Personable monarch informs new staging of ‘The King and I’

Photo: Jeremy Daniel
The King of Siam (Jose Llana) and Anna Leonowens (Elena Shaddow) take a spin around the dance floor in The King and I. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

When theater companies want to bring new life to a familiar work, they often rely on obvious changes. A recent example is Opera Columbus’s production of Gluck’s Orphee et Eurydice, with its surreal scenery, avant-garde instrumentation and virtual chorus. And, of course, there are any number of Shakespearean productions that move the action to a different locale, time period or both.

The Lincoln Center Theater and director Bartlett Sher take a different tack with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. The musical is still set in Siam (now Thailand) in the 1860s and still focuses on the evolving relationship between an authoritarian king and a widowed British teacher who’s hired to tutor his many children. But there’s a subtle difference from earlier productions, and certainly from the 1956 movie starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner.

It mainly can be found in the character of the king. As wonderfully played by Jose Llana, he is imperious and comically petulant, yet he’s also vulnerable and even sympathetic. We understand that he’s concerned for his country’s future, not wanting it to become a European protectorate like some of his neighbors. Though he has hired a British governess to teach his children, he comes to rely on her to help him modernize—basically, to Westernize—his country in order to convince Europe that Siam doesn’t need “protecting.”

As governess Anna Leonowens, Elena Shaddow is a charming mixture of politeness and stubborn determination. Though her Victorian upbringing makes it hard for her to accept the king’s polygamy, she does her best to get along with her royal employer. However, she refuses to bend on one matter: the king’s promise, which he seems to have conveniently forgotten, to provide her and her son, Louis (Rhyees Stump), with a home of their own.

The production opens with a gorgeous scene, courtesy of set designer Michael Yeargan and lighting designer Donald Holder: the sunset arrival of the ship that brings Anna and Louis to Bangkok. After that, the scenery is far more restrained, with the outline of the palace walls in the background and long curtains playing a big role in delineating the change from one location to the next. It’s what goes on in front of the scenery that makes this staging so special.

Besides Anna and the king, key characters include Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera); the king’s head wife, Lady Thiang (Jane Almedilla); and Prince Chulalongkorn (Charlie Oh), his oldest son. Adding a dark subplot is the young and beautiful Tuptim (Q Lim), a “gift” from Burma who is forced to submit to the king’s advances despite being in love with another man, Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao).

Fine voices give some of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most beloved tunes their due, including Anna’s “Hello, Young Lovers” and “Getting to Know You” and Anna and the king’s “Shall We Dance?” Panmeechao’s thin tones are a slight impediment to Lun Tha’s wistful duets with Tuptim, “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” On the other hand, Almedilla’s matronly voice only adds depth to the show’s most touching number, Lady Thiang’s “Something Wonderful.”

A large orchestra consisting mostly of local musicians (who, for a change, are actually named in the program) performs under Gerald Steichen’s baton. Christopher Gattelli’s adaptation of Jerome Robbins’s original choreography is especially delightful during Act 2’s prolonged ballet, a Siamese take on Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

“Delightful” is a good adjective for the show in general, along with “illuminating” and “amazing.” And, hopefully, “unmissable.”

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The King and I April 24-29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$109+. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com. For information on future tour stops, visit thekinganditour.com.

Is beauty in the eye of the self-beholder?

Amy Schumer stars in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer), who has just bumped her head in a gym-related accident, can’t believe how good she suddenly looks in I Feel Pretty. (Photos by Mark Schafer/Courtesy of STX Financing LLC)

By Richard Ades

Just hours before attending a preview screening of I Feel Pretty, I happened to be riding a stationary bike at my gym when the nearest TV showed Amy Schumer plugging the flick on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

DeGeneres praised the comedy, as you might expect, but she had especially kind words for the Schumer character’s final speech. She hinted that the consciousness-raising moment is the best part of the film.

Judging from the early reviews, many agree that I Feel Pretty has an important message, but they also seem to feel it undermines that message in a way that’s clumsy at best, unconscionable at worst. So when I say I actually enjoyed the flick, maybe I need to stress that I did not fall off that stationary bike and hit my head before seeing it.

Written and directed by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein—and engagingly performed by Schumer and the rest of the cast—the comedy takes on society’s obsession with physical perfection and the damaging effects it has on the self-esteem of women and girls.

Schumer plays Renee Bennett, who worships beautiful people and thinks her life would improve if only she were one of them. Then she falls off a stationary bike at the gym and hits her head, only to pick herself up and realize she’s suddenly become drop-dead gorgeous. But, of course, it’s all in her shock-addled imagination. To everyone else, she’s the same average-looking woman she always was.

Well, not quite the same. Because Renee is convinced she’s exceptional, she begins radiating the kind of self-confidence that convinces other people she’s exceptional. Due to this new attitude—along with a fair amount of fortuitous timing—she begins turning her loveless, unsatisfying life around. Not only does she pursue romance, but she makes a play for a glamorous job in the headquarters of the cosmetics firm that previously has confined her to a grungy online-sales office.

Amy Schumer and Rory Scovel star in I FEEL PRETTY
Renee (Amy Schumer) and Ethan (Rory Scovel) get to know each other.

A film with a feminist message risks alienating half its audience, especially if it turns its male characters into the bad guys. I Feel Pretty avoids this by depicting its men as more enlightened than all too many of their real-life counterparts. As in 2015’s Trainwreck, Schumer’s love interest is a nice and decidedly un-macho guy, Ethan (Rory Scovel), and even the wealthy hunk Renee meets at her company’s HQ (Tom Hopper) is able to appreciate her for who she is.

The film also avoids creating female villains. Instead of turning its conventionally beautiful women into Renee’s adversaries, it shows that even they can find reasons to doubt themselves. Thus, cosmetics exec Avery (Michelle Williams) hates her baby-like voice, while toned model Mallory (Emily Ratajkowski) worries that people question her intelligence.

In the process of attacking society’s obsession with perfection, I Feel Pretty hardly achieves perfection itself. When Renee’s new success threatens to drive a wedge between her and longtime friends Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps), it comes off as a cliché stolen from countless high school dramas. More damagingly, it could be argued that the film’s message of empowerment is achieved by discounting the real-world prejudices faced by those who fall short of physical ideals.

Still, the comedy inspires plenty of laughs, especially for those who appreciate Schumer’s raunchy sense of humor. At the same time, it may well inspire new hope and confidence in anyone who’s ever suffered from low self-esteem. As the film points out, that includes just about all of us.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

I Feel Pretty (rated PG-13) opens Friday (April 20) at theaters nationwide.

White high schoolers on a quest to hear black jazz icon

Flock of Four

By Richard Ades

La La Land was pelted with jokes galore for its alleged depiction of a white man who wanted to “save” jazz. Personally, I thought the attacks were unfair. The way I saw it, Ryan Gosling’s character was simply a white musician who idolized and was inspired by black jazz icons.

So why do I have such an uncomfortable feeling watching Flock of Four, the story of a white high school student who idolizes and is inspired by a black jazz icon? Maybe because the modest little film tries to tackle the issues of race and cultural appropriation head on, and it does it in a way that’s sometimes awkwardly self-conscious and embarrassingly naïve.

Directed and co-written by Gregory Caruso, Flock of Four partially makes up for this shortcoming by taking us on a pleasant journey through a pivotal era in Southern California’s musical history.

Joe Grover (Braeden Lemasters) is a Pasadena teen who learned jazz piano from his late father and now leads three classmates in a quartet that specializes in the genre even though their contemporaries prefer rock ’n’ roll. One night in 1959, Joe learns that Pope Dixon (Reg E. Cathey), a jazz veteran his father worshipped, is playing at a club on Central Avenue in Los Angeles.

Joe has never been to Central Avenue, a fading jazz mecca in a scruffy black neighborhood, and he’s nervous about how safe or welcome he would be there. Still, he’s more afraid that this could be his last chance to hear the aging musician. Setting aside his fears—and dodging his protective older brother, Sam (Shane Harper)—he herds his bandmates into a cab and sets out for L.A.

This begins a long night of making and discussing music, meeting new friends and losing old friends, all while searching for a musician who always seems to be just out of reach.

After arriving at the club only to learn that Dixon has already left, Joe encounters Ava Moore (Coco James), a black singer with a friendly smile and a decidedly unfriendly brother, Clifford (Nadji Jeter). Following her gorgeous rendition of “Misty,” Joe and bass player Bud (Isaac Jay) introduce themselves and quickly learn that Clifford has little use for either them or for Dixon, whose upbeat music he equates with the long-ago era of demeaning minstrel shows.

More race-related discussions follow, culminating in a moment when Joe basically asks if someone like him, a white kid from Pasadena, has had enough pain in his life to play jazz. It seems like an odd question, considering how devoted he is to the genre he inherited from his dad. At any rate, the answer he receives is both reassuring and disappointing.

Beyond its awkward moments, Flock of Four is a satisfying tribute to the smoky jazz clubs that once graced the entertainment scene in L.A. and across the country. It may not be dramatically powerful, but it’s likably nostalgic and historically interesting. And, as a bonus, the music is great.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Flock of Four (unrated) opens Friday (April 13) at AMC Easton Town Center 30 in Columbus.

Animated pooches must heel to director’s quirky proclivities

Isle-of-Dogs-2
Atari (Koyu Rankin) and canine friends seek his lost guard dog in Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs.

By Richard Ades

An orphaned boy risks his life to search for his missing dog. It sounds like the makings of a heart-warming, tear-jerking crowd-pleaser.

That is, unless the director is the relentlessly eccentric Wes Anderson. Then, you can expect a tale filled with the kind of quirky, jokey elements that leave fans metaphorically wagging their tails and others scratching their heads.

Isle of Dogs, like Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), is a stop-motion animation flick. This is its greatest strength, as the images are elaborate and eye-catching. But it may also be one of the film’s greatest weaknesses, as the faces of the painstakingly created characters show little emotion, making it hard to relate to their travails. Adding to the problem, their travails are constantly being interrupted by flashbacks and other digressions built into the script by Anderson and his team of co-writers.

The beginning moments lay out the fanciful back story: Centuries ago, the leader of Japan’s cat-loving Kobayashi clan was beheaded by a youthful member of a competing clan of dog lovers. Skipping ahead to the present-day city of Megasaki, we learn that Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura) has ordered all dogs banished to the garbage-strewn Trash Island. He claims he wants to protect the populace from a plague of canine “snout fever,” but we suspect he’s really motivated by revenge and his family’s age-old hatred of dogs.

The first to make the involuntary trip is Spots (Liev Schrieber), guard dog of the mayor’s 12-year-old nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin). Others follow, and the island is soon teeming with a mixture of strays such as Chief (Bryan Cranston) and former pets such as the quartet of dogs (Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray) who adopt him as their leader.

When Atari steals a plane and crash-lands it on the island while searching for his beloved Spots, the four ex-pets are eager to help the injured boy. Chief initially objects, having nothing but contempt for the bond between humans and dogs, but he eventually agrees to aid the boy in his dangerous quest.

Obviously, a raft of well-known actors contributed their voices to the animated tale, including Greta Gerwig as mud-raking exchange student Tracy Walker. It’s a sign of how little the individual characters stand out that only one actor is instantly recognizable: Scarlett Johansson as one-time show dog Nutmeg. For the most part, the characters come across as mere cogs in a busy plot that incorporates sumo wrestlers, conspiracies, robotic dogs and genocidal attacks.

Told in English and Japanese—spoken by the dogs and people, respectively—Isle of Dogs has its share of humor. Some of it is likely to be most appreciated by Anderson devotees, while other jokes are accessible to all. (All adults, that is, as the film is not really aimed at kids.) Along with the clever plot and amazing images, they help to make up for the stretches of film that fall short of their potential.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Isle of Dogs (PG-13) opened April 5 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, AMC Lennox Town Center 24 and Marcus Crossroads Cinema

If this doesn’t raise your spirits, the Nazis win

American in Paris
The cast of An American in Paris (Photos by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

Love is more important than art, a character proclaims during a key moment from An American in Paris. While that’s undoubtedly true, it’s art that makes the musical so memorable.

Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography combine with Bob Crowley’s set and costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and, most of all, George and Ira Gershwin’s ageless jazz tunes to create multiple gifts for the eyes and ears. As for the love story at its center, it mostly amounts to the colorless glue that holds it all together.

Based on the 1951 film about an American (Gene Kelly) who woos a reluctant Frenchwoman (Leslie Caron), the musical took an unconventional path to its 2015 Broadway premiere. It debuted in late 2014 in Paris, where it created a stir despite the language barrier. In addition to its glorious musical numbers, Parisians likely were attracted to its rejiggered plot and setting.

Book writer Craig Lucas moves the tale back to 1945, when the City of Light is struggling to regain its spirit after the dark years of Nazi occupation. Memories of the war affect two central characters in different ways: Jewish American composer Adam Hochberg (Matthew Scott) is so traumatized that he can write only dirges that fit in with his gloomy view of life. In contrast, Frenchman Henri Baurel (Ben Michael) is determined to move beyond his own war experiences by fulfilling his lifelong dream of becoming a song-and-dance man.

Unbeknownst to them, Adam and Henri are united by their mutual love of a ballet dancer named Lise Dassin (Allison Walsh). Nor do they know that Lise has a third admirer in the form of American G.I.-turned-artist Jerry Mulligan (McGee Maddox). Complicating things even further, Jerry attracts the attention of wealthy benefactor Milo Davenport (Kirsten Scott), who clearly expects sexual favors in return for her valuable patronage.

American in Paris Dance
McGee Maddox and Allison Walsh as Jerry and Lise, the characters played by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron in the original 1951 film version

Jerry and Lise are the people we’re supposed to care about the most, so it’s disappointing that Maddox and Walsh generate so few romantic sparks. Making up for this in spades, both are lithe dancers and competent singers, as they prove over and over again throughout. (Note: Kyle Robinson fills in as Jerry on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening, while Deanna Doyle plays Lise during the Sunday matinee.)

More interesting than the two romantic leads are the dramatic arcs undergone by Adam and Henri, particularly during Act 2. In fact, the second act surpasses its predecessor in terms of both drama and spectacle.

Two late-arriving song-and-dance numbers are alone worth the price of admission: “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” led by Henri and Adam; and “An American in Paris,” a surreally amazing piece featuring Lise, her ballet partner (Kevin A. Cosculluela) and the rest of the company. Both are complemented by set designer Crowley’s most sublime creations and the Gershwins’ most powerful melodies.

Other classic tunes include “I Got Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” “’S Wonderful” and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.” All are accompanied in a full-throated style by a massive band conducted by David Andrews Rogers.

After premiering on Broadway in early 2015, An American in Paris won Tonys for its choreography, lighting, orchestration and scenic design. The touring version excels in those same areas, making it an awe-inspiring experience for anyone who ventures to the Ohio Theatre this week.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present An American in Paris through March 11 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State, Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $31-$104. 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.