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Friday, March 28, 2008

The Orphan Queen

We interrupt our usual movie reviews to talk about a remarkable play we all saw several times last week. (Hey, it’s our family’s blog, so we can do what we want with it.) So without further interruption…

The Orphan Queen

Last Saturday night, our family went to the Concord opening of The Orphan Queen, a musical written by Temple Isaiah’s of Lexington’s Cantor Robbie Solomon based on The Book of Ester. On Sunday, my wife and younger son dropped off our older boy (who plays turbaned 3rd grader #2 in the play) and decided to watch the first act again before heading off to swimming lessons. Driving away from Temple Isaiah during intermission, they both realized that tears were welling up in their eyes and before they made it past Lexington Center they were banging a U-turn in a mad rush to get back to temple in time to see all of Act II, swimming be damned.

How good was Orphan Queen? To paraphrase another critic from another story, watching this show one could not help but feel that you were staring directly into an absolute beauty.

Those familiar with Cantor Solomon’s work, especially with his band Safam, know he is comfortable working in a wide variety of musical genres. And with the exception of acid punk and Tuvan throat singing, there does not seem to be a single style that goes unused in Orphan Queen, from the calypso rumba of Everybody Loves a Party to the torch song showstopper I Am a Woman, to jazz, choral, easy-listening and, of course, the Megilah chant.

In addition to delightful musical diversity, the play’s success rested on three pillars, the first being the characterization of the leads. Jews have been writing and producing bawdy Purim shpiels since the 14th century, so most of us are familiar with the main characters of the holiday: the foolish King Ahashveros, the severely put-upon Queen Vashti, wicked Haman, virtuous Mordechai and beautiful Esther. Or at the very least, we know these people as caricatures or placeholders for comic Purim parodies.

Orphan Queen, however, is a straight telling of the Purim tale and Solomon’s script wisely highlights serious adult themes, even within the framework of musical family entertainment. Vashti’s exile, to site one example, causes both the king and former queen to reflect on the pride and fate that has led them to part ways, despite their continued love for one another in the moving number What Was I to Do? Similarly, the king’s romancing of the much younger Esther, often the source of ridicule or at least queasiness for modern audiences, is presented with great tenderness, making Orphan Queen – among other things – a powerful love story.

The second pillar of strength for the show is the cast. When cantor, actor and co-director Rosalie Gerut as Queen Vashti belted out I Am a Woman shortly into the first act, her Broadway-class singing voice and stage presence confirmed for the audience that they were in for a wild ride. Moshe Waldoks, Rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Brookline and co-editor of The Big Book of Jewish Humor was an interesting choice for King Ahashveros. When I saw the show on closing night at Rabbi Waldoks’ temple in Brookline, one could sense whiplash in the audience as they careened from laughing at their rabbi’s comic mugging, to being gripped by the serious drama King Ahashveros brought to the stage via his sonorous voice and songs.

Like a Bond movie, a Purim story rises or falls based on the villain, and Haman is one of the trickier bad guys to bring to life. On the one hand, he’s the would-be architect of genocide and yet everyone knows who gets it in the end. Actor David Mitchell straddled this fairly broad line between Adolph Hitler and Wile E. Coyote by ratcheting up the menace in the first act, then gradually adding more comic elements to the character as fate’s anvil came closer and closer to his pointy hat.

We’ll get to Cantor Solomon’s portrayal of Mordechai later, but first a word on Anika Benkov’s Esther. This thirteen-year-old actress and singer certainly showed both the singing and acting chops to keep up with the rest of the experienced cast. More importantly, her guileless demeanor helped bring to life a much more complex Esther than we’re used to from yearly Megilah readings. Those tellings (especially coupled with contemporary interpretation) tend to emphasize Esther’s bravery, yet Orphan Queen’s Esther is a young girl who must discover adulthood, love, courage and faith all within a few scenes. Benkov’s ability to rise to this challenge was her greatest triumph on stage. Rosalie Gerut originated Ester’s role in 1997 and returned years later to play Vashti in this year’s production (a la Carol Burnett’s voyage from Princess Fred to Queen Aggravaine in Once Upon a Mattress). One hopes that Benkov will get the chance to make this show part of her life again sometime in the future.

In addition to cast and character, the ability to transcend comes from the play’s composition. In addition to the main cast, Orphan Queen makes use of two talented choruses: one of adults, one of children. The kid’s chorus moves the story along with jazzy narration, while the adult group, which fills in for the supporting cast, is also used as a stand-in for the Jewish people (a message powerfully delivered in the song What Have You Done? which ends the first act).

The show is bracketed by a series of ingenious reprises sung by these three singing units: the two choruses and main cast. The aforementioned What Was I to Do?, sung when the king and his wife Vashti departed in the first act is paired with What Am I to Do? sung by the king and his new bride Esther in the second act as the two of them confront a very different fate.

Solomon’s entire creation reaches culmination in the show-stopping number Purim Parade in which Mordechai rides the king’s white horse while his people celebrate and Haman stews. The kids chuckled as the hand-puppet horse kept pecking at Haman swollen head, yet the drama being played out in that song was far from childish. The scene is set, after all, on the day before Mordechai and all of the Jewish people will be slaughtered on the king’s order. The audience knows, of course, that it is the Jews who will be saved and Haman brought down, but the characters do not. Thus Haman spends the song issuing villainous threats with moustache-twirling glee, yet Mordechai and his people (including the children’s chorus which disbursed into the audience for this number) are singing about the absolute perfect joy that wells up from their faith in a loving God. Poised between triumph and disaster, Mordechai sings for all to join him to celebrate, “Praise the Lord” and recognize that love and joy are all around us. It is at this point that you realize that Cantor Solomon is not simply playing Mordechai. He is Mordechai: a mensch whose talents helped bring a constantly retold story back to its roots for the benefit of all.

When a fun show closes, the cast will shed a tear knowing they won’t ever be together in quite the same way. When a great show closes, the audience shares their melancholy, knowing they will never see such a performance for the first time again. There were a lot of wet eyes in Concord, Lexington and Brookline this last weekend thanks to the entire cast and all of those who made this production a reality. Thanks to everyone involved for the special gift of The Orphan Queen.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Yes, we do screen the occasional Oscar-winning, recently released blockbuster, especially one that deals with one of the family’s favorite pastimes: cooking. (Both sides of the extended family share a habit of planning dinner while eating breakfast, and a visiting grandmother once declared that at least one of our children is a supertaster.)

Pixar’s latest classic was clearly inspired by the Anatole book series by Eve Titus (the same author who wrote the Basil the Mouse Detective books), one of Ben’s latest passions. Anatole is a French mouse who, upon learning that humans think mice dishonorable thieving brigands, decides to earn his keep by becoming a secret taster and advisor to a Paris cheese company.

Ratatouille extends the rodent-as-foodie construct, introducing an eccentric rat, Remy, who is not just a super-duper taster, but also a master chef who finds his way into the restaurant kitchens of his idol, the recently deceased (but still spiritually available) Chef Gusteau. There he helps a lowly floor-mopper, the inept Linguini, take the Paris food world by storm, finding love (with Jeneane Garofolo! – or at least her voice lent to fellow-chef Colette) along the way.

First off, the good stuff: the film is animated brilliantly, not just the Paris vistas and rat-infested sewers, but also the copper pots, chopped greens and boiling tureens constantly in motion in Gustau/Linguini/Remy’s kitchen. The shots where Remy navigates a human-size world are even more inventive than similar scenes in Pixar’s Toy Story (not to mention our family’s other favorite mouse tales: Pinky and the Brain).

On the downside, the human characters are not nearly as well written as they are drawn. Linguini is a stick figure, and his romance with the tough-as-nails Colette not at all believable. The filmmakers also wrote themselves into a corner by allowing communication between rat and rat, human and human, but not between the species. In order to allow Remy to use Linguini as his “beard,” they cook up a phenomenon whereby the rat can take full control of Remy’s body by pulling strategic locks of the human chef’s hair. While this leads to some funny slapstick moments, even more fantastic world of The Incredibles did not require such awkward contrivances.

The one exception to the animated cast's lack of dimensionaity is Anton Ego (voiced by the incomparable Peter O’Toole), the snobby, powerful, brutal restaurant critic who has no regrets for having ruined the career of Chef Gustau (through ugly criticism which eventually led to Gustau’s death by broken heart) and cannot wait to turn his wrath on Linguini. The thirty second scene showing Ego’s reaction when tasting the title dish of the film, prepared strategically by Remy and friends, encapsulated a well-crafted meal’s ability to make us see past ourselves. Far from being superfluous or decadent, food is depicted here unapologetically as a platform for artistry, with art’s unique ability to allow us to transcend.

Movies, of course, can do the same thing – although not often enough in Ratatouille.

Who’s Pick: Ben

Ben: 5/5
Mom: 5/5
Eli: 5/5
Dad: 4/5 (message to Brad Bird: Please don’t take it personally)

Total: 19/20

Monday, March 17, 2008

Tarzan and His Mate

We’ve dabbled with Tarzan a bit over the years. Films featuring Gordon Scott, Elmo Lincoln and other Men of the Apes can be found three to a CD at the drugstore, and our friend John gave the kids a copy of the Filmation Tarzan cartoon from the 1970s. But this week, we decided to go for broke with Johnny Weismuller’s 1934 Tarzan and His Mate.

While there is still debate over which of the dozens of people who played Tarzan did the best job, it’s fair to say that the Weismuller films of the 30s featured the apex of Hollywood’s contribution to the jungle-man genre. And anything that happened in any Tarzan film ever, occurs twice over in Tarzan and His Mate. Did the Lord of the Jungle once wrestle an alligator? Bah! In Tarzan and His Mate, he rescues Jane from a leopard, rhino and gator in quick succession. A couple of friendly elephants ride to the rescue of Gordon Scott or Elmo Lincoln? Tarzan and His Mate features Tarzan riding at the head of herd of hundreds of pachyderms.

By the time the climax arrives, which pits headhunters and their lion allies against Tarzan and his army of chimps and elephants, the action has reached such a crazed crescendo that the sheer number of animals and battle scenes threaten to overwhelm the story. And, in a sense, they do if you’re talking about the generic central plotline which features the jungle lord outwitting ivory poachers.

But the real drama of this top-notch Hollywood production is the relationship between Tarzan and Jane, the wife he picks up (literally) in the 1932 film Tarzan the Ape Man. Maureen O’Sullivan continues her role as Tarzan’s Mrs. and every scene featuring her and Weismuller radiates not just animal passion and playfulness, but genuine, deep, abiding love. The fact that Tarzan’s communication ranges from guttural to baby-like (he lets his actions do the talking) and Jane is sophisticated and urbane only heightens the choice she made to spend her life in the jungle to be close to the man she loves.

All that said, we probably overreached with this film with regard to showing it to an eight and five year old. To give you an idea of the violence level, the body count is so high that even with a cast of hundreds (mostly natives), the names of the sole survivors at the end of the picture can be found in the film’s title. The whole bwana-native thing didn’t come up, although that’s just a matter of time.

And then there’s the erotic swim sequence in which Jane swims naked with Tarzan in an underwater ballet, with blurry water the only hat tip to modesty. For generations born after 1934 who sometimes act as though they rescued their generation from the Uptight subdivision of Squaresville, Tarzan and His Mate serves as an interesting wakeup call.

Eli Says: I liked all of the battle scenes, especially when the animals are attacking.

Who’s Pick: Dad


Dad: 4/5
Mom: 3/5
Eli: 4/5
Ben: 5/5
Total: 16/20

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Encyclopedia Brown

Eli’s been reading the Encyclopedia Brown books recently, and seems to be turning to the back much less frequently than did his parents.

For those grownups out of the loop, the Encyclopedia Brown book series, written by author Donald Sobol since 1963, features the adventures of Leroy Brown (not to be confused with the Bad Bad one), a small-town boy who has imprinted the thousands of books he has read over the years onto his photographic memory. He uses this encyclopedic knowledge (thus his nickname) to solve local crimes.

Half his cases involve outwitting neighborhood bullies and con artists, with Encyclopedia doing business as the Brown Detective Agency (at a cost of 25 cents per day, plus expenses). The rest of Leroy/Encyclopedia’s cases involve helping his dad, the local chief of police, solve more serious violations. Each case hinges on some specific fact or observation (such as dogs being colorblind or the atomic weight of gold) and the solution to each one-minute mystery appears in the last few pages of each of the over twenty EB books.

Given the popularity of the book series, it’s a pity that the only film treatment for the character was an HBO kids series produced in the 1980s, now only available on VHS (we found copies at our local library since the video stores barely stock tape these days). We watched two episodes, Encyclopedia Brown – Boy Detective and The Case of the Ghostly Rider. Each story features familiar characters, Encyclopedia and his parents, Bugs Meany (leader of the local gang, the Tigers), and Sally Kimball (Encyclopedia’s partner, who keeps bullies at bay by pummeling Bugs into unconsciousness when necessary).

Ghostly Rider is mostly a Scooby Doo mystery, with EB and Sally helping a local cowgirl save her ranch/theme park by solving the mystery of a ghastly spirit on horseback who frightens away visitors, destroying property values in the process. In Boy Detective, the team tracks down the thief of Idaville’s (the Brown’s home) time capsule, stolen on the town’s 100th anniversary.

Both episodes depart from the book’s quick and simple format, inserting quirky adult characters (a local rock star, Idaville’s doltish mayor, etc.), action set pieces (like a bike and truck chase) and dream sequences – all of which feel like padding, unnecessary to the somewhat thin plotlines. Series producers also seemed to lean heavily on comedy relief elements, turning Bugs Meany (Encyclopedia’s somewhat dim Moriarty in the books) and his twerpy Tiger sidekick into versions of Bulk and Skull from the original Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Encyclopedia’s dad comes out particularly poor in translation, turning from a generic family man/cop in the books into a typical sitcom moron dad in the HBO show.

Those issues aside, the kid actors playing EB and Sally are charming, and any portrayal of the popular books are welcome, given the legal limbo of the original source material. Apparently, Sobol sold the film rights to the series to a somewhat shady immigration lawyer for $150,000 in the 1980s (before properties like popular kids book series were being bought and sold for millions), and the HBO series is the only output to date. That said, the Hollywood rumor mill has it that Ridley Scott has shown interest in the series, and wants to turn Encyclopedia Brown into a kid action hero for the 21st century, a la Spy Kids. That being the case, let’s hope the legal battles continue for a long, long time.

Whose Pick: Mom


Eli: 4/5
Ben: 5/5
Mom: 3/5
Dad: 3/5

Total: 15/20

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Flipper (the 1963 Version)

We introduced the kids to the world’s cleverest dolphin via the original 1963 film that inspired the 1964 TV series (rather than the 1996 remake with Paul Hogan and Elijah Wood).

Back in ’63, the Ricks family’s tough-but-with-a-heart-of-gold fisherman Dad (Porter Ricks, played shirtlessly by Chuck Conners), is bringing up his son Sandy (Luke Halpin) to understand the beautiful but unforgiving ways of the sea (argh!).

To dad’s great displeasure, son Sandy discovered a friendly, but wounded, dolphin and nursed him back to health. Soon boy and dolphin are hanging out all day, amusing Sandy’s friends and having adventures in the high seas. While Sandy should be doing his chores and gettin’ a decent education, instead he’s letting lovable old Flipper have at it with Dad’s catch of the day (double Argh!).

Dad eventually comes around when Flipper saves Sandy from not just one but a school of man-eating sharks in an underwater scene reminiscent of many Flipper battle sequences from the TV series. In the TV show, which ran from ’63-’67, a younger brother Bud (Tommy Norden) was added to the family (allowing Sandy to play the older, wiser sibling), and Chuck Conners was replaced by the far-less-gruff Brian Kelly as Porter Ricks (now a sensitive park ranger, rather than a gravelly old salt).

Does the movie seem dated? Sure, although compared to the formulaic conflicts in most contemporary family dramas, the struggle between Sandy and Dad over Flipper actually has some edge to it. And yes, the undersea fights are clearly shot in a pool, but they still leave you wondering how they got dolphins and sharks to find their motivation and bleed on cue.

Most importantly, the film introduces a family with freedoms that made a lasting imprint on those of us who grew up with Flipper in the 60s and 70s. Here was a boy (two boys in the TV series) who not only hung out and had adventures with a super-intelligent dolphin, but were also free to take their boat (or “the launch”) out to sea whenever they felt like it, jump overboard and hunt for treasure or play with Flipper and his fishy friends.

This resonated with those of us who grew up in an era when childhood “play” meant running around with friends, unsupervised, from morning until night. Bud and Sandy simply had boats and shoreline to explore freedoms we all took for granted. For kids whose lives are far more structured (i.e., ours and their friends who came over to join us for Movie Night), the world of Flipper was still entertaining, but just a bit more alien.

Whose Pick: Mom


Eli: 4/5
Ben: 5/5
Mom: 3/5
Dad: 4/5

Total: 16/20

Friday, March 7, 2008


During the first seven minutes of Disney’s 2000 animated feature Dinosaur, it’s hard not to think you are in the presence of something special. In a boundless vista where various species of dinosaurs are going about their business, a tiny predator uses a Tyrannosaurus Rex attack as cover to snatch an egg from an Iguanodon nest. Fumbling his lunch, the thief watches as the egg disappears, traveling by land, sea and air (via Pterodactyl) to a new home countless miles away from Mom. The scene plays out with only the roars and grunts of prehistoric animals, until the egg finally comes to rest near the home of a family of friendly lemurs.

And then the lemurs begin to talk. Spell broken.

As it turns out, not only do lemurs talk, but so does Aladar, the heroic creature who ultimately hatches from the egg. And as it happens, they’re all one big happy, fuzzy and/or scaly family who put their differences in species aside to romp together like a loving Disney clan.

Once the initial promise of a wordless recreation of the dinosaur world (the original premise for the script which was vetoed by Disney) has passed, the story continues in an engaging fashion, albeit with a dark turn. Apparently, these prehistoric creatures are unfortunate enough to live in the time when the Deathstar (a giant meteor that supposedly wiped out the dinosaurs) hit the earth, the meteor strike being another scene that took our kid’s breath away.

As popular science readers or Discovery Channel watchers know, the Deathstar did not wipe out species worldwide just by its impact, but instead allegedly blasted millions of tons of dust into the upper atmosphere where it stayed for years, blocking out the sun and killing the vegetation at the bottom of the dinosaur food chain. In Dinosaur, the drought leads to a mass exodus of all species of dinosaurs searching for a promised land where water and food are still plentiful.

The major post-impact drama of the film involves Aladar struggling with the ruthless leaders of the dinosaur caravan as they trek across barren landscapes, with predators dogging them and internal strife rampant. His interaction with Kron, the cruel-to-be-kind leader of the pack, is complicated by his dedication to an older, slower Triceratops and Brontosaurus who are perpetually on the verge of being left behind, as well as Aladar’s romantic interest in Kron’s sister Neera.

Despite some disappointment over what Dinosaur could have been, the film was a big hit with audiences and with our family, with the kids equally engaged with both the intense visuals and dialog-driven drama (which proves yet again that Disney knows something we don’t). And it was certainly good to see familiar creatures from the old How and Why Wonder Book of Dinosaurs brought to life on the screen (although we’re still trying to figure out what happened to the Brontosaurus of our youth which seems to have disappeared from most of our kid’s dinosaur books).

And while we’re closing on a tangent, just when did Saturn get all of those extra moons?

Whose Pick: Dad


Eli: 4/5
Ben: 5/5
Mom: 4/5
Dad: 3.5/5

Total: 16.5/20