Grace on Broadway

I took Firecracker to see GRACE on Broadway last week, a play starring Paul Rudd, Michael Shannon, Kate Arrington and the still-fierce Ed Asner. It is a funny but surprisingly dark and thoughtful look at the mechanics of faith, religious or otherwise, and how it changes how we adapt to what the universe throws at us.

Rudd Arrington Grace

It begins with a murder-suicide, so you know what you’re getting into from the opening line. Then it dials back and shows what led up to it. The acting is phenomenal, and made me wish Rudd did more drama. He and Arrington play a couple from Minnesota who move to Florida for a real estate deal, to open a Gospel themed hotel chain. Michael Shannon plays a science geek who has survived what I call an everyday tragedy: the horrible things we hear of, but accept as normal until they happen to us or someone we care about.

Michael Shannon Grace

Once they break through his bitter shell, he’s quite funny and a bit nerdy, not the usual Shannon character. Very refreshing. Ed Asner is a force of nature, and also plays against type. He is a German immigrant who survived the horrors of World War 2, which erased God from his universe. The story reveals how each character came to their faith or lack thereof, and is not about whether there is a God at the wheel of fate or not, but how the characters deal with the worst life has to offer. And yet, it still manages to be very funny between these heartrending epiphanies.

Grace Asner
It’s not DOUBT, but it gives you plenty to think about. Which is stronger armor against the world, optimism or pessimism? If faith is your crutch, what happens when life kicks it out from under you?

GRACE runs at the Cort Theater in Manhattan until January 6th. If you’re a Paul Rudd fan, check the schedule. He has a sub during Hanukkah and I am not sure if he is returning.

Awake and Sing!

I like theater, and don’t see enough of it. I worked stage crew in high school and at the local Nutley Little Theater, which helped me appreciate live performance. I love movies, but they can’t compare with the passion of the stage.

Last night Firecracker and I went to see her friend Mark in a performance of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing!, about a family surviving the Depression in the Bronx. Mark played the sad sack father. The characters were big and broad and it felt like good crime fiction, or the “social” stories that literature used to tell. Sean Weil – Liam from “Boardwalk Empire” – had the meaty role of Mo Axelrod, a war vet who lost his leg and any illusions he had about the world. Mrs. Berger is the bombastic mother who is every bit his match, caught between crooks, poverty and her heartless businessman brother Mort as she tries to raise a daughter and son in a country that has failed her.

“Life is not printed on dollar bills!”

The show is at the Axial theater in Pleasantville, New York, until November 4th. It’s twenty bucks for a seat, and you’re right there in the action. They put on a great show, as good as anything I’ve seen on or off Broadway.

Here’s a clip from the film version.

The Book of Mormon

My first anniversary present (paper) to Sarah was tickets to The Book of Mormon, and we saw it last night in New York. (my present was tickets to midget car racing, which was awesome). I’ve been a fan of South Park since before it existed, when I first saw the videotape of “The Spirit of Christmas” that was commissioned as a video Christmas card. I had some friends in the Disney and animation community who’d got their hands on it, and is still one of the funniest Christmas parodies ever made. The show has had its ups and downs, but the movies Trey Parker and Matt Stone have made are mostly terrific. South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut can still make me crack up. Team America: World Police is one of the few satires of the post-9/11 landscape. And The Book of Mormon is perhaps the most popular musical to say that in general, religion is just crazy shit someone makes up to distract people in horrible situations.

Now, the Mormons get poked fun at in this, but I don’t think their religion is singled out in particular, except to make the audience think why they are laughing at some of the off-the-wall beliefs of strict Mormons when their own beliefs are only slightly less ‘out there.’ Mormons are hardly the only target. American consumerism, symbolized by Orlando Florida, gets a heavy ribbing. The characters are sympathetic, but there is a lot of brutally cynical humor about the dire situation in some areas of rural Africa, such as the AIDS epidemic, violent warlords, and female circumcision. The performers are fantastic, and the humor works on many levels. I don’t know if many Mormons are going to see it, but I don’t find it malicious. In the end, the missionaries are flawed because they are human and entitled Americans, not because of their religion.

All the Broadway shows I’ve seen in order, from childhood are… Cats, Show Boat, Avenue Q, Spring Awakening, Spamalot!, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Hair, Young Frankenstein, Hairspray, and You’re Welcome America: A Final Night With George W. Bush. Not counting Will Ferrell- which was a one-man show and not a musical- I’d say Book of Mormon is hands down, the funniest, with Spamalot second. The best all around? I really liked the revival of Hair, and think the Hairspray musical was damn good (and better than the movie musical).

Tickets are still crazy expensive, but this one will be running for a long time. I hope they make an insane movie out of it. It is incredibly filthy, absurd, hilarious, endearing, and daring.

And speaking of Mormons, to read a free story of mine about two Mormons who ring the doorbell of the wrong man, check out We’re All Guys Here, at [PANK] Magazine.

 

a bloody two-fer

In the last two weeks I saw some funny, bloody as hell stuff. One was of course MACHETE, Robert Rodriguez’s hilarious and fun-packed tribute to Danny Trejo and ’70s grindhouse revenge flicks. Like an early ’70s film, it’s not afraid to stick it to the man, this time skewering our ridiculous Catch-22 immigration policy. Danny Trejo gets the role of a lifetime as the biggest bad-ass Mexican Federale, so bad he just uses a huge Machete instead of a gun, for which he is so named. The movie wastes no time, introducing him as he’s about to use his police cruiser as a missile to take out Mexico’s biggest drug kingpin’s lair. But of course, he is betrayed and his family murdered, and three years later finds him as a day laborer in Texas.

As the Dude would say, “shit comes to light,” and after an immigrant-baiting politician played expertly by Robert DeNiro- fucks with the wrong Mexican, he goes on a rampage of revenge. He teams up with Michelle Rodriguez, fights Minutemen, and has a balls-out final battle that makes the campy, explosion-infested finale of DESPERADO seem outdone. Favorite kill? Crushing a redneck with a low-rider. The film never loses its low-budget look, but it also doesn’t try too hard, like parts of GRINDHOUSE did. Is it perfect? As a homage to these films we loved, like THE EXTERMINATOR, it succeeds spectacularly and transcends the films it pays tribute to. It kicks the ass of Stallone’s retro-action flick, as far as I’m concerned. We have a few moments of distraction, but overall we get everything we ask for- blood, booms, and boobies. Lindsay Lohan has a small, perfect role as a rich Paris Hilton wanna-be who turns into a vengeful Catholic valkyrie, and I give her credit for taking the part- and baring all for our benefit, in more ways than one. The media’s never forgiven her for becoming an adult woman, and I say: get over it. She’s not a Disney girl anymore. But moreso than her cameo, I loved De Niro’s W impression, as his Texas accent fades in and out. It was also great seeing Steven Seagal play a bad guy, a role that suits him.

MACHETE is leaving its mark: Firecracker and I went to see the Broadway musical BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON and at one point, when the ridiculous, over the top spoof most reminiscent of Matt Stone & Trey Parker’s early masterpiece CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL gets to Jackson’s skirmishes with the Spanish, one of the Spaniards opens his huge duster coat to reveal dozens of knives, just like Machete does in the trailer. I enjoyed this play a lot. It’s not perfect either; it starts off at 11, campy, crazy and goofy, and ends on a more serious note as Jackson’s populism catches up with him, and he is faced with “The Indian Question,” and becomes one of history’s greatest monsters by giving the people what they want.

I enjoyed the hell out of this musical, which seemed inspired by one of my favorites, EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL. It’s risque, ridiculous, and campy. Half the story is told by a narrator in a mechanical wheelchair who suffers all sorts of fourth wall abuses. Andrew Jackson is played like a rock star, including AC/DC style A/J logos on the drum set. The songs are raucous and clever, if not entirely memorable, but full of energy. They make comparisons to W’s administration, Obama’s difficulties with Congress, the Bush/Gore election debacle (because Jackson first lost by electoral votes, and was voted down by the Senate) but it’s not overtly political. Perhaps it should be. It ends on a downer, with Jackson’s joyous populism turning on him, as he must betray the Creek Indians who helped him peacefully move other tribes, and put forth the brutal policies that would lead to the Trail of Tears and other acts of genocide.

My only complaint is that this brave, relentlessly funny show didn’t even plumb deep enough into Jackson’s wikipedia entry for jokes. The best gags are often the hilariously idiotic portrayals of historical figures such as Martin Van Buren, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams as foppish buffoons with Elizabethan collars, when Jackson led an unbelievable life. He fought 13 duels and was shot so many times they said “he rattled like a bag of marbles.” The man on our $20 bill with his flowing silver locks founded the Democratic party, which got its donkey symbol from his opponents calling him a jackass. Like the Republicans have gone a long way from their roots with Lincoln, the Democratic party has wandered far from Jackson’s genocidal populism, and that’s left untouched. But it’s a damn entertaining musical, much like a potty mouthed punk’s daydreams in history class, with a great sense of humor.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

long beautiful hair…

Firecracker took me to see a bunch of naked dirty hippies on Broadway the other night. The revival of 1967’s controversial show Hair is especially prescient now that we’ve finally gotten out of the ’60s- President Obama was born in 1961 and therefore too young to be a baby boomer, and politics is all the better for it. 1968 should now be officially over, 40 years hence.
It’s still an excellent musical, full of energy, even if it’s no longer shocking. But it’s a reminder that 40 years ago, you could get beat up over your hairstyle. The country was gripped by fear whipped up by the military-industrial complex, which after World War 2 was ravenously hungry for the war economy that funnels most of our enormous GNP into their coffers. So, Korea. Vietnam. The Cold War. The “peace dividend,” which never materialized because a tiny country named Kuwait was invaded by Iraq. The Global War on Terror, the war that must never speak its name, as we send 30,000 soldiers to the graveyard of empires, Afghanistan, while we shake hands with Saudis, who make the Taliban look a little moderate.
What struck me were the protest songs, when they spoke of tear gas, dogs, and water cannons; at least that’s changed. Now we use sonic weapons, like in Pittsburgh during the G20 summit. The right to assemble for a petition of grievances may be explicitly in our Constitution, in a country born of revolt, but there is something implanted in our nature since the ’30s that says, if you speak up, you’re breaking the law and deserve whatever you get. As if pointing out the mote in your brother’s eye means you should be clubbed with the beam in your own. Miraculously, those protesting the G20- where the decisions affecting the world are made- are considered criminal, but the Tea Party tea-baggers preaching violent revolution because a Democratic President- who’s not even particularly liberal when compared to Clinton, or hell, Richard Nixon- is in power, are coddled by the powers that be. Funny how that works. People show up with guns when the President speaks, they’re okay. Some organic food proponent with a sign, targeted for snatch & grab arrest. Follow the money.

Sonic weapon truck at Pittsburgh G20

But I digress. The musical is only dated by the bell bottoms and the free love, but it hearkens back to a New York where the cool parts of town had rebels in them, not trust fund kids. We got a good peek at this briefly in Julie Taymor’s ambitious Beatles musical Across the Universe, but it seems that we want to forget how free we used to be; that we once mocked the drive to provide, provide, and now the closest Hollywood will get to it are tepid dramas like Revolutionary Road, where the shackles of pursuing wealth are too hard to shake.
The closest Hair gets to what it must have felt like in ’68 is the audience participation, which begins with Berger, the Abbie Hoffman-esque jester-satyr, thrusting his loin-clothed loins at an (un)lucky first row audience member, stroking their hair, and practically tea-bagging them in the John Waters’ Pecker fashion (hitting them on the forehead with his sack, if you haven’t seen that movie). This continues with other cast members kissing folks in the aisles, handing out flowers, and pretending to lock all the exits while they fire up fake joints. What I found most amusing was how the audience suddenly started coughing as the fake cigs- it’s illegal to smoke a cigarette on stage in New York- smoked up the stage. I didn’t smell smoke, but the most protest you’ll get out of most of us is an instinctive clearing of the throat when someone dares to even faux-smoke these days. You breathe worse in when you walk across city traffic for 5 minutes, idiot.
Admittedly, the best parts of the musical for me involved the more famous song numbers- Aquarius, good morning Starshine, and Let the Sun Shine. They did include the infamous nude scene after they burn their draft cards, but it felt shoehorned- as if it were much longer originally, like a bacchanalian rite of dancing around the steel drum bonfire- and our modern Puritan sensibilities would be shocked by more than a few seconds of dimly lit unshorn pubes bushing out at us from hippie crotches. But the best part was that the show never gave a condescending wink to the material or the time, as if to whisper to us “remember when we were flower children? Aren’t you glad the Lower East Side is all gentrified now?” And it didn’t shy from the dated songs like “I’m a Colored Spade,” probably because now, he is the President of the United States … of Love.
Hair on Netflix

Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America – a Final Night with George W. Bush

Last night Firecracker took me to see Will Ferrell’s Broadway show, You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush. I was a little concerned, because Will is hit or miss with me- I love a lot of what he does, like Stranger Than Fiction and Anchorman, but some recent stuff like Blades of Glory and Talladega Nights seemed like he was spinning his wheels. However, my concerns were completely unjustified- because while doing his Bush impression is going back to the well, the show was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on Broadway and showcases some of Ferrell’s best writing in a long, long time.
One man shows are hard to pull off, but Ferrell does it. It’s just him and a quiet Secret Service Agent (played by his brother Patrick Ferrell) up there. From the moment he’s lowered onto stage by helicopter and starts addressing us like it’s a speech engagement, he’s got our attention and gets laughs from the obvious to the ridiculous. He embodies the public persona of the former President, the guy we could have a beer with- if he didn’t drink O’Doul’s- and manages to tread plenty of new ground. When he mimicked W.’s father yelling “How come you’re the only one of us who has a Texas accent!?” he got to the core of it- that the Bush we knew was a meticulously crafted figurehead. This is the comedy side of W. (full review)- Ferrell manages to make a Presidency that feels long gone in the wake of “Tiger Woods guy” a refreshing tragicomedy.

They keep things lively- there’s a dream sequence with Condi, lots of crowd interaction including “lemme give ya a nickname,” a Dick Cheney introduction, and the Secret Service guy has some very entertaining interludes while Ferrell takes a break to change costumes from cowboy, to President, to Mission Accomplished flight suit. The show will be appearing on HBO on Saturday, March 14th if you can’t catch it live. It’s playing at the Cort Theater for another week, and it’s a cozy venue where even the cheap seats afford a decent view. Just try to avoid the highest rows stage center, as the spotlight will halo your head, and make the lighting guy call you a “fucking dick.”

Spamalot!

It is generally a rule that any young nerd must adore Monty Python; I was no exception. I haven’t watched the comedy classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail for over ten years, even though it’s had several special edition DVD releases. I was just burned out on it, so I avoided Spamalot on Broadway when it first came out. And boy do I regret it, because this is one hilarious show.
Clay Aiken is the only “big name” singing this time around, in what will be its final run. David Hyde-Pierce and Tim Curry were in it, but Clay does a fine job as the cowardly Sir Robin. He doesn’t play the gay one? What a lost opportunity. King Arthur is played by Michael Siberry, and he has a sort of Jack Sparrow slur to his voice but none of the effeminacy, and manages to make the role his own and not a pale shadow of the late great Graham Chapman. That’s a worthy achievement, and nearly as difficult as Roger Bart stepping into Gene Wilder’s shoes for Young Frankenstein.
The plot is much the same as the movie with a few twists thrown in, some new songs that play on favorite scenes, and plenty of Broadway in-joke humor. Arthur and his “horse” Percy are seeking knights, and eventually hunt up Galahad, Bedevere, Robin and the homo-cidal Lancelot (more on that later), and God (voiced by John Cleese) tasks them with finding the Holy Grail. The new songs are more Broadway than Python, but have the same biting humor- for example, Clay Aiken sings “You can’t have a Broadway show without any Jews,” and they get in on the Mel Brooks act with a Star of David themed number; the movie’s one-off joke about Lancelot being gay (when he “rescues” a fellow knight from the perils of Castle Anthrax and its sexually rapacious nuns) becomes a big dance number with riffs on the Copacabana and gay ’70s disco culture.


There’s still plenty of original Python songs and humor- Sir Robin’s song, and the fantastic “Knights of the Round Table” song is extended. The Lady of the Lake is made into a major character to give the all-male story some female interest and songs, and she even has a “What Happened to My Part?” song gag in the middle, done Vegas style. They keep things topical with the Taunting French Knights, who not only farted in their general direction, but also threatened to throw shoes at them.
For old Python fans like me & Milky, it was a blast- and even Firecracker, who’d only seen Holy Grail once and wasn’t a huge fan, still loved the show and laughed quite a bit. I found a few of the Broadway song gags a little on the long side, like “The Song That Goes Like This,” but there was never a dull moment. The set design is incredible, and even the nosebleed seats- which we got for a mere $20 from Broadway Offers- gave a great view. Seeing the Killer Rabbit, the Knight who keeps fighting as he’s delimbed, and the cow catapult onstage was a blast. The humor swings from absurd to risque in classic Monty Python fashion, and there’s plenty of swag- from coconut halves for your “horse,” to Killer Bunny slippers- to fill up on. They also have a Karaoke CD (link at end of post)
The show ends on January 11th, so see it while you can. Do the Broadway economy a favor and see it on the cheap. Go to www.broadwayoffers.com and use coupon code SPBAL20 to see it for $20, or $28.50 with ticket fees. Vhat a bargain! We ate at Five Guys Burgers & Fries (a mere 10 block walk) to avoid Broadway crowds, and as always it was a fresh, inexpensive, quick and tasty meal.