Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It sucks to be you if you haven't seen Avenue Q

What do you get when you cross a Broadway musical with a TV sitcom AND The Muppet Show? That's the best way I can succinctly sum up the fun, funny and puppet-populated play that is Avenue Q. The story centers on idealistic fresh grad Princeton, who moves into the fictional New York district of Avenue Q and meets a crazy cast of characters: unemployed Brian and his Asian-American fiancee Christmas Eve; Kate Monster, a teaching assistant who can't find a boyfriend; Nicky and his roommate Rod, who's in the closet AND secretly in love with Nicky; Trekkie Monster, an Internet porn addict; and Gary Coleman (yes, that Gary Coleman), their superintendent. The plot mainly follows Princeton's search for his "purpose", as well as his romantic relationship with Kate Monster, but also traces the relationships among the supporting characters and how they all "grow up" in one way or another. It's a modern-day coming-of-age tale for twentysomethings, touching on contemporary issues like race, sex, homosexuality, unemployment, and technology, and its relevance makes it all the more engaging.

While even the best plays have a part that's sort of "slow", Avenue Q has nary a dull moment, which is why there's such a sitcom feel to it. Time flies when you're having a hoot, and this hoot of a musical felt more like a 22-minute episode of Friends than its actual hour-and-a-half run. There are countless of LOL-worthy lines in the snappy, smart script, suffused with the kind of irreverent humor that rings true with modern audiences. That there are obvious parallels to characters and themes from the well-loved classic children's TV show Sesame Street makes this for-grown-ups-only play even more wickedly funny. Cheeky songs like "It Sucks to Be Me", "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist", "You Can Be as Loud as the Hell You Want (When You're Makin' Love)"
and the wildly hilarious "The Internet is for Porn" sound like cheery Sesame Street ditties, only peppered with adult language and subjects. The use of puppets is also cleverly executed; the puppets are surprisingly "believable" (even during puppet sex) and expressive in their movements. I thought it would be distracting having the actors, unconcealed, handling and voicing the puppets, but it worked, even with some actors playing more than one puppet character.

A lot of credit goes to the actors for bringing such life to their inanimate alter egos, and props to Atlantis Productions for assembling such a stellar cast for this 5th and supposedly final run of Avenue Q. Rachel Alejandro was fabulous as sweet-natured Kate Monster and sultry seductress Lucy T. Slut. I've always thought of Ms. Alejandro as just another local celebrity with more talent than most... but not much. Seeing her in Avenue Q certainly changed my opinion. She can SING, really sing, plus her diction was crystal clear, and she moved around the stage with a fluid grace. Her solo as Kate in "There's a Fine, Fine Line" was plaintive and pure, and genuinely moving. I will never underestimate Rachel Alejandro again.

Felix Rivera, whose performance in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee made an impression on me, was even more outstanding in Avenue Q as both Princeton and Rod. Just like Rachel Alejandro, he made the 2 characters he was voicing not only sound so distinctly different, but also succeeded in making me forget that it was the same guy doing it.

The terrific Joel Trinidad again managed to give a solid comedic performance as both Trekkie Monster and Nicky. I loved Trinidad in Spelling Bee, loved him even more in Avenue Q. I can't believe the same guy who annoys the hell out of me in those Sky Broadband TV ads can be so charismatic onstage.

Calvin Millado was ok as Brian, but the role doesn't really let him flex a lot of acting or singing muscles, so he wasn't so much of a standout. Frenchie Dy overshadowed him as the lovable (or I should say "ruvable") Christmas Eve, but then again she got more memorable songs as well as more amusing dialogue.

If there was anyone in the cast I found a tad disappointing, it was Aiza Seguerra as Gary Coleman (I liked the inside joke of having a former child star playing a former child star though). Her singing was impeccable, but she needs to work on her black accent. Several of her character's zingers fell flat because she didn't deliver them audibly, and it was a waste of good writing.

Overall though, I was really wowed by the collective talent of the cast, and coupled with great Tony-award winning material, it made for quality live entertainment at its finest. After failing to catch the first 4 runs of Avenue Q, I'm glad I finally got to watch it. And if you haven't seen it yet, well I guess it sucks to be you.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The path of Glee resistance

I fancy myself a non-conformist in many ways, so it takes me a while to jump onto any bandwagon. Sometimes I totally refuse to hop on at all (e.g. Facebook, Twilight, gladiator sandals) for any number of personal reasons, but when I do cave and am persuaded to give something a shot (e.g. Harry Potter, Twitter, wide belts), more often than not I do wind up being converted.

In the case of Glee however, I wasn't so easily won over. I'd heard so many raves about the TV musical comedy from former students and old friends alike, but it wasn't until someone (who, ironically, has never even watched a single Glee episode) went out of his way to download the series for me that I decided to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

After the first couple of episodes, I still found myself underwhelmed. "This is like High School Musical: The Series!" I snorted dismissively. The template was certainly similar to the inane, irritating Disney franchise: musically gifted, nerdy but pretty girl and musically gifted, popular cute jock are connected by their love of singing and end up falling for each other.

But with each additional episode I watched, I discovered that Glee veered away from that trite template. Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) is a girl with a big voice and big heart, but she's also prissy and exasperatingly conceited. She's so full of herself that it's funny, and she's not one-dimensional and more likable than the usual Little Miss Perfects in teenybopper shows or movies. Finn Hudson (Cory Monteith) fits the gentle jock stereotype, but the writers of the show keep him real and accessible by making him unabashedly, well, unsmart. Aside from not being the brightest bulb in the room, Finn has a vulnerability about him rarely seen in the typical teen heartthrob, and it works.

I also like the unexpected, if improbable, twist of the show, where the cheerleaders and football players join the glee club for their own personal selfish motives but end up sincerely enjoying being part of it, even if they are labeled "losers" by the rest of the school. The young actors who play the 12 members of "New Directions" are quite talented in both singing and dancing, and it's delightful to watch the choreographed musical numbers within each episode (which are also reintroducing classic rock and pop songs to a whole new generation). I'm not so much a fan of big girl Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley) and her black diva belting, but I enjoy it whenever gay soprano Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) gets to sing solo, AND name-drop fashion designers he's wearing. I also have a soft spot for Noah "Puck" Puckerman (Mark Silling), the token bad boy (complete with mohawk), whom I find so much more appealing than the sweet and sensitive Finn. Quinn Fabray (Dianna Agron) first struck me as a bland blond bombshell, but the captain of the "Cheerios" grew on me, although I'm more impressed with her acting prowess than her musical talent.

However, while Glee is ostensibly about the kids in the glee club, I prefer to think of it as Mr. Schuester's show. Will Schuester
(Matthew Morrison) is the teacher who moderates New Directions, and his passion for both music and teaching is inspiring and makes me miss my teaching days something fierce. When it comes right down to it, he's the main reason I got hooked on Glee (you know you're getting old when you relate more to the grown-up characters). Moreover, the romantic tension between "Schue" and hypochondriac guidance counselor Emma Pillsbury (Jemma Mays) is, adultery aside, surprisingly kilig-worthy, and Schue's shrewish, scheming wife Terri (Jessalyn Gilsig) just makes me root for Emma all the more. But the woman in Schue's life who brings out both the best and worst in him is cunning, cruel Cheerios coach Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch, whom I've loved since her recurring stint as the wry psychiatrist in Two and a Half Men). Sue will seemingly stop at nothing to bring the glee club down. Her put-downs, especially the swipes she takes at Schue's hair, are hilarious, and delivered with spot-on deadpan comedic mastery that makes this aggressive antagonist impossible to hate. Lynch's Golden Globe nomination for her work in Glee is well-deserved indeed.

I started out unimpressed with the first couple of episodes, but by the 9th episode (the surprisingly touching "Wheels") I was already getting misty-eyed, and the 13th episode (the mid-season ender "Sectionals") got tears trickling down my face. And the waterworks are as good a seal of approval as I can give.
I may have taken some time to get here, but I'm now officially on the Glee bandwagon.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Classic Burton

Maybe it's because I'm a fan of anything that comes from the wild artistic visions of Tim Burton, but I enjoyed Alice in Wonderland in spite of less than enthusiastic reviews from critics and audiences alike. Like the last Burton movie I saw, the underappreciated Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Alice has the director's signature dark and deviant elements, a distinctly Danny Elfman score, and Burton's favorite muses: Johnny Depp, and the missus, Helena Bonham-Carter.

HBC steals the show as the malevolent Red Queen, whose reign of terror in Wonderland ("Underland", in this reimagining of Lewis Carroll's story) is challenged by the reappearance of now 19-year old Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska, who looks like the deathly pale love child of Gwyneth Paltrow and Calista Flockhart). Despite her comical appearance in the movie, HBC is still to be taken seriously, as she masterfully portrays the Red Queen as not simply cruel and petty, but miserable and lonely as well.
She totally owns the role and gives the most layered performance among the cast, gigantic head notwithstanding. (By the way, was it just me or did the Red Queen remind anyone of a certain megalomaniac midget leader we all love to hate, hmm?)

Aiding and abetting Alice in her quest to restore power to
the White Queen (the disarmingly charming Anne Hathaway) are the Mad Hatter (Depp, disappearing into another psychologically imbalanced character), the White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, and Absolem the Caterpillar (voiced by too-sexy-for-this-CGI Alan Rickman). Burton transforms Alice from sweet little girl to Goth ingenue, then puts her in armor and turns her into Joan of Arc. It would have worked better if Wasikowska were more... plucky, or had anything akin to a personality (or pulse). Ironically, one of the best lines in the movie is the Mad Hatter musing to Alice, "You have lost your muchness." Throughout the film, even if she's in practically every scene, there is not "much" of Alice to engage, or be engaging, and she gets lost amidst the talking animals and playing card foot-soldiers.

The art direction is gorgeous, as to be expected from any Burton production, with the stark contrast between Underland and Alice's real world highlighted wonderfully. Burton's version of Wonderland is grayer, gloomier, grimmer, ghostlier, as he replaces whimsy with otherworldliness, imbuing everything with a spectral touch. I'm curious how it all appears in 3D, if the nightmare-like atmosphere is enhanced, or if it would merely distract from the serviceable screenplay. Either way, I think it would be pretty cool to see the Cheshire cat grin in 3D.

I enjoy alternative fiction, and Alice in Wonderland reminds me of how one of my favorite authors, Gregory Maguire (Wicked), takes popular fairy tales and tweak them to show the "real" story. With his own reworking of a beloved classic, Burton has firmly established himself as the Mad Hatter of cinema, and as they say, there is a fine line between madness and genius.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Takeoffs, layoffs, and the talented Mr. Clooney

Up in the Air has received so much critical acclaim and pre-Oscar buzz that I was expecting to be blown away by it. And as always when my expectations are raised so high, I ended up disappointed. Only slightly, though. The screenplay was the major letdown for me-- I anticipated brilliant writing from a film that's favored to win the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar, but I found the dialogue a little flat, and the storyline trite in parts. George Clooney plays man-on-the-move Ryan Bingham, whose job has him traveling all over the US firing people, and who feels most at home in airports, airplanes and hotels. Circumstances at work force him to take a young, earnest new employee (Anna Kendrick) under his wing, and this unlikely pairing, along with his romance with a fellow frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga), cause him to reassess the lonely life he's always loved. Bingham's change of heart is typical, and even the twist near the end is predictable. Yes, the story is entertaining enough, but there's really nothing fresh or inspiring about it.

I suppose since the film turned an eye on the humanity (or inhumanity) of corporate layoffs that it would resonate with American audiences in their time of economic recession, but I found the less obvious themes more interesting: the dehumanizing effect of technology; the idealism of youth; the exhilarating/exhausting lifestyle of the jet-set; dating dynamics in an age of long-distance booty calls and sexting.
And of course, the main message of human relationships as baggage struck a chord with me, as someone who puts so much premium on tending to my "roses".

More than anything though, Up in the Air was kept afloat by its 3 key actors. Between the 2 Best Supporting Actor nominees, I was more impressed with Farmiga, who delivered a more effortless performance as Bingham's match-made-in-mileage-heaven Alex. She had a dignified grace and regal presence about her, reminiscent of Cate Blanchett, but tempered with gentle humor. Kendrick on the other hand was thoroughly believable as Bingham's overzealous, idealistic protege Natalie, but like her character, she came off as trying too hard sometimes. Her best moments came when Natalie showed cracks in her Cornell-forged armor, but sharing a scene with both Farmiga and Clooney, she was simply eclipsed.

As for my man George, his biggest asset is also his biggest liability: his charm. That intangible something that makes him so irresistible-- from the adorable twinkle in his puppy dog eyes to his impish aw-shucks smile to his low, languid but oh-so-masculine voice-- tends to distract from his acting talent. And really, the man does have talent. There is a moment in Up in the Air, brief but memorable (if you've seen the movie I'll tell you which scene I mean), where one can catch Clooney stripped of his trademark charm, and glimpse a raw and revealing vulnerability that is both startling and sweet to behold. If I could hand him the Best Actor Oscar for that split second of honest emotion, I would. But then again, it could just be his puppy dog eyes working their magic on me.

Up in the Air is not Best Picture material for me, but it IS a good film, unpretentious and substantial, which is far more than what I can say for most movies nowadays that rely heavily on CGI to mask mediocre acting and weak plots (*coughAvatarcough*). And at the very least, one can pick up some helpful travel tips, served with a generous dose of that irrepressible Clooney charm.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Bad blood

You know you're getting old when you're comparing cholesterol levels with your parents and siblings.

The other day I got back the results of my annual medical examination, and to my dismay, there was an ominous "H" (for "high") typed beside "Total Cholesterol". I got 5.72 mmol/L, a good 0.52 above the normal range, the first time I've ever gotten a bad result on my blood chemistry. It alarmed me, but not so much as the fuss my mom made over it. She must have exclaimed "So high!" in Chinese at least a dozen times, cluck-clucking her tongue and then going on to gloat that HER blood chem results were all normal (conveniently forgetting she's been taking cholesterol medication and niacin supplements).

It seems a cruel joke that it's now when I've actually started seriously exercising (yoga twice a week, walking twice a week) that my cholesterol levels have gone up. So now I'm adding something to my new year's resolutions: reduce my intake of red meat (bye bye steaks, sniff). And I really do need to add more fiber to my diet. Bring on the salads (and the flush-free niacin capsules!).