Month: May 2016

Book Review – The Romanovs by Simon Sebag-Montefiore

Simon Sebag-Montefiore took an unorthodox approach to historiography in his chronicle of the last Imperial Russian Royal Family: The Romanovs. At times I found the descriptions of the 20 Romanov rulers’ lives reminiscent of Suetonius’ style in The Twelve Caesars. At other times the book’s lurid salaciousness seemed like something one would read in the pages of Penthouse Letters ®. This tome would appeal to those interested in the tumultuous caprices of Russian history as well as those craving a sordid summer beach read. It certainly didn’t lack for broad appeal.

Several years ago I read Stephen Bates’ Asquith: a biography of British Prime Minister H. H. Asquith. I marveled at the fact a womanizing alcoholic could serve as head of government of the British Empire. It impressed me even more that he did so during a time of profound social change at home and with a major foreign policy crisis abroad. The Romanov rulers managed to do so for over 300 years; and they served as both heads of state and government. Whether one agrees with their unorthodox behavior or not, that achievement deserves some degree of respect.

This book contained much more erotica than I’m used to reading in works of history. I found some of the lines rather amusing. The author described love notes between two aristocrats as, “Apart from a few eighteenth-century touches, their chatter was as saucy as that of texting teenagers today.” (Loc 3366) Mr. Sebag-Montefiore had the following thoughts on Catherine the Great’s amorous conduct. “’By educating young men,’ she told Potemkin, ‘I do a lot of good for the state.’ It was certainly an unusual form of civil service training.” (Location 5039)

Alexander II and his mistress Katya wrote each other “several times a day even after they had just seen each other.” (Loc 8861) The author described these letters as, “perhaps the most explicit correspondence ever written by a head of state.” (Loc 8861) I’ll allow those interested to read the book and draw his/her own conclusions.

Peter the Great implemented possibly the original version of former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s “bunga-bunga parties” at the Imperial Court.

In the autumn of 1691, Peter…convened his new All-Mad All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly), and inebriated dining society that was, in part, the government of Russia in brutally raucous disguise. (Location 1905)

Peter added, “Bacchus be worshipped with strong and honorable drinking.” (Location 1920) The author observed, “There was no division between business and bacchanalia.” (Location 1947)

But I’d give the award for most bizarre actions to Empress Anna. She instituted the following “sport” at court. “Like an omnipotent schoolgirl bully, Anna arranged female hair-pulling fights between crippled crones that had to draw blood, and dwarf tossing.” (Location 3302)

Aside from detailed descriptions of the libidinous conduct of the Romanovs, the book was also rife with examples of anti-Semitism. In a text covering 305 years, the word pogrom appeared 17 times. I found it interesting that this vile tradition began in the seventeenth century under Emperor Alexi. The author wrote:

Khmelinitsky (the Orthodox leader in the Ukraine) unleashed his apocalyptic horsemen in a savage purge of Catholics and Jews. Somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000 Jews were massacred in such gleefully ingenious atrocities—disembowelled, dismembered, decapitated; children were cutleted, roasted and eaten in front of raped mothers—that nothing like this would be seen in the bloodlands of eastern Europe until the Holocaust of the twentieth century. (Loc 1356)

The book also contained examples of the family’s governance skills. The Romanov dynasty proved De Toqueville’s assertion that, “The most dangerous time for a bad government is when it attempts to reform.”

Nobility would be defined by the privilege of owning other human beings, setting a Russian pattern of behaviour: servility to those above, tyranny to those below. (Loc 1321)

Its heart was the alliance between the Romanovs and the nobility who needed royal support to control their estates. Serfdom was the foundation of this partnership. They ideal of autocracy was in practice a deal whereby the Romanovs enjoyed absolute power and delivered imperial glory while the nobility ruled their estates unchallenged. (Location 326)

Alexander II’s decision to end serfdom in 1867 rent this thin thread holding Russian society together. It unwittingly led to the eventual abdication of Nicholas II and end of the dynasty in 1917.

In addition to the tales of cruelty, prurience and peculiar conduct, The Romanovs contained some amusing stories. The overthrow of Tsar Ivan VI had to be the most unique rebellion in history. Here’s an abridged version of the story.

At midnight on 25 November 1741, Elizaveta donned a breastplate and…emerged from her palace and drove in a sleigh through a blizzard across Petersburg to the Preobrazhensky Guards barracks where she rallied her supporters, 300 in total. “My friends,” she said, holding a pike, “just as you served my father now loyally serve me!” (Location 3707)

Entering the palace, Elizaveta addressed the sentries in their guardroom: “Wake up, children, you know who I am. Will you follow me?” They immediately joined her, allowing Vorontsoc and Lestoq to lead a detachment up to the apartments of the regent, while others fanned out around the city to arrest Munnich and Osterman. (Location 3714)

The guards waited for the deposed baby Ivan VI to awaken in his crib, and he was then arrested (in so far as a Guardsmen can “arrest” a baby) and brought to Elizaveta who held the ex-tsar in her arms. ”You’re not guilty of anything,” she said. As dawn broke, soldiers celebrated; courtiers rushed to worship the rising sun. (Location 3720)

At the time Emperor Ivan VI was just 15 months old.

The Romanovs opened with a line from Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov. It read “Heavy is the cap of Monomakh.” Mr. Sebag-Montefiore then spent the next 651 pages proving it. The austere Nicholas II showed no reaction when the Japanese eliminated the entire Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima.  I doubt readers will display the same paucity of emotion while reading The Romanovs.

Theater Review – The Who’s Tommy at Burlington County Footlighters

From “behind blue eyes” I watched the cast of Burlington County Footlighters “join together” for their production of The Who’s Tommy. I felt the “sensation” of being a kid on “Christmas” at the “welcome” opportunity to watch a theatrical encomium to Pete Townshend’s masterpiece. I love The Who’s music; especially the 1969 album that inspired the show. Why? “I don’t know myself.” “I can’t explain” the reason, but Tommy is still one of my favorites. “Is it in my head?” “You better you bet.” “It’s not enough” to tell me that “the music must change” and I should listen to a “new song”. I don’t care if “too much of anything” is bad for me. “I’m free” to turn on to this classic rock masterpiece as often as I like. I started “shakin’ all over” at the chance to see the first Rock Opera performed live on stage as a musical.

“It’s hard” to put on a production this complex. Director Jessica Sawyer did a phenomenal job turning “another tricky day” at the theater into a “success story”. Footlighters has a history of staging high tech productions such as Bonnie and Clyde and Avenue Q. Tommy featured many similarities. A movie played in the background during much of the show. The cast and crew brought out and put away bulky props such as a bed and pinball machine. They executed all of this while singing and dancing in-synch with a live band (conducted by Cameron Stringham). I marveled that they performed all these feats flawlessly.

As if these variables didn’t challenge the cast, Tommy featured a very unusual story to convey. Captain Walker (played by Paul Huntington) disappeared during the Second World War. Proving the old adage that “love ain’t for keeping”, Mrs. Walker (played by Angela Rose Longo) remarried. At this point the captain returned to catch his wife with her new spouse. In a fit of jealousy, Captain Walker killed the new suitor in front of four year old Tommy. (Colin Becker)

Tommy entered a catatonic state; becoming deaf, dumb and blind. This is where the show became really interesting. “Imagine a man” who witnessed such a scene as a child. I enjoyed watching the interplay between the adult Tommy (played by Ryan PJ Mulholland) and the younger version of the character played by Colin Becker. They performed an outstanding duet on “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me”.

Tommy proved a tough role for all three of his incarnations. (Aaron Levan played the ten year old one.) Sometimes it entailed staring straight ahead with a blank look; on one occasion while being slapped in the face. I have to give Mr. Becker and Mr. Levan credit: I don’t remember seeing them blink the entire show. The remainder of the time Tommy required singing songs written by a visionary songwriter. I’ve heard Who lead singer Roger Daltrey struggle with “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” and “I’m Free”. I give a lot of credit to Mr. Mulholland for his perfect diction and intonation on these tracks.

This show featured many performers in difficult roles. Brian Gensel turned in a fantastic rendition of the sadistic “Cousin Kevin”. He and the Ensemble also did an unforgettable job running around Mr. Mulholland singing “Tommy, Can You Hear Me?” Eileen Lucarini (aka Lena Luke) played and sang the Acid Queen role as well as Tina Turner and Patti Labelle.

Angela Rose Longo’s mellifluous singing is always a pleasure to hear. Last year I watched her perform the role of Rosemary in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.” I remember her tender rendition of “Happy to Keep His Dinner Warm.” Ballads suit Ms. Longo’s vocal style exceptionally well. She really shone in the mellow portion of “1951” and the soft recitation of the line “Tommy, can you hear me” in this show.

Paul Huntington impressed me the most at the beginning of the show. He acted out Captain Walker’s war time service in unison with a movie. At one point he even changed into a different uniform on stage. That showed phenomenal poise in front of a live audience.

Who purists would say there’s no “substitute” for Keith Moon in the role of Uncle Ernie. Al Krier convinced me otherwise. I liked his giddy, high-energy prance around the stage while singing the “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” number. I recall that during the 1989 Tommy tour Pete Townshend complimented Elton John on his red suit. I found the bright green suit Mr. Krier wore much more unique.

I also give Lindsey Krier credit for the exceptional choreography. In her role as Sally Simpson, Ms. Krier brought me much closer to the action than I’d expected. The character fell off the stage in front of me. Mr. Mulholland and the Ensemble congregated a foot or so from my seat and continued performing the song. That’s one thing I really admire about Footlighters: they utilize the whole room for their productions. As an audience member I appreciated feeling like a part of the show.

That’s why I really enjoyed the performance’s conclusion. Mr. Mulholland and the cast led the audience in a “Pinball Wizard” sing along. I have to acknowledge that their crooning sounded more “pure and easy” than mine. I still had a lot of fun joining in.

For the first time in all my visits to Footlighters I may have witnessed a technical glitch. To the “naked eye” it seemed like there were lines on the video screen at times. It could have been a “trick of the light”, though. At any rate, it didn’t cause me any “melancholia” with respect to the performance.

If I may borrow a song title from the last Who album: “We Got a Hit.” This show was a “bargain” at under $20.” “Relay” the message to friends and family. You can “cry if you want”, but the final showing is on May 21st. “Run, run, run” to Burlington County Footlighters to see the Who’s music brought to life. I’d watch this cast’s performance “anyway, anyhow, anywhere.”




Movie Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

It’s good that Obi-Wan, Yoda and Vader didn’t live to see this. This seventh installment of the Star Wars saga once again proved that the Force is no longer with George Lucas. The Force Awakens failed to live up the standards of the original series.

Let’s begin with the overall story. The bad guys, called “the First Order” this time, are after secret data. (Sound familiar?) The information they’re seeking has been hidden in a droid. (Sound familiar again?) A guy who gets dragged into this situation (John Boyega) and a woman tired of her life on a remote planet (Daisy Ridley) end up with the droid. (Is John Williams’ soundtrack running through your head at this point?) And, here’s the big surprise: they need to get this material to a remote rebel base!

But wait! There’s a problem! The Galactic Empire, I mean, the First Order have designed a weapon powerful enough to destroy a planet! Actually, this one’s so powerful: it can destroy multiple planets at once! (Bet you didn’t see that one coming.)

To make matters even worse for the Rebellion, the bad guys have a really bad guy on their side. This one dresses all in black (real original) and wears a mask! (Adam Driver) Brace yourself for this one: he’s studying the…wait for it…Dark Side of the Force!

Is it really any wonder that R2-D2 battled the robot version of manic depression during the film?

The Force Awakens did have one original plot point. The story began with the quest to find Luke Skywalker. (Mark Hamill) I wondered if he disappeared after reading an advance copy of the script. It turned out that Luke encountered difficulties with one of his student Jedis and decided to throw up his hands, give up and disappear. Apparently, the Jedi are going through a rebuilding phase.

Then there was the “Rebellion.” After three movies of “rebelling” against the Gallactic Empire, they’re “rebelling” again. That’s all they ever do. Do they know how to do anything else? The way this is going, they should change their name to the Conservatives.

And what’s with the rebel army? It seems like everyone in it becomes a general. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) received her stars prior to the movie’s beginning. About the only person in the organization who’s not a general is Admiral Akbar. I’m wondering if he’s going to fill out his transfer papers in the next movie.

And then we have the First Order. Their talent pool isn’t much deeper than the rebellion’s. Kylo Ren had the maturity of a two year old. That’s not a good trait in someone supposed to instill terror into the hearts of his enemies. Numerous times he lost his temper and smashed things with his light saber. In addition, he didn’t have “daddy issues”, he had “granddaddy issues.”

I found Poe Dameron (played by Oscar Isaac) The most interesting character in this film. Unfortunately, he only appeared on screen for about five minutes. He crash landed a TIE Fighter after escaping the First Order. As quicksand absorbed the craft I presumed him dead. Then with no explanation he showed up with the Rebel fighters to attack the enemy. It would’ve been nice to know how he escaped that harrowing situation.

I also couldn’t stand the soundtrack. It’s not that I didn’t like the music, though. To my ears it sounded identical to the one in the original 1977 film; and I mean note-for-note. Just a thought, but maybe it’s time to give John Williams a rest and bring in some new talent. How about asking Danny Elfman to score the next picture?

To be fair, the movie did have some excellent action sequences. I liked how Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) stole the Millenium Falcon and led TIE Fighters on a wild chase through the desert. The scene on Han Solo’s (Harrison Ford) freighter where they had to fight bounty hunters while corralling monsters was well done, too.

For some reason while watching The Force Awakens I kept thinking back to the first film. The original Star Wars contained excellent action along with a compelling story and memorable protagonist. I found every facet of this movie a weak carbon copy of it. No amount of adventure can compensate for a banal script.

If someone asks me to watch this flick again, I’ll make the Kessel Run at five parceps to avoid it.

Theater Review – Of Mice and Men at Bridge Players Theater Company

Finally an American has produced a drama on par with Shakespeare. John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men animated the concepts of unfulfilled dreams and aspirations in a way that made them distinctly American and, yet, universal. He interwove the freedom to “live off the fatta’ the land” with the quest for love and companionship. At the same time he explored the individual’s place in a society he’s no longer of value to. The cast and crew at the Bridge Players Theater in Burlington, NJ turned in performances commensurate with such high-minded concepts.

I admire director Gabrielle Affleck’s choice of projects. Several months ago I enjoyed watching her lead a production of Kimberly Akimbo; a challenging play written by Pulitzer Prize winning dramatist David Lindsey-Abaire. For her follow-up endeavor, Ms. Affleck decided to “up her game”, if you will, and selected another story with difficult and controversial material. This time a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist who also received the Nobel Prize in Literature wrote the script. This show also featured a dog (Ladybird “Lady” Ezell) in the live show. One can only respect this artist’s courage.

I found the interplay between Breen Rourke (as George) and Paul Sollimo (as Lenny) outstanding. A year-and-a-half ago I watched Mr. Rourke play Shelly “The Machine” Levine in Glengarrry, Glen Ross. I still recall the masterful way he voiced the role in a shrill, whinny voice. It made me wonder how he’d play a drifter from 1930s California. His authentic delivery of George’s diction and locution surprised me. As the show continued I realized I shouldn’t have been. He possesses superb acting abilities. He showed his character’s descent from rugged idealism to disillusionment very steadily and believably.

I also have to give Mr. Rourke credit for his performance in the opening scene. The playwright assigned most of the dialog to his character. At times I thought the scene a soliloquy. He impressed me for remembering all the words, let alone for the genuine manner he delivered them.

I found the casting of Paul Sollimo in the role of Lenny as somewhat ironic. The dialog described the character as “dumb”. Mr. Sollimo is a genius in the field of acting. I’ve watched him play several “sophisticated “characters extremely well over the years. I wondered what he would bring to the role of Lenny. It allowed him to exhibit his craft at its pinnacle. Mr. Sollimo brilliantly transformed himself into the character. He crawled around on the floor, giggled childishly and spoke like someone slow of mind. He pronounced words in the identical way I imagined the character would have when I read the novel. This outstanding performance led me to sympathize with Lenny more than I’d expected to.

I’ve always believed that no amount of histrionic prowess can rescue bad script writing. Rachel Comenzo’s performance of “Curley’s wife” proved me wrong. I’ve always believed, to put this as politely as I can, Mr. Steinbeck’s development of “Curley’s wife” in the novel was the worst character portrayal in the history of the English language. Seriously: Steinbeck couldn’t have even given her a name? (See my earlier review of the novel version of Of Mice and Men.) I thought the character description in the play version a bit better. Curley’s wife seemed misunderstood and longed to seek a better life. The author still failed to fully develop it.

Ms. Comenzo deserves immense credit for animating such a poorly written character so well. In her final scene with Lenny, she delivered an emotional exposition of Curley’s wife’s background leading into her desire to escape her unhappy surroundings. Ms. Comenzo’s pining facial expression and soft voice modulation actually made me empathize with the character. That’s difficult for a performer to do with a strong character. I never would’ve thought it possible with a weak one. It shows the immense level of her acting skills that she achieved that with so little assistance from the playwright.

Mr. Rourke, Mr. Sollimo and Ms. Comenzo put on an acting clinic. The rest of the cast delivered great performances, as well. I’d especially note that Greg Northam played a very moving Candy. His gingerly gait and slumped over posture added to my empathy for him. Richard Priest (as Crooks) and Fred Ezell (as Carlson) utilized memorable voices for the roles they played.

I would warn theater goers that some of the dialog contained racial epithets. The playwright had an ulterior motive for including it, however. Later in the show Mr. Steinbeck expressed his animosity towards this sort of racial bigotry. In a moving scene between Crooks (played by Richard Priest) and Lenny, the lone African American character discussed his disdain with the other characters for excluding him simply because of his race. As the original play premiered in 1937, I admired the then progressive view on race relations.

I’d also liked to give a shout out to Jeff Rife. The man did a phenomenal job with the set design. I also give him credit for engineering the set in such a way that made the intricate changes between scenes more manageable for the cast and crew.

The story in Of Mice and Men has become iconic in our culture. Mr. Steinbeck’s tale is a masterpiece of the highest order. It’s still well worthwhile to revisit; especially, when performed by such an outstanding cast and crew. The Bridge Players Theater Company’s presentation brought to mind a line from Henryk Sienkwiewicz’s epic novel Quo Vadis: “I only wish it was worse, because only then could I find the appropriate words to praise it.” The show runs through May 14.

Drama Review -The Young Man from Atlanta by Horton Foote

A menace lurks below the placid surface of Horton Foote’s brilliantly crafted drama of an aging couple coping with a son’s suicide. The menace is the unspoken secret connected with the young man from Atlanta, their former son’s roommate, and neither Houston businessman Will Kidder nor his childlike wife, Lily Dale, will name it or discuss it.

So read the blurb on the inside jacket of my edition of the play. It led me to explore this Pulitzer Prize winning drama with extraordinary expectations. How fast the story failed to meet them astonished me.

The first issue I had concerned the drama’s poor pace. The play opened with Will working as a successful businessman at Sunshine Southern Wholesale Grocery. He and his wife, Lilly Dale, recently lost their son and wanted a new start. To that end, Will was in the process of having a larger home built for them. After the dialog revealed this tiresome exposition, Will lost his job. From my reading of the exchange I thought he accepted the news very fast. The guy was cocky and planned on starting his own business, but I still couldn’t accept his reaction. After all, the son of the person who hired Will terminated him. This whole sequence seemed contrived and, dare I write it, cliché to me.

Another example of poor writing occurred when Will asked his wife, Lilly, to return all the money he’d been giving her as gifts over the years. He needed the capital to start his business and the banks wouldn’t give him a loan. During that discussion Lilly’s stepfather Pete was present. In a long, drawn-out back-and-forth, Lilly revealed that she no longer had the money.

One of the key tenets of any writing is to get to the point. This scene dragged on far too long. The fact that Lilly already told Pete what she did with the money before Will’s entry made this section even more insufferable.

Aside from extending scenes longer than he should have Mr. Foote also included unnecessary exposition. Here’s how Pete introduced his relative, Carson.

Pete: Carson brought along a picture of my sister, who was his grandmother. I wouldn’t have recognized her. She married a Mr. Stewart. She had four children, including Carson’s mother.

Lilly Dale: Oh? Sit down, Carson.

Pete: Carson says they’re all dead except his older sister Vivian and his youngest sister, Susette.

Carson: Vivian never married. Susette married and has six children. Two of them not quite right. It’s a real burden for her. (Page 54)

There’s a reference at the end of the play that may tie in with some of this information. I’m not sure, though, as I found the later dialog unclear on the subject. Beyond that, I didn’t see how the majority of this information Pete and Carson delivered had anything to do with the overall story.

Speaking of the “overall story”, now I come to the young man from Atlanta. The figure never appeared in the text. The reader learned about him through the other characters’ descriptions. In essence, a big secret about Will’s and Lilly Dale’s son came out through the discussions regarding him. I won’t give away spoilers, but while audiences in the mid-1990s may have found it slightly out of the mainstream, a modern audience would think it blasé.

Which brings me to the biggest issue I had with the play: as any writer knows the protagonist’s journey must be shaped by the choices and decisions he makes. In this case, all Will Kidder’s decisions were contingent on things beyond his control. He decided to start a business when he lost his job. He couldn’t do so because the banks wouldn’t loan him the money. He sought other sources, but neither his wife nor his family had enough to help. Then he had health issues. When the story resolved Will did end up making a choice; but he selected the only option available. This made for a very poor character arc.

I’ve read reviews where critics compared Will Kidder to Willy Loman from Death of a Salesman. I disagreed. Arthur Miller showed how Willy’s personality directly influenced the choices and decisions he made. He shaped his destiny, albeit, very poorly. As I wrote in the preceding paragraph: Will reacted to events. A strong protagonist would have shaped them. This one was even weaker than the writing.