235 West 44th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 7, $69-$189
A kind of cult — er, rather large fan base — has grown up around Anastasia, Don Bluth’s 1997 animated movie about the fall of the Romanovs in Russia and the possible survival of one of the tsar’s daughters. When I went to see the new musical version, which opened last night at the Broadhurst, the theater was packed with big groups of young girls who were giddy with delight at the prospect of seeing their beloved movie brought to life on the stage; they then proceeded to shriek in unison at their favorite romantic scenes, making the experience feel like The Ed Sullivan Show when the Beatles appeared. The many twentysomething women in the audience were perhaps less giddy than wistful and teary-eyed as they watched the theatricalization of a film that has meant so much to them since they first saw the animated movie back in the late 1990s, when they were the same age as the shrieking girls are now. Thus, the show appears to have a built-in, review-proof audience. They oohed and aahed during the disappointing first act, set in St. Petersburg in 1906-7, 1917, and 1927, which catered to the younger fans at the expense of the story, but the second act, set in 1927 Paris, was enchanting, taking a far more adult approach, a treat for young and old alike.
Anastasia features a book by four-time Tony winner Terrence McNally (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Love! Valour! Compassion!) and music and lyrics by Tony winners Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the same trio that turned E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime into a hit musical in 1998; Flaherty and Ahrens wrote the score for the animated film, and six of those songs, including the Oscar-nominated “Journey to the Past,” are in the Broadway show, along with sixteen new tunes. Neither of the Fox films was completely true to the real story of the Romanovs and Anastasia, and McNally has fiddled with the truth as well, but this is not historical fiction as much as romantic fantasy. The Grand Duchess Anastasia (first played by Nicole Scimeca, then Molly Rushing and Christy Altomare as she grows up) is one of four daughters of Tsar Nicholas II (Constantine Germanacos) and Tsarina Alexandra (Lauren Blackman), who live in luxury in the royal palace, shut off from the real world. Old Russia is coming to an end, but the only one who seems to realize that is the tsar’s mother, the Dowager Empress (Mary Beth Peil), who decides to spend her declining years in Paris. The seven-year-old Anastasia wants to go with her beloved grandmother, who gives her a special music box to remember her by until Anastasia can come visit her. Ten years later, the Romanovs are still awash in elegance and finery when they are attacked during the Bolshevik revolution, as the Communists take control of Russia.
Amid postrevolutionary poverty and destitution, rumors swirl that Anastasia might still be alive. Seeking a reward, Dmitry (Derek Klena) and Vlad (John Bolton) try to find a girl they can train to be an impostor, then present to the Dowager Empress. Also on the hunt for Anastasia is Czekist Gleb Vaganov (Ramin Karimloo), a rising star in the Communist Party who wants to make sure all of the Romanovs are dead. He meets and offers help to a street sweeper named Anya (Altomare), but she refuses. Dmitry and Vlad soon believe that Anya, suffering from amnesia, is the right girl for their plan. As they scheme to escape to Paris in 1927 and bring Anya to the Dowager Empress, little memories come back to Anya that hint that she might actually be the real Anastasia. In creating a new telling of the true story, McNally has replaced the evil, villainous Rasputin with the significantly more human, heartthrob-handsome Gleb, while also creating the energetic and fun-loving Countess Lily (Caroline O’Connor), the Dowager Empress’s lady-in-waiting and a potential love interest for Vlad. Choreographer Peggy Hickey offers numerous dances as the action moves from 1906 Russia to 1927 France, including a troika, a waltz, the Charleston, and even ballet, making excellent use of Linda Cho’s costumes, which range from spectacular ball gowns to peasant drab. Meanwhile, Aaron Rhyne’s projections, which often evoke travel, get more creative once the maps go away, enhancing Alexander Dodge’s cleverly functional set. Tony-winning director Darko Tresnjak (A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, The Killer) can’t save the dreary sentimentality of the first act but really opens things up in the vastly more entertaining second act, which begins with “Paris Holds the Key (to Your Heart),” immediately letting us know that things are going to get better. All the while, the shrieking continues, culminating in a rafters-shaking noise at the finale. Spoiler alert: Ten years ago, the real Anastasia’s bones were found, with DNA evidence confirming that she died with the rest of her family in the Bolshevik attack. Of course, McNally, et al. opt for a different ending for the musical, and you’ll be very glad they did.
A month before her wedding, Michal (Noa Koler) finds out that her fiance, Gidi (Erez Drigues), doesn’t actually love her. Determined to not become an old maid, the thirty-two-year-old animal handler decides that she is going to go through with the ceremony anyway, that love — and the right man — are still out there waiting for her. “I believe God will help me find a groom by the end of Hanukkah,” she tells wedding planner Shimi (Amos Tamam), who is not so sure she is making the right decision. She then goes on a series of ever-more-silly dates with Orthodox men as her wedding day approaches, with no legitimate suitor in sight as her friends and family wonder about her sanity. And then she meets singer Yoss (Oz Zehavi), but is he Mr. Right? By then, you might not care. Written and directed by New York City native Rama Burshtein (Fill the Void, Venice 70: Future Reloaded), The Wedding Plan, which is called Through the Wall in Hebrew, is a Lifetime-like romantic comedy, trying too hard to be charming and funny, resulting in flat scenes that are predictable and trite. Michal’s wedding day is scheduled for the eighth day of Hanukkah, which holds special meaning at the end of the Festival of Lights, a time for rejuvenation; The Wedding Plan could use some rejuvenating of its own.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
900 Washington Ave. at Eastern Parkway
Saturday, April 29, and Sunday, April 30, $25-$30 (children under twelve free), 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
It’s still frightfully cold as May approaches, but perhaps spring will be in the air this weekend for one of the city’s most fabulous annual festivals, the Sakura Matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. The weekend celebrates the beauty of the blossoming of the cherry trees with live music and dance, parades, workshops, demonstrations, martial arts, fashion shows, a community bookstore, a bonsai exhibit, Shogi chess, garden tours, the Mataro Ningyo Doll Museum, book signings, giant origami, food, clothing, cosplay, kimonos, insect hotels, a Japanese market (Ito En, Minamoto Kitchoan, Royce’ and Raaka Chocolates, sushi pillows, tenugui wraps, handmade hair ornaments, Togei Kyoshitsu Ceramics), lots of children’s activities, and more. Among the guests are Runi Hara, Kate T. Williamson, Sophocles Plokamakis, Jed Henry, Rio Koike, Soumi Shimizu, Sōkyo Shimizu, Akim Funk Buddha, Jeremy Aaron Horland, J-Music Ensemble, and Tao Yaguchi. Below are daily featured highlights of this always lovely party, with many events going on all day long and over both days; advance tickets are required. To track the blooming of the cherries, check out the updates here.
Saturday, April 29
The Art of Kendama (wooden toys in motion), with Team KENYC and DJ Panic, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 11:00
Takarabune Dance: Awa Odori dance and narimono drum ensemble from Shikoku, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 12 noon
Dancejapan with Sachiyo Ito, Main Stage at Cherry Esplanade, 1:30
Ukiyo-e Illustration Demonstration with Jed Henry, Ink Alley at the Osborne Garden, 2:00
Stand-up Comic Rio: Rio Koike’s Tokyo Magic Show, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 3:15
Sohenryu Tea Ceremony, with tea masters Soumi Shimizu and Sōkyo Shimizu, BBG Tea Center at the Auditorium, 4:00
Hanagasa Odori flower hat procession, with the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 4:00
Uhnellys indie rock, Main Stage at Cherry Esplanade, 5:15
Sunday, April 30
Japanese Garden Stroll, guided tour, Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden, 10:00 am
Akim Funk Buddha’s Urban Tea Ceremony Unplugged, BBG Tea Center at the Auditorium, 12 noon
Kuni Mikami & East of the Sun, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 1:00
Sohenryu Tea Ceremony for Families, with tea masters Soumi Shimizu and Sōkyo Shimizu, BBG Tea Center at the Auditorium, 2:00
KuroPOP, J-pop dance party, J-Lounge at Osborne Garden, 2:30
Manga Drawing with Misako Rocks, the Osborne Garden, 3:00
NY Suwa Taiko Kids All Stars, J-Lounge Stage at the Osborne Garden, 4:15
The Eighth Annual Sakura Matsuri Cosplay Fashion Show, with hosts Becka Noel and Dhareza Cosplayza and original music by Taiko Masala, Main Stage at Cherry Esplanade, 5:15
THE REAGAN SHOW: OUR COUNTRY WAS HIS STAGE (Sierra Pettengill & Pacho Velez, 2017)
Tuesday, April 25, Cinépolis Chelsea 4, 8:45
Wednesday, April 26, Cinépolis Chelsea 2, 6:45
Taking its name from The Truman Show, Peter Weir’s 1998 satire in which Jim Carrey plays a character whose entire life is a reality television program, The Reagan Show posits the fortieth president of the United States as the first full-time made-for-TV leader and his two terms as the height of performance art. The film opens with a December 1988 ABC News interview in which David Brinkley asks outgoing president Ronald Reagan, “Did you learn anything as an actor that has been useful to you as president?” Reagan responds, “There have been times in this office when I wondered how you can do the job if you hadn’t been an actor.” Writer-director Pacho Velez (Manakamana) and producer-director Sierra Pettengill (Town Hall, Cutie and the Boxer) gained access to archives that included what was known as White House Television (WHTV), raw footage shot by White House cameras that obsessively followed Reagan, reminiscent of how Richard Nixon audiotaped everything in the Oval Office. The WHTV clips go behind-the-scenes of the before, during, and after of major and minor events, depicting the cultivation of Reagan’s public image, molding him to look like a leader while choosing style over substance. “The White House has become more and more the stage, a theater, and the question has become, Are the television networks gonna manage that theater, are they gonna manage that stage, or is the White House gonna do that?” communications director David Gergen asks. The all-archival chronological film includes news reports and commentary by such journalists and political insiders as William F. Buckley, Andrew Young, Ted Koppel, Lyn Nofziger, Sam Donaldson, Chris Wallace, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, George Will, Tom Brokaw, George Shultz, Peter Jennings, Bill Plante, David Frost, Charles Kuralt, Joe Biden, and Howard Baker as they share their thoughts on Reagan the president and Reagan the media star.
The film, edited with a sense of humor by cowriter Francisco Bello, Daniel Garber, and David Barker, focuses on key aspects of Reagan’s two terms: his summits with new Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev to end the Cold War, his development of the Star Wars SDI initiative, the arms-for-hostages crisis, and his relationship with the press and his wife, Nancy. The Great Communicator is seen rehearsing an endorsement for John Sununu in which he cannot pronounce Sununu’s name correctly, acting like a macho man on his ranch, meeting Michael Jackson and Mr. T, and pardoning turkeys for Thanksgiving. Pettengill and Velez also highlight telling scenes from some of Reagan’s films, explaining in a caption that he “was almost always typecast as the good-natured, all-American hero,” essentially preparing him for politics. In addition, there are numerous parallels to what is happening today, with a reality television star in the White House who plays hard and fast with the truth while the public grows concerned about nuclear war. “Together, we’ll make America great again,” Reagan declares at a rally. As White House deputy chief of staff Michael Deaver tells Barbara Walters, “It’s the staging, how you stage the message. It’s a game.” Five presidents later, it’s still a game we’re all playing, but who is winning and who is losing is up for debate.
In A River Below, director Mark Grieco set out to document the plight of the Amazon pink river dolphin, but the film soon became about so much more, including the very nature of truth on celluloid. Making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, A River Below follows two men as they try to bring international awareness to the potential extinction of the extraordinary pink river dolphin, which is no mere unicorn-like fantasy. Also known as the boto, the largest freshwater dolphin in the world is under attack in the Amazon, where fishermen capture and cut up the mammal to use it for bait to catch piracatinga, a type of bottom-feeding catfish that exists in huge numbers and is a popular food fish. Dr. Fernando Trujillo is a marine biologist and environmental scientist from Colombia who founded the Omacha Foundation, an NGO dedicated to research and conservation. He’s spent more than twenty-five years working with indigenous communities along the Amazon, educating them about subsistent consumption and focusing on the boto, which he calls “one of the most clever, intelligent, and charismatic mammals in the world; even for the indigenous people, they are a kind of sacred animal. They are people like us, but underwater.” In fact, some locals believe Dr. Trujillo “was a dolphin that became a human to protect the dolphin.” Richard Rasmussen is a Brazilian television star, an animal rights activist, and a biologist who has hosted such popular NatGeo programs as Wild to the Extreme. “I don’t know any natural interaction with wild animals that are so profound and so beautiful. They just come to you” he says as he feeds and swims with a boto. “I would say that anyone that has had this experience will turn into a better person, will understand better what we’re talking about, you know? We don’t want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is part of the chain; we want to save the dolphin because the dolphin is us.” When a Brazilian show airs controversial footage of a boto being butchered on the river, the ensuing outrage seems destined to save the dolphins — but perhaps sink Rasmussen.
The documentary takes a radical turn when truth goes on public trial as an angry Rasmussen defends his actions while the fishermen claim he is a manipulative, heartless liar. Grieco himself becomes part of the story when he returns to the village, which has been banned from hunting dolphins, severely impacting their economy, to find that many members of the community have their smartphones out and are filming him and Rasmussen to make sure they cannot edit out important information and twist the facts. It’s an extremely powerful moment, no matter where you stand on the central issue of whether the fishermen are entitled to use the dolphin as bait. “Just by chance, I had stumbled upon a story that dovetailed perfectly with my own concerns with the truth in images, media influence and distortion, performance for the camera, and my role in all of this as a documentary filmmaker,” Grieco (Marmato) explains in his director’s statement. “The question begs to be answered: If the film is asking what is the truth behind the camera, shouldn’t the filmmakers themselves be suspect?” Gorgeously photographed by Helkin René Díaz with numerous shots of the winding yellow-brown river snaking through the lush green rainforest, accompanied by an often ominous score by Tyler Strickland, A River Below might be specifically about the boto in the Amazon, but it also raises more general issues about the future of the planet.
The Pearl Theatre
555 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through May 14, $59-$99
Kate Hamill follows up her inventive, extremely popular reimagining of Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility, a Bedlam production that ran at the Gym at Judson for nearly ten months, with another creative marvel, a twenty-first-century take on William Makepeace Thackeray’s 1848 novel Vanity Fair, which follows two very different young English women as they graduate from an exclusive girls school and head out into proper society during the Napoleonic Wars. “There are no morals here,” the manager (Zachary Fine), a kind of ringmaster for this anything-goes circus, tells the audience. Standing in front of the six other members of the cast, who are arranged not unlike a police lineup, he adds, “This is Vanity Fair, and it is not a moral place. Nor is it often a merry one, for all of its pageantry and noise.” He then asks the cast, “What do you want?” The answers include “Honor,” “Glory,” “Redemption,” “Love,” “Respect,” and “Money” until the actress playing Becky Sharp (Hamill) declares, “Everything.” And she’s willing to do just about anything to get it. Becky is a devious orphan and “dirty little bird,” a “charity pupil” at the Pinkerton Academy for Young Ladies; meanwhile, her best friend, Emmy Sedley (Joey Parsons), has “the advantage of good birth,” Miss Pinkerton (Ryan Quinn) notes, “possessed of every requisite feminine skill.” Upon graduating, Emmy is set to marry Lt. George Osborne (Debargo Sanyal) and take her preordained prestigious place in Vanity Fair, even though it’s actually George’s best friend, Captain Dobbin (Quinn), who is madly in love with her; Becky, on the other hand, will become governess to the Crawley family, consisting of Sir Pitt Crawley (Brad Heberlee); his son, Lesser Pitt (Sanyal), who is prone to spouting Bible verses; his “better son,” proud soldier Rawdon (Tom O’Keefe); Sir Pitt’s young wife, Lady Rose (Quinn); and Sir Pitt’s wealthy sister, Miss Matilda Crawley (Fine), who is coming to visit. Determined to make something of her life, Becky sets her sights on Emmy’s dandy of a brother, Jos (Heberlee), whose brutally honest father (O’Keefe), who works on the Exchange, continuously belittles him. At the heart of all of the gossip, insinuation, intrigue, jockeying for inheritance, and love matches is Becky’s determination to improve her station. “I shall win this game or die trying,” she announces, and she means it.
Hamill, who has also adapted Pride and Prejudice for Bedlam, takes a decidedly feminist approach to Vanity Fair, which is particularly fitting in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump, as discussion of the election rages on, rife with claims of sexism and misogyny and arguments over the socially acceptable character for an ambitious female. Too cold and calculating? Not likable enough? Can a woman be too . . . sharp? Hamill, who played Marianne Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility, has streamlined Thackeray’s novel into a treatise on judging morality, no matter the era. She plays Becky, a role previously portrayed on film by Myrna Loy, Miriam Hopkins, and Reese Witherspoon, as a strong-minded “Nasty Woman” who believes she is capable of anything, that simply being poor and female is not going to hold her back from taking control of her life. Parsons (The Rivals, The Misanthrope) is terrific as the demure Emmy, who sticks by her friend despite their different views about the world. The five other actors all expertly play multiple roles, both male and female, blurring gender lines while also making fun of them. Sandra Goldmark’s set design, Valérie Thérèse Bart’s costumes, and Seth Reiser’s lighting turns the Pearl Theatre into a welcoming carnival, with Fine (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Coriolanus) as a fabulous host, interacting with the audience, making sly faces at key plot points, and engaging in a separate little hat-tossing drama of his own. The night I saw the show, Fine playfully teased an older man in the front row, predicting he would be asleep in minutes. At the beginning of the second act, when it became apparent that the man and his wife weren’t coming back, Fine’s improvisation was among the funniest moments of the show, which has plenty of them, without losing focus on its central exploration of what we all want, and just how much it matters, or doesn’t, in the end.
The opening scene of Shady Srour’s Holy Air, making its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, is utterly charming, as married couple Adam (Srour), a businessman, and Lamia (Laëtitia Eïdo), the head of the Sexuality Center, are stuck in ridiculously heavy traffic. Lamia decides to use the extra time to take a pregnancy test, urinating right there in the car. That is shortly followed by one of the film’s most splendid images, of Adam in the bathtub, his heavily bearded face above the back edge, a glass of alcohol at the ready as the camera stays still. Unfortunately, the film is shaky the rest of the way, too repetitive and fussy with subplots that don’t feel natural. Whereas Lamia is pregnant, Adam’s father is a tough old guy, fighting cancer. Adam’s partnership with his friend Mahmoud isn’t going well, so, soon after encountering a priest singing the holy praises of Mount Precipice, Adam decides to bottle the air on the mountain and sell it as a tourist souvenir. The film takes on the Christian faith, capitalism, road rage, local gangsters, and growing old, but it works best when it focuses on Adam and Lamia together; just about everything else is overly sentimental, too goofy, or just plain nonsensical, which is too bad, because Srour (Sense of Need) and Lamia (Cleopatra in The Destiny of Rome) make for a lovable couple, caught up in the travails of modern-day Nazareth.