Friday, December 31, 2010

Billy Elliot: The Musical--A Warning

I expected to love Billy Elliot: The Musical.  I mean--a musical about dancing and the importance of the arts!  Okay, so I was a bit concerned when I remembered that the music was by Elton John, who is just so darned. . .Elton John-y.  But some of his tunes were catchy, and the soundtrack to The Road to El Dorado isn't the least bit annoying.

And dancing.  Theater and dancing. And such great reviews and its been running in London literally since the coal strike of 1984 and it won every single Tony Award since it opened on Broadway, including Best Musical, Best Non-Musical, and Best Use of Natural Materials and the President's Trophy from the Rose Bowl Parade.

And as a bonus, I hadn't seen the movie, so it wasn't like I already knew everything about the story.  Sure, I knew the outline: coal strike in the north of England, young boy who discovers he loves to dance, conflict with his father who equates dance with homosexuality.  No wonder Elton John was drawn to this story, right?

So the four of us from Chez Evil joined another family for dinner and a show.  Lovely family, lovely dinner, lovely conversation, lovely theater.

Bad bad bad play.

First of all, the sound was heavily over amplified and badly mixed.  Not the fault of the play or the actors, and probably the fault of local sound engineers and thus locally contained.  But who let Nigel Tufnel onto the sound board?  As a result, everything was loud and flat, hard to listen to and inspiring an instinctive desire to duck behind the seats in self protection.  If there was any charm to the music, there was no way to hear it because it was delivered with all the subtlety of a brick aimed at your face.

Okay, so maybe I just should have put my earmuffs back on and listened that way.  There was still the dancing, right?  Again--hard to tell, due to being presented with the same level of nuance and delicacy as the sound.  It was so fast, so frenetic, flailing arms and scurrying, as if the dancing had been choreographed at 33 1/3 RPMs  but performed at 45.  (Yes,  I'm that old.  Let's try for a simile from the digital age)  It was as if the whole show had been filmed, and then digitally compressed to fit a shorter running time.

By the third scene, I was seriously worried that once again, it was my cold dead heart making it impossible for me to experience something transcendent.  I decided I was going to be seriously miserable if I didn't find a way to enjoy this play.  So during the "Expressing Yourself" number, I just gave up.

Let me sketch that number for you, in case you haven't seen the play--at least my pain can be used to prevent yours.  Billy, wee bairn that he is, is taking some heat about liking to dance and words like "pouf" and "poncing" are being thrown his way.  Because everybody knows that no heterosexual male would want to spend time surrounded by scads of girls wearing leotards--honestly, I do not understand men sometimes.

Anyway, Billy, being eleven, is being forced to defend what is probably a still unemerged sexual identity.  Now his dance teacher has told him that he's talented enough to try to get in to the Royal Ballet School, and he doesn't know what to do so he goes to visit his best friend to get some advice.  And he walks in to find his friend wearing a frilly skirt and shaking what we in America here call "his booty."  And Billy is appalled.  So Michael makes Billy dress up as well, leading to this bit of enlightened dialogue:

Michael:  Here, put on my mam's dress.
Billy: But we'll get into trouble!
Michael: Nah!  Me dad does it all the time.

Yes, folks, in 2010, Elton John has brought us a vision of sexual identity that is as sophisticated as an episode of "Three's Company."  I was deeply embarrassed and uncomfortable with a show that actually instructs us that while ballet dancing doesn't equal homosexuality, cross dressing and show tunes do.  Get your stereotypes right!

And so the rest of the night fell into every predictable plot device: Billy misses the chance to audition, because his father and brother find out about it and forbid him from dancing.  Billy dances an angry dance (not as good as this one) and. . .intermission!

Act Two opens a year later, and Billy has given up dance.  Except that a few minutes in, he's alone in the community room where he took lessons, and he dances again--even better than in Act One, because nothing hones a dancer's techinque like a year of not dancing and then not even warming up before launching into a personal version of "Swan Lake."  Actually, this was the one bit I liked, as Billy danced with an adult doppelganger, engaging with his dreams of who he could be.  And, yes, I'll go out on a limb and state for the record that Tchaikovsky is a better composer than Elton John.

Of course, his dad sees this, is deeply moved, and so changes his mind, but now Billy has to go all the way to London (which in actual geographic terms is like going from Boston to New York) which is a problem because everybody has been on strike from the coal mines and fighting with policemen and harassing the scabs, which means they don't have money for bus fare.  But then everybody pitches in their widow's mite, and. . .there's still not enough.  But somehow, one of the scabs has magically heard about this impromptu donation campaign--okay, that's pure hokum and not even remotely explainable except by "Musical physics" and the Theory of Narrative Causality--and donates some obscene amount of cash.  So Billy goes, has some "funny" adventures where dad meets a danseur in tights!  Oh!  The visual humor!

(Rudolph Nureyev is not a joke)

Add in a Glasgow accent, and that's Comedy Gold(TM)!  Get it?!?  He's a poncey dancer and dad's uncomfortable with the costume and the evident maleness, but he's got a working class accent and dad's expectations are confounded!  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. . .okay, it's not funny at all and rather insulting actually.

Blah blah blah audition blah blah blah wait for the letter, pretend you didn't get in because this is exactly how real people act around their heart's desire and the union caved and the strike is lost and Billy goes off to London and then we have a final number that is the curtain call as well The End.

When a play is this painful, you have two choices: either you leave, or you find something to think about.  Leaving was not an option--the kidlets were really enjoying it.  So I found myself admiring the enthusiastic dedication of every last person on stage.  I began to wonder if they all learned their lines phonetically in order to approximate a Northern English accent.  And I began to wonder about the miners.

Coal mining is not a job I have any connection with--I have never lived in mining areas, don't know anyone who has ever been a miner.  It strikes me as a horrible job--you get up in the morning to go down into the dark, you do mind-numbing and dangerous physical labor for hours on end, then you come back up into the night.  It's not a life I can imagine, and not one I'd necessarily want for my kids even if I did it.  Add into the mix that the strikers are actually coming to blows with the police, and I don't know why Dad Elliot doesn't take any chance to get his kid out of there.  Really--even if the strike succeeds, wouldn't he be better off somewhere else?

Which of course lead me to wonder about what happened to those mines in the intervening 26 years?  Do those communities still exist?  What do they do now?

According to the Durham Mining Museum, there is still coal mining going on in the Easington colliery, the one at issue in the play.  There was an uptick in employment 1980-85, (the strike happened 1984-85) but generally employment has trended down after 1930.  It was this Wikipedia page that really made me think.

Prior to 1984, coal mining was both nationally owned and heavily subsidized.  Margaret Thatcher, whatever you think of her politics or techniques, was not crazy for thinking that it was a waste of taxpayer's money to keep coal mines open when it was cheaper to actually import coal than it was to mine it in Britain.  Her goal in 1984 was to actually close the mines.  So what brain trust was in charge of the coal miners' union that thought that the proper protest against closing the mines was to go on strike and effectively close the mines?

Maggie Thatcher: Close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Don't close the mines!
Maggie Thatcher: Don't close the mines!
Coal Miners' Union: Close the mines!  Fire!

Remind you of anything?


Add to that fundamental stupidity the fact that since the previous successful strike of 1970, most of the UK has switched to gas and heating oil, diesel and electricity to run homes, power plants and railroads.  Coal was just not the foundation of the economy any more.  Then Thatcher's government had foreseen the chance of strikes--how could they not--so the industries that required coal had already stockpiled in order to survive a strike.  Not to mention that they could have apparently continued to import coal from Australia more cheaply than buying it locally.

To pile onto the doomed nature of this strike--apparently, the union never actually took a vote on the strike, meaning the strike itself was illegal.  As a result, according to the wiki page:
Many miners were forced into debt as the union did not make strike payments to its members, only paying money to strikers on picket. The problem was compounded as the union's failure to hold an official ballot meant that the strike was illegal and social security rules prevented benefits being paid to participants of illegal strikes. Further, the rules meant that any benefits paid to partners or dependents of striking miners were calculated as if strike pay was being received.

So, who were the venal and corrupt idiots at the union?  Frankly, this reads to me like something out of stereotypical Chicago politics, where the union leaders were embezzling from their members and selling out for their own benefit.  Which is not to excuse the brutality of the government using police against their own citizens, nor the designation of them as "the enemy within."  I'm sure there are many ways the whole situation could have been handled better from all sides.

But hey!  It's all worth it if we got a Broadway play out of it, right?


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

More Whovian Goodness

Because I am a complete geek and want to share the love, this website is brilliant: all my beloved Doctor Who characters animated Simpson's style.  Treat yourself to some wasted time with all the variations.  There's even a version of Eleven wearing the fez and carrying a mop. 

Like I said:  brilliant.

Doctor Who: A Christmas Carol

I am a complete fan and addict of the "New" Doctor Who, and this Christmas just confirmed it. Not that I'm entirely a recent convert to the Doctor.  No, I had my first Doctor back when he was Tom Baker.

Such wonderful insanity he brought to the role.  I even have cloudy memories of trying to decide how I felt about Romana vs. Sarah Jane as companion.  But the broadcast schedule back then was different.  Each story was broadcast as a (roughly) half-hour show, with four or five episodes to complete the story, and it wasn't always possible for me to catch all of the individual episodes, much less follow an entire season's worth of episodes.  Things got in the way.

It's hard to remember that back in those long ago days, we didn't have many choices to watch anything: no VCRs, no Tivo, no streaming, no Hulu, no On-Demand, no Netflix.  You watched what was broadcast when it was broadcast, or you missed it.  It was deprivation, I tell you!  Worse than walking to school through snow up to my neck, uphill both ways!  Kids today have no idea how we suffered back then!

Disruptive kids have no idea how easy they have it these days!  

I watched more than a few episodes back when PBS ran Tom Baker's episodes, but I never actually reached critical fan-girl mass. So while things like college and life got in the way of my Doctor Who fan-initiation back then, I don't have to suffer any longer, due to the glory of Netflix streaming.

As a result, I was able to gorge on a veritable feast of New Who goodness, starting with Christopher Eccleston's turn in the re-boot and gobbling away at episodes through Tennant's tenure in a matter of mere months.  And boy, was it good!

Which one is "your" Doctor--Nine or Ten?

But then. . . then. . .then came Eleven.

I love this Doctor.  Love him to pieces.  He's so damn alien!  It's like Russell Davies wrote sci-fi and then had wonderful actors find the humanity in the madness.  Now, Steven Moffat writes stories that probe the humanity of fairy tales, and has Matt Smith to make them odd again.

But he's so much fun!  He's so light-hearted in a way Nine really wasn't, and Ten could only be occasionally.  Admit it--Eleven danced at Amy's wedding exactly the way Nine could never have done.  Actually, I think Eleven may have wormed his way into my heart by the fish-fingers-and-custard debacle, after he tossed away a plate of buttered toast and ordered it "And stay out!"

Which brings us to "A Christmas Carol."

Wouldn't you think Doctor Who had already done "A Christmas Carol?"  Hasn't everybody?  I admit, I set my expectations rather low, because we've seen everybody and their aunt do Dickens at Christmas.  Plus, I had been gorging on entire seasons of Doctor Who.  Now I had to revise my consumption habits--if one episode was weak, I wouldn't immediately have another one to watch.

Turns out, the Doctor was in very good hands.  The episode started out (literally) at warp speed.  A troubled space ship was bouncing around, the bridge staff hollering orders and emergency protocols, the whole thing a satiric riff on "Star Trek:" the lay-out of the bridge!  The snappy quasi-military ambiance!  The gratuitous lens flares!  And then the African-American navigator with the eye-hardware shouting "I'm flying blind!"
Geordi LaForge--the original

The doors open, and Amy strides onto the bridge in her policewoman kiss-o-gram outfit, joined shortly thereafter by Rory in his gladiator wear.  Oh, right--you're the people from the honeymoon suite. . . .
Things slow down as we drop to the Planet of Steam Punk!  Michael Gambon is the resident Scrooge, who actually gets some pleasure out of denying other people's requests.  No!  I won't let your relative out of cold storage for Christmas!  No, I won't clear a landing path for the spaceship!  No, I won't talk to the president just because he called me!

And then the Doctor arrived.  And we got one of my favorite versions of the Doctor--puckish, talking a million miles a minute, gawky, awkward, and yet so bloody brilliant that you know he's going to save the day somehow or other.  His entrance was literally down the chimney, which he then lampshades by saying "Christmas. . .all the chimneys. . .I couldn't resist."

Is there any point in summarizing the plot?  Michael Gambon  is Scrooge, called in this version Kazran Sardick.  He lends money to poor people and takes a family member as collateral, putting them in suspended animation, which also serves to lessen the population of undesirables: a solution Scrooge would have approved.  He also controls the clouds on the planet, which serves to keep sky fish out of people's hair.  Literally.  But the Doctor needs Kazran to clear the clouds so the Star Trek clone ship can land safely, saving all 4003 people on board.  Including Amy and Rory and their cos play outfits.  Kazran won't do it, because there is nothing in it for him.  In a nifty bit of reasoning (reminiscent of Moffat's other recent triumph, Sherlock) the Doctor concludes that Kazran's better instincts can still be reached.
This being Doctor Who (or more accurately, Steven Moffat's Doctor Who), he does it by going to Kazran's past and re-writing his memories.  And we are treated to the delightful paradox of watching Michael Gambon watching a home movie of himself as a child as that past changes by the doctor's arrival.


His memories are being re-written as the past is re-written as we watch!  "Who ARE you?" Kazran demands, and the Doctor answers coolly, "Tonight, I am the ghost of Christmas Past."


All this, and we're about, what, ten minutes in?

There's more--there's much much more.  There is a Tiny Tim-esque urchin who throws a rock at Scrooge, there is a beautiful woman who is unfrozen for a series of Christmas Eves with the Doctor and the younger Kazran, there is a mad carriage ride through the sky pulled by a cloud shark, there is half a sonic screwdriver, there is enough plot to fuel five or six episodes of any other television show all crammed into a stuffed Christmas goose of this special episode.

But most of all, there is the Doctor as I love to see him--all ADHD and random and delightful and utterly rubbish at being human.  Several of my favorite moments below, bulleted for easy digestion:
  • "Santa Claus.  Father Christmas.  Or as I know him--Jeff.  See--here we are at Frank Sinatra's lodge.  Christmas 1952.  See Albert Einstein in the back with the blonde?"
  • Fezzes!  (Fezzes are cool.)
  • The bow tie discussion!  "Why do you wear that tie?"  "Bow ties are cool."  "What makes them cool?" 
  • The young Kazran is a delightful skeptic.  "Are you sure you are my babysitter?"  Who wouldn't wonder when your new "babysitter" is actually jumping on your bed?  With his shoes on!  Not proper babysitter behavior.  And a shout-out to Mary Poppins.
  • The failure of the infallible psychic paper!  "I am universally acknowledged as a mature and responsible adult."  Kazran: "It's just a bunch of wavy lines."  Doctor: "Hmm.  Shorted out--finally a too-big lie."
  • Jaws!  Just the fin showing above the condensed fog in the storage room.
  • The Doctor failing prestidigitation--he makes a card appear inside the cracker and it still isn't the right card.  "Are you sure that's not your card?  I am very good at card tricks."
  • The Doctor accidentally getting engaged to Marilyn Monroe.  Of course he did.  She had extremely good taste in men.
  • Poor Kazran, having to look to the Doctor for advice about women.  "My advice is to try to be rubbishy and nervous."  "Why?"  "Because you're going to be anyway, so if you pretend you mean to be it gives you some illusion of control."  That and "Either you go kiss the girl or you go to your room and invent a new kind of screw-driver.  Don't make my mistakes."   
Sure, there were things that didn't work, things I could nitpick about. *cough* Blinovitch Limitation Effect *cough*  But that's like complaining that you don't like almonds in your stuffing, and ignoring the absolute groaning sideboard of a Christmas feast. This episode was the television equivalent of that feast: I was literally laughing out loud and bouncing in my seat with joy.

In fact, I think I'd better to watch it again.  Because, unlike in the bad old days, I CANAnd then I order the DVD/Blue Ray and watch it again and again. . . .

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Unnecessary Items

So I'm paging through Amazon's (online) toy store looking for Christmas gift inspiration for the various members of my family.  Because not only do I need to find gifts for my family, but also find ideas to pass on to other members of the family who want to buy gifts for us.

Having the blackened nubbin of a cold dead heart is SUCH an inconvenience this time of year.

When, lo!  And Behold!  I stumbled across this!

Power Wheels Single Battery Toddler 6 Volt Charger

I didn't know you had to charge your toddler!  Maybe that explained my kids' lethargy and good sleeping habits?  Toddlers are quite small, so 6 volts seems about right to me.  Such a pity that I found this after my own kids are no longer toddler sized.  It would eliminate that pesky problem of having to actually feed them every day.  How can you tell if your toddler is a "single battery toddler" rather than, for example, a "multiple battery toddler?"  Does this come with an instruction manual?  I could have used one of those for my kids when they were toddlers.

Oh, wait.

The product description seems to indicate that one is not supposed to plug the Actual Toddler into the wall.

For use with certain 6-volt Power Wheels vehicles. This charger must only be used with a Power Wheels Toddler 6-volt lead acid battery (sold separately). 


Well, so much for Truth in Advertising.  It DOES say it's a "6 Volt Toddler Charger!"  What was I supposed to think?  Never mind, then.