April 10th, 2019

Dumbo (2019)

On Friday, March 29th, we went to see the new (mostly) live-action adaptation of Disney’s Dumbo, the latest of the Walt Disney animated films to get this treatment (next up: Aladdin--). With direction by Tim Burton, you expect it’s going to be a bit different, and expectations are not disappointed.

That isn’t to say that the movie is 100% successful. I have the feeling that, on the one hand, the movie may be too scary for children to enjoy, while on the other hand, being too “corny” for adults.

I say the movie is “mostly” live action, since the baby elephant, Dumbo, is totally CGI. This is the other area where the movie does not quite make it—CGI Dumbo does not quite get all the way over the “uncanny valley.” Of course Dumbo has to have the oversized ears which supposedly make it possible for him to fly, but this Dumbo has also been morphed to make him resemble the cartoon Dumbo. The CGI elephant has two big, blue, human-looking eyes, which are both on the front of his head, to make him more expressive. Resultantly, the head is an odd shape, and the elephant’s trunk seems disproportionately small. The term “mutant” was not in general use when the original Dumbo hit the screen, but now, Dumbo is an obvious mutant elephant, not just one with cutely large ears.

The original plot line, involving Dumbo’s separation from his mother (which Georgie recalled as being adequately dramatic when she saw it as a girl--), is preserved, but is hyped up by adding on the consequences of Dumbo’s fame, when the struggling Medici Brothers’ Circus is bought out by impresario V.A. Vandevere (Michael Keaton), who operates a 1920’s-ish, carny styled amusement park called “Wonderland,” a Burtonesque proto-Disneyland. The creepy Vandevere, who is on the hook for money to the even creepier banker, Remington (Alan Arkin), pushes too hard, too fast for a thrilling success, takes risks with Dumbo and his people, and orders the death of Dumbo’s mother to get her out of the way.  When the elephants’ escape is engineered, Vandevere has a “mad villain” moment that initiates the fiery destruction of the park.

A human-interest plot is also grafted on, semi-successfully. Colin Farrell plays Holt Farrier, a circus trick-riding star, who has come back from World War I minus an arm, to find that the circus has sold off the horses to make ends meet. His wife has died from the Spanish Influenza, leaving his two children, Milly (Nico Parker) and Joe (Finley Hobbins) to be looked after by the circus “family”. This is OK with Joe, but Milly, who wants to be a scientist, has other dreams. Since Holt has no other prospects, they have to stay with the circus, and he reluctantly accepts the job of keeper of the elephants, which ultimately makes him, and by extension the children, responsible for the newborn Dumbo. I initially had sympathy for Holt and Milly, and their issues do continue to be a part of the script, they just get short shrift once the action starts to roll.

Details of the circus life were researched at Wisconsin’s own Circus World Museum, whose pictorial archives informed much of the Medici Brothers Circus appearance, notably the circus people’s clothing on and off stage.  This made the cast look quite authentic. I wasn’t as taken by the appearance of the circus train. While the cars were decorated with what looked like authentic period art, it was presented as so weathered as to be barely visible, which I found not credible. Even for a down-at-heel circus, 1) Paint is relatively cheap; 2) The roustabouts and other workers have time to work on things like that during the winter; and 3) This was a main method of advertising, essential to the circus.

Overall, we enjoyed the movie, but I do not think it was entirely successful.

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Marquette Theater, The Rivals

Friday evening, April 5th, we went to the Helfaer Theater on the Marquette University campus to see The Rivals, a Restoration comedy play by Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

The play is set in the spa city of Bath, where heiress Lydia Languish (Cambryelle Getter) is residing with her aunt, Mrs. Malaprop (Brielle Richmond). In defiance of her aunt, Lydia, who is addicted to romantic novels, is receiving the suit of “Ensign Beverly” whom she fondly believes is a penniless orphan. She looks forward with great anticipation to an eventual dramatic elopement with the handsome soldier. (The audience laughed at some of the titles Lydia was reading, but those were all real books of the time, even The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle, by Tobias Smollett--). However, Beverly in reality is Captain Jack Absolute (Nick Parrott).  Jack is the son of Sir Anthony Absolute (Will Knox), who is both wealthy and very much alive. However, Jack is wooing Lydia by playing to her penchant for “Romance.”

Both young people are revolted when informed by their respective elders that advantageous marriages have been arranged for them. When Jack discovers that Lydia is his intended, he goes along with his father’s plan, subject to the covert consideration that he must try not to let on to Lydia who he really is—his own rival for her hand. In addition, there is the interference of Jack’s friend and neighbor, country squire Bob Acres (Brian Miller), who also fancies himself a rival for Lydia, and Sir Lucius O’Trigger (Dan O’Keefe), a fire-eating Irishman who thinks he’s been having a passionate correspondence with Lydia, no knowing that his letters have been redirected to her aunt by Lydia’s maid, Lucy (Agnes Connolly).

The play also has an entertaining second plot, involving Jack’s good hearted but thickheaded friend, Faulkland (Jackson Hoemann), who loves, and is loved by Sir Anthony’s ward, Julia (Emma Knott), but keeps sabotaging their relationship due to jealousy and self-doubt.

This was a nicely mounted production, with set pieces shifting in and out to form the streets and parks of Bath, and Sir Anthony’s and Mrs. Malaprop’s houses. Costuming and wigs were all very well done. The acting got the story across and was quite funny. The company was very energetic—in fact, too much so at times. Ms. Getter never “languishes” although she should. In the speech where she is bidding farewell to her “most sentimental elopements! — so becoming a disguise! — so amiable a ladder of ropes! — Conscious Moon — four horses — Scotch parson — with such surprise to Mrs. Malaprop — and such paragraphs in the newspapers!” she is sitting bolt upright with indignation, whereas she should have been swooning and lamenting to the skies. Sheridan’s character of Mrs. Malaprop (a lineal descendent of Shakespeare’s Dogberry), with her tortured vocabulary, is one of his most famous creations, and needs to be handled more delicately than the broad comedy would suggest. Ms. Richmond’s unnecessary and rigidly declamatory style of speaking robbed her lines of nuance and quite a few of the gag lines were missed by the audience. On the other hand, her stage presence was wonderful, with her “I am the Queen of all I survey” manner.

This play is a favorite of ours, and we were very glad to see it. We thought the troupe did it justice.

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Milwaukee Opera Theatre/UWM: La Clemenza di Tito

Saturday evening, we went to the Zelazo Center on the UWM Campus for the joint production of Mozart’s opera, La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus). This late opera by Mozart is an opera seria in two acts composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to an Italian libretto by Caterino Mazzolà, after Pietro Metastasio. It was commissioned in order to celebrate the coronation of Leopold II, Holy Roman Emperor, as King of Bohemia, and was first performed in Prague in the year 1791, and was the first Mozart opera to be performed in England, in 1806.

The story is built on some fragments from The Lives of the Caesars by the Roman writer Suetonius, and concerns the Emperor Titus Vespasian, who had inherited the crown of Rome from his father, Vespasian, who had deposed Vitellus during the Year of the Four Emperors.

Vitella (Nicole McCarty), daughter of Vitellus, has been in love with Tito, and had hoped to marry him and regain the crown her father had lost. “Tito” (sung by Emanuel Camacho) loves Queen Berenice of Jerusalem, but the Roman Senate will not countenance his marriage to her since she is a foreigner. Instead of coming back to Vitella, Tito determines that he will marry the virtuous Servilia (Megan McCarthy), as being the best and most deserving candidate. This enrages Vitella, who pushes her current lover, Sesto (Katie Gruell) to stage a coup and assassinate Tito.

Meanwhile, Servilla and her beau, Annio (Kaisa Hermann), make known to Tito that they love one another, although they declare that they will set aside their love for the good of Rome if Tito requires it. Instead, Tito releases Servilla to marry Annio, and declares that he himself will officiate at their wedding.

Imperial representatives come to Vitella to let her know that the Emperor has decided to marry her. She is struck with horror, but has no way to call Sesto back. As the act ends, word comes that the Capitol is on fire, there is fighting in the streets, and Tito has been killed.

When the second act begins, Sesto, aghast at his crimes, seeks out Vitella. Publio (Cameron Hendrickson) arrives with the news that Tito is alive: the blow struck by Sesto in the rioting instead struck a co-conspirator, Lentulo, who survived and named Sesto. Publio arrests Sento, and takes him away for trial by the Senate. Vittella worries that Sento will name her as the instigator of the plot. However, Sesto takes all the blame, even before the devastated Tito himself. Sesto is found guilty. The Senate passes a sentence of death, which Tito must ratify. In anger at his false friend, Tito at first affirms the sentence, then withdraws it.

Meanwhile, Vitella is having a crisis of conscience, represented by four “shadow Vitellas” representing her good and bad side, who argue the situation out. Finally, believing Sesto still condemned, she rushes to Tito and confesses herself. Though shocked by this revelation, he pardons Vitella, Sesto, and the other conspirators. The opera ends with a chorus in which the citizens praise Tito’s goodness and mercy.

We enjoyed this performance very much, for all that it was done on a bare stage. There were colorful costumes allusive to a rather late Mediterranean medieval milieu more than Classical Rome (Titus became emperor in AD 79--), with the exception of Tito’s outfit which seemed to have come from a production of Turandot.

The singing was uniformly very good. Mr. Camacho has a light tenor voice that rode easily above the choruses. The outstanding voice of the evening was that of Ms. Hermann as Annio: her strong, sweet  tones well suited the purity of the character. Acting was generally one-note, but that’s what the libretto calls for and was suffcient: Vitella scheming, Sesto hangdog, Tito, Annio, and Servilla various values of virtuous, etc.

The UWM Orchestra was conducted by maestro Jun Kim, and did a flawless job with Mozart’s score.

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Bolshoi in Cinema, The Golden Age

Sunday afternoon, the 7th, we went to see the Bolshoi in Cinema presentation of The Golden Age (L’Age d’Or), a ballet to the music of Dimitri Shostakovich. This version had a libretto from 1982 by Yury Grigorovich and Isaak Glikman. The original version, from 1930,  about a Soviet soccer team being nobbled by evil capitalists, was censored and badly reviewed, which resulted in Shostakovich refusing to allow the ballet to be revived in his lifetime.

The current version, set in 1920, begins with a village festival. Rita, a local young woman (Nina Kaptsova), meets Boris, the leader of the “Agit-Prop Theatre for Working Youths” (Ruslan Skvortsov).  The clean-living Komsomol troup performs a skit/dance in which they sweep away clown versions of reactionary villains, a Jew, a Capitalist, and a Czarist.

Later on, they meet at “The Golden Age,” a nightclub where Rita, as “Mademoiselle Margot,” is featured in a tango-like dance number with Yashka, a.k.a. “Monseiur Jacques” (Mikhail Lobukhin). The nightclub is a louche place, reminiscent of the Kit-Kat Club from Cabaret, complete with dancing M.C. (Dmitry Dorokhov).  It is frequented by “NEPmen”, small scale capitalists tolerated under the Soviet New Economic Program, who are questionable sorts later to stamped out under Stalin. The flapper/vamp Lyuska (Maria Allash) allows herself to be “picked up” by a couple of aging Nepmen who fancy themselves boulevardiers, and takes them to the club.

After the Jacques and Margot dance number, Boris shows up and Rita goes to him, angering Yashka. Yashka goes to hang out with the criminal gang he is secretly the leader of. Lyuska leads her swains into the gang’s clutches, and they are beaten, robbed, and murdered. Emboldened, Yashka goes back to the club and tries to have Boris thrown out. Boris shrugs off the bouncers and cows the entire club with his righteous anger. Rita intervenes to prevent further violence, and the club’s denizens slink away.

In act two, Yashka tries to win back Rita, to no avail. He rallies his gang and hunt Boris and Rita down. Rita goes for help, while Boris is overcome and beaten. Boris’ friends arrive in time to save him.

Rita has to perform at the club that evening, not knowing that Yashka is the gang leader. After the number, she tells Yashka she is quitting. He tries to demand her love. Overcome with jealousy, Lyuska attacks Yashka with a knife, and is killed fighting him. Yashka tries to flee with Rita as hostage, but he is caught and captured by Boris and his friends. There is a general celebration by the “good guys.”

Shaostakovich’s music for this piece is wonderful, and the Bolshoi’s dancing frankly amazing. The four principals are as good as any dancers we have ever seen, and they astonish with the demanding choreography. The film noir libretto is just fun, and gives an excellent basis for the very stylish parti-colored costume theme (almost everyone except Rita and Boris is in half-black and half-white), and the Expressionist set design, where everything is looming and nothing is perpendicular, reminiscent of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

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