One reason I started writing a blog was because I see so much film, theatre, and other performing arts, that I needed an outlet to express either my passionate raves or my grave disappointments. Well, other than over Sunday brunch with the BFFs, who most of the time needed several strong cups of Ethiopian bean (with a shot of bourbon) to not only get over Saturday night day-after-regrets of all kinds, but also sit through my exuberance or ranting over the latest play or movie that I saw. In 2007, I was grateful to be a Chicagoan, because it was the watershed year when our city cemented its place as a world cultural capital, when artists and arts lovers from New York, London, and everywhere else came to Chicago not because they had a layover or a delayed flight at O’Hare, but because they were eager to participate in and partake of the vibrancy, energy, and commitment of our artistic community and audiences. It was quite the year in Chicago, when the summer saw the premiere staging of Steppenwolf Theatre’s August: Osage County, now widely hailed as the best new American play of the past several years and currently taking Broadway by storm; when dozens of world-class productions and cultural events, from both our homegrown arts companies as well as from companies from other cities in the world, were available on our stages and performance spaces.
As I am in the process of putting together my top arts experiences of 2007, I have been sifting through the numerous top ten lists, year in review, and look back editorializing that normally clog many a print and web publication this time of year. Two very intriguing articles have broken away from the pack, in my opinion, since both provide intriguing, thoughtful, inspired commentary on the year that was in the arts, a welcome respite from the monotonous bulleted lists that we normally see published. Manohla Dhargis, the crankiest of the New York Times film critics, refuses to put together a top 10 list but rather names her top two, most meaningful and impactful films (There Will Be Blood and Zodiac), randomly lists the rest of her best movies, and then proceeds to succinctly summarize and argue on the film trends of the year, and how our movie going experience can be improved. Heady but quite good stuff (the girl may be a pain in the bum but she sure can write). Christopher Piatt, the other main TimeOutChicago theatre critic aside from Kris Vire, writes about the meteoric rise of blogs in 2007 as a key driver of theatrical conversation in Chicago in the year-end issue of PerformInk, the city’s theatre industry publication. Although I don’t agree with some of his points (he criticizes bloggers for writing about their opinions, versus writing about an opinion that will guide the theatregoer- well, I think that’s a key and essential differentiation between blogging and journalistic criticism), he does provide excellent insights into the ability of the blogs to engage various parties, whether it’s artistic directors, critics, audience goers, or pundits, into active and passionate theatrical debate. Great reading.
Many American musical theatre fans, yours truly included, passionately believe that the pinnacle of the form, both musically and dramatically was achieved by Stephen Sondheim’s highly-acclaimed 1979 musical Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, which won 8 Tony Awards, including those for best musical, best book, best score, best direction and best leading performances. I am a great fan and I’ll challenge anyone to say that there’s a better musical out there somewhere. I’ve seen, and loved immensely, the 2001 concert version at the Ravinia Festival with George Hearn (who performed Sweeney in the original US tour opposite Angela Lansbury) and Patti LuPone, the 2002 Kennedy Center Sondheim Festival production with Brian Stokes Mitchell and Christine Baranski, and the acclaimed 2005 Broadway revival with Michael Cerveris and Patti LuPone; I have also broken many a CD player with my numerous replaying of the original soundtrack with the wonderful voices of the original Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, Len Cariou and the great Angela Lansbury. For this Sweeney Todd groupie, no film version will ever do this masterpiece justice. So, yes, I was prepared to detest Tim Burton’s new movie with Johnny Depp in the title role; yes, I expressed reservations about the movie to many friends; yes, I scoured both theatre and movie blogs to find proof that the movie will be atrocious; and yes, I even picked out beforehand the blog post title I was going to use when I write about the film (“Seems an awful shame; seems a downright waste”…which are the first lines that Mrs. Lovett sings before launching into the tour-de-force song that ends Act 1, “A Little Priest”). But amazing surprises do occur, and preconceptions are ultimately meant to be shattered. So I am humbled to admit that I was wrong on two counts. First, Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd, the movie, is exceptional and probably one of the best motion pictures of 2007, not only honoring its masterpiece of a source, but actually creating a newly-enthralling masterwork, fully and intelligently using the possibilities of film as a medium (although many of its performances feel gayer than the Gay Pride Parade in the Castro- more on that later!). Second, Helen Bonham-Carter, whose casting as Mrs. Lovett many musical theatre queens have loudly complained as the worst possible form of nepotism (since she is Burton’s life partner), is a fresh, wonderful, and ultimately successful choice to play this legendary role.
Dr. Atomic is not your grandmother’s opera, and as such might not be for all tastes. There are no dramatically back-lit heroines dying of consumption, no lush orchestrations, no grandiose and theatrical sets or stage tableaux. Instead, it has a complex, weary scientist hero, a minimalist modern score that successfully evokes paranoia and dread, and spare but dramatically effective staging, using shifting fences, pentagonal shapes, and poles, to suggest an atomic lab, an upper middle-class home, and the majestic New Mexico desert. Dr. Atomic, although as emotionally wrenching as the best staging of, say, La Traviata, is, more importantly, for me, intellectually provocative and sophisticated, asking questions about individual conscience and accountability, the moral implications of decision-making, the contradictory nature of waging war in order to create or preserve a version (someone’s version, not a universal one) of peace. It’s probably one of the most intellectually satisfying cultural events I have gone to see this year in Chicago or elsewhere.
I am always wary when a favorite book of mine is adapted into a movie since the last two books that had an indelible emotional effect on me, Michael Oondatje’s The English Patient and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, were adapted into movies that were unsatisfying, unable to approximate the intellectual and emotional richness of the fictional works that I so treasured. So when I heard that Ian McEwen’s Atonement, my holy grail of fiction from the past five years, the one book that I vociferously praised to friends and relentlessly pushed them to read, was going to be adapted into a film starring, gulp, Keira Knightley of all people, I was filled with dread (the sort that a rat feels when it sniffs rat poison in the air). I am pleased to report, though, that even if the film version of Atonement does not by any means equal the greatness of the novel (and I don’t think it could ever have in my mind), it is, in itself, a well-made, literate, thoughtful, beautifully designed, photographed, and acted production that serves its source work well. Not quite the masterpiece I wanted to see, but a solid B+ (bordering on A-), and I think that’s good enough for this fan of the novel.
OK, the blog post title is a little cute-sy and Marx Brother-ish. On Friday night, I attended the opening night of