Talking Movies

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

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Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

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April 5, 2012

Alice in Funderland

The Abbey stages its first musical in 20 years, but if decades long moratoriums are the cost of keeping atrocities like this off the stage then it’s a price well worth paying…

Thisispopbaby bring their Project work-shopped contemporary musical take on Alice in Wonderland to the stage with Talking Movies favourite Sarah Greene in the title role. Her Alice is a hopelessly depressed Corkonian whose unfaithful boyfriend recently died from eating a peanut. Upset by the demand of her materialistic sister (a catty Susannah de Wrixon) that she be her bridesmaid, Alice has a bad reaction to a wedding rehearsal curried prawn and dreams herself stranded in a queered Dublin. As she stumbles across the city in search of Warren (Ian Lloyd Anderson) she encounters Carroll characters. The Caterpillar is a Dublin taxi-driver obsessed with British oppression, the Cheshire Cat is a corrupt politician, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are drug dealers, and… I don’t know what the Duchess is supposed to be. “I’d rather take advice from a f****** caterpillar sitting on a mushroom” is the level these references operate at; crude, unfunny.

Composer Raymond Scannell pens some memorable melodies. ‘We’re all going to Hartstown’ is nicely jaunty, the Duchess’ entry has nice shuddery techno under Carroll’s actual verse, and there’s a wonderfully poignant duet between Alice and The Gay (Paul Reid). But the fact that a character is actually called ‘The Gay’(!!) clues you that it’s not the music that’s the problem here. The first act’s wearying campiness is actually self-defeating. The Cheshire Cat as crooked politician sets up a rousing James Brown style number for the grinning Mark O’Regan about playing monopoly with the country’s future, but what could have been great satire can’t soar in this context and the attempt is quickly abandoned. Instead satire is directed at brave, original targets: The Pope, Blaithnaid Ni Chofaigh, Mary Harney. Satire punctures the pomposity of the powerful. Does a religious figure unlikely to be defended by the audience, a presenter who hasn’t been on air for over a year, and a retired politician strike you as powerful? Swift would guffaw derisively at attacking Harney not Phil Hogan, or singling out Blathnaid as the most scandalous element of RTE’s recent troubles. Attacking those targets is just pathetically easy, and that’s easily just pathetic.*

Philip McMahon’s book also irritatingly nods to the presence of the audience frequently for, again, no particular reason. Fourth wall breaches should be used sparingly (Tom Jones) or to the point of meta-textual madness (Slattery’s Sago Saga), but such pointlessness is hardly surprising as Alice runs for nearly 3 hours (including the interval) yet Sarah Greene is hopelessly upstaged by Kathy Rose O’Brien and Aoibhinn McGinnity because the script gives her nothing to do. McGinnity’s madly enthusiastic Chloe is one of the second act’s few saving graces, while O’Brien is hilarious impersonating Blathnaid and Fassbenders the Bob Fosse homage second act curtain-raiser number which is the closest this production ever feels to an actual musical…

The second act is unbearable. All the previously baffling campiness builds towards Tony Flynn’s domineering presence as Dolores, the Red Queen of Hartstown. I’ve seen the Rocky Horror Show. It’s joyous, and 90 minutes. I’ve seen Cabaret, working off Sam Mendes’ queered revival. It’s devastating, and 2 hours. Alice in Funderland fails by its own yardsticks… It’s 3 hours that degenerates into endless unfunny drag queen humour; line after line of witless comedy, whose staggering coarseness becomes incredibly tedious. The late appearance of the ‘Scissors Sisters’ is an amazing low point. I actually considered walking out, but figured such diva behaviour would only encourage the performers. The repeated chorus “We’re all torsos in the banal” is the most tasteless thing I’ve ever sat thru. It’s embarrassing to watch this on the stage of the national theatre in the same way that it’s embarrassing to see Mrs Brown’s Boys on primetime BBC. You urgently want to buttonhole the rest of the world and assure them, “All this…it’s not us. Underneath, we are more…”

If you see Alice, and don’t, feel free to leave at the interval if you’ve disliked the first act; the second act is ‘wretched beyond belief’… As I’ve tweeted, #Thisiscrapbaby.

1/5

Alice in Funderland continues its run at the Abbey until May 12th.

*If you think I’m bluffing about attacking the powerful then tune in next week when I stick it to hackers extraordinaire Anonymous who can break my poor blog like a twig.

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