Sunday, May 28, 2017

Philadelphia Theatre review: The Light Princess

In a magical kingdom, an aggrieved witch/aunt bestows upon a newborn princess the curse of no gravity. Both literally (she floats away if not tethered) and metaphorically: She takes nothing serious and it gets annoying after a while, especially all the fart sounds.

This is what's going on in the upstairs, intimate theater at the Arden. The show is a slightly more serious musical for children, especially if they had seen the charming "A Year with Frog and Toad," at the Arden just a few months earlier.

I brought my 9-year-old, and I thought he was too mature for the first act, but during the second act when a character decides to sacrifice his life for the good of the kingdom, I was thinking he wasn't mature enough. The second act does take a serious shift and a lot of heinies of 6 and 7 year olds got squirmy.

You might think of "Into the Woods," another fairy tale with a light first act and a consequence-laden second act.

Composer Alex Bechtel plays the handsome prince, and wicked aunt, and plays the piano.  His prince is textbook, but his witch channels Dame Edna via Charles Nelson Reilly. Kinda funny but kinda scary, too.

Brett Ashley Robinson has a tough job making a girl without empathy a sympathetic character. Her obnoxious princess is reminiscent of Gildna Radnor's Lisa Loobner. She can also flip the switch to be the nice princess (whenever she's in the water for reasons I wasn't sure of), and she's a whole new, more likable character.

 Lyricist, Philly stage veteran  Tony Lawton plays narrator and some smaller fill-in parts. A funny running gag is when the king (Rob Tucker) keeps asking him who he's talking to.

Tucker and the queen Emily Gardner Xu Hall, play the loving parents trying to figure out what to do with their special child, while making up the rest of the orchestra. Between the two of of them they played piano, viola, guitar and in the q-and-a session after the show, they admitted to learning the accordion for this production.

The show has been extended through June 4, and really, the Arden can do no wrong. So if you have a child ready to make the next step from "Frog and Toad," this is your chance.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Big epiphanies

In yesterday's post I made the sweeping, near-blasphemous statement that all one-camera sitcoms from the 60s are terrible and unwatchable. (there's a couple exceptions).

It just insults me that Darren yells, "Sam!" , Sam winces and says, "Well." and the laugh track laughs hysterically. I grew up watching this stuff, it took me years to realize not only isn't this funny, but it's terrible!

The catalyst was a visit to my high school journalism class by Joan Dinerstein, a Philly news personality. Far from being the smiling news anchor we saw on TV every night, she was a little more blunt about TV and TV news.

One of the things she said that stuck with me was, "Watch your family watch TV; are they laughing at the comedies?"

And she was right, no one was laughing at the comedies, we just sat like zombies.

Joan Dinerstein pretty much ruined TV for me. But in a good way.

The first time I actually burst out laughing at a TV show was that scene in the Simpsons where Homer skateboards into a canyon, gets pulled up by stretcher, banging his head on every crevice, and all in the space of 20 seconds, he is loaded into an ambulance, the ambulance hits a tree, the back doors pop open and Homer's gurney comes flying out of the back of the ambulance and back down the canyon!


So it took about 30 years of watching TV before I laughed out loud.

I'm talking about the sitcoms of the '60s and 70s, and though single-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks are pretty rare nowadays, the three-camera sitcoms in front of live audiences are guilty of being lazy and sweetening the laughter. Watch "Friends,"  or even "Big Bang Theory," for that matter. It's all set-up, punchline, hysterical laughter, set-up, punchline, hysterical laughter. Compare this to "Modern Family or "Kimmy Schmdt." These are single-camera sitcoms with no laugh track. We're not told when to laugh, we have to figure it out ourselves. The writers have to work for the laughs, they just can't have Ed O'Neill say to Sofia Vergara "Gloria!!" and Gloria says, "well."

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Flash review, third season finale (spoilers)

As the Internet figured out weeks ago, Iris wasn't killed by  by Savitar, it was HR who switched places with her using a previously established illusion-maker. This was revealed pretty quickly though, which served to not insult the viewers.

Barry's plan to appeal to Savitar's nice-Barry side, and offering to fix things if Savitar would turn nice and come to STAR labs was also a little misguided. He's spent thousands of years planning Iris' murder and he wants to rule all time, and he's suddenly going to turn nice when reminded of a happy memory? Nah.

Savitar's plan to have Cisco fix the speed force bazooka was also misguided, of course he was going to sabotage it.

Oh but screw all that, it was all worth it for a great climax featuring three Flashes, Killer Frost, and Gypsy. And Barry knocking Savitar out of his costume was pretty cool (as was the illusion effect with  Iris and HR).

All in all a satisfying ending to a pretty enjoyable season...If you don't think too hard about it.

The ending though ... what was that? The Speed Force sends earthquakes until Barry sacrifices himself, and Barry just walks in voluntarily. He gives everyone a hug goodbye? I didn't buy any of it.

Lost opportunities in television Part 2: Bewitched cast

Though I grew up watching them I can no longer watch one-camera sitcoms with laugh tracks. They're unwatchable, and worse never funny. (some exceptions below)

Let's think with our heads and not with our hearts. "Bewitched" was a terrible show.

Use the below variables to make your own episode.
Sam's Mother, aunt, uncle, cousin, daughter....
casts a spell on Darrin and turns him into a monkey, dog, zebra, someone who can't lie, someone with polka dots, etc....
on the same day the big client is coming for a presentation. Fortunately the client mistakes the curse for the proposed advertising campaign and thinks the idea is brilliant!

This was every episode. (except for that one weird one where Sam helps a local boy build a soap box car which appeared to be an unsold pilot script for a totally different show)

In fairness, there's some bright spots: Bernard Fox's unhinged doctor, and I have to give them credit for Maurice Evans' and Agnes Moorehead's characters' relationship to each other. On TV, no one ever was divorced, yet here was a couple who were separated for years apparently, but still had  a fondness for one another. This was unique for TV in the 60s.

(and for the record, Dick York was a better Darrin than Dick Sargent. York could easily switch from flustered to loving, whereas Sargent always just seemed pissed.)

So here's my point, the show was terrible, but the cast was actually pretty good. Here's my lost opportunity: Picture the same cast in an MTM-style 1970s sitcom for grownups.

An office comedy, full of slightly damaged, yet optimistic characters trying to get their jobs done, making mistakes, having differences, but still getting along.  It could have been done.

Picture the exceptionally talented Elizabeth Montgomery in a comedy written for grown-ups! With old Shakespearean Maurice Evans, Orson Welles vet Agnes Moorehead, the unhinged Bernard Fox! It would have been wonderful.

There  is precedent for this. Bob Crane, star of the morally indefensible "Hogan's Heroes," starred in the "Bob Crane Show" for MTM where he played a middle-aged man who trades in his comfortable life to follow his dream to go to medical school. Or Bill Daly, who went from playing the wacky best friend in the terrible Bewitched rip-off "I Dream of Jeanie" to play the wacky neighbor in MTM's immeasurably more sophisticated "Bob Newhart Show."

(Gavin MacLeod is some weird exception to this, was in the terrible one-camera with laugh track "McHale's Navy," then moved onto "Mary Tyler Moore," arguably the best sitcom of all time, then slid backward into the terrible one-camera laugh track "Love Boat.").

(some exceptions to the one-camera laugh track sitcoms are terrible rule: "That Girl" and "Get Smart")

RIP Roger Moore

Some notes on Roger Moore: He knew he was filling big shoes by taking over as James Bond, but he kept his sense of humor . When Sean Connery returned as Bond in "Never Say Never Again," Moore said, "It's the first time I got bad reviews for a film I wasn't even in."

Moore fans might want to check out the Julie Andrews-Ben Kinglsey recording of "The King and I." Moore has a (non-singing) cameo as a British official visiting Anna.

Lost opportunities in TV part 1: Nita Talbot

Let's pretend for a minute that "Hogan's Heroes" didn't have the most tasteless premise for a sitcom in the history of television.

Instead let's focus on Nita Talbot, the wonderful, unappreciated actress who played the recurring character of Marya. She was a Russian spy, but her relationship with Hogan was an analogy to  U.S.-Russian relations during World War II, America didn't want to trust Russia, but it had to.

And Nita Talbot was great; Hogan, and the viewers never knew what she was up to. Was she there to  have sex with Hogan, or kill him! It was hilarious and sexy and suspenseful at the same time. And Talbot played the rare sexy/funny character; Marya was using her looks to get what she wanted from the Americans and Germans, and you never quite knew whose side she was on.

The lost opportunity: This should have been a spin-off. She could have had a boss, she could have had co-spies, and unlike "Hogan's Heroes," she wouldn't be confined to a prison camp. Paris, London, Berlin, Washington(?). It could have been good.

In the late '60s, CBS was all about spin-offs: Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Gomer Pyle. It could have been done. Am I really the first person to think of this?

Sunday, May 14, 2017

RIP Pixanne

Before the nation's two or three media conglomerates bought all the local  TV stations, local TV stations used to air locally produced programming.

Sure we have local news programs now, but they're pretty much 15 minutes of weather, sports and car crashes. There was a time you got to know what was going on in your city. Shows for kids and adults introduced you to your mayor, your zoo keeper and your grocer.

One such show for children in in the  '60s and early 70s in Philly was "Pixanne." Pixanne was a Peter Pan-ish character who lived in an enchanted forest and she told stories and introduced kids to their city and who brought it to life, and never in a condescending way.

And I was glued to my seat ... or the floor. .. in front of the TV, with my brother, each of us with our fist in a box of cereal.

Needless to say, she was the first crush of many young boys.

Her real name was Jane Norman and she just passed away.

She had to know how much of an effect she had on Philly kids. Including me.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Movie review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The mention of Peter Quill's parentage at the end of the first movie was a clumsy attempt to set up the sequel, but it paid off because the sequel is very good.

CGI is evident in every frame, but the best special effect is de-aging Kurt Russell in a flashback scene. I was astounded, it's as if they scored some unused footage of Russell from a Disney film from the 70s, it's that convincing. See it for that alone.

But plenty of reasons abound to catch it, we see the dysfunctional family dynamic play out again and it's just as much fun as the first time around. The plot is a throwback to 50s horror movies: Travellers are welcomed to a scientist's remote castle and everything seems OK, until they find the zombies in the basement.

My only real complaint is the 70s music selection is not as nostalgic, kitschy fun as from the first film. With the exception of "Brandy," (which ties into the plot), "Mr. Blue Sky," and "The Chain," I only have vague memories of the other songs.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

50-year overdue review: Star Trek: What Little Girls Are Made Of

This episode was on one of the antenna channels tonight, and boy does it hold up.

It has the ingredients of the best episodes of the old show:

Introduce a scientific concept.

Debate the wisdom/dangers of the scientific concept.

And the icing on the cake: a cool fistfight/spaceship battle, and scantily-clad alien women.

This is what set Star Trek apart from other shows on back then. It was written by and for smart people.

Let's look at the scientific concept: They're talking about artificial intelligence 30 years before the term was even coined! Bonanza never did that!

And the only Star Trek film to discuss theoretical science was "Wrath of Khan" with the Genesis device.

Scientific concept, debate wisdom of scientific concept, cool spaceship battle, Kirstie Alley at her hottest. And not so coincidentally, it's still the best film.

Another thing interesting about this episode was the introduction of Nurse Chapel.

Some backstory. It gets a little complicated: Gene Roddenberry wanted to give his girlfriend, Majel Barrett, a job.

Oh, wait, that wasn't complicated at all.

The story was Nurse Chapel joined Starfleet to hopefully find her one-time lover Roger Korby who went missing.

They find him, but he turns out to be a robot, so the search continues.

Only it didn't. Her whole backstory was forgotten. They set up a starting point which could have lead to two or three episodes and they totally dropped it. The only thing she had to do after this was have a crush on Spock.

And if she weren't superfluous enough, in the first film, she's a doctor. So the ship has two doctors.

One final point to go over: Holy crap, that jumpsuit on Sherry Jackson!