Southern Kim (Movie Thoughts: Yellow Rose)

I was rooting for Diane Paragas’ ‘Yellow Rose’ because it stars two former Kims – Eva Noblezada and Lea Salonga – and you knwo how muich I love Miss Saigon. But I maybe I expected too much from the film. This coming of age Filipino country western drama (in itself a unique combination) tries to tell a genuine story, but takes a lot of short cuts it misses the mark.

But it has a lot of strengths – Noblezada is great as Rose Garcia, an undocumented teen living in Texas who has dreams of becoming a country singer. On stage, she is a luminous actress and singer, and on film she exudes an unmistakable presence even if the screenplay doesn’t help her much. Some ofd the characters are so flimsy – I never got how people just went in and out of her life out of the blue. For example, her character has one conversation with Dale Watson the country singer and before we know it, she is living at his trailer?

Also, as scary as ICE raids are (and probably more prevalent under the cruel Trump administration) it was used a couple fo times just to move the story forward, making for lazy story telling. I am not a big country music fan bit found the music here engaging, probably helped by Noblezada’s singing. She will be back in a better film, hopefully.

Not A Hard Knock Life (Stage Thoughts: Annie, The Hollywood Bowl)

30086_show_portrait_largeSeeing ‘Annie’ at The Hollywood Bowl last night was significant for me for a couple of reasons. First, ‘Annie’ was my very first Broadway show at age thirteen, so obviously it holds a special place in my heart. Second, this is my first time at The Hollywood Bowl, an iconic Los Angeles venue, on my six-month anniversary weekend since moving to Southern California. Plus, this show stars Lea Salonga as Grace Farrell, who I remember seeing playing the role of Annie when she was a young girl. So, essentially,  there’s all kinds of intertwined emotions here.

The nineteen piece orchestra (amplified to high heavens) sounded good, and the score sounds glorious in its hands. Kaylin Hedges is a wonderful Annie, with a voice of steel that the role requires (I read she was discovered via YouTube)  Call me an indulgent purist, though, but couldn’t her Annie have worn a curly red wig? That’s a major directorial choice I had a problem with. The rest of the cast worked well, with David Alan Grier a serviceable Daddy Warbucks, and Salonga more than fine Farrell (I wonder if the latter’s mid-century British/New Yawk accent was a directorial choice, though) Ana Gasteyer’s Miss Hannigan was more funny than menacing and that works for me. (I still get nightmares from  Nell Carter’s scary Hannigan from the 1997 revival) But the best performances for me were Roger Bart’s Rooster and Megan Hilty’s Lily St. Regis, both stealing all the scenes they were in. And adorable Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja captured the audience’s hearts as Molly. I love the diversity of the cast, representing the colorful landscape of now. Director Michael Arden manages to not have the venue dwarf the performances, and the book scenes never overstay their welcome.  He really doesn’t do any earth-shattering change in this production, which is most of the times all you need. (cc: James Lapine’s dark humourless take from 2014)

Surely, this is not my most ideal way of seeing this show, but as an experience, I would say this is one satisfied me at that particular moment of my life. A perfect breezy summer evening and overflowing wine contributed to the magical experience.  I went with my three best friends (we have all known each other since we were nine) and the whole time I was there, I kept on telling myself, ‘Life is good,’ because, truly, at times, it is.

Not Just A Blur (Music Thoughts: Blurred Lines, Lea Salonga)

26CE0D24F-FBFB-3594-A50B00B871D8BCABIt’s telling that Lea Salonga chose ‘Blurred Lines’ to title her new album. She sings the Robin Thicke hit – seemingly an unlikely choice – on her newest album, which is a live performance from her residency at 54 Below in New York City last Spring. The song is a bit of a departure for her ‘persona,’ as she is known to sing nice wholesome songs. Here she gets too ooh and cooh and gets to show her sexy side. She takes on a couple of pop songs here – One Directions’ ‘The Story Of My Life,’  John Legend’s ‘All Of Me’ – and she mostly does well with them, but she sounds like she is slumming, because, her voice – one of the greatest voices in theater today, with its peerless precise perfect pitch – stands out best when she is singing theater songs and standards. For example, I love her version of Jeff Blumenkratz’s ‘I Won’t Mind.’ It may not replace my all time favorite version, which is Audra McDonald’s, but it comes close. And I love two of her medlettes: the closer – How Do You Keep The Music Playing/How Deep Is the Ocean – and the combo of Beatles and Kander & Ebb in Blackbird/A Quiet Thing. there’s even a slight huskiness in her voice on the latter, probably because she had just finished her run in ‘Allegiance’ at that time. The ‘A Song For You/I Can’t Make You Love Me’ arrangement is a miss for me – in the slight uptempo version here, the poignancy in the latter song is missed. Her ‘Greatest Hits Medley,’ where she sings all her ‘signature’ songs, seems like an afterthought here, but it is very well remembered.

All in all, the disc is a nice souvenir of her cabaret act. But I still long for a nice studio album from her. It will suffice all our Lea Salonga cravings, but we all sure want more!

Interment On Screen (Film Thoughts: George Takei’s Allegiance, Fathom Events)

allegiance_250x375_r2I am loving these Fathom Events screenings of Broadway productions. A couple of weeks ago they had the UK revival of ‘Miss Saigon,’ and the new Broadway revival of ‘She Loves Me.’ Tonight they had the original Broadway production of Allegiance. I have already written my thoughts on the Broadway production here,  but I wanted to see how the production was filmed, so I went tonight to the special One Night Only performance. It’s interesting that now the show is titled George Take’s Allegiance, instead of just plain Allegiance.

I liked the film transfer a lot, perhaps even more than the show itself. This story probably benefits more if ‘blown up,’ and that showed in tonight’s film. As a stage production, there were a lot of holes, but here they seem less magnified. It helped that it was filmed well, not as cinematic as the Miss Saigon transposition, but still good.  And the film seems more timely now because of recent current events (Trump threatening to have a Muslim registry is reminiscent of what transpires in this show)  The production itself has highs and lows. I have warmed up to the music more as I have listened to the cast recording numerous times by now, and it was nice to recapture a lot of the songs I now sing in my head: ‘With You’ is more romantic, ‘Higher’ becomes more the aria it was meant to be. Still, the middle part still sags, and yes, a lot of the other songs seems generic and banal. The closeups help the performances – you get to feel a little more depth in Lea Salonga’s performance, and the filming benefitted Terry Leung’s: he is more photogenic and engaging on film (He would do better in features or television) All in all, this is a great experience- a night at the movies, and at a Broadway production all at the same time. There’s more coming, I hope.

The Movie In My Mind (Movie Thoughts: Miss Saigon 25th Anniversary Presentation, Fathom Events)

14354958_539173059613102_3258299395576722054_nI am a Broadway super fan, everyone knows that. But I am a Miss Saigon duper duper fan, if such a thing exists. It is one show I truly love – I know every word of its score, and it is the one musical I have seen probably close to fifty times. I am at that age now when I see a show that gets a revival,  I can say “I saw that when it first came out’  But yes, I did see Miss Saigon in 19189 with the Original London Cast, and in 1991, with its original Broadway cast. So yeah, the show and I have major history.

When I saw the London Revival Cast in 2014, I was, again, awed by the show, though if I must be honest, the scaled-down production seemed just a tad cheap compared to its earlier production. But, it worked well with what it got. There were some changes that annoyed me, but all in all, I think it got right everything that needed to be improved from the original.

So here we are, and that production has been filmed for theatrical cinema release. This performance was from September 22, 2014, and I realized that I saw the show three days before they filmed this. (I found out that the film version was culled from a couple of performances)  The big ‘get’ from this release is that it was filmed on its 25th Anniversary, and on that night, original cast members Jonathan Pryce, Lea Salonga, and Simon Bowman show up to ‘celebrate.’

But first, the show. I was kind of skeptical about this film, because, really, one can never capture the energy and heart of a live performance on film. But about five minutes into a film, I realized that this was thought of as a film, and it is astonishingly brilliant. We get closeups, and strategic camera angles that draw us in vividly into the story. The staging, frankly, is almost non-existent, and the frame is brought out enough to make the show cinematic. You never feel caged in, and you will notice details you never would have thought of if you were watching this on stage. (Did you know Kim holds Chris’s name plate while they sing ‘Sun And Moon?’)  And the performances feel even more intimate – Eva Noblezada is a wonder – her subtlety here is even more powerful – and the pain in her eyes is more piercing. Alistair Brammer is photogenic, and their love is bigger, more brilliant, so it consequence is more painful. The engineer’s role is a stage conceit, and Jon Jon Briones’ big performance is dwarfed here, and suffers, but you still get it. This is still the show, and I even told myself, after all these years, after all these performances, this is still a piece that never fails to make me cry. Again, I wept. When Pryce and Salonga show up after the curtain, you get swept into a fine air of nostalgia.

In a lot of cases, the film is even bigger than the show. On screen, its flaws are masked by the medium’s slickness. This ‘capture’ is excellent, and I suspect, will be a template for future stage-to-screen transitions.

When Hope is Gone, Gaman (Stage Thoughts: Allegiance, The Longacre Theater)

allegianceToday, the musical ‘Allegiance’ marks its 111th, and final, performance at the Longacre Theatre on Broadway. Touted as the first ever Broadway musical created, directed, and performed by Asian Americans, one may be asking, where did it go wrong? But I want to start by stating where it went right.

I first saw this show at its pre-Bradway tryout in September 2012 (I wrote about it here ) and I had a lot of problems with the show then. The good news is, this production is much improved. The story, which I felt was convoluted then, is much streamlined now, and is more focused. The cast is uniformly superb, with great performances from Lea Salonga (Kei Kimura), Terry Leung (Sammy Kimura), and George Takei (who was underused in the previous production) And the Broadway production, in my opinion, packs a more emotional punch. Even Lin Manuel Miranda has stated that the show left him in tears. (For the record, I got choked up here a couple of times as well)

16314_show_portrait_largeBut there are still problematic aspects. The book, by Jay Kuo, Marc Acito, and Lorenzo Thione, more times than not feels more a history lesson than entertainment. It tries to do so much, much of it unnecessary. (And even then, Japanese American scholars raises some troublesome inaccuracies ) I always felt Salonga’s character felt shoehorned into the story and while that’s less obvious now, it still sometimes feels like an awkward fit. And it could be my imagination, but I felt a lot less Sammy in this version. And the score, with music and lyrics by Jay Kuo, veers more towards the 90s pop opera scores of Les Miserablé and Miss Saigon, with songs that employ generic Oprah-isms that rarely move the story forward (Look at some song titles: “Higher,” “Stronger Than Before,” “Resist”)  You hear a little it of Japanese flutes that give some songs a generic Asian flavor, and there are songs like “Ishi Kara Ishi” and “Gaman” that tries to mine the Asian experience, but most of this is generic, and unfortunately forgettable. (I have to admit that repeated listenings of the cast recording have made me appreciate the score more, maybe because of the spirited singing of the cast)

I’ll go back to the good things: Leung and Katie Rose Clarke have a cute low energy chemistry, and Takei is affecting. Salonga sings her heart out, and in her much anticipated Broadway return, shows you her golden pipes – she leads most of the numbers and her 9:15 number, ‘Higher’ becomes epic only because of her. (Someone give this girl a better show!)  I wish ‘Allegiance’ was better, and it had found an audience, but I think it went as far as it could.