February 24th, 2016

Hail, Caesar!

On Wednesday evening, February 10th, we went to the Oriental Theatre to see the new Coen Brothers’ film “Hail, Caesar!”

The film covers a bit more than twenty-four hours in the hectic life of Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), Head of Physical Production for the fictional Capitol Studios. Mannix is second-in-command to the studio’s never-seen owner, which means his day consists of dealing with manifold crises brought about by artists, their egos, and their bad habits. (Mannix is loosely based on the real-live studio executive Edgar “E.J.” Mannix, who was at one time General Manager for MGM.)
Chief crisis of the day is when star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) disappears from the lot during filming of a Biblical epic, curiously titled “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.” Whitlock plays a Roman tribune who undergoes a conversion when meeting Jesus, basically the plot of the 1953 movie, “The Robe,” somewhat simplified. The studio is in the last day of shooting the cast-of-thousands spectacular when Whitlock goes missing, a fact which makes Mannix willing to pay off Whitlock’s unlikely kidnappers. Meanwhile, he has to think fast in order to keep competing twin-sister columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton) from figuring out that his star has gone missing.

He also has to deal with a pregnant but unmarried actress (in a day when that was significant) , another scandal lurking in Whitlock’s past, and his boss’ insistence in plugging a singing cowboy into a lead role in a drawing-room drama.

The plot and subplots are ultimately shruggable. The real pleasure of the film is the loving homages to bygone genres of the 1950’s. The title sword-and-sandal epic is the least successful, being mainly boring and not improved by Michael Gambon’s intentionally pompous voiceover. The over the top action sequence that introduces cowboy star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is quite amazing, and the water ballet sequence featuring Scarlett Johanssen as an Esther Williams figure, synchronized swimmers, and a mechanical whale, is ridiculous fun. Georgie, expecting never to see a new dance number anything like those in the classic “On The Town,” was delighted by the extended sequence featuring Channing Tatum in the Gene Kelly slot, and declared it worth the price of admission. Tatum, who learned tap dancing for the part, isn’t a patch on Gene Kelly of course, but nevertheless exhibited impressive athleticism and style, and the choreography was a very effective pastiche of the glory days of dance films.

Another part of the fun is matching up the references and homages. Clooney’s character has been referred to as partly based on Clark Gable, but Gable never did that sort of movie, so he’s more like Charlton Heston with Gable’s off-screen character. Veronica Osorio has a sweet role as Capitol’s version of Carmen Miranda, and there are many other allusions in the backgrounds. If I were more of a serious film student, I might be able to tell you who the directors, arty Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Feinnes) and foreign-sounding Arne Seslum (Christopher Lambert) might have referred to. (The director of “On the Town,” Stanley Donen, was American, and Michael Curtiz, notorious for his Hungarian accent, never directed musical films--.)

The stellar cast was also a major reason we went, and we were not disappointed. The huge cast means that no one except Brolin (who was very good), gets a lot of screen time, but it’s clear everyone was having fun and getting their teeth into the roles. We will likely see this a second time, probably on DVD, so that we can catch all the trivia.

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Early Music Now, “The Baltimore Consort: The Food of Love”

Saturday, February 13th, we went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church for Early Music Now’s presentation of “The Food of Love,” by The Baltimore Consort.

The Baltimore Consort is a well-established early music group, and this year is touring a concert made up of music related to Shakespeare, since 2016 is the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death. They assembled a roster of twenty-eight pieces, some of which were known to have been composed for use in Shakespeare’s plays, and others which were quoted from or referred to by Shakespeare.
These were grouped into suites for various plays to which the music could be related. The concert was preceded by a very informative lecture that helped put the music in context.

The first half gave us music for As You Like It, Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV, Part 1 & The Winter’s Tale. There was a lot of fascinating music presented, some of it familiar, but most new to us. We were particularly pleased with the performances of “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” by Thomas Morley, “Les Buffons,” by Jean d’Estree, “Heart’s Ease (The Honeysuckle)” by Anthony Holborne, and “The Carman’s Whistle,” an anonymous broadside ballad.

In the second half, there was music for Hamlet, The Tempest, The Merry Wives of Windsor, Othello, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this section there was a bit more emphasis on vocal music, with vocalist Danielle Sonavec appearing in costume as the Gravedigger from Hamlet on “In Youth When I Did Love,” and as Puck on “The Mad, Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow,” by Ben Johnson.

The performers were: Mary Anne Ballard, treble and bass viols; Mark Cudek, cittern and bass viol; Larry Lipkis, bass viol, recorder, krummhorn, gemshorn; Ronn McFarlane, lute; Mindy Rosenfeld, flutes, fifes, bagpipes, krummhorn. All the music was flawlessly presented by this very polished group, and sounded beautiful in the Church.

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Florentine Opera, “Vienna City of My Dreams”

Sunday afternoon, February 14th, we went to Vogel Hall at the Marcus Center for the recital by the Florentine Opera Studio Artists, “Vienna, City of My Dreams.” This was the Florentine’s second Valentine’s day concert showcasing their young artists, Ariana Douglas, soprano; Katherine Fili, mezzo-soprano; Thomas Leighton, tenor; and Leroy Y. Davis, baritone. Accompaniment was provided by Ruben Piiranen, piano, and Barry Paul Clark, double bass. Florentine Opera General Director Willam Florescu was the genial host.

This concert had “Vienna” as a theme, and started off with the title song, “Wein, Du Stadt Meiner Träume,” by Rudolf Siecynski. This was followed by “Sull’aria”, from Le Nozze di Figaro, by Mozart, a duet for the ladies; and by “Non ti fidar, o misera,” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Next up was a piece new to us, “Sonett für Wein” by Erich Korngold, whom I had only known of as a film score composer, beautifully sung by Ms. Fili.
Then, we heard the classic love song, “Dein ist mien ganzes Herz,” by Franz Lehar, which Mr. Leighton did a lovely job with. The first half ended with two pieces from Die Fledermaus, “The Watch Duet,” sung charmingly by Ms. Douglas and Mr. Leighton, and “Bruderlein und Schwesterlein,” by the full ensemble.

After intermission, the concert resumed with “Wochenend und Sonneschein” (literally, “Weekend and Sunshine,”) an arrangement of the “Happy Days Are Here Again” tune with new German lyrics. This was by a group called the Comedian Harmonists, that were popular in Germany in the 20’s and early 30’s.

This was followed by another classic of the genre, “Meine Lippen, sie küssen so heiß,” also by Lehar from his operetta Giuditta, sung very fetchingly by Ms. Douglas, and then another rarity, “Florenz hat schöne Frauen,” by Franz von Suppé, from his operetta Boccaccio, or the Prince of Palermo, which was a duet by Ms. Fili and Mr. Davis.

Davis then soloed on “Frühlingstraum (Dream of Springtime)” from Franz Schubert’s Winterreise. I must admit that “art songs” are far from my favorite musical genre, but Mr. Davis sang so beautifully that I quite enjoyed it.

The ensemble wrapped up with “Sag beim abschied ‘Servus’” , by Hilm, Lengsfelder, and Kreuder; “The Merry Widow Waltz,” by Lehar, “Edelweiss” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and “Auf Wiederseh’n, My Dear,” by Hoffman, Goodheart, Ager and Nelson.

Besides the beautiful music, the concert included interest for the eye as well. The ladies’ gowns were provided by the “Dress for Success” project, which endowed the dresses made by designer Timothy Westbrook. In the first half, Ms. Douglas wore a simply cut gown in off-white satin, which had interest added by layers and swags of differently textured fabrics. This contrasted strikingly with the lush wine-colored gown given to Ms. Fili, which was decorated with sequins and fabric roses at the bust and hip.

The second act gowns were not as successful. Abstract artist Pamela Anderson created some colorful and striking paintings for the stage setting, and designs of hers were also used on fabric for these dresses. Ms. Douglas got a simple black top with a full skirt painted with bold color blocks, which wasn’t bad. However, Ms. Fili’s white gown had a long train embellished with random splotches of green that gave it an unfortunate resemblance to the painter’s drop cloth.
This was a beautiful and romantic concert, extremely well sung and entertainingly presented.

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