“On the Town”

Susan Granger’s review of “On the Town” (Lyric Theatre – 2014-2015 season)


This rousing revival of the 1944 musical by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Leonard Bernstein, based on an idea by Jerome Robbins, gets the audience to its feet immediately – with “The Star Spangled Banner” overture.

Set during W.W.II, it follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in the Big Apple. Warbling “New York, New York” with its “The Bronx is up and the Battery’s down…,” they’re searching for Ivy Smith (Megan Fairchild) – a.k.a. Miss Turnstiles – a beauty contest winner who has caught the fancy of naïve Gabey (Tony Yazbeck), who spies her face on a subway poster and immediately falls in love with her. As their quest progresses, macho Ozzie (Clyde Alves) hooks up with an aggressively amorous anthropologist, Claire de Loone (Elizabeth Stanley), who picks him up at the Museum of Natural History, confessing “I Get Carried Away,” while nerdy Chip (Jay Armstrong Johnson) rides around with Hildy Esterhazy (Alysha Umphress), a sassy, sex-starved cabby who boasts “I Can Cook Too.” Eventually, the three couples meet up for the Coney Island finale before the guys return to the pier, board their ship and head off to sea.

Exuberantly directed by John Rando (“Urinetown”) and choreographed by Joshua Bergasse (TV’s “Smash”), it’s a helluva frothy, dance-dominated show with the melancholy “Lonely Town” and memorable “Lucky to Be Me” remaining the most haunting songs.  Developed last year at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass., it makes the transition to Broadway with high hopes and simplistic, candy-colored sets by Beowulf Boritt, period costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Jason Lyons.

Although whirling, twirling Megan Fairchild hails from the New York City Ballet, her dancing still cannot compare with Gene Kelly’s in the 1949 M.G.M. musical. And she can’t act.  Indeed, despite their youthful enthusiasm, the Broadway cast pales in comparison with Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Jules Munshin, Ann Miller, Betty Garrett and Vera-Ellen. Back in 2006, this film version was ranked No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s list of best musicals.


Susan Granger’s review of “Pippin” (Music Box Theater)


Cleverly shifting the casting, the flashy Broadway revival of “Pippin” ups its exhilarating razzle-dazzle with the addition of Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, the high-spirited grandmother.

Originally conceived with a book by Roger O. Hirson and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, it’s been impudently enhanced by visionary director Diane Paulus (“Hair,” “Porgy and Bess”) with circus gymnastics and acrobatics created by Gypsy Snider, co-founder of the Montreal-based circus company Les 7 Doigts de la Main (7 Fingers).

Choreographed by Chet Walker in the style of Bob Fosse, this insightful, coming-of-age pop musical revolves around befuddled Prince Pippin (Kyle Dean Massey), the son and heir of medieval King Charlemagne (John Dossett). Having graduated from university, Pippin earnestly embarks on a search for meaning in his life as a lively carnival – filled with tumblers, jugglers, aerialists, contortionists and magicians – swirls around him, eventually finding true love with a widowed mother Catherine (Kristen Beth Williams) – much to the dismay of his manipulative step-mother, Fastrada (Charlotte d’Amboise), who fancies her warrior son Lewis (Mike Schwitter) on the throne.

But – before that – Pippin is led astray by the devilishly seductive Ringmaster/Leading Player (Carly Hughes); unfortunately, Hughes’ performance seems formulaic and calculated, almost robotic, in stark contrast with the rest of the exuberant case. FYI: in the original 1972 production, the Leading Player was charismatic Ben Vereen, who did a variation on the ominous role in Bob Fosse’s autobiographical “All That Jazz” (1979).

Straddling a flying trapeze, Lucie Arnaz almost stops the show with her playful, sing-along rendition of “No Time at All.” Daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, she was raised in show business. Lucie made her Broadway debut in “They’re Playing Our Song,” followed by “My One and Only” with Tommy Tune, along with “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” and Terrance McNally’s “Master Class.”

When Lucie Arnaz departs to resume the National Tour of “Pippin,” taking Kyle Dean Massey with her, Josh Kaufman, winner of NBC’s “The Voice,” steps in as Prince Pippin from Nov. 4 to Jan. 4, 2015.


Susan Granger’s review of “Extraterrestrial” (IFC Midnight)


In case you were wondering, this indie horror flick has absolutely nothing in common with Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” Instead, it’s yet another lame supernatural saga, revolving around terrified teenagers who are staying at a cabin in the woods.

Written and directed by Colin Minihan and Stu Ortiz – a.k.a. the Vicious Brothers – it follows April (Brittany Allen) who plans to spend a romantic weekend with her boyfriend Kyle (Freddie Stroma) at her family’s cabin, a haven from her childhood which is going to be sold as part of her parents’ divorce. To her chagrin, Kyle invites three of his most obnoxious friends (Jesse Moss, Melanie Papalia, Anja Savcic) to join them.  After partying with beer and marijuana, they discover that a UFO has crashed nearby and they’re being watched by one of the craft’s survivors. When they attack and kill the alien, they incite immediate retribution by its crew mates. Predictably, a tree falls across the road, blocking their only way into town, and there are encounters with the Sheriff (Gil Bellows) and Travis (Michael Ironside), a cantankerous, gun-toting Vietnam veteran who is determined to protect his property.

Brittany Allen, who won a Daytime Emmy for “All My Children,” has little to work with, so she and the rest of the cast flounder in the trite assemblage of dumbed-down flotsam and campy jetsam from “The X-Files,” “War of the Worlds,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Alien,” “Cloverfield,” “Dark Skies,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “The Blair Witch Project,” even “Minority Report.”

To their credit, the Vicious Brothers (“Grave Encounters”) display some impressive tracking shots and the CGI is better than one might expect, given the low budget. But the repeated use of found-footage and the cynical, self-indulgent epilogue are inexcusable.

But on the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Extraterrestrial” is an all-too-familiar 4, filled with clichéd predictability.


Susan Granger’s review of “Nightcrawler” (Open Road)


Jake Gyllenhaal stars in Dan Gilroy’s sinister, neo-noir crime thriller as sociopathic Louis Bloom, who prowls the streets of Los Angeles at night in his turbo-charged Dodge Challenger with a police scanner, doing accident and crime-reporting.  He’s one of the many freelance video stringers, called “nightcrawlers.”  Bloom routinely sells his footage to Nina (Rene Russo), a local graveyard-shift TV news director who’s desperately hungry for ratings; she tells him that viewers want to see “urban crime creeping into the suburbs.”  Problem is: instead of remaining a passive bystander with a camera, Bloom brazenly begins to stage his own roadside carnage and re-arrange crime scenes – until he stumbles onto an apparent home invasion.

Scripted by Gilroy, who collaborated on “The Bourne Legacy” with his brother/director Tony Gilroy, it channels the kind of voyeurism that made “Rear Window” and “Blow-Up” popular. Making his directing debut, Dan Gilroy concocts a scathing media satire with its own inherent scary elements. At his side, cinematographer Robert Elswit (“There Will Be Blood,” “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol”) adroitly captures the seedy, scary violence in the fabled City of Angels, culminating in its thrilling, tension-filled conclusion, punctuated by James Newton Howard’s pulsating musical score.

Exuding creepiness, wiry, wide-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal (“Prisoners,” “Enemy”) embodies delusionary Bloom, an outsider who is driven to achieve some kind of self-empowering identity. Adding to the veracity, there’s Riz Ahmed, as Bloom’s nervous apprentice, and Bill Paxton, as a veteran videographer who voices the newsroom adage, “If it bleeds, it leads…” And it’s great that Dan Gilroy wrote a meaty part for his wife, Rene Russo; they met and married after making “Freejack,” a 1992 sci-fi action movie.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Nightcrawler” is a dark, cynical 7, filled with savage, scathing commentary about our media’s relentless exploitation of violence.


Susan Granger’s commentary on the re-issue of “Saw” (Lionsgate)


Celebrating the 10th anniversary of the original theatrical release of “Saw,” the gruesome, sadistic horror thriller that ignited a franchise is back in theaters for one week.

Encompassing physical and psychological torture, the story revolves around two men – Adam (Leigh Whannel) and Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) – who wake up in a locked public toilet that’s been abandoned for years. They’re chained by leg irons to opposite walls. Between them is a corpse drenched in blood. A clock on the wall says 2 o’clock.  Neither can remember how he got here. Their captor, diabolical John Kramer, nicknamed “Jigsaw,” has left them a tape-recorded message informing Dr. Gordon that he has to kill Adam by 6 o’clock or his wife and daughter will be murdered.  There’s also an unloaded gun that’s out-of-reach, two saws, a cell phone and two cigarettes. As the men desperately try to find a way out, they’re wondering who is the maniac behind their kidnapping and why did he trap them in this “test” or “game.” Meanwhile, two detectives (Danny Glover, Ken Leung) are trying to track down this vicious serial killer.

Constructed like a jigsaw puzzle and filled with so much unrelenting gore that it’s been dubbed “slasherporn,” “Saw” marked the first collaboration for screenwriter/actor Leigh Whannel and director James Wan. Together, they’ve since created the “Insidious” franchise, and Wan has gone on to direct high-profile films like “The Conjuring” and the upcoming “Fast & Furious 7.”

Since the seven installments in the “Saw” franchise have collectively grossed $874 million at the box-office worldwide, the Guinness Book of World Records has recognized it as the “Most Successful Horror Franchise” of all time.

“St. Vincent”

Susan Granger’s review of “St. Vincent” (The Weinstein Company)


Bill Murray is sneaks into your heart as Vincent, a crusty curmudgeon who lives with his Persian cat Felix in a run-down house in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn.  When Maggie (Melissa McCarthy), a newly separated mother, moves in next door, the moving van knocks down a tree branch that crashes into his ancient Chrysler convertible – and he’s furious.  As it turns out, she’s a harried nurse/technician who works long hours at the hospital, so her politely precocious 12 year-old son, Oliver (Jason Lieberher), winds up spending his after-school hours with unkempt, foul-mouthed Vincent, who demands to be paid as his bracingly unorthodox baby-sitter.

Vincent’s weekly routine revolves around sessions with Daka (Naomi Watts), a pregnant Russian stripper/prostitute who charges by-the-hour, and his Alzheimer’s-stricken wife Sandy (Donna Mitchell), whom he dutifully visits at the swanky nursing home he can no longer afford. When he’s not with either of them, he’s drinking at a local bar or betting on the races at Belmont Park, where he artfully dodges the bookie (Terence Howard) to whom he owes a bundle.  Wherever world-weary Vincent goes, Oliver tags along, learning life lessons along the way – which he thoughtfully integrates into a pronouncement by his Catholic school teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd), that there are potential saints among us, if only we look hard enough.

Adroitly avoiding being too schmaltzy, writer/director Theodore Melfi makes his feature film debut with this memorable star-vehicle for 64 year-old Bill Murray, whose command of physical comedy is nothing less than masterful. Murray absolutely nails this cantankerous, misanthropic slob and – like his performances in “Rushmore,” “Meatballs” and “The Royal Tenenbaums” – his playfulness shines when he’s paired with a youngster. Abandoning her usual loudmouth shtick, Melissa McCarthy reveals surprising maternal vulnerability.  Jason Lieberher’s serious soulfulness is endearing. Even Naomi Watts turns what could be a caricature into a sympathetic character.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “St. Vincent” is a slyly subversive 7. And Murray’s already generating Oscar buzz.

“A Broad’s Way”

Susan Granger’s review of “A Broad’s Way” at the Bijou Theater in Bridgeport, CT


Sizzling Jodi Stevens rocked the roof of Bridgeport’s Bijou Theater with her one-woman show, “A Broad’s Way,” tracing her peripatetic life as a singer/actress, wife and mother.

Clad in black sequins and displaying her long, to-die-for legs, Jodi displays not only a talent for choosing the right material but also handling it with taste, singing a repertoire of pop and cabaret songs that includes familiar favorites, like “More Than You Know,” “You’d be So Nice To Come Home To,” and “That Old Devil Moon” from “Finian’s Rainbow,” to contemporary hits like Carole King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and patter ditties like “Is This Any Way To Fall In Love?,” detailing the perils of dating in Manhattan.

Jodi’s background includes participating in the original casts of “Jekyll and Hyde” and “Urban Cowboy: The Musical,” along with playing Marlene Dietrich in the New York production of “Dietrich and Chevalier: The Musical.” She was also featured in “Annie,” “Harmony” and “Dracula: The Musical.”

Because she’s such an astute and accomplished actress, Jodi can be sexy, sultry and sensual one moment – then delicate or sweetly spicy the next.  Her versatility is astonishing – her range awesome.  Basically, Jodi Stevens owns the stage, displaying great synergy with her three-piece band.

Jodi Stevens doesn’t just sing the music – she becomes it.


Susan Granger’s review of “Ouija” (Universal Pictures)


Is it simply a board game or a tool to communicate with the supernatural world? That’s been the dilemma facing players since Ouija was first introduced in 1890 by Charles Kennard and Elijah Bond at their Kennard Novelty Company. According to folklore, when they asked the board what they should name it, it spelled out O-U-I-J-A, then G-O-O-D-L-U-C-K. Now, it’s become a psychological horror thriller.

The plot revolves around teenage Laine (British actress Olivia Cooke) and Debbie (Shelley Hennig), best friends since childhood. Since one of the cardinal rules about using the Ouija board is that no one should play alone, Laine is shocked to learn that’s just what Debbie was doing when she hung herself using a string of Christmas lights.  Propelled to investigate this gruesome event and find out exactly what happened, grieving Laine recruits her younger sister (Ana Coto), her boyfriend (Daren Kagasoff) and two pals (Bianca Santos, Douglas Smith) for a séance using the antique Ouija board that Debbie discovered in her attic. Sure enough, they make contact with the same malevolent spirit.  In addition, they track down a former resident of Debbie’s home, Paulina (Lin Shaye), now confined to a wheelchair in a mental institution.

Husband-and-wife team Stiles White and Juliet Snowden (“Knowing,” “The Possession”) crafted the low-budget screenplay with White making his directorial debut. Their objective was to utilize the flat board with its letters and numbers and its one movable part (called the “planchette”) to make it as spooky and scary as possible – with the full support of Hasbro, which now manufactures the game. Unfortunately, White relies on cheap jump scares and loud noises. Boo!

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Ouija” conjures up a tedious 3. Born out of a desire to explain the seemingly inexplicable, the Ouija board remains enigmatic.


Susan Granger’s review of “Fury” (Columbia Pictures)

Not since Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) has there been a W.W.II picture as barbaric and brutal as David Ayer’s depiction of the physical and emotional horror that “boots on the ground” really represents.

Set in 1945, it revolves around the 2nd Armored Division that’s been in combat for years and is on its last reserve of manpower.  After slogging through Africa, to Normandy, across the Rhine and into Germany, the crew of the M4 Sherman tank dubbed “Fury,” led by Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), is exhausted. As their story begins, they’ve lost one of their original five squad members. He’s been replaced by a fresh-faced, raw recruit, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), a former office clerk/typist who just finished basic training and has no fighting experience. If Norman cannot function as an integral part of the team, his ineptitude endangers everyone else. So Wardaddy must get him hardened and battle-ready in 24 hours. “Ideals are quiet. History is violent,” he explains. “We’re not here for right and wrong. We’re here to kill.”

Writer/director David Ayer (“Training Day,” “End of Watch”) is obsessed with the vulnerability of men and their visceral need for camaraderie. It’s all about characters and their relationships, a claustrophobic brotherhood in arms. Smart, swaggering, stoic Wardaddy is their acknowledged leader, muttering, “Best job I ever had.” A deeply religious man, Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf), the gunner, is always quoting scriptures; Grady “Gordo” Travis (Michael Pena) is the Mexican-American driver; and ordinance loader Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal) is a Southern redneck.

In this bleak, heavy-handed scenario, the Americans are good guys; the Nazis are bad guys, particularly the fanatical SS units. The tanks roll through grimy muck and mud, as trucks shovel piles of dead bodies into mass graves. Above all, there is a pervasive sense of authenticity and consistency in emotional tone as Norman’s initial innocence is completely corrupted.

On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Fury” is an intensely savage 7. Mission accomplished.

“Intimate Apparel”

Susan Granger’s review of “Intimate Apparel” at the Westport Country Playhouse (2014-2015)

The Westport Country Playhouse saved the best for last. The final play of the season is Lynn Nottage’s vibrant, sensitive story about her great-grandmother, a black seamstress who lived on the Lower East Side of New York City in 1905. That’s back when women weren’t allowed to own property or vote.

At 35 years-old, Esther (Nikki E. Walker) is considered a plain, middle-aged spinster.  For the past 15 years, she’s diligently created lovely, fashionable lingerie on a sewing machine in her room at a boarding house run by Mrs. Dickson (Aleta Mitchell), who keeps urging her to come down to the parlor to meet ‘eligible’ men.  But Esther has a dream: she wants to save enough money to open a ‘beauty parlor’ for black women.  One day, Esther’s humdrum life is turned upside when she receives a letter from George Armstrong (Isiah Johnson), a Panama Canal laborer from Barbados. A co-worker told him about Esther, and he begs to correspond with her.  Problem is: Esther can neither read nor write. So she turns to a sympathetic client, Mrs. Van Buren (Leighton Bryan), a boozing, bourgeois socialite on Fifth Avenue, to compose an answer. As the letter-writing becomes feverish, Esther also enlists the help of her friend Mayme (Heather Alicia Simms), a black prostitute. Meanwhile, Esther develops a courteously friendly relationship with gentle Mr. Marks (Tommy Schrider), an Orthodox Jewish fabric salesman in the Garment District. They’re obviously attracted to one another but race and religion keep them in separate worlds; all they can do together is marvel over fine fabrics. When opportunistic George eventually arrives in the United States and marries virginal Esther, her problems become even more complicated and heartbreak looms.

With deft artistry Lynn Nottage, who teaches at the Yale School of Drama and whose play Ruined won a 2009 Pulitzer Prize, and director Mary B. Robinson create an acute awareness of the dismissive anonymity of African-Americans during that era.  Eschewing sentimentality, they also draw a timely parallel with the perils of contemporary, on-line dating. While the acting ensemble is superb, much credit must also go to Michael Krass, whose choice of costumes speaks as eloquently as the dialogue.

“Intimate Apparel” runs through Nov. 1 at the Westport Country Playhouse.