Monday, March 27, 2017

Groundhog Day

We took in the new musical Groundhog Day which is now in previews at the August Wilson Theater, New York, and slated to open April 17. One unusual aspect of its progress thus far is that the show opened last summer in London to generally good notices and audiences, and happened to be reviewed by the chief N.Y. Times theater critic because he was in London to review theater pieces there during the usually slow summer opening schedule in New York.

His review was positive, which leads one to wonder how that might affect a review in his paper when this production opens. Anyway, I thought it was a pretty good show. Andy Karl, who played what might be called the Bill Murray part in London--the character's name is Phil Connors--played it in New York. He is superb. He's good at acting, dancing, singing, and moving quickly around the set.

The show's first act was so good that I asked at its end what they would do for the second, never mind an encore. The movie's theme had a lot of charm, much of which is captured here, so that the show stands on its own. It relies on some of the devices in the film, but has plenty of its own original themes.

The sets and costumes are clever and the supporting cast works hard in terms of moving, dancing, and singing. Memorable tunes--about as many as in most shows these days, so not many. But the music was pleasant. The movie did have a good idea running through it, namely that the lead character has to repeat the same day over and over until it breaks through his hard exterior that his life will be incomplete unless he starts to think about how he affects others.

This theme is of course shielded by a veneer of comedy and music, but it is there as it was in the movie all the same. I was expecting some disappointment because Bill Murray is such a fascinating performer in his ability to give complexity and depth to his characters. But the composer, lyricist, book author, and Andy Karl worked well together to provide an equally good performance. Now, given that they didn't use a lot of what the movie had as its equivalent of a second act, I hope they figure out how to make that act stronger by the time opening night rolls around.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

King Charles and Dvorak

Was able last weekend to take in performances at two of the finest venues for drama and music in D.C. On Saturday, we saw King Charles III at the Shakespeare Theater Company's Sidney Harman Hall. This is a fanciful drama by Mike Bartlett, mostly written in Shakespearean iambic pentameter about the future ascension of Prince Charles to the British throne. Robert Joy, who has a lengthy list of credits from Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, TV, and D.C. theater, does a fine job in the title role, and is supported by an excellent American cast. The first act is longer and stronger but it's a good evening out.

Sunday afternoon, the setting was Strathmore, the music auditorium with superb acoustics just above the Beltway in North Bethesda. The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, with its music director, Marin Alsop, conducting, presented a fine program. The opener was a commissioned piece called Dancin' Blue Crabs, by Jonathan Leshem, which was fine but seemed to be over almost before it started. Then we heard Samuel Barber's First Symphony, which is played without breaks between movements. This was written in the 1930s and had plenty of good music which was worth hearing. It was followed by Aaron Copland's often-played Lincoln Portrait, which to me has the grandeur I associate with Copland. The spoken part was well performed by Barry Williams. 

After the interval, we returned for the piece de resistance: Dvorak's Cello Concerto. The cellist was Johannes Moser, a German-Canadian. We had seats in the front row, which meant we could not see the whole orchestra but did see both the soloist and the conductor, who both expended plenty of effort. The result was magnificent, which was anticipated if only because this is the gem of the cello repertoire. It is exciting and fantastically melodic, and stands with his New World Symphony as the composer's finest work.

This concerto leaves you the way you feel after hearing a wonderful Broadway musical--you leave the hall humming the various tunes. Maestra Alsop had the orchestra performing at top level and the solo cello was as good as anyone I heard, including the winner of the Cello Competition at Univeristy of Maryland a few years ago and the record we have of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony featuring Gregor Piatagorsky. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Enjoying Some High Notes

Every so often I like to pull up some selections from YouTube to enjoy some singing, mostly opera but some Broadway, that I might not have ever heard. Today I started with Joan Sutherland in the last two pieces from Act I of La Traviata. She has always been a favorite of mine, and in this selection, which shows her nicely dressed and more attractive than she usually appeared on stage, it is not so much the high notes, which needless to say are superbly done, but the trills, that she just seems to handle so effortlessly, that blew me away.

Sutherland always made it all sound easy. I also watched her do the Si, vendetta ending of Act II (used to be Act III when they did the brief Act I as a separate act) of Rigoletto with Sherrill Milnes. She goes up for the high note at the end, followed by his, and both are magnificent, but as usual, she holds it right along and makes it seem so easy. She also hits the high note at the end of the Quartet with no less than Luciano Pavarotti as the tenor, and there is no question that she is the dominant voice as it ends gloriously. By the way, she looks absolutely awful and makes Gilda, who I believe is supposed to be in her late teens or maybe just 20, look like she's 70 or so.

I listened to several Rigoletto Quartets and Gigli probably had the sweetest tenor, while Caruso's recordings, which helped create his legend in the early days of sound recording, show how mellifluous his voice was. In the Quartet I heard, however, it was thrilling to hear Amelia Galli-Curci produce the beautiful high notes at the end to keep pace with Enrico. 

Not to be ignored was an Act II finale with Leonard Warren and Bidu Sayao. She also had a lovely, sweet tone and Warren may have been the finest baritone of all time, although I did enjoy a Cornell MacNeil rendition which one commentor referred to as "Big Mac" coming on strong. Tito Gobbi also gave Maria Callas a good match in both the Act II finale and Quartet.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

German Oscar Nominee

Enjoyed a charming German film over the weekend entitled Toni Erdmann. It has been nominated for the Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards and had been submitted by Germany. It is unusually long--2 hrs, 40 mins--and drags at times. But it is highly entertaining and enjoyable in a way that European films can be.

I won't give too much plot away but it focuses on a man who is essentially retired after a checkered career who decides to follow his coldly business-oriented daughter, a management consultant, back to her ongoing project in Bucharest, Romania, after she came to Germany for his birthday and spent most of her visit on her cell phone.

He dresses up as different characters--the title of the film is one of them--and turns up at her management meetings with clients and social occasions as well, including a reception at the American Embassy. This all results in both embarrassing and uproarious scenes with plenty of good supporting players. The two German leads have both been in previous pix but were new to me.

The film is incredibly funny and recommended if you don't mind a picture that gives its characters and plot time to develop and play out. It has several scenes that earned it an R rating, none of which is in any way objectionable, but if made in the U.S., it probably could have received a full X rating. Somehow the Europeans manage these scenes without your feeling that it is at all exploitative. 

This picture also bears a message in terms of how we live our lives, and while fortunately it is not made so as to hit you over the head with a ton of bricks, it fulfills its goals of making you think as well as laugh.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Man I Knew Who Did the Most Good

There was a memorial service last weekend at the Hay-Adams here in DC for a man who made a difference. His name was Clarence M. Ditlow and in this town of constantly shifting personalities and revolving-door careers, he stayed at the same job for 43 years. He was a lawyer as well as an engineer who directed the Center for Auto Safety.

Because of Clarence, all of the safety improvements in our automobiles made over the past few decades happened. The auto companies didn't put in airbags or seat belts or a lot of devices you aren't entirely aware of out of the goodness of their hearts. Clarence testified on the Hill, in the states, and on TV and radio so that laws were passed making them make these improvements for safety. He also was responsible for getting many "lemon laws" passed that allow people to go to court to get back the money they paid for a bum car.

He came from an auto dealer family, as Ralph Nader noted in his talk at the service. Clarence understood cars but even more, he understood people and Washington. He did his homework. He knew the records of problems reported to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration better than the people who worked there.

He always kept his cool. The auto lobbyists would show up and scream and yell about how much this or that needed fix was going to cost them. Clarence refused to be provoked. He just went back to his office and did some more research and preparation, because he also went to court against them when he had to.

I wish I had seen Clarence more often or knew more people like him. There never are enough people like him. Nader said Clarence was responsible for saving millions of lives. How many people do you know about whom you can say that? I'd see him now and then at a farmer's market we both stopped at on Saturday mornings and sometimes with Marilyn, now his widow, whom we had known forever, or so it seemed. 

This is someone who will be missed. 

Monday, December 5, 2016


When we last lived in Massachusetts, I recall visiting the very scenic seaside town of Manchester-by-the-Sea. That, it turns out, was no preparation for the movie of the same name we saw the other day. It takes place in the winter--the off-season--so no beaches, no Fourth-of-July parade, no light-hearted summertime fun.

It's dour, gray, gloomy--you can feel the cold. The performances by the leading players are excellent, especially Casey Affleck, who is not off-screen at all. Cinematic stalwarts like Michelle Williams all don the requisite Bay State accents to good effect. The story, which explores Affleck's facing the responsibility of serving as guardian for his late brother's teenaged son (well played by Lucas Hedges), is fine but the picture turns out to be slow without redeeming value.

The same ground seems to be covered again and again. Affleck's character has shut down emotionally and cannot relate to any of the others because of a major disaster for which he has some responsibility. The plot is believable in the way it proceeds to what turns out to me to be a very reasonable ending.

Without criticizing Affleck, I found myself unable to empathize with his character. In fact, he's behaved in what is so clearly an antisocial manner that I wondered why his brother had continued to rely on him to be the guardian, given that the brother's death, although anticipated, was not sudden.

So is this a good depiction of the working-class society of this kind of New England town, with its many warts on full display? Probably yes, but there's not much to show for all the sturm und drang after two-and-one-quarter hours of immersion. Everyone tends to behave predictably; there's some good use of both flashback and sudden flashes.

But does this picture have the kind of major theme or themes that you expect from what is being heralded as one of the year's best? It didn't seem to have any of that.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Ironies of the Law

Not mentioned in accounts of Trump's statements calling for prosecution of flag burners is the concurrence of the late Justice Antonin Scalia in Justice Brennan's majority opinion in Texas v. Jackson, the 1989 flag-burning decision. Scalia did not write himself but apparently supported this decision in one of the occasional instances of his libertarian spirit emerging from his usual originalism which generally was synonymous with conservatism. This put him at odds in that court with dissenters Rehnquist and Stevens, both of whom in this instance put patriotism above freedom of expression. 

We also have been invited to review Scalia's majority opinion in D.C. v. Heller, the gun rights decision. I suggest that if you place Scalia's text up against Stevens's dissent, which was the principal dissent in the case, Scalia's analysis of the history of 2nd Amendment interpretation comes up as thin and unconvincing compared to Stevens's solid presentation of more than 200 years of clear understanding that was now being ignored. Some of Scalia's partisans have compared his majority opinion in this case to Breyer's dissent, which called for balancing. I find myself in agreement with the critics of balancing, for Scalia did have that right in arguing that any time a judge calls for use of a balancing test, the balance seems to come out along the lines the judge prefers.

While no one can doubt Scalia's clear conservatism, his libertarian streak makes me feel that the way Supreme Court justices now are selected, especially by conservative, i.e., Republican, presidents, makes it less likely that we will have strong-minded justices who are not bound to one side or one theory. 

Obama's behavior in appointing or trying to appoint justices stands in stark contrast to the GOP practice. He selected Sotomayor and Kagan, who while clearly tending to emerge on the "liberal" side of the bench, are not entirely predictable in their views. Garland, of course, was the perfect nominee from the standpoint of those who want a fair, even-handed justice, who may have tilted slightly toward the progressive side but also whose temperament was tempered by his many years as a Justice Department attorney representing the government.

We are likely to get more predictable appointments like those of Alito or Thomas. Justice O'Connor reportedly was dismayed by Alito's being named to replace her; she sensed he was a doctrinaire conservative but she had precipitated the situation by adhering to the party loyalty rule of retiring during an administration of her party. The most egregious act in Alito's appointment was the appearance before the Judiciary Committee of a legion of Third Circuit judges rounded up by the late Chief Judge of that circuit, Edward Becker, who was an outright Republican even when on the bench.

Now we may get appointments from the somewhat notorious list of judicial conservatives put together by Trump's campaign. Given the partisanship that has now subsumed the process--Clinton and Obama tried to name justices closer to the center, which means that the center has moved rightward as Republicans named solid right-wingers: Breyer and Kagan, for example, are no Brennan or Marshall--we should expect to see judges in lockstep with right-wing opinion being named. 

We are also likely to be stuck with the practice of naming judges to the court rather than some others with legitimate practical experience gained from being legislators or practicing lawyers. O'Connor was the last legislator and Marshall the last justice with a distinguished background in practice.