Speedy Delivery!

03-Feb-08 10:02 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 5 comments.

Though I've rarely met an anime I liked, there are exceptions; a year ago yesterday, I wrote about my positive (if somewhat confusing) experience with Howl's Moving Castle. Though I liked Howl's quirky characters and amusing situations, and the Japanese style of animation is undeniably beautiful, it and the plots are usually too abstract for my tastes. No matter how many times I tried, I continuously failed to see the appeal.

Part of my problem was that, in seeking out representatives of this genre, I'd glommed onto titles that were all by the same writer and director, Hayao Miyazaki. I didn't realize that all the big-name titles I'd heard about, like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, shared more popularity, so it made sense that if I didn't like the styles and motifs of one film, I'd find them to be common among all his films. I again succumbed to that same ignorance when I recently, accidentally watched another Miyazaki movie — but this time with surprisingly different results.

And really, what's not to like about Kiki's Delivery Service? Predating the other Miyazaki films I'd seen by a decade, this anime tells of a teenaged girl who leaves home as part of a one-year independent study on the path to become a full-blown witch. As rare as such women are in this fantasy world, each is still unique by taking on a special skill, such as divination or potion-brewing. But inquisitive and endearingly awkward Kiki is practiced only in flight, a trait common to all witches. In her eager attempts to capitalize on her few strengths, she finds herself partnered with a matronly baker who needs a delivery girl. Thus is born Kiki's Delivery Service.

The charm of the film is in its inherent innocence and marvel. Kiki is a sufficiently uncommon that everyone around her is in awe of the flying girl — while flight is the only thing Kiki takes for granted. Truly a country mouse, she must adapt to living in a city, fending off the attention of boys, and being on her own: in short, the trials and tribulations of growing up. She optimistically assumes the best in people and is rarely disappointed — but when she is, it's absolutely devastating. Just as Kiki brings out the best in others, the audience finds themselves immediately sympathetic when anything should trouble this girl. It's a simple tale that lacks the politics, antagonism, machinations, or complications that mark Miyazaki's later work.

I'm always impressed by the big-name talent willing to lend their voices to these niche projects, and Kiki is no exception. The protagonist herself is played by a young Kirsten Dunst (always the damsel in distress!), while Debbie Reynolds and Janeane Garofalo voice a pair of guardians. The late Phil Hartman plays Kiki's cat, Jiji, with the same wry pessimism that Billy Crystal to a similar role in Howl's Moving Castle.

Kiki's Delivery Service is a funny, sweet film that inspires some of the same wonder as the original Superman: you will believe a witch can fly. And if anime still isn't your thing, the 1989 film will reportedly be adapted to a live-action movie for a 2009 release.

THAT'S the Broadway Melody!

13-Aug-07 2:53 PM by
Filed under On Stage; Comments Off on THAT'S the Broadway Melody!

As an actor myself, I often view theater productions from a thespian's perspective. But this weekend, I was in the audience of a production of Singin' in the Rain that was so bedazzling, so creative, and just so fun that I was left with nothing to do but unabashedly enjoy myself.

The Mac-Haydn Theatre of Chatham, NY, performs summer stock shows in theater-in-the-round format. The stage is octagonal, with the north side featuring stairs ascending to backstage, and aisles for audience and cast use to the east, west, and south. I was seated in the front row in a seat along the south aisle, giving me a direct view of this classic story of lucky star-crossed lovers at a studio about to break into talkies.

Singin' in the Rain castThough I had a perfect sightline, I can't imagine there were any bad seats of a stage so effectively used. Theater-in-the-round is often considered a challenging (and limiting) atmosphere, but the cast took full advantage of the opportunity to play to all sides. Rather than parade across a standard stage like a boring stock ticker, the performers moved laterally and vertically, working with sets that played off these possibilities, and circling each other in impressive dance numbers.

Andrew Chartier as Don LockwoodThe most astounding interplay of dance and stage was the first act closing with the iconic dance in the rain, which I cannot imagine having been possible in any other theater configuration. In the scene's preceding blackout, the stage's perimeter opened to reveal gutters, and an ominous peal of thunder cued the front row theatergoers to don their supplied raincoats. Before we knew it, a full-fledged rain storm was in effect, with the gutters doubling as puddles for Lockwood to gleefully splash through. He sang, danced, hopped, and swung from the lamppost which to see live was more memorable than anything Gene Kelly had ever impressed upon me.

Colin Pritchard as Cosmo BrownThough Don Lockwood and Kathy Selden were the stars, Cosmo Brown and Lina Lamont were their equals in enthusiastic performances. Colin Pritchard played Cosmo with a certain manic quality necessary to tolerate the studio shenanigans his character must endure. In most any scene between him and Andrew Chartier as Lockwood, Cosmo came across as the driving force, providing a crazed energy that unfortunately did not match the choreography in his big scene, "Make 'Em Laugh". Though Donald O'Connor's aerobics would not lend themselves to the live stage, the substitutes Pritchard was given fell flat, such as a nose-biting rubber chicken, a valkyrie's helmet and wig, and other props. But he played these scenes with the same athleticism he lent more satisfying tap numbers, such as the comical "Moses", making for an overall excellent performance.

Emily Thompson as Lina LamontEmily Thompson (now Emily Afton) as Lina Lamont portrayed the dim-witted shrew with gusto and glee. Her shrill voice, flat attempts at sophistication, and utter unawareness made for a completely unsympathetic yet entirely enjoyable villainess. My only lament for Lamont, played by a former Ado Annie, is that she went through this fantastic production in its only non-singing role. But she used her several scenes to play off others, deliver victim-mentality soliloquies, and take a great big custard pie in the face — in Cosmo's own words, a formula for success.

Thompson, Kelly Shook as Kathy Selden, and the rest of the female cast showcased stunning costumes that did not steal the scenes but instead accentuated the performers, whether they were delicious candy cuties or elaborate Elizabethan ladies. The men complemented their counterparts with smart sweater vests and trim tuxedos.

Most of the film's classic tunes were present, from the Romeo-and-Juliet setting of "You Were Meant For Me" to the red-eyed "Good Morning". "All I Do Is Dream Of You" appeared to have been replaced with "You Stepped Out of a Dream". In all, the soloists were smooth and the ensemble blended well.

The one and only time I saw the movie Singin' in the Rain a decade ago prompted me to buy the soundtrack CD, but the story itself left me wondering how the film had garnered such accolades. Perhaps I needed the past ten years to expand my musical vocabulary and create a context for these experiences, as the performance Mac-Haydn gave me this weekend was phenomenal.

[All images courtesy Mac-Haydn Theatre.]