Curtainup Founder & Editor Elyse Sommer's Epilogue -- I've passed the torch for reviewing and editing new theater productions on and off-Broadway and elsewhere. However, I'll continue to sound off here with my take on Live and Onscreen Entertainment. As for Curtainup's extensive content since 1996-- it's all sill available at www.curtainup.com

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

An Interesting but Worriesome Time to be Retired by Elyse Sommer


 An Interesting but Worriesome Time to be Retired 

by Elyse Sommer

Retiring from a super-busy career you love is not easy.  

Fortunately, everything I and my many good friends and colleagues  have written about since 1996 is still available to read via the archives and special Google search box links at the right side of   Curtainup's now frozen main page (www.curtainup.com).  

My interest in and love of the theater is not retired, though. Given  the entertainment world's new normal, with its blend of all  storytelling formats, my blogpost updates at  https://curtainupnewlinks.blogspot.com/ cover the entire cultural  spectrum.   

The way various screening platforms have given writers, actors and  directors a chance to create content strikes me as a new golden era  reminiscent of the golden age of dramas and musicals during the 1940s and '50s.

Unfortunately, the unrelentingly depressing news cycle has put a kibosh on that pleasure and has had me spend most of my time  looking for escape fare to read and watch. As it turned out, lots of  what I found not only diverted but also did what any well done  cultural content does: enliven, enrich and lead the viewer to other   worthwhile reading or watching experiences.

My search began with some golden oldie movies. The work of Nora Ephron and John Patrick Shanley proved to be as good, if not better than ever. If Ephron were alive, she would surely be writing and directing a sequel to You've Got Mail. Instead of the bittersweet  romance between a mega bookstore owner and a small neighborhood bookseller, she'd be dealing with the Amazon effect. Even the great  Ephron might find it hard to turn that into a romance. 

Rewatching Screenwriter Shanley's Moonstruck refreshed my  memory of Actor John Mahoney before his later and more famous  role in the Frasier sitcom. That led me to revisiting the series and its superb cast and genuinely witty dialogue. David Hyde Pierce, the  show's Dr. Niles Crane, is still doing great work on stage and screen.  But Grammar, the titular Frasier Crane, did not recapture the  original 's magic in his recently updated Frasier miniseries. Clearly,  it does take trial and error to find really solid feel-good fare.   

Naturally, it's satisfying to spend time with familiar and still impactful stories. But reassurance that fine new work is still being  created is also needed. Hurrah! It is! I've already written about Ann  Pachett's wonderful new novel in my recent blogspot feature https://curtainupnewlinks.blogspot.com/2023/08/thornton-wilders-our-town-gives-ann.html. Patchett is an awardwinning author. Lessons In Chemistry, another outstanding new novel by Bonnie Garmus, is a debut that has been adapted into a terrific streaming series. 

Though Robyn Carr is certainly a successful writer, I haven't read a  Harlequin romances since I was an agent for writers of that genre.   That said, Sue Tenney's Virgin River series added a delightful guilty pleasure to my on-screen escape fare. The outstanding cast and   Tenney's skillful adaptation had me hooked for all five seasons, with another one coming to Netflix.

For the many who want their entertainment away from home again,  the good news is that Broadway and Off-Broadway theaters have  plenty  of shows on offer and created and performed by a more  diverse talent pool than ever before.

Kimberly Akimbo, an intimate musical, had a trial run at the downtown Atlantic Theater. It actualy had another prior life as a   non-musical play (My reviews of those versions are in the    Curtainup archives). Another show with a prior history that did  remarkably well with the critics was a hokey musical called Shucked.   

But neither these or any other shows that have opened seem to have  the legs to sttck around for years. That brings me to the not-so -good  news: People have not been rushing back to the theater. Consequently, producers are struggling financially. With the cost of  putting on a show going up rather than down, deeply discounting  tickets to fill seats is good for savvy theatergoers but not the box  office. Even Phantom of the Opera ended its seemingly forever run.  So did the remarkably durable Here Lies Love in its way off the  beaten path location.  

A number of invaluable small theaters have closed, but many more  are carrying on ... with shorter seasons and smaller casts and  production values. Unsurprisingly, some of the big houses have   brought back sure-fire hits with ticketselling stars, like The Music Man with Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman. What's more, The Lion King and Wicked, which have been running for years, remain  Broadway fixtures.  

To conclude, it will take time for the "fabulous invalid" to be truly  fabulous again. Since I've seen it recover from tough times again and again, I'm hopeful it will do so once more. Ditto, that our currently  uncertain world too will find a way to deal with weather disasters,  hate crimes and wrong-minded governance. 



Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Thornton Wilder's Our Town Give's Ann Patchett's Tom Lake A Wonderful Theater-centric Flavor

Thornton Wilder's Our Town Gives Ann Patchett's Tom Lake a Wonderful Theater-centric  Flavor 

by Elyse Sommer

Outstanding new cultural offerings tend to be outnumbered by those that are ho-hum. Even creators of  proven standouts (novelists as well as playwrights) now and then disappoint. Not so Ann Patchett,  author of the Pulitzer-Prize -winning Bel Canto and other top-drawer novels. Her oeuvre now includes  the better-than-ever Tom Lake.

While Patchett doesn't write John Grisham-like thrillers, she sure knows how to draw readers. Her storytelling mastery will have you turning the pages of this dual-timeline story about a farm family's interactions during the pandemic and flashbacks to 57-year-old Lara Nelson's life and love affair as an  actress thirty years ago.  

The role of Our Town's Emily, which launched and dominated Lara's long-ago life, and the parallels to Thornton Wilder's play, are linked in with wonderful subtlety. To be specific: The Nelson farm has a  cemetery like Our Town's Grover's Corners. The oldest daughter is named for the character whose  portrayal won her mother a chance to perform with a summer stock company located at a place called  Tom Lake.

Emily Nelson, the daughter, just wants to be a good farmer like her dad. But her  mother, like many  young people's parents, could tell stories of different aspirations in their younger lives. One of Emily's  two sisters is indeed a wannabe thespian.

Besides Our Town's pivotal link to Tom Lake's dual narrative, the author has also imbued the book with  a distinct Chekhovian flavor. Since the Nelsons grow cherries, their story evokes Chekhov's The  Cherry Orchard; and the fact that they struggle to keep the farm flourishing and that the Nelson sisters  are not too happily back together because of the pandemic channels my own favorite Chekhov play,  Three Sisters.

Despite the novel's theatrical episodes and frequent references to classical theatrical and fictional literature, Tom Lake is an easily relatable contemporary family drama. The episodes about Lara's youthful life and love affair with a charismatic actor who went on to become a famous movie star  makes for fascinating detours from Lara 's own eventual life as a happily married farm wife and  devoted mother.  
For theater buffs like me, details about life at that summer stock company are a special  treat.   However, Patchett manages to insure that readers understand and enjoy what's going on whether   they're familiar with Our Town's plot or the company's second production -- Sam Shepherd's Fool for  Love. By structuring the flashbacks between the farm and the theater company, she maintains a degree  of suspense and allows for something of a surprise ending.   

Tom Lake's beginning establishes that the Nelson girls know about their mother's early career and love affair. But busy as they are helping to harvest the cherries, boredom at the end of these work days, and  the news that their mother's movie-star lover has died, trigger their nudging her for full  details. Patchett makes brilliant use of this set up to create a  richly populated, absorbing and intelligent story. Bravo!
Both hard cover and  digital  editions of Tom Lake are currently  available. There's also an audio book  read by Meryl Streep. (Where isn't Streep offering up her talents these days?)