Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him. When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter. The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.
But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform. Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”
I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.” I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface. Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.” Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature. It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film. It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film). It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.
It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow). But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke. Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.
Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)
Title: Top Hat
Release Date: August 29, 1935
Director: Mark Sandrich
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
In all my life, I’d never before watched a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. Much of the plot is a thin link between the wonderful dance sequences. This movie is also the origination of “Cheek to Cheek,” which was the first dance at my wedding reception. Nevertheless, much of this movie left me cold.
This movie is divided into two parts. The first is in London where American dancer Jerry Travers (Astaire) has come to star in a show. His love for dance leads him to tapdance around his hotel suite awaking the guest downstairs, Dale Tremont (Rogers). When Dale complains, Jerry falls for her and begins following her around London. This is a romantic comedy trope that’s supposed to be romantic, but comes across as really creepy in this movie. His dance performance also involves him miming shooting all his back up dancers with his cane. Maybe its my modern sensibilities but I don’t find a massacre to be a fun thing to incorporate in dance.
The second part of the movie takes place in Venice where Dale travels for work and Jerry (creepily) follows her there. The set design for Venice only superficially resembles the city, but it’s great in its own right, and provides lots of steps and bridges for the dance sequences. I suppose if you ignore everything but the dance sequences, it’s really quite enjoyable, but I found much of the plot here, with Dale believing Jerry to be married, and then deciding to up and marry someone else, to just be obnoxious.
Title: La La Land
Release Date: December 9, 2016
Director: Damien Chazelle
Production Company: Summit Entertainment | Marc Platt Productions | Impostor Pictures | Gilbert Films
This romantic comedy is built on the premise of big song and dance numbers from the Golden Age of Hollywood but set in the present day. The movie stars Emma Stone as Mia Dolan, an aspiring actor frustrated by dead auditions, and Ryan Gosling as Sebastian Wilder, a jazz pianist taking on cheezy pop music gigs while hoping to open a classic jazz cafe. They meet cute, of course, and after some acrimony, they fall in love. I’ll have to say that Gosling’s character comes across as a jerk, and unlike other romantic comedies, doesn’t soften that much over the course of the film.
Stone and Gosling aren’t trained dancers but that gives their performances a certain charm of ordinary people trying to fit into the Hollywood dream. Los Angeles plays a big role in the film with many shots on-location at noted landmarks, and shot against the magic hour of sunset skies.
The song and dance numbers are great within the context of the film, but there’s nothing here I’d really want to listen to again. The one exception is a song Mia sings for her big audition “The Fools Who Dream,” which reminds me a lot of the finale to The Muppet Movie thematically. As strange as it may sound, La La Land and The Muppet Movie would make a great double feature. It has is similar in some ways, but less cynical, than Steve Martin’s L.A. Story.
Not to get too spoilery, but after a year of romance, set against the seasons, Mia and Seb go their separate ways. In a coda set five years later, they’ve each achieved their dreams, with Mia a movie star and Seb performing at his successful jazz club. There’s a dream sequence with a highly-stylized Hollywood rendition of what there life would be like if they’d stayed together. But what I really appreciate about this romantic comedy is that Mia and Seb do not get together at the end, nor do they mourn their lost love. They recognize that their time together was valuable, but have moved on to other things, and that’s ok. For all the tributes to Hollywood, that’s a message you rarely get from a Hollywood movie.
Sofi Tukker is a New York City based dance pop duo consisting of Sophie Hawley-Weld and Tucker Halpern. You may have heard it before because apparently it’s being used in commercials, but since I don’t have tv I’ve come to it with no preconceptions. Anyhow, a song about friendship is ideal for Thanksgiving weekend, and it also has some nice beats.
It’s not Christmas until I’ve partaken of the Christmas Revels which I enjoyed at a Monday matinée with my family at Sanders Theater. This is the 15th Christmas Revels production I’ve seen including one in Washington in 1995 and the rest in Cambridge from 2001-2006 and 2009 to present. This years celebration of Acadian/Cajun music, culture, and history is among the best. As an added bonus, the fire alarm went off near the end of intermission and we got to see everyone evacuate and the Cambridge Fire Department arrive. My son hadn’t finished his hot chocolate so he was happy for the extended intermission.
Most Revels productions tell a story, but this one has a strong narrative of the French settlers of Acadie in Canada who make the land arable, how they become stuck in the middle of the wars between the French and British, and their exile and resettlement in Louisiana. Such a heavy history does not always fit into the joyousness of Revels, and the scenes of their villages being burned and the Acadians forced to pack up and leave are giving appropriate gravitas. It’s such a Revels tradition to have the “villagers” on stage smiling and warmly interacting, that when during a mournful song the entire cast looks absently into space with somber looks on their faces it is a powerful moment.
But lest you think it’s all sad, there was plenty of joyous celebration. Here are some of my favorite moments:
- the large tree on the set, central to the themes of rootedness in the story, but also used to project images relevant to the performance
- the Revels also have unbelievably talented children in lead roles, and 12-year-old Lola May Williamson may be the best yet. I even saw her take the time to lift the spirits of a younger child who couldn’t help yawning during the performance.
- “Le Depart Du Canada (The Leaving of Canada)” feature the long march of villagers leaving Acadia, diagonally across the stage. I’m pretty sure the cast circled around at least twice to make the line appear even longer.
- “La Valse Cadienne de Noël” or the Cajun Christmas waltz
- the part where we threw plush chickens around the audience
- The Mummer’s Play featuring David Coffin as a caustic alligator
- It would seem that the character of the doctor in a Cajun mummer’s play would be obvious, but I was totally taken by surprise by the appearance of “Dr. John” (played by Steve Barkhimer) and perhaps the greatest tonal shift in Revels history as he launched into a performance of “Right Place, Wrong Time” followed by the Dixie Cups singing “Iko Iko”
- The all-women sword dance
The run of the 2016 Revels has ended but you can get yourself the album Valse de Noël and even audition for the 2017 Revels!
It’s warm and overcast out, and looking to only get warmer as the week goes. We’re more likely to have a wet Christmas than a white Christmas, but I know the holiday is coming soon. Today my family and I celebrated the solstice with a matinée of The Christmas Revels. This is our (mostly) annual tradition going back to 2001. The Revels this year is set in Wales, a land of beautiful singing traditions, poetry, and mythology. I’ve never been to Wales but this show gave me a nostalgic longing for the place.
It should be noted that while Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones are famed Welsh singers, their was music was not represented in the show. There were familiar tunes for the sing-a-longs – “Cwm Rhondda” and “Hydrofol” – which as song leader David Coffin pointed out, “you know these songs just not with these words.” The familiar Christmas carol “Deck the Hall” was also sung by a choir of children, but in the original Welsh. The children – who were excellent as always – also performed scenes from Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales.
There’s a beautiful scene near the end of Part 1 where Coffin sings “Daffydd y Garregg Wen (David of the White Rock)” accompanied by Haley Hewitt, while Emma Crane Jaster performing as the legendary bard Taliesen. Jaster is lit from below and moves her arms like a harpist, casting large shadows on the roll-top desk ceiling of Sanders Theatre. My daughter imitated the gesture, waving her arms by her own imaginary harp. (And I was right in my memory that Taliesen is also the name of Frank Lloyd Wright’s estate in Wisconsin). Other highlights include a group of rugby supporter singing a rousing victory song, some fine clogging, and a retelling of “Froggy Went A-Courtin'” with the children.
No matter where in the world the Revels is set, there are the Revel’s traditions. There was a rowdy morris dance and “The Lord of the Dance” where we all spill out into the lobby singing and dancing (I can never get enough of doing that), there’s the haunting Abbots Bromley Horn Dance and there’s the mummer’s play, this year with the Red Dragon playing the role of the hero vanquishing the White Dragon of England for the Welsh. We sing rounds, we shout “Welcome Yule!,” we finish on “The Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” I weep. Tradition.
I was entranced as – for me – the Revels never fail to please. My kids were more antsy. Welsh-language songs make no sense, and my son said even the English was hard to follow. My daughter wanted to see a dragon and had to wait a looooong time for a four-year-old, but I think the dragon’s eventual arrival satisfied. They soldiered through and I think they enjoyed themselves, although they wanted cookies too.
Performances continue through December 27, so get your tickets and go if you haven’t already.
Róisín Murphy is an Irish singer-song writer in electronic dance music and “Gone Fishing” is an amazing aural experience. Read more at the KEXP Blog where it was recently chosen as “Song of the Gay.”
The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge are annual family tradition. My first Revels experience was in Washington in 1996. After moving to the Boston area, the Cambridge Revels were an annual event from 2001-2006. We missed the show in 2007 due to a newborn, and in 2008 due to a blizzard, but have been regular attendees since 2009 (that same year I actually sang in the chorus!). So, I calculate that I’ve seen 13 different Christmas Revels performances. Each year is delightful and surprising in its own way.*
This year’s Revels is set in Victorian England, with music halls and the Crystal Palace playing center stage. The first act shows two teams of buskers competing on the streets of a Northern England town as the Crystal Palace manager Harry Colcord and composer Arthur Sullivan seek an alternate performer after a cancellation. In the usual Revels’ way, everything comes together as the buskers join forces to create a performance of music, tricks, and a “panto” of Cinderella. The second act is treated as a command performance at the Crystal Palace (complete with life-size wooden cutouts of the royal family in the mezzanine).
Highlights of the show:
- comic busking performances by Marge Dunn, Billy Meleady, Mark Jaster, and Sabrina Selma Mandell
- singing a round of “Row the Boat, Whittington”
- David Coffin’s solos on “It Was My Father’s Custom” and on the melodic “Christmas Bells at Sea”
- the sing-a-long and acting out of “When Father Papered the Parlour”
- the “Panto” of Cinderella, which while not a true Panto (oh no it isn’t!), we did get to shout “Don’t touch Billy’s eggs” several times
- And of course, the Revels traditions of “Lord of the Dance” (and dancing out into the lobby), “Dona Nobis Pacem,” “The Shortest Day,” and “Sussex Mummers’ Carol.” Unfortunately, the “Abbots Bromley Horn Dance” was conspicuously absence in this year’s performance.
There are five more performances from December 26-28, so if you’re in or near Cambridge, get a ticket and go!
* I also recently discovered that the Revels website has a list detailing the theme of every performance from 1971 to present. Now I need to discover time travel technology so I can go back in time and see each and every one.
This afternoon, my wife, son, and good family friend Craig took in the performance of The Christmas Revels at Sanders Theatre in Cambridge. The annual pageant of music, dance, storytelling, and drama focused this year on the pilgrimage along the Camino de Compostela in the Spanish region of Galicia. As a Celtic culture, the Galicians have their own version of the bagpipe called the gaita which featured prominently. Any piece featuring gaita and drums was a highlight for me. The largest drum resonated throughout the house.
The story of this Revels follows Everyman (portrayed by Jay O’Callahan) on his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella and onwards to the End of the Earth in Finisterre. Elements of Don Quixote are woven into the story as Everyman is knighted and joined on his journey by squire Sancho (Billy Meleady, who starred in last year’s show) and the tavern keeper Angélica (the delightful Angélica Aragón).
Usually the theme of a Revels’ performance is an excuse to tie together song and dance numbers, but this story of a pilgrimage actually maintains a pretty continuous narrative built around set pieces along the Camino, in a tavern, at a monastery, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and finally at Finisterre. The sets and lighting are really remarkable in adapting the stage for the different places along the journey.
Highlights of the show include:
- the talent and hard work of the Revels’ children whose performance more than ever is fully-integrated into the show.
- the charming line dance when the pilgrims are greeted by the monks to the tune of “Alborada de Ourense.”
- O’Callahan telling the story of “The Singing Sack.”
- sing-a-long with choreography to “Fum, Fum, Fum.”
- puppetry and lights to enact the Galacian version of the posadas ritual.
- an amazing bit of stagecraft where a giant censer is swung like a pendulum over the performers on the stage (based on the Botafumeiro at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
- Jaime Jaffe’s solo performance of “Ondas Do Mar De Vigo.”
- a mummers play featuring a mustachioed dragon who performed the hammiest death throes.
There were some disappointments. Jay O’Callahan was hard to understand and I’m not sure if he was mumbling or mic’ed improperly. Sitting in balcony center meant it took a long time to get downstairs to participate in “The Lord of the Dance.” It ended just as we reached the lobby. While I would not rank this among my all time favorite Revels’ performances, it was still delightful and I recommend seeing it if you have the chance. There are four more performances before the show closes on December 27th, so get your tickets now!
The Boston Globe has a more-detailed review for your perusal.