Saturday, November 17, 2012

Hairspray: The Broadway Musical - A Review

What better than a pleasant drive on a Saturday afternoon to spend time with the nicest kids in town? Yes, The Corny Collins Show was broadcasting live from downtown Mandurah and my, what a turnout of talent it attracted! This was an exceptionally strong singing cast accompanied by a live band in fine form. But more of that - much more - later…

First, let’s set the scene. It’s 1962 in Baltimore and Omar Little is several decades away from picking up a shotgun in anger. Okay, my knowledge of Baltimore is a little sketchy, The Wire references aside. What we do know is that the presumptive villainess of the piece, Corny Collins Show producer, Velma Von Tussle (Natalie Burbage), isn’t down with the whole idea of racial integration. Her daughter Amber (Victoria Luxton) expects to follow the family tradition of entitlement and beauty queen status and is the featured talent along with resident heartthrob Link Larkin (Sam Chadwick). What to do then when overweight teenager Tracy Turnblad (Sam Ferguson) not only joins the show but has ideas of integrating dancers from ‘the other side of town’ including her friend Seaweed (Jason Arrow); stealing Link away from Amber; and usurping her Miss Teenage Hairspray status as well?!

Okay, the plot is as thin as a pancake left out on Kwinana Freeway during peak hour but it doesn’t matter one jot. The songs are terrific and it moves at a cracking pace. In fact it only slowed down whenever minor plot mechanics intruded especially towards the end of the first act as plans are formulated and early second act as they are (re)committed to. Other than these moments there are few dialogue heavy scenes which serve this well. This is a far more thematic piece which, at its heart, deals with the issue of racism in America at that time. It can be a little too overt and borderline preachy but I chose to see it as an outsider with a dream (Tracy) who, in striving to make that dream come true, creates a better reality for herself and those around her. An allegory for the Civil Rights movement, sure, but perhaps just as valuable for those who don’t “fit in” whatever the situation.

The vocal talent was outstanding across the board and even performers in smaller roles had an opportunity to shine. For example, in one number three performers reminiscent of The Supremes were singing backing vocals but let loose with individual bursts at the end that was jaw dropping. Natalie Burbage also gave us some vocal fireworks towards the end of Act One. So many other ‘big voices’ in the cast but special mention to Sam Ferguson who, at only 17, was very impressive in the lead role; Jason Arrow, who added a real soulful flourish to proceedings; and Ebonyelle Smith who had, in my view, the standout song, “I Know Where I’ve Been” which she hit out of the ballpark. Georgia McGivern as Penny also snuck up on me and her character perhaps went through the most significant arc.

Craig Griffen threatened to steal the show as Edna Turnblad and his set piece with Jack McKenzie (Wilbur Turnblad), “Timeless to Me”, was funny, sweet and endearing. I should mention there is a lot of humour in this, including some sly period references and innuendo that may have sailed over younger audience members but had me chuckling away happily. Natalie Burbage and Victoria Luxton were perfectly matched as mother and daughter and while Velma Von Tussle was perhaps more of an over-the-top villain, Luxton played Amber, the bitchy rival to Tracy, with the right mix of sassiness and disbelief (as events turn against her). Tate Bennett played the man himself, Corny Collins, with great charm and cockiness.

This was a big, colourful production and a live band added so much to proceedings. The costumes and choreography were fantastic and it has a cast of some 28 strong so my apologies for not mentioning them all! The only technical hiccup was a minor problem with one of the performer’s microphones towards the end but other than that it was a thoroughly entertaining afternoon. I was also delighted to see a large turnout for a Saturday matinee. Such a big production comfortably inhabited the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre venue.

Lastly, two quick observations that I found quite charming – there was a young lad in front of me, maybe ten years old, who kept looking over his shoulder to try and see the “big board” the actors were “staring at” as the results of Miss Teenage Hairspray came in at the end. Loved that! And as I left a girl of maybe six was skipping through the lobby singing “you can’t stop the beat”. I’d say that is a job well done!

Congratulations to director Karen Francis and all the performers, crew and behind the scenes staff involved. A great show!

For more reviews go to Perth Theatre Reviews.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

State of Play and Ongoing Misadventures

On Monday I return to the corporate world full-time. Unavoidable. Desperately needed. In the nick of time. As of yesterday* I had something like $24 credit left on my credit card and $74 in my bank account. If my life was a movie I’d be debating whether to cut the blue wire… no, the green wire… NO, the RED wire… with three seconds left before the big explosion. As long as the bomb doesn’t go off, right?

Deep breath.

Snip.

Blessed calm.

Some facts: I last worked full-time in an office job back in July 1998 in Sydney. Last time I worked part-time in an office job – 27 August 2010.

808 days later I am returning to a world (telecommunications) that I am really comfortable with but thought I had put behind me. But harsh economic realities cannot be ignored and here’s another scary figure: after taking out rent and my private health insurance, Centrelink payments left me approximately $10 a fortnight to live on. Simply impossible. So the last couple of months have been pretty hard. I posted about that here which, for those of you who know me well, is totally out of character. The one big irony – I will be working out of the very same building from back in 2010!

Yesterday felt a little like “Back to School” as I took the battered remains of my credit card and bought work clothes and the like. I joked to a friend that I should laminate some old high school text books to continue the analogy. I am actually excited about this next phase of my misadventures even though I know it is a massive change to my formerly carefree writer lifestyle.

In that context, a big shout out to my writing home over many years – the Millpoint Caffe Bookshop to use its formal name or simply the bookshop café as it is known by all who know it. Adam and his staff have been very good to me as the usual level of banter can attest to. Thank you to those staff past and present who have provided the coffees, the laughs, and the level of comfort to let me do my thing. I will miss my lazy week days wandering along the foreshore and finding a spot in the courtyard.

But that isn’t to say I’ll be deserting writing, far from it.

My latest feature script, a low budget thriller formerly known as “Untitled Briefcase Thriller” and now “The Script Formerly Known As Turbulence”, did not get chosen for a couple of funding initiatives but it is a first draft and, while a good start, needs work. To that end I have had excellent notes from the ScreenWest Development Manager and my director which will allow me to focus on the rewrite, my primary writing focus moving forward. The briefcase reference comes from the setup – our guy opens a briefcase in which is a gun and a hit list with only one name not crossed out… what do you do?

There are three short films that should see the light of day shortly – “Coffee To Go” and “Darkness” with Filmbites and “For Better Or Worse” for the Central Institute of Technology. I have the usual mix of excitement and apprehension re the finished product but very much looking forward to see how they turned out.

I have recently attached directors to two other short film scripts, “Lucky Bamboo” and my out-of-character zombie effort “UZS-2017”. Waiting on notes before doing new drafts in preparation for next year’s funding rounds.

Then there are the longer shots. Two feature projects waiting on private investors. One a big conspiracy thriller called “The Pilbara Imperative”; the other an action-adventure for an international client tailor made around a specific product they want to promote. Sounds unusual but I was really pleased with how the one pager turned out and the Sydney based director and venture capitalist really like it and the client has made positive noises so far… but these things always take time.

Other than that, I discussed my slate of feature projects with ScreenWest but, as always for a writer, it will be a matter of time and prioritising what to work on. This means I’m less likely to take on even paid reading assignments or writing monologues/scenes for actors… though that can still be by negotiation once I’ve settled into my new routine.

So things are about to change dramatically. But isn’t that what we crave as screenwriters – drama? Maybe it was the green wire…

Yep, I'd call that decadent!
*Addendum: I wrote the above Friday afternoon while sitting in the café courtyard and spoiling myself with lunch, a decadent dessert and farewell banter with the staff. That evening I went to industry drinks in town which seemed fitting, surrounded by peers and agency staff. It was a room full of screenwriting and filmmaking talent. It was good to discuss projects, catch up with people, and generally schmooze. Word of my impending return to the corporate world was common knowledge (thanks to social media) so congratulations and commiserations were the order of the day. I enjoyed it a lot and served as a nice transition point from one phase to the next…

Friday, November 2, 2012

Star Wars: Episode VII - Reawakening of the Fanboy

Okay, I admit it. I'm excited! This week's announcement that Disney has paid $4.05 Billion for Lucasfilm and will be making a new Star Wars trilogy was like waking up as a kid on Christmas morning and finding the best present ever under the tree!

I've blogged before about my two most vivid movie memories when I was kid (Movie Moments Through The Generations) - the image of that Star Destroyer gliding across the screen in Star Wars is indelibly printed on my brain... as it is for many, many people. Back in the days when it was simply Star Wars, not Episode IV: A New Hope even though that was on the opening title scrawl. But we'll come to that later.

Another story from the original trilogy. It's 1983. I'm in Year 12 at Scotch. A friend has a copy of the eagerly anticipated third movie that hasn't opened in Australia yet. On VHS tape. From memory his parents had come back from overseas, maybe Singapore, I can't remember. What I do remember is this, a bunch of us went over to his house to watch Return of the Jedi... over and over and over again. We were poring through that thing like forensic scientists, particularly the speeder chase sequence on Endor trying to find gaps in the special effects. Stop, pause, slow speed, rewind, trying to go frame by frame. Laughable today but the bee's knees back then. I never saw ROTJ at the cinema because I must have seen it what felt like a dozen times that night.

There were so many good things in that film - I recall I was particularly taken by the crimson clad Stormtroopers guarding the Emperor and the epic lightsabre fight between Luke and Darth Vader before Vader redeems himself and kills said Emperor. Quite possibly Carrie Fisher's costume in the opening sequence as well. Okay, I was 17 and she was like the pinup girl for sci fi geeks everywhere. (Mine was actually Erin Gray who played Colonel Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century). But there were also warning signs. Enough has already been written about the Ewoks but, really? Plus a second Death Star? I guess the first one was still under warranty.

Back then it was always understood that there would be 9 films. So the ending of Jedi kind of confused me and seemed to bring a premature conclusion to the story arc. Then crickets... for years. I never did get into the Expanded Universe though I'm sure I have a couple of novelisations somewhere and did have a Star Wars computer game at one stage that I quite liked.

Then came word there would be a new Star Wars movie. Boy, was I excited! Boy, was I disappointed when it turned out to be Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Boy, did I HATE the retrospective naming of the first three films to include the episode number. Then came Attack of the Clones which makes The Phantom Menace look like Citizen Kane. The dialogue in that film, including my favourite worst line of all time - "Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo" - and the whole "sand is coarse" tepid romance nonsense that felt like it was written by a 14 year old boy who'd just seen Erin Gray in a body-hugging silver jumpsuit for the first time... sorry, I might have gone off track there a little. What was I sayi-- ah, yes. It SUCKED! As in blood is gushing from my ears, please stop talking now. Plus Yoda doing things no formerly-charming-puppet-but-now-CGI-concoction should ever be asked to do. His fight sequence with the ridiculously named Count Dooku (sounded like a Sesame Street character) is equally ridiculous. The third of the prequels, despite being touted as the "good one", I barely remember. Except for the absurd "Nooooooooooooooooooooooooo!" as Darth Vader is born from the remnants of Hayden Chistensen's acting career.

Then came the tinkering. Of the original three movies! I watched the special edition of Star Wars last night and was struck by how annoying the alterations are, most infamously Greedo shooting first in the catina scene. And, of course, inserting the ghost of Hayden Christensen's acting career into the end of Return of the Jedi. It is with much annoyance and sadness that I realise that I'll never be able to watch the Star Wars I saw as an 11 year old back in 1977, ever. There was a certain charm to its sparseness in places, its flaws, its defects. Stop taking that away, George! It also struck me how much Harrison Ford as Han Solo makes that movie and the original trilogy. Lucas totally forgot that when he made the prequels - the humour and charm was replaced by a dour earnestness that is crippling.

We come to the Disney announcement and the reawakening of the fanboy in me yet again. Why? The movie I have not mentioned yet and the one generally regarded as the best of the franchise - The Empire Strikes Back (stick your Star Wars, Episode V nonsense where the sun don't shine). NOT written by George Lucas. NOT directed by George Lucas. (Okay, neither was Jedi but damn, those ewoks were undoubtedly his creation!).

Lucas gets slagged off a lot these days but let me offer some praise before the brickbats. His genius was in creating a remarkable universe in a galaxy far, far away. Also for tying up the sequel and merchandising rights. More power to him. It is such a rich world with almost infinite story possibilities. So credit George with the vision.

What he's not so good at? Well, unfortunately, writing and directing. This despite being Oscar nominated in both categories for Star Wars (and American Graffiti). There is enough hokey dialogue in Star Wars to "stop a team of oxen its tracks" (misappropriated by my favourite writer) and the first act shouldn't really work as it sets up a droid - yes, R2D2 - as the protagonist for much of its length. Harrison Ford famously said, "George, you can write this shit, but you sure as hell can't say it."

The prequels reinforced everything bad about his deficiencies in these areas. The advent of the technology that supposedly allowed him to create his true vision also led to soulless, charmless, green-screened, woodenly acted, CGI cartoons. The scripts feel like first drafts and are simply awful. They include what I consider to be the worst screenwriting mistake IN HISTORY. Yes, way to destroy one of the great modern myths by introducing the concept of midi-chlorians. You too can work out if you're a Jedi by going to your local GP, asking for a blood test and, if you're lucky, most medical centres in the galaxy bulk bill these days so you won't even have to pay. I still shake my head at this. Inexplicable.

So, having George removed from writing and directing duties for the next trilogy is a HUGE plus. Lawrence Kasdan, who was on one of the great hot streaks at the time, co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back (with Leigh Brackett). He also wrote Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat, Return of the Jedi and The Big Chill from 1980-83. Experienced directors Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand were brought in to director TESB and ROTJ respectively. Certainly not big names but competent.

Imagine what a new Star Wars trilogy might look like with the pairing of an A-list writer with an A-list director. Make no mistake, if Disney hasn't already tied up deals, those roles will be the hottest ticket items possibly in Hollywood history. Look at what J.J. Abrams and writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman did in rebooting the tired Star Trek franchise (while ironically using heaps of iconic Star Wars allusions!). Though Orci & Kurtzman have recused themselves in my mind with the awfully misguided genre mashup that was Cowboys and Aliens. Hell, Sorkin's agent is probably on the phone pitching a courtroom-style drama about the Trade Federation negotiations as a Greek style tragedy of greed and betrayal. Okay, no-one wants to see that. No, really, not even if Sorkin did write it.

What will the story be? Will it be faithful to Star Wars canon as established in the Expanded Universe? Will it pick up immediately from the end of Return of the Jedi? What source material will it use? Which characters?

I. DON'T. CARE.

There's going to be a new Star Wars movie in 2015 and I'm as excited as all get out about that and, sorry George, I'm glad you're not directly involved.

May the Force be with us all!