Friday, July 26, 2013

At the Theatre: The Little Mermaid

Recently, I had the opportunity to see a regional production of The Little Mermaid by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.  While I had remembered the reviews of the Broadway production being fairly awful, the local newspapers here were raving about our production, which was in conjunction with Paper Mill Playhouse and Kansas City Starlight Theatre (where the show is finishing its run now).  Being both a Disney fan and a fairy tale reader, I decided to go and am quite glad I did.

Obviously, since this was the Disney version of the The Little Mermaid, it contained all of the songs from the 1989 film, as well as new ones penned by Alan Menken and Glenn Slater.  Ursula's backstory was considerably more fleshed out than it was in the film (here she is Triton's misfit older sister), although the plot thread involving her transformation into Vanessa and subsequent luring of Eric was removed, likely to keep the focus on Ariel.  Also, there was no epic fight scene at the climax, but given how difficult that would have been to stage, I'm not surprised.

Ariel is presented more as the black sheep of her family here, so her interest in all artifacts human and desire to leave the Merkingdom are more understandable.  Thankfully, Eric also gets some much needed character injected into him, becoming a reluctant king who is more comfortable living the sailor's life.

Of the new songs penned for the stage production, I most enjoyed Eric's solo, "Her Voice," and the lovely "If Only" sung in four overlapping parts by Ariel, Eric, Sebastian, and Triton.  Ursula's new song, "Daddy's Little Angel" was also somewhat entertaining.

While the swimming in the original Broadway production was portrayed with skates, this production implemented wire work and choreography to mimic the movements of creatures underwater.  I haven't seen the skate version, but just having read about it, it seems to me that the new production's idea worked better.
Although the singing contest could have been elaborated upon, and at my particular performance we had Ursula's understudy, it was a fun production for all ages with the proper amount of Disney spectacle.  I'd recommend going if anyone happens to be in Kansas City this week.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Dream Factory: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders
Directed by Jaromil Jires
Original release date: Barrandov Studios 1970 (Czechoslovakia)
US theatrical release: Janus Films 1974
US DVD release: Facets 2004
Streaming: Hulu

Summary from Seen That: "Inspired by fairy-tales such as Alice in Wonderland and Little Red Riding Hood, Valerie and Her Week of Wonders is a surreal tale in which love, fear, sex, and religion merge into one fantastic world." 

Review: Since the above summary is especially vague, I'll do my best to do a short one myself.  

Valerie lives alone with her grandmother.  A troupe of actors has just arrived in her village, as has a missionary returning from Africa.  A hooded figure among the performers takes an interest in Valerie, though she learns he is a vampire.  A bespectacled youth named Eagle serves as her protector (along with a magic pair of earrings), as Valerie navigates the tricky path between childhood and adolescence, innocence and sexual awakening.

This film was recently available for free viewing on Hulu as part of their 101 Days of Criterion festival.  It sounded quirky, and I remember having read about it somewhere, so I decided to watch it.  And it delivered all the weirdness one could want.  

The film has a very surreal, dreamlike quality to it.  One is never quite sure what is real and what is imagined, and the characters frequently change their stories.  By the end of the film, the viewer (and Valerie) has been told at least three different iterations of Eagle's origin.  I did think the music used to alert viewers to certain repeating events became a bit gimmicky toward the end, but that was my only real complaint.

The actors here aren't professionals, as this film is part of the Czech New Wave of the late 60's/early 70's.  The leads weren't particularly emotive, but I may have just felt that way because tone doesn't always translate.  The missionary also had a really comic bedroom scene that amused me, though I don't know that it was intentional.

But what really stood out was the imagery.  This film is riddled with sexual imagery, from the obvious (a woman self-stimulating on a tree) to the more subtle (Valerie's entirely white bedroom).  I'm sure someone has to have analyzed every image by now, so I won't, but I think that's where this film really excelled.

I recently learned that this was based on a Czech novel by Vitezslav Nezval, which was only translated into English within the last decade.  I think I will have to read it for a comparison.

I feel like fans of Svankmajer would enjoy this the most.  But anyone with a penchant for the bizarre or the surreal should find something to enjoy.

Note: I scoured YouTube for a trailer, but I could only find fan-made ones.  Sorry.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Sara's Library: The Magicians

The Magicians by Lev Grossman
Book one of the Fillory trilogy
Viking 2009

Summary from Goodreads: "Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. He's a senior in high school, and a certifiable genius, but he's still secretly obsessed with a series of fantasy novels he read as a kid, about the adventures of five children in a magical land called Fillory. Compared to that, anything in his real life just seems gray and colorless. 

"Everything changes when Quentin finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the practice of modern sorcery. He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. But something is still missing. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he thought it would.

"Then, after graduation, he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real."

Review:   There were so many times I wanted to simply give up on this novel and throw it at the nearest wall.  It's not that it's poorly written, far from it.  Quentin is just one of the most infuriating protagonists I have ever encountered.  He is extremely selfish, egotistical, and prone to moping when things don't go his way...and, ultimately, this is one of the reasons The Magicians works so well.

Quentin and the majority of his group (save Alice) are perfect examples of the high-achieving, middle-class students who are constantly told how "special" they are that they become self-absorbed misanthropes in their college years.  Quentin represents his generation.  Despite his cynicism, his disapproval of the failing system left to him by his elders, he holds on to his hope of something better, represented here by his belief in Fillory.

But rather than the whimsical, somewhat generic fantasy world he remembers from his beloved children's books, Quentin finds a Fillory ravaged by violence, a world antithetical to the one represented in the text of the books.  Again, Mr. Grossman brings life to a generation's frustrations and disappointments, this time by subverting children's fantasy.

While I'll be the first to admit that the book could be a slog due to Quentin's behavior, the writing and the thought behind it more than make up for an annoying protagonist.  I will definitely be reading The Magician King.