November 14th, 2006

"Flushed Away"

Oh, funny. Do go see it. We were attracted by the combination of animation from the makers of "Shrek" and character design by Ardman Studios ("Wallace and Gromit.") This story is unrelated to any of those canons and stands on its own. Briefly, it is a "fish-out-of-water" story, in which Roddy (voiced by Hugh Jackman), a pampered and solitary pet rat is displaced by the crude and dirty Sid (Shane Ritchie), a sewer rat ejected into the upper world by a plumbing malfunction. The plot deals with Roddy's misadventures in the sewer world, where he meets the attractive (for a rat--) scavenger Rita Malone (Kate Winslet), a blowhard Toad (Ian McKellen!), his dangerous hench-amphibian LeFrog (Jean Reno) and various other vermin of varying virtue.

Although not terribly orginal in concept, the movie is enlivened by funny characters (the bucktoothed Ardman designs look very natural as rats--), visual gags, and humorous incident, plus concepts such as the singing slugs that provide a sort of ironic Greek chorus on the action. We are going to have to go see it again just to watch for the visual jokes. (For example, searching through his owner's dolls closet for something to wear, Roddy passes over "Wallace's" shirt and sweater-vest, before settling on an Elvis-style spangled shirt.)

The movie has comic-thriller action, but no one is killed, and it's a very NICE sort of sewer to be in, over all. Amazingly, there is only one "excrement" joke, and that is a throw-away sight gag referring to an infamous bit from another movie. Good for almost all ages, although some sequences such as the high-speed boat, may be intense for younger children.

Although Jackman, Winslet, McKellen, and Reno "act" their parts perfectly well, I can't say that the production was necessarily enhanced by any of these stars. I am reminded of a statement made some years ago by veteran voice actor June Havoc (the voice of "Rocky the Flying Squirrel")lamenting that the trend to use "star" voices in animations (fueled by "Shrek" and others) was taking opportunity away from people who had built careers in voice acting. Indeed, there's really not much about any of these roles that a hundred actors couldn't have done as well.

"Don Giovanni", Florentine Opera

Sunday the 11th was the opening performance of the Florentine Opera's production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni." We definitely enjoyed this lively rendition which deftly combined DaPonti's black humor plot with Mozart's ravishing music. Maestro Joseph Rescigno conducted the Milwaukee Symphony musicians with his customary skill, and we were very pleased with acting and singing by all the principals. Peter Volpe in the title role, with long hair, broad chest, and taller by a head than anyone else in the cast, was a figure right off a romance novel cover. Eduardo Chama as Leporello, had a beautiful bass voice and enhanced the comedy of his role by acting it very straight, with minimal physical clowning. Laquita Mitchell played the recently ravished Donna Anna as edgy and disturbed, while the obsessive Donna Elvira, sung by Elizabeth Caballero, was clearly still in love with the Don, though outraged by his abandonment of her. Johnathan Boyd was far and away the finest Don Ottavio we've ever seen. Ottavio usually frequently comes across as Donna Anna's adjunct, a wimpy "sensitive man." Boyd succeeded in making Don Ottavio a man of resolution and strength who is nevertheless disturbed because Donna Anna cannot put her trauma behind her and come to him. Anne Jennifer Nash sang beautifully in the often disregarded role of Zerlina, and David Cushing also very fine as the jealous peasant Masetto. The only disappointment in the vocals was Ethan Herschenfeld as the Commendatore. This role defines "basso profundo," and Herschenfeld's voice seemed comparatively hollow and weak not only for the role but in relation to his fellow singers. In fairness, it must be said that the staging left him stuck far up right for the entirety of his appearance in the crucial final act.

The staging used minimal sets and relied on lighting and a few set pieces, some of which were rather enigmatic. For example, the standard of the wedding maypole become a lamppost, and then acquired a pointed crossbar which might have suggested a cross, or might have suggested a cartoon guide sign. Periodically, black robed figures stalked across the stage rear, suggesting Don Giovanni's accumulating crimes, and, when they begin to gather on stage in the last act we said to ourselves, oh, these will be the things that will drag Giovanni down to Hell. Instead, when the Hellmouth opened, the Don was seized and borne away by a group of faceless female figures he had symbolically drained of life in a scene mimed during the overture, and the black robes merely served as "stage ninjas" to carry off the tables and chairs from the dinner. Whatever was intended, it didn't work, but was only a minor distraction from the excellent singing, lively acting, and attractive period costumes.

Some productions choose to end with Giovanni's sinking into the pit, and omit the final "happy ending" quintet. This production left the quintet in, but undercut it's message with a piece of stage business that was wonderfully funny, but rather artistically questionable. I still feel ambivalent about this bit, but again, it really did not detract from the performance as a whole.

"Don Giovanni" continues at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts November 17, 18, and 19.