, while Russell grew on me as schlubby Mary, who yearns for Frank herself but never quite gets there. All three of them were beautiful singers, and the "Our Time" they ended with was lovely.

One of my friends was very impressed with Gabrielle, who was familiar from her turn as Laurey opposite Hugh Jackman in Oklahoma, and I agree that she was a lot appealing than most Gussies, who can be conniving and manipulative that she falls into the caricature trap. On the other hand... I didn't care at all for Foster as Beth. She and the actors who played her parents needed serious work on their American accents, plus she was more than a bit heavy-handed on the raw-boned "aw shucks" side of things.

In general, Friedman's production charted the tricky chronology of Merrily We Roll Along nicely, and it sounded and looked pretty darn good.

If you want to check it out for yourself, you can rent Merrily We Roll Along for $5.99, buy a standard copy for $12.99, or go for the High Def version for $15.99. If you prefer to pay in pounds or Euros, those options are also available.

Heartland Announces Cast for OTHER DESERT CITIES

Other Desert Cities banner

Heartland Theatre and director Sandra Zielinski have announced who will be whom when they present Jon Robin Baitz's dysfunctional family drama Other Desert Cities in February.

Other Desert Cities involves the wealthy Wyeths of Palm Springs, California, a family that enjoys access to the highest levels of American society. In their heyday, they dined at the White House and hobnobbed with Ron and Nancy Reagan. Patriarch Lyman Wyeth, an actor turned ambassador, probably went shooting for big game with Dick Cheney at one time or another, while his whip-smart wife Polly, who once wrote for a hit television show with her counterculture sister Silda, no doubt enjoyed cocktails with Charlton Heston on the way to the Golden Globes. On the outside, theirs looks like a charmed life.

But they have their secrets. And daughter Brooke, a writer getting over a breakdown, decides what she needs most in the world is to air her version of one of those secrets. When she comes home with the tell-all book she’s written about that particular, devastating incident in their past, push comes to shove in the wake of truth and lies and simmering conflict between parents and children, siblings, and political ideals.

The Broadway production of Other Desert Cities was nominated for five Tony Awards, winning Judith Light the first of two awards in the Best Featured Actress category. Her role as Silda, the sister who can't quite pull it together, earned her a Drama Desk as well as that Tony. Baitz was also nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for the play.

For Heartland, Connie de Veer, an Illinois State University professor who last appeared in Sirens and The Trip to Bountiful at Heartland, will play Polly Wyeth, with Joe Penrod, recently seen as Fredrick Egerman in A Little Night Music for Prairie Fire, as her husband Lyman. Carol Scott, who played Aunt Abby in Arsenic and Old Lace at Community Players back in September and took on memorable roles in Doubt, Woman in Mind and The Beauty Queen of Lenane at Heartland, will play Polly's sister Silda.

Polly and Lyman's daughter Brooke, the one who stirs up the hornet's nest, will be portrayed by Jessie Swiech, an ISU grad who appeared in The Women of Lockerbie, Julius Caesar and Major Barbara. MFA actor Joey Banks, who appeared in Spring Awakening to open ISU's fall season, will play Brooke's younger brother Tripp, someone who seems at times to be the only grounded member of the Wyeth family.

Heartland's production of this fierce, funny play will open with a Pay What You Can preview on February 20, 2014, followed by performances from February 21 through March 9th. For showtimes, click here. For reservation information, click here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Best of the Holiday Movie Barrage Tonight and Tomorrow

We get an onslaught of holiday-themed movies this time of year, although a few of my favorites always seem to get left out. But this year, Turner Classic Movies is airing five of my favorites between 5 pm (Central) today and 4 am Wednesday morning.

The 1970 Albert Finney version of Scrooge is up first at 5 this evening. There are lots of Christmas Carols around, with excellent versions ranging from the 1938 black-and-white one with Reginald Owen to Alastair Sim in 1951, George C. Scott in 1984, Bill Murray in 1988, The Muppets (with Michael Caine) in 1992, and Patrick Stewart in 1999. You can also choose versions of this popular story that involve Barbie, Blackadder, The Flintstones, Susan Lucci, Mickey Mouse, Scrooge McDuck or Mr. Magoo. But the Albert Finney one is really fine, using the classic Victorian setting and co-stars like Edith Evans and Alec Guiness, plus music from Leslie Bricusse, to bring the tale of Ebeneezer Scrooge to life. Finney is one of the few Scrooges to play both old and young Ebeneezer, and that gives this version something extra.

The musical Meet Me in St. Louis, with young Judy Garland singing up a storm as part of a family enjoying the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair plays on TCM at 7 pm tonight as well as 8:15 tomorrow morning. Meet Me in St. Louis covers more holidays than Christmas -- its Halloween scenes are famous, as well -- but when Judy sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as the family prepares to move away from St. Louis, this particular holiday trumps everything else. It's the saddest, sweetest Christmas song you can imagine, and it gets me every time. Margaret O'Brien repeatedly attempts to steal the show as Judy's youngest sister, while Mary Astor and Leon Ames play her parents and Marjorie Main makes a dandy family servant.

Ernst Lubitsch's lovely The Shop Around the Corner is up at 1:30 pm Tuesday. You know the story of two feuding co-workers who don't realize they are also romantic pen pals from other versions of it, from Parfumerie to She Loves Me, In the Good Old Summertime and You've Got Mail. But the light Lubitsch touch makes The Shop Around the Corner and romantic leads Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan something special. It doesn't hurt that the supporting cast -- Felix Bressart and The Wizard of Oz himself, Frank Morgan, among them -- is also first-rate. Christmas enters into the story as the shopping season that stresses out our gift shop employees and the family time that upsets the singles among them. It's truly a sweetheart of a movie.

The marquee seven o'clock slot on Tuesday is saved for Christmas in Connecticut, that jolly wartime charmer with Barbara Stanwyck as a magazine columnist who pretends to be the perfect housewife, cook, mother, wife and general home and hearth expert, even though she is really none of those things. Her ruse is discovered when a soldier (handsome Dennis Morgan) asks to spend Christmas with a "real" family like hers. And hilarity ensues! Look for S.Z. "Cuddles" Sakall and the always irascible Sydney Greenstreet in the ensemble. For more about my thoughts on Christmas in Connecticut, click here.

You'll need to stay up late Christmas Eve or set the DVR to get my all-time favorite holiday movie, aptly titled Holiday, at 2:15 am Central time. This one pits Cary Grant against Katharine Hepburn -- he's a self-made man who wants to marry her sister and quit the biz to enjoy life, but the Seton family is too entrenched and too rich to let that happen. Edward Everett Horton and Jean Dixon play eccentric friends of Grant's Johnny Case, while Lew Ayres does an affecting turn as Hepburn's character's brother. As I said the last time I wrote about Holiday, "When it's Cary Grant playing Johnny, it's hard not to support his holiday. It's hard not to try to book a cabin on that ship and go right along with him. As Linda says, 'If he wants to dream for a while, he can dream for a while, and if he wants to come back and sell peanuts, oh, how I'll believe in those peanuts!'"

Right there with you, sister." Even at 2:15 am.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

THE GOOD WIFE Hits the Fan Again Tonight at 7:30

CBS's The Good Wife has been enjoying a banner season, with many critics calling it the best drama on television. Trouble and intrigue have been brewing for some time inside Lockhart Gardner, the law firm where the "good wife" in question, Alicia Florrick, played by Juliana Margulies, was made partner at the end of Season 4. It's also the law firm where Alicia's ex-lover (the Gardner in Lockhart Gardner) had to fight off charges of bribery and corruption to remain at the top of the food chain. For awhile now, Alicia has been torn between her feelings for Will Gardner, played by Josh Charles, and her loyalty to her family, including two complicated kids and an ethically challenged husband, the newly-elected Governor of Illinois, portrayed by Chris Noth. He's the guy who cheated on her in the huge scandal that started the show back in 2009.

Tension inside the firm, unresolved passion inside and outside the firm, problems with finances and ethics, dicey cases that put Alicia's prowess as a lawyer on the line... Let's just say there was lots of fuel for drama there. Push came to shove in the fifth episode of this fifth season, in an episode appropriately called "Hitting the Fan," when Alicia and a cadre of unhappy junior associates finally walked out on Lockhart Gardner to start their own firm. Since then, as we've seen various characters plot and counterplot, maneuver and manipulate, as everybody fights over turf and some new characters have introduced new complications, things have gone downhill a bit in my estimation. I would send a check to CBS myself if they would put an end to the beyond-annoying pregnant woman (and "ethics adviser") who works for the Governor, the new, mob-connected, somehow untouchable lawyer at Lockhart Gardner who keeps committing "pranks" that are actually felonies, and two old cranks at the firm who continue to stir the pot in ways that would and should get them disbarred. I'd also like to see Kalinda (Archie Panjabi) get more to do than just hop between the sheets and some focus on Cary (Matt Czuchry), Alicia's new partner, who seems to have been sidelined, as well.

There have been some positive developments, however, from bringing back America Ferrera, Nathan Lane and John Noble, to showing different sides of campaign manager Eli Gold (Alan Cumming) and the shifting alliances and divided loyalties Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) has been playing with.

And I have to say, if I have my objections to the way The Good Wife has followed up on Alicia & Company exiting Lockhart Gardner, it doesn't take anything away from "Hitting the Fan" itself, which was just about as perfect an hour of TV drama as you could wish for.

To help you catch up on The Good Wife, CBS is streaming all ten Season 5 episodes, from "Everything is Ending," the season premiere, to "The Decision Tree" from December 1. You can watch them all in order and decide for yourself if you agree with me on the perfection of "Hitting the Fan" and the annoyance factor in the five episodes since.

CBS is also showing "Hitting the Fan" all by itself at 7:30 pm Central time tonight, a bit earlier than The Good Wife's regular slot. By highlighting this episode, it would seem that CBS recognizes the brilliance of that particular episode. They aren't alone.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Give Yourself SOMETHIN' REAL SPECIAL for Christmas

I am a major fan of PS Classics. This should come as no surprise, considering how often I write about their fascinating, varied and welcome choices of material. In order to "celebrate the heritage of Broadway and American song," PS Classics and executive producer Tommy Krasker resurrect and restore the scores of lost shows, record our cultural history, and offer a living archive not just of individual musicals, but of fabulous voices, composers, lyricists and orchestrators in solo albums and songbooks. Where else would Rebecca Luker get to do an album of Jerome Kern or fourteen Broadway stars take on the songs of Georgia Stitt? Where else will you find cast recordings of shows as disparate as Maury Yeston's 2011 Off-Broadway Death Takes a Holiday, the 2012 Encores! version of Merrily We Roll Along, and the adorable and wonderful Sweet Little Devil, a 1924 show with music by George Gershwin that was otherwise lost in time?

That's just the tip of the PS Classics catalog. Krasker has been very clear that he isn't trying to create  a complete collection of anything; he is simply working with whatever he likes best. "Somethin' Real Special: The Songs of Dorothy Fields," the new PS Classics album from Philip Chaffin, covers songs with lyrics by Dorothy Fields, but not necessarily a representative sample, not necessarily the best known, not necessarily the award winners. The songs on "Somethin' Real Special" are instead the ones that spoke to Chaffin and Krasker, the ones they wanted to spend time with.

Philip Chaffin and Dorothy Fields, circa 19??
The result is indeed something special, something Maury Yeston, who wrote the liner notes, describes as "elegance, exuberance and effortlessness." He's talking about both Fields' lyrics and Chaffin's voice, and he hits the target with that comment, I think. There's elegance and wit in the love songs, exuberance and fizzy charm in bouncy tunes from the 1920s, and an effortless flow throughout the album.

Chaffin has previously done three solo albums for PS Classics, including "Where Do I Go From You?," "Warm Spring Night," and "When the Wind Blows South," with songs from Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Jerry Herman, Michael John LaChiusa, Alan Menken, Frank Loesser, Cole Porter and a host of other composers. "Somethin' Real Special" is his first album with a focus like this, limited to one lyricist. That's interesting not only because Fields was so different in her time, as a successful female lyricist whose work spanned decades and styles, but also because she worked with such a varied group of songwriters. Chaffin's collection of songs shows what Fields' work was like with flowery, fizzy Sigmund Romberg as well as Jerome Kern in an airy, romantic mood, jazzy Jimmy McHugh or brash Cy Coleman. Fields navigated all those twists and turns and came up with, well, something really special.

Chaffin's warm, honeyed voice sounds just right on Fields' Oscar winner "The Way You Look Tonight," written with Kern for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers' movie Swing Time, but it's paired here with a torchy Harold Arlen song called "Let Me Look at You" that brings out a fresh side of the more familiar movie tune. And the result is exquisite, dramatic, moving.

You will also recognize "I'm in the Mood for Love," a popular McHugh song from 1935. "Mood for Love" is given a lush big-band treatment as it glides into a 1932 McHugh piece called "Don't Blame Me" that is positively bewitching. When Chaffin sings "I'm under your spell," I dare you not to think, "Right back atcha."

McHugh was also responsible for the music of "Diga Diga Doo," a crazy little ditty -- about Samoa, Fields wrote "Talking there is not the mode. They palaver in a code" -- from a revue called Blackbirds of 1928 that bounces to a Roaring 20s/faux-primitive beat that makes me wish I knew how to Charleston, or, you know, dance the Diga Doo, as well as "Then You Went and Changed Your Mind," an adorable, jazz-infused piece from 1933 that kicks along from ukulele to tuba and trombone in the most infectious way, and "Exactly Like You," another sweetie pie from the 30s that Chaffin elevates to something more with sincerity and affection.

There's also a pair of Romberg songs from Up in Central Park, a 1945 Broadway show set in 19th century New York City. These are "Carousel in the Park," a melody that sounds pretty and sweet at first but devolves into something more ominous as Fields' lyrics move the carousel from daytime to night, and "April Snow," as light and delicate as the snowflakes -- and the love affair -- it describes.

Nine different orchestrators -- Matt Aument, John Baxindine, Doug Besterman, Jason Carr, Glen Daum, David Loud, Joseph Thalken, Jonathan Tunick and David Wolfson -- did the arrangements for individual songs, but somehow there's a unity here, flowing smoothly from song to song. I found "I'm in the Mood for Love/Don't Blame Me" and "Alone Too Long" from Daum, Carr's arrangement of "Then You Went and Changed Your Mind" and Baxindine's work on "Let Me Look at You/The Way You Look Tonight" especially affecting.

My conclusions? I don't know enough about Dorothy Fields, but this is a good start. Oh, and Philip Chaffin's ability to interpret a song is amazing, PS Classics is a national treasure, and "Somethin' Real Special" is about as special as it gets.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Finishing Up Your FOWL PLAY for Heartland?

Heartland Theatre announced the new theme for its annual 10-minute play contest last summer, after the Package Plays were put to bed, with entries accepted as of September 1. For next summer's plays, the central idea is birds. And that's why they're calling them Fowl Plays.

The ultimate deadline for all entries is February 1, 2014, but January 1 is another important date. That's the date playwrights need to know if they want to be eligible for revisions. Since this is a new play contest, Heartland instituted the revision rule a few years ago, allowing their judges to ask playwrights for changes if they think there is something fairly easy to fix that would give the play a better chance to advance. So, for example, if there are five characters instead of the four allowed, but the judges otherwise really like the play and think eliminating that pesky No. 5 wouldn't be too tough, they can give the playwright the option of making that change. The same thing applies if the judges think the play would run longer than ten minutes as written. They can send a message through Heartland's 10-Minute Plays Administrator to see if the playwright would be willing to shave a page or two off the script so it better suits Heartland's needs.

That doesn't mean everybody automatically gets the chance to revise things. Just people who get their plays in by January 1 (so that there's time for revisions before the February deadline). And just with plays where there's something fairly simple to fix that could give the play a better shot in the contest. Playwrights have indicated in the past that the chance for revisions was a really positive thing for them, so don't underestimate that January 1 option.

As we wind down 2013 and head past Christmas, we're also seeing some fine inspiration for Fowl Plays in general, what with "The Twelve Days of Christmas" and all the birds it involves. Playwrights could write about any one of the following, after all:

7 Swans a-Swimming
6 Geese a-Laying

4 Calling Birds
3 French Hens
2 Turtle Doves
And a Partridge in a Pear Tree...

This particular partridge is from birdorable.com, a blog with all kinds of bird art, including "The Twelve Days of Christmas" sketched with representations of the real birds involved in the song. Just in case you wondered what a Calling Bird looks like... They've also interpreted Five Golden Rings as Five Gold-Ringed Tanagers and subbed in Twelve Drumming Ruffled Grouse, Eleven Piping Plovers, Ten Lord Howe Woodhens, Nine Lady Amherst's Pheasants and Eight Milky Storks to keep all "Twelve Days" avian. What more inspiration do you need? I'm kind of in love with those Gold-Ringed Tanagers.

For the whole scoop on Heartland's Fowl Plays, click here.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Joan Fontaine 1917-2013

When Joan Fontaine passed away last Friday, my first thought was to wonder how Olivia de Havilland, her older sister, the other half of one of Hollywood's longest feuds, was taking the news.

Fontaine was her own person and her own actress, and when she died at 96, she probably hoped the obituaries would lead with her Best Actress Oscar for Suspicion (1941) and the nominations for Rebecca (1940) and The Constant Nymph (1943), or that she appeared on Broadway in Forty Carats and Tea and Sympathy, or that she was a strong supporter of US troops during World War II, working as a nurse's aide and appearing often at the Hollywood Canteen, or that she was very good at a whole lot of things, with flying planes and balloons, golfing, cooking, fishing and interior design among them. She supposedly had an IQ off the charts. And she did over two dozen TV roles, including The Love Boat and the soap Ryan's Hope, and all along, kept up a public persona as a gracious, elegant, cultivated woman. (See the headshot above. It oozes the classy, calm, serene and superior persona she was known for.)

But it's hard to get past her prickly personal life. There's the part about Fontaine and her sister not speaking to each other for decades, but also the fact that she was married four times, with the eight years wedded to Collier Young her record for longevity. She had two children, a daughter named Debbie with William Dozier, and an adopted daughter from Peru from whom she was also estranged. She wrote an autobiography called No Bed of Roses that second husband Dozier was rumored to have referred to as No Shred of Truth.

And, of course, she didn't get along with her sister. Things started to get rocky when they were both Oscar nominated for 1941 film appearances and Little Sis Fontaine walked away with the award. There are different versions of what happened to escalate the feud -- Joan snubbed Olivia's attempts to congratulate her after the Oscar win, Olivia snubbed Joan's attempt to congratulate her after her Oscar win, Olivia said something cutting in public, Joan said something cutting in public, somebody insulted somebody's husband, Mom always liked Olivia best, Olivia didn't invite Joan to their mother's memorial, Joan blew off the invitation to their mother's memorial, Joan's daughters were in touch with Olivia behind her back -- but whatever it was, it wasn't pretty.

Joan went on the record with The Hollywood Reporter, telling them, "I married first, won the Oscar before Olivia did, and if I die first, she’ll undoubtedly be livid because I beat her to it."

It's funny, because my mother loved Hitchcock movies, which is where Fontaine got her best roles. But she really didn't care for Joan Fontaine as an actress. My mom had a thing about the "goody goodies" -- she didn't like June Allyson or Doris Day, either -- and it may've been that Fontaine fit into that category in her mind. In movies like Rebecca and Suspicion, she really was a fairly languid screen presence, all meekness and dissolving vulnerability. Her character in Rebecca famously has no name, in Suspicion all she had to do was lie around acting helpless, opposite Cary Grant, of all people, and she didn't do much opposite Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress, either. Wasting Cary Grant and Fred Astaire on Joan Fontaine didn't sit well with my mother.

Or maybe it was the de Havilland thing. Even though Olivia played the quintessential good girl in Gone With the Wind, my mom loved her. So maybe she took her side in that feud.

I don't know and I suppose it doesn't really matter. It just shines a light on what it was to be a big Hollywood star in those golden years, when teenagers buying movie magazines decided they loved or hated you based on arbitrary things like your co-stars, who you beat for your Oscar, or a personal life they knew very little about. Wouldn't it be funny if Fontaine and de Havilland really got on just fine all those years, and the whole feud thing was just a plot by their press agents to keep them both at the top of the Hollywood heap?

Fontaine died at the age of 96. De Havilland is 97, living in Paris.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

PSYCH Goes Musical Tonight at 8

Sunday has been the hottest night on television for some time, what with Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Downton Abbey, Games of Thrones, The Good Wife, Homeland, Mad Men, Masters of Sex, Once Upon a Time, Revenge and The Walking Dead all taking up residence there at one time or another over the year. Plus, of course, The Simpsons.

Several of those have concluded for the season (or forever, like Breaking Bad) by now, but another bunch of shows will be finishing their seasons tonight. The group airing fall finales tonight includes Once Upon a Time (Will Pan be foiled before the purple smoke rises again?), Revenge (Who's going to shoot Emily on her wedding day?) and Betrayal on ABC, Homeland (Will Brody make it?) on Showtime, Masters of Sex (Will Masters & Johnson go public with what they know?) on HBO, American Dad and Bob's Burgers on Fox, and The Witches of East End on Lifetime.

But amidst all the finale-ing, USA Network brings back its amusing buddy detective show, Psych, for a two-hour musical episode. Yes, you heard that right. Shawn, played by James Roday, and Gus, played by Dulé Hill, who danced on Broadway as the Kid in Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk before he turned into a West Wing aide, will be singing and dancing all over Santa Barbara as they solve crime and drive the police department crazy. You can see a video preview here, a sneak peek of a number called "Under Santa Barbara Skies" and a whole bunch of other video here, including a holiday greeting.

It all looks pretty fun and fizzy and the perfect Christmas gift from Psych creator Steve Franks and his cast and crew. Broadway World has a complete list of the songs (14 of 'em!) in tonight's show, as well as the info that another Broadway star, Anthony Rapp of Rent fame, will be along for the ride. And Barry Bostwick! Yes, Fitz's evil father from Scandal was once a singing and dancing man himself, as the original Danny Zuko in Grease on Broadway, a Tony Award winner for The Robber Bridegroom, and, of course, Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Rapp will be the villain o' the week, a playwright called Z who burned down a theater with a critic in it, while Bostwick will play someone named Armitage. Bostwick isn't listed as a participant in the musical numbers, which seems like a waste, but Rapp is, along with Psych regulars Maggie Lawson, Tim Omundson, Kurt Fuller and Kirsten Nelson and guest stars Ally Sheedy and Jimmi Simpson (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).

Let the singing begin! Tonight at 8 Central on the USA Network.

Friday, December 13, 2013

SAG Award Nominations: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Nominations are in for the first two big awards shows of the seasons. The Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes give out their awards to movie and television excellence, making them fun for the people who do one, the other, or both. They may share that trait, and they almost always have some nominees in common, but they couldn't be more different in terms of their tone and general outlook. After all, SAG is inside and industry, while the Foreign Press Association runs a sillier, boozier affair with their Golden Globes.

First up: The Screen Actors Guild nominations. So who is included in the wealth this time out? Who's egregiously overlooked?

As you might expect, the Screen Actors Guild focuses on acting, and their award for "Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture" serves as the equivalent of Best Picture. Their nominations recognize 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, August: Osage County, Dallas Buyers Club and Lee Daniels' The Butler. If you're keeping track, that's four films based on real events and one piece of absolute fiction. August: Osage County, based on the Tracy Letts' play, is the fictional one.

Overlooked? Captain Phillips, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Saving Mr. Banks, The Wolf of Wall Street and the Coen Brothers' newest, Inside Llewyn Davis, all expected to vie for Oscar recognition.

Chiwetel Ejiofo, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o, the hero, villain and love interest in 12 Years a Slave, are also nominated in individual categories as lead actor, supporting actor and supporting actress, putting their film at the top of the list for SAG awards.

Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts were nominated for their roles as a mother and daughter (Meryl as lead and Julia as supporting) in August: Osage County, while Lee Daniels' The Butler got  nods for lead actor Forest Whitaker and supporting actress Oprah Winfrey and Alexander Payne's low-key road picture Nebraska scored nominations for lead Bruce Dern and supporting actress June Squibb.

Tom Hanks and Barkhad Abdi are both in the race for their performances as the captain and the pirate in Captain Phillips, joining Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, who play two very different men affected by AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club.

Joining Streep in the Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Leading Role category are Cate Blanchett as a woman on the edge in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, Sandra Bullock as an unmoored astronaut in Gravity, Judi Dench as a mother looking for the son taken away from her in Philomena, and Emma Thompson as author P.L. Travers in Saving Mr. Banks, the Walt Disney/Mary Poppins story.

The late James Gandolfini has been honored for his supporting role in Enough Said, with German actor Daniel Brühl rounding out the supporting actor category for his role in Rush, and American Hustle's lone individual nominee, Jennifer Lawrence, finishing up the supporting actress category.

Among the actors who didn't get a look are Christian Bale (American Hustle), Chris Cooper (August: Osage County), Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Michael B. Jordan (Fruitvale Station) and Robert Redford (All Is Lost), with Amy Adams (American Hustle), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Enough Said), Naomie Harris (Mandela), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) and Kate Winslet (Labor Day) also shut out.

The remaining nominations for movies are for their stunt crews, with All Is Lost, Fast & Furious 6, Lone Survivor, Rush and The Wolverine included.

And what about the television side of the aisle? Let's just say there was no love for Mad Men or Parks and Recreation and leave it at that.

Drama ensembles nominated include the casts of shoot 'em up Boardwalk Empire from HBO, AMC's addictive Breaking Bad, high-toned Downton Abbey from PBS, swords-and-sex potboiler Game of Thrones, also on HBO, and Showtime's dark spy epic Homeland. Whither Mad Men, The Good Wife and Scandal? You may very well ask that question.

The major broadcast networks did better with comedies, as NBC's 30 Rock, ABC's Modern Family and CBS's Big Bang Theory all scored nominations for their casts. HBO sneaked in one more nod with Veep, along with Arrested Development, reborn on Netflix. I'd put Parks and Recreation ahead of all of them, thank you very much. But it was certainly a good day for Tony Hale, who appears in both Arrested Development and Veep and is thus double nominated.

The five actors individually nominated for their performances in dramas were Boardwalk Empire's Steve Buscemi, Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad, Peter Dinklage in Game of Thrones, Kevin Spacey for the Netflix drama House of Cards, and inexplicably, Jeff Daniels for the really-pretty-terrible Newsroom on HBO. That's two twisted crime lords, two twisted power brokers and one namby pamby misogynist newsman.

The actresses nominated for dramas play characters who are, for the most part, less evil than their male counterparts. For the most part. There's Jessica Lange as a "Supreme" witch in American Horror Story: Coven, Anna Gunn as the desperate wife of the meth mastermind in Breaking Bad, Maggie Smith as the dowager countess with the withering putdowns in Downton Abbey, Claire Danes as a bipolar CIA analyst in Homeland, and Kerry Washington as the ultimate Washington insider trying to balance her career as a fixer with a very messy personal life in Scandal.

No, I can't believe they didn't nominate The Good Wife's Juliana Margulies or Orphan Black's Tatiana Maslany, either.

Comedy actors include old favorite (cough*enough already*cough) Alec Baldwin from 30 Rock, Jason Bateman for Arrested Development, Don Cheadle in House of Lies, Ty Burrell in Modern Family and ultimate nerd Jim Parsons in The Big Bang Theory.

Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory), Julie Bowen (Modern Family), Edie Falcon (Nurse Jackie), Tina Fey (30 Rock) and Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep) are the women nominated for comedies. Nothing to say there but same old/same old and what is Amy Poehler, chopped liver?

SAG also hands out awards for miniseries or TV movies, with familiar names like Matt Damon and Michael Douglas, both nominated for Behind the Candelabra, Jeremy Irons ( Henry IV in The Hollow Crown), Rob Lowe (Killing Kennedy) and Al Pacino (Phil Spector) on the male side and Angela Bassett (Betty & Coretta), Helena Bonham Carter (Burton and Taylor), Helen Mirren (Phil Spector), and Holly Hunter and Elisabeth Moss (both in Top of the Lake) nominated for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries.

Oddly, the TV stunt nominees are much the same as the "best ensemble" nominees, even though there was no crossover like that with movies. That means Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Homeland all show up as stunt crew nominees, along with The Walking Dead. It also means that the Screen Actors Guild likes television shows with plenty of violence and action, since those are the ones you need stunt crews for.

Watch out for Blacklist next time up. That show out-violences and out-actions all of 'em.

The Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony will be broadcast on Saturday, January 18,  at 7 pm Central time on both TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


It was good news when Turner Classic Movies decided that this should be Fred Astaire Month, with his films on their schedule every Wednesday throughout December. It's even better news that, in conjunction with TCM and this Astaire celebration, Sony Masterworks has released a 2-CD set called "Fred Astaire: The Early Years at RKO." That means you can watch the movies and then listen to the music from those movies any time you feel like it. Which should be anytime and all the time.

Way back when, when I was a teen, I was a huge fan of old movies in general, and Fred Astaire movies in particular. I remember a shopping trip to Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg when it was very new. I was looking through the bins at a record store, and I found a 2-record album called "Starring Fred Astaire." In my recollection, it cost $5.99, which was a lot of money for me at a time when I made $1.80 an hour working room service at a hotel. But as soon as I saw it, I knew I had to have it. How else would I be able to listen to Fred singing (and dancing -- there are taps on the album, too) without the movies coming up on Dialing for Dollars or The Late, Late Show?

The advent of video and DVDs, including the lovely Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collector's Edition, have made it a whole lot easier to find Fred (and Ginger). Still... There's something different about sticking cds in the car or in the background without sitting down to watch the whole movie. Plus the coverage is slightly different.

That Astaire & Rogers Ultimate Collection includes Flying Down to Rio, The Gay Divorcee, Roberta, Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, Carefree, The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, The Barkleys of Broadway, and a documentary called Astaire & Rogers: Partners in Rhythm. 

"Starring Fred Astaire," by contrast, offers songs from Top Hat, Follow The Fleet, Swing Time, Shall We Dance, A Damsel In Distress and Carefree. A Damsel in Distress was not an Astaire/Rogers pic, but instead starred Joan Fontaine opposite Astaire. This album focuses on Astaire's RKO years and 19 songs from what are called the "Brunswick Recordings." Astaire had a recording contract with Brunswick (Ginger didn't -- she did records through Decca and Victor) at the same time he was making movies with RKO, which is why his performances from those particular movies were captured on vinyl at that time.

Because both "Starring Fred Astaire" and this new "Fred Astaire: The Early Years" come from the Brunswick recordings, there are similarities. But "Early Years" adds two songs from Flying Down to Rio in "Music Makes Me" and the title song and one important song -- "Night and Day" from The Gay Divorcee. Other extras include alternate takes of "A Fine Romance" from Swing Time and "They Can't Take That Away from Me" from Shall We Dance, plus Ginger's version of "I Used to Be Color Blind" from Carefree.

But "Early Years" is missing "I'm Building Up to an Awful Let-Down," a song co-written by Astaire, as well as Astaire singing either "I Used to Be Color Blind" or "Change Partners" from Carefree.

The extras are nice, but the best thing about "Early Years," is that you don't need a turntable to play it. And these songs, some charming, some fun, some torchy or romantic, some complete with taps, provide a wonderful record of what Fred Astaire was up to during the 1930s.

Oh, and it's a fabulous Christmas gift for anyone who needs one. You can buy it here at Turner Classic Movies or here at Amazon.

Monday, December 9, 2013

SIX BY SONDHEIM: Tonight, Tonight Won't Be Just Any Night

The lyrics for "Tonight" from West Side Story -- all the lyrics from West Side Story, from "The Jet Song" to "Somewhere" and "Gee, Officer Krupke" -- are wonderful. And who wrote them? Stephen Sondheim. So when I put "Tonight, tonight won't be just any night" in the header, yes, I was quoting his lyrics. But mostly I was referring to the fact that there's a special documentary on HBO tonight. It won't be just any night. Tonight there will be Six by Sondheim!

If you've read Sondheim's first book about his lyrics, Finishing the Hat, you know that he wasn't completely in love with what he wrote for West Side Story. Leonard Bernstein, the composer, wanted "poetic" lyrics that Sondheim felt were at odds with Arthur Laurents' dialogue as well as how he felt a boy like Tony and a girl like Maria would really speak. I'm guessing that will be part of the discussion in Six by Sondheim, which is structured around six songs in the Sondheim ouevre.

The first song discussed is "Something's Coming" from West Side Story, a show early in Sondheim's career for which he did the lyrics but not the music. That came from Bernstein, as noted above. For that reason, it provides an entry point into Sondheim's work for James Lapine, who directed this documentary. Lapine is a frequent collaborator with Sondheim; Lapine wrote the book for and directed Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods and Passion, directed Merrily We Roll Along, and conceived and directed Sondheim on Sondheim, a biographical Broadway show that used video and music to look at his life and work.

Six by Sondheim performs that same function, using six seminal pieces and Sondheim's thoughts about how and why he created them to chart the different phases in his career. Larry Kert, the first Tony in West Side Story, performs "Something's Coming" in a clip from the 50s, followed by "Opening Doors," the jaunty number about what it is to start out as an adult in the world from Merrily We Roll Along. For Six by Sondheim, "Opening Doors" gets a fresh performance from Glee's Darren Criss, Ugly Betty's America Ferrara, and Smash and Newsies star Jeremy Jordan, with Jackie Hoffman from The Addams Family, Laura Osnes, currently starring in Cinderella, and Stephen Sondheim himself in the mix.

Husband and wife Broadway stars Will Swenson and Audra McDonald, who is fresh off her triumph as the Abbess in The Sound of Music, will sing Sondheim's biggest hit as a single, "Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, after we get a chance to see video of some of the very different artists -- Glynis Johns, Frank Sinatra, Cher -- who performed it over the years.

And then it's "I'm Still Here," the wry Follies song about surviving "good times and bum times," "plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer..." Instead of giving it to the aging showgirl-turned-Hollywood-star described in Follies, Lapine turns the "I'm Still Here" segment over to director Todd Haynes, who has Jarvis Cocker of the rock band Pulp perform it in front of the kind of women it's about. A provocative choice, to be sure.

It's back to the vault for footage of Dean Jones trying to get "Being Alive" right, taken from the D.A. Pennebaker documentary about the recording of the cast album from the first Company. The evening ends with "Sunday," the soaring piece about how art can immortalize, as performed by Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin in the Broadway production, captured for television broadcast on American Playhouse. Ending with "Sunday"? Perfection.

I loved Sondheim on Sondheim. I loved the two volumes he wrote -- Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat -- that go into detail about his lyrics. You can never get enough Sondheim, after all. Which is why Six by Sondheim is a must-see, tonight at 8 Central time on HBO.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Community Players Announces Cast for ANNE FRANK

Community Players and director Opal Virtue have announced the cast for their January production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Although the original version of the script was written by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Players is using an updated text adapted by Wendy Kesselman in 1997 and used for the Broadway revival of the play starring Natalie Portman.

For Community Players, Veronica Bettis will play the central role of Anne, the young Jewish girl trying to survive while hidden in an attic in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. Paul Vellella and Penny Wilson will play her parents, Otto and Edith Frank, with Rebekah Easling as her older sister, Margot.

Alan Wilson and Tricia Stiller have been cast as Mr. and Mrs. Van Daan, other occupants of the attic, Tim Zaitselff will take on their son, Peter, who becomes Anne's friend, and Nathan Bottorff will play Mr. Dussel, the final person who joins the others in hiding.

Rounding out the cast, Amanda Fisher and Tom Smith will play Miep and Mr. Kraler, Dutch friends of the Frank family who provide a link to the outside world, with Jake Rathman and Tyler Stark as German soldiers.

The Diary of Anne Frank represents Community Players' first show of 2014, with a preview on January 16 and regular performances scheduled from January 17 to 26. Call 309-663-2121 or click here for tickets.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

CHESS: Opening Moves Tonight at the Station Theatre

There was a day when chess champions from the United States and Russia vied not just for bragging rights across the board, but in international headlines, as well. As Cold War tensions remained high, the battle between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky for the World Championship in chess took on greater significance. A prize of $250,000 raised the stakes. When the two superstars, so different in approach and temperament, one shaped by the traditional, dominant Soviet system, the other an American loner known as much for his tics as his brilliance, met for 21 games played over two months in Iceland, the world watched to see who would ultimately checkmate whom.

The musical Chess, which opens tonight at the Station Theatre in Urbana, does not specifically deal with Fischer and Spassky, although there are certain similarities. There's an American and a Russian, and their match is played for higher stakes than just a few pawns, with political and diplomatic implications at every turn. But there's also romance, which was, as far as we know, not part of the famous 1972 World Championship, subplots involving defection, blackmail and selling out, action set in Thailand (to fit the show's most famous single "One Night in Bangkok"), and the inclusion of music written by the male half of ABBA, Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, with lyrics by frequent Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator Tim Rice. Singing chess playes is quite a departure from the real deal! And that means that Chess may have been inspired by Fischer and the infamous match in Reykjavik, but the musical is its own, distinctive creation on stage. In the end, it isn't so much about the game of chess as it is about loyalty, responsibility, family and honor. Note that there have been several different versions of Richard Nelson's book over the show's lifetime to reflect changes in the political landscape of Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union fell.

Chess opens tonight at 8 pm at the Station, directed by Mikel L. Matthews, Jr. This production features Warren Garver as American bad boy chess champ Freddie Trumper and David Barkley as Soviet challenger Anatoly Sergievsky. Malia Andrus plays Florence, caught between the two men professionally and personally, while Kevin Paul Wickart takes on Molokov, the Russian handler and manipulater behind Anatoly; Dawn McDaniel plays Svetlana, Anatoly's wife; Jessica Miller is the Arbiter, the president of the International Chess Federation overseeing the matches; and Wen Bu, Lola McQueen, Michael Murphy, Kenna Reiss, Craig Smith and Rachel Warren comprise the ensemble.

The Station's version of Chess continues in performance through December 21. All the details are here on the show's Facebook page. The Station Theatre is located at 223 North Broadway in Urbana, and you may call 217-384-4000 for reservations.