On Stage: Madame Butterfly

So I’m sitting on the couch watching the end of civilization as we know it, aka the Nightly News, when The Wife comes to me and she says,

“Guess what time it is!”

“Time to move to Canada?”

“Maybe. But it’s also our first night of Opera Season! Go shave off that stubble, put on a shirt that doesn’t have superheroes on it, and let’s go have a great time.”

“I can do two of those things, but I can’t guarantee the third.”

And so it was that last night we once again made our way to the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Giacomo Puccini’s classic tale of love, betrayal and delusion — “Madame Butterfly.”

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Written in 1904, the show feels both dated and yet contemporary. The latter part largely because it reminded me of “Miss Saigon,” which shouldn’t be surprising since “Saigon” rips off the story line almost completely.

Cio-Cio-San (Rena Harms), aka M. Butterfly, is a 15-year-old Japanese geisha from a once wealthy family whose future now rests in a marriage with American Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Michael Brandenburg). She’s ecstatic over the union, he’s excited that he’s going to get some underage sex before he goes off to sea – never to be seen again.

The American Consul (Christopher Magiera) warns Pinkerton that this is a bad idea, but the lieutenant doesn’t listen. Cio-Cio’s uncle (Dominik Belavy) throws a big stink at the wedding and her family disowns her. Finally alone, the couple sing for a bit and then go off to engage in coitus while everyone else goes out for intermission.

When we return, two years have passed and Cio-Cio is now penniless and living with her 2-year-old child (coincidence?) and her faithful servant Suzuki (Renee Rapier). Despite their dire circumstances, Cio-Cio is certain that her husband will return.

And he does return eventually. With his new American wife Kate (Anush Avetisyan).

As operas go, “Madame Butterfly” is pretty entertaining. There’s not a lot of story but there is a lot of singing and music. It’s very good music, and that’s the key — I think I even recognized some of the music, which always makes me feel a little less culturally illiterate.

The cast is very talented, as are the musicians. Nice costumes and the staging was clever, although at times the Japanese house set did obstruct one’s view, even with a rotating stage.

“Madame Butterfly” runs through June 24. http://www.opera-stl.org 






At The Movies: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Well, that was better than I was expecting. Although, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. And I’m not saying it’s a great film, but it’s better than the last one, which admittedly isn’t saying much. I can’t imagine it being any worse than “Baywatch,” which is your alternative holiday weekend movie release.

I guess what I’m trying to say is “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales” is kinda fun, pretty silly, too long, and nicely brings the story back around to its original characters and ties things up in a nice bow. It even gives an origin story of sorts for its lead character. If it were the end of the series, it would be a nice way to go out. So lets all hope it bombs at the box office so they don’t ruin things by making another one.

potc_dmtnt_poster_by_jackiemonster12-db3wuivHenry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), young son of Will (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth (Keira Knightley) — the star-crossed lovers of the original trilogy — is looking for a way to break the curse that keeps his father trapped aboard the Flying Dutchman. According to legend, the answer is the trident of Poseidon, mythical god of the sea.

The key to finding the trident lies, of course, with that rum-loving pirate, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp).

Now this can’t be a simple team-up and find the trident story, that’s not enough plot for a PotC movie. So enter Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), an undead sea captain who steers a massive ghost ship and has a grudge against Sparrow. He wants revenge for past wrongs and will destroy every vessel in the ocean to get at Jack.

Then there’s Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario), an astronomer (often mistaken for a witch) with a secret past who is also looking for the trident. And you can’t have a PotC movie without Jack’s rival, Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), who gets dragged into the story because Salazar is crippling his ships looking for Sparrow. And, of course, he wouldn’t mind having the trident for his own purposes.

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” shares all the pluses and minuses familiar to all the movies in the franchise. On the plus side, the special effects are impressive, the cast in engaging, and the action sequences are thrilling. On the minus side, the movie goes on too long, the action sequences go on way too long, the story is convoluted, and Jack just isn’t as charming as he used to be.

Still, it was good of them to bring back Will and  Elizabeth, even if only briefly, and resolve their story and wrap up others — at least until things get all upended for the next one.



On Stage: Rent

It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since “Rent” first took the stage. But then, it’s hard to believe that the young people in last night’s audience weren’t even alive at the end of the millennium.

Two decades may have passed since Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning musical made its debut, but “Rent” doesn’t feel dated. The show is just as vibrant and emotionally charged — and the audience reaction is just as enthusiastic — as it has ever been.


The Company of the RENT 20th Anniversary Tour, photo by Carol Rosegg, 2016

For those who weren’t alive or don’t remember the late 20th century, “Rent” is the tale of a group of starving artists struggling to survive in New York City during the latter half of the 1990s. All of the characters, in one way or another, are dealing with the impact of AIDS.

Central to the story are roommates Mark the filmmaker (Danny Harris Kornfeld) and Roger the musician (Kaleb Wells). They are broke but living rent-free in a loft in the East Village. When their former cohort and now landlord Benny (Christian Thompson) announces they need to pay up, the show takes off.

But “Rent” isn’t really a story about making monthly payments for your living arrangements. It’s about three bohemian couples: Collins (Aaron Harrington), the anarchist professor who hooks up with the flamboyant drag queen Angel (David Merino); Maureen (Katie LaMark), the diva performance artist and her latest love, the anal-retentive Joanne (Jasmine Easler); and Roger, who is fighting his feelings for the young dancer Mimi (Skyler Volpe). Mark’s major relationship is with his camera.

The musical was inspired by Giacomo Puccini’s classic “La Boheme,”  and thanks to my opera-loving wife I have now seen both shows so can tell you that in a comparison/contrast situation — “Rent” is more entertaining. It has better music (I think “Rent” has one of the greatest scores in musical history), a meatier story, and let’s face it, you really can’t rock out to Puccini.

The 20th anniversary staging of the show playing this weekend at the Fox features a superb cast and excellent musicians. They’ve tinkered a little with some of the staging and set design but nothing dramatic.

It may not be a classic in the stature of “La Boheme,” but give it another 100 years.

 “Rent” runs through May 21 at the Fox Theatre. http://www.fabulousfox.com/

At The Movies: Alien: Covenant

The good news is that “Alien: Covenant” isn’t the ambitious-but-muddled mess that its predecessor, “Prometheus,” was. It’s a tighter, much more straightforward, horror film.

The bad news is, well, it’s hard to be that scared by something you’ve seen played out six times now since 1979 (more if you count “Alien/Predator” movies). “Covenant” is basically a greatest hits of the “Alien” franchise. And just like any greatest hits album — you’ve heard it all before.

IMG_20170323_0950491The year is 2104 and a huge colony ship is bound for a distant planet. When the ship receives a very human transmission coming from an uncharted planet, Captain Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate. After all, if this unknown world is habitable, they can shave nine years off their trip.

As you might imagine, there’s something ugly, violent and voracious on the planet’s surface. Also on the planet is David (Michael Fassbender), the android who was last seen heading for the planet of the engineers at the end of “Prometheus.”

Director Ridley Scott is once again at the helm of this second in a series of prequels to his groundbreaking “Alien” film. While he shows that he still knows how to deliver a taut, horrifying tale, he first broke that ground almost 40 years ago and doesn’t seem to have anywhere new to go.

These last two films have had a few interesting ideas but they all get shoved aside for more face-hugging, chest-exploding gore. I’m much more interested in the giant albinos but they never get to do anything and the meeting between humans and their possible creators goes nowhere.

I mean, am I supposed to be on the edge of my seat when some idiot sticks his head over a freshly opened alien pod? Do you expect me to still be shocked when someone starts convulsing shortly after an alien encounter?

And even though the actors change, the roles remain the same. This time around Katherine Waterston gets to be the indomitable woman who isn’t in charge but takes charge and drives the narrative. Danny McBride plays the down-to-earth guy who gives the film its small bit of comic relief.

And in a dual role, Fassbender gets to play both the evil synthetic (formerly known as Ash) and the good one (formerly known as Bishop). Which one will win out? Well, you have a 50/50 chance of getting it right, and either way will you really be surprised?

“Alien: Covenant” is a better film than its predecessor and the later films in the original run, but it doesn’t have the freshness or spark of the original and James Cameron’s sequel. The special effects are impressive, the actors are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. It’s the same old, same old, but very expertly done.




Reggie And Me

The big news in entertainment this week (well, maybe not big news) was the recasting of the role of Reggie Mantle on the TV series Riverdale.

When I heard the news, my reaction was — “Reggie Mantle was on Riverdale?”

4954230-05I watched the first 4 episodes of the show and spotted Reggie, briefly, maybe twice. So I stopped watching.

For you see, before Hawkeye — before even Batman — there was Reggie.

As a kid I loved The Archies. My first lunchbox was an Archies lunchbox. I watched the cartoon every Saturday morning. I had one of their records. (Although to be honest, I hate “Sugar, Sugar ” — a song so bad The Monkees refused to record it.)

But it wasn’t because I loved Archie. Lord, no. He was far too goody-two-shoes. And what was the deal with those hashmarks on the sides of his face? And why did Betty and Veronica find him so attractive?

Reggie was so much cooler. And sarcastic. And frankly more handsome. Reggie was the bad boy, and given that Riverdale was 99 percent all-whitebread and all-good (true, Veronica had her moments), that made Reggie all the more unique and entertaining.

The best thing about the Reggie-Archie relationship was the fact that while they were rivals and often at odds, they were also friends. They would team up on things about as often as they would fight. They were even in the same band, for Pete’s sake.

But then I grew up and discovered superheroes and left The Archies behind. I keep up with what’s going on with the characters in the comics press and I pick up the Archie offering every year at Free Comic Book Day, but that’s the extent of my relationship with the gang these days.

Reggie2ZdarskyVarSo when I heard the CW was going to be airing a show called Riverdale I figured I would check it out for nostalgia’s sake. Alas, it was too millennial for my tastes. Jughead is some kind of lost soul, writer-type? Betty seems a little bit crazy? Archie is having sex with Miss Grundy? The only character who seemed normal was Veronica, and what are the odds of that?

Worst of all — no Reggie. It appeared he had been replaced in the Big 5 by Kevin Keller. I can’t say I’m surprised, this show is about as PC as it can get. Reggie did show up eventually and I think there was a scene where he punched Archie, but I blinked and missed it. When Cheryl Blossom is a more important character to the Archie mythos than Reggie Mantle, you know there’s something fundamentally wrong with what you’re doing.

It turned out that maybe the reason Reggie was getting such short shrift on the show was that the actor playing him was busy with other things and not always available. Maybe now that there’s a new actor in the role that will change. But then given how twisted all the characters have become on this show, that may not be a good thing.

My sister is still watching, so if she reports an uptick in Reggie activity next season maybe I’ll give it another chance.





At The Movies: King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword

I can’t say I was all that excited about sitting through another retelling of the King Arthur story. I was never a big fan of Art to begin with and Monty Python made the only truly great movie on the subject and it was, you know, a farce.

But this version was going to be by Guy Ritchie, and he’s usually reliable, plus the only other option was an Amy Schumer movie, and I like her even less than King Arthur, so what can you do?

arthur111“King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” opens with a fairly spectacular battle scene involving giant elephants. King Uther (Eric Bana) is at war with the evil magician Mordred, who is quickly put down thanks to the magic sword Excalibur. But there’s not much time for celebrating as the king is quickly betrayed and murdered by his brother Vortigern (Jude Law). Uther’s son escapes and grows up hard and smart on the mean streets of Londinium.

Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) has a decent life in Londinium until King Vortigern’s men arrive to round up all the men Arthur’s age to see if any of them can pull a particular sword out of a stone. Yes, Excalibur once again got stuck in a rock after the former king’s death. Vortigern knows the true king’s heir is out there somewhere and wants to find him and deal with him.

Once the young man’s heritage is revealed, Arthur is forced to lead a revolution that he wants no part of. Among those helping him along the way are Sir Bedivere (Djimon Hounsou) and an unnamed Merlin substitute (Astrid Berges-Frisbey).

I rather enjoyed “King Arthur: Etc., etc. etc.” as I was watching it, although it did seem to run long even though it was your standard 2-hour film. But the more distance I put between it, the more dumb and common it seemed. There are elements of director Ritchie’s trademark flash and clever dialogue, but not enough. The cast is fine and the effects are impressive and there’s plenty of gorgeous scenery.

It’s an OK movie and fun in the moment, but it’s lacking something — magic, maybe?




After You’ve Seen It: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Welcome to “After You’ve Seen It,” a new segment in which I talk more freely about a new movie or show that is meant to explain things about something you’ve just seen, as opposed to our “Before You Go” segment in which I explain things about something you haven’t seen yet.

Needless to say, Spoiler Alert. If you haven’t seen GOTGv2 yet, come back later.

Who Were All Those People?

Unless you’re a Marvel Zombie, you were probably confused by all the new characters who show up in GOTGv2. Heck, even if you are a longtime Marvel fan you probably had trouble making out who some of the people are since director James Gunn takes great liberties in translating these characters to film. I had to look up some of them just to be sure.

EgoEgo The Living Planet first appeared in the pages of “Thor” in 1966. A creation of the all-star team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, Ego is pretty much what it says on the package: A sentient planet.

Like most cosmic figures he’s neither good nor evil but he does do things at times that run counter to what would be best for Earth, so he ends up in fights with people like Thor and the Fantastic Four.

In fact, the whole bit where Baby Groot drops a bomb on Ego’s brain was lifted pretty directly from an issue of FF by John Byrne. I bring this up only because I didn’t see Byrne’s name listed among the Marvel writers who got credited for their contributions to the film.

Mantis-Marvel-Comics-Avengers-Profile-bAs to just how far can you take a character from its comic book origins, meet Mantis. Mantis made her debut in “The Avengers” in 1973.

Created by Steve Englehart, Mantis was a Vietnamese hooker who met a down-and-out villain named The Swordsman at a bar. She rehabilitates Swordy and convinces him to go to New York and try to join The Avengers (One assumes she did this so she could move into Avengers mansion and out of some Vietnamese whorehouse). The team takes them in and shortly thereafter she begins flirting with The Vision, much to the chagrin of the Scarlet Witch.

Shortly after this it is revealed that Mantis is the Celestial Madonna, meaning her destiny was to one day give birth to a child who would become the most powerful being in the universe. At the end of a long and convoluted story she winds up marrying a plant person (think Groot but green and with a better vocabulary) and they go off into space. Mantis has various adventures and eventually joins the Guardians.

Originally, Mantis did not have superpowers, she was just very good at the martial arts. The “antennae” sticking out of her head were never really explained. I think they were just part of a headdress, they certainly didn’t give her any powers. After she became the Madonna her skin turned green (I guess from having sex with a plant person? I dunno.) and she gained the ability to communicate with plants. She does now have empathetic abilities, which is about the only thing about her that the movie kept intact.

Before I get into the rest of the newbies, who for the most part were just glorified cameos, a history lesson: The original Guardians of the Galaxy first appeared in 1969 in a comic called “Marvel Super Heroes.”

34143._SX360_QL80_TTD_Created by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan, the Guardians lived in the 31st century where they fought a never-ending battle with an alien race known as The Badoon. Team members included Yondu ( whom you’ve met, from Centauri-IV, played by Michael Rooker), Martinex (a crystal-like being from Pluto) and Charlie 27 (a big, bulky guy from Jupiter).

The fourth member, Vance Astro, was an American astronaut from modern times who somehow wound up in the 31st century. He has yet to appear in the movies.

Martinex and Charlie appear briefly in the movie (played by Michael Rosenbaum and Ving Rhames) as part of Yondu’s old crew. There’s also a character called Mainframe whom I blinked and missed. She’s a future version of The Vision who joined the Guardians at some point in recent years. The character was voiced by Miley Cyrus. Yes, Hanna Montana is now a full-fledged member of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

guardians-of-the-galaxy-45-huge-sale-fine-d84ec9ba5fba09e3b67e7e1968d258b4This original Guardians were later joined by Starhawk (Stakar Ogord, played by Sylvester Stallone) and his female counterpart Aleta (Michelle Yeoh). I say female counterpart because back when I was reading comics in the ’70s, Starhawk and Aleta couldn’t occupy the same space at the same time, so when one was dominant, the other was in “limbo” or somesuch. Kinda like the HULK and Bruce Banner, but not really.

I don’t really follow the Guardians and what I know about them is what I read from guest appearances in “The Defenders” and “The Avengers.”  I’m pretty sure Starhawk and Aleta (who, as you can see from the comic, bear little resemblance to Sylvester Stallone andMichelle Yeoh) are separate entities now and they’ve all moved out of the 31st century to modern times.

I don’t know how the Ravagers fit into this, they weren’t Ravagers in the comics that I grew up with but Marvel’s cosmic comics have changed a great deal since I was a kid. At some point the original Guardians were replaced by the characters we know today but I think they are all out there somewhere, probably guarding other parts of the galaxy. It’s a pretty big place after all.

The tall, bald guys hanging out with Stan Lee are from a race known as The Watchers. As the name implies, they are powerful cosmic dudes who just stand around and watch as the universe unfolds. Interstellar peeping toms, basically.

warlock1972series2Finally, if you made it all the way to the end of the film, you’re probably wondering what’s in the big cocoon that the gold lady had made. That would be Him, better known as Adam Warlock.

Him first appeared in “The Fantastic Four” in the 1960s, a creation of Lee and Kirby. Him was created by Earth scientists to be the perfect human. He was later revamped into a kind of space messiah as Adam Warlock by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. He rose to prominence under Jim Starlin as an arch-enemy of Thanos, whom you should already be well aware of.

Whether Warlock will play a role in the upcoming Infinity War story line in the Avengers movies or whether they hold him back for the third Guardians movie is anyone’s guess.