[REVIEW] ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ or Loneliness is Tough

Anyone who knows me knows I love musicals and musical theater. In fact, this year I have seen 27 local live shows since I have been vaccinated. You can read my theater reviews on my other site here. Back in 2017 I did a podcast with my friend Hayden on the Tony Awards. To prepare I listened to the original cast recordings and watched as many clips as I could (I don’t live in NYC so first run shows are hard for me to see). Instantly I was captivated by the recording for the musical Dear Evan Hansen. The songs were so engaging with great hooks. I loved them!

Now I have yet to actually see the musical on stage but I hope I get the chance someday. Fortunately this week I got to see the filmed version of the musical and it is not without its flaws but I still overall connected with its themes and love the uplifting music.

I totally understand why some people are responding negatively to this film. It definitely has some issues story-wise. To begin with Evan’s mental health issues come and go. At times he can’t muster the confidence to order a pizza on the phone and at other times he’s asking girls out and going to dances. It doesn’t really make sense.

Also the character Connor we are told he is abusive to his sister and she holds no remorse for his passing. She’s relieved and then another minute we see him dancing around singing with Evan in a fantasy sequence. It’s very strange. Also, I thought the portrayal of his mother by Julianne Moore was odd. Usually single Moms are seen as strong and empowered but she was judged harshly by the script for over-working and not being there for her son.

All that said…I still enjoyed the movie. I know it’s weird, but I was able to put all the negatives aside and focus on the core idea of loneliness and how once we matter and are loved it can make all the difference. Evan realizes he can actually make a difference in the world and the more he speaks out the happier he is. We all have those lonely moments, especially as teens, and maybe we can help rescue each other? That’s the main point of the story.

Of course, he also lies so it’s a flawed story, but I was able to see the core of what they are going for and enjoy it flaws and all. I also love the music by La La Land‘s Pasek and Paul. I actually think the songs are far better than in La La Land. I also appreciate the songs are all sung well with Ben Platt reprising his Tony winning role. (I know some criticized his casting but it personally didn’t bother me as all the teen characters are in their 20s so it didn’t stick out. Plus every teen movie practically has 20 year olds).

Kaitlyn Dever is great as Zoe and Amandla Stenberg does a good job with a perky character that is hiding her own demons. She also gets a new song called “The Anonymous Ones”, which did a good job of underscoring the themes of loneliness and fear.

If you don’t care for Dear Evan Hansen I totally get it, but I walked away having thought about my lonely moments, and what I would write to myself. The music soars, the singing is great and it is trying to share a positive message to teens. I think you can watch it with your teen and have a great discussion about how we can all love more, communicate better and try to notice those who are ‘waving through a window’ crying out for help

5.5 out of 10

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[REVIEW] ‘Come From Away’ or Broadway at Its Most Optimistic

For those of us musical theater geeks one of the hardest aspects of the pandemic has been the closure of Broadway in New York City for over a year. Even if fans like myself weren’t planning a trip to NYC we still looked forward to the latest cast recordings and new shows coming from the big apple. Knowing it was shut down made me literally cry. It just seems wrong for such a light to be turned off.

Fortunately movies and television have filled the musical void left in our hearts with incredible films in 2021 like In the Heights and series like Schmigadoon. We also got the filmed stage musical of Hamilton last year which was a total joy. In the next few months I am highly anticipating the release of Dear Evan Hansen and West Side Story. In a weird irony 2021 is a great year to be a musical fan!

In the meantime Apple TV is treating us to a filmed musical on their platform: the Tony award nominee for Best Musical Come From Away. I was so excited to see this performance because I have long wanted to see the musical on Broadway but haven’t gotten the chance (much like with Hamilton. I wish more shows could be filmed like this). Fortunately I am glad to say this recording lived up to my expectations. Not only is Come From Away a great piece of musical theater but it is one of the most heart-warming films I’ve seen all year. It’s truly Broadway at it’s most optimistic.

Come From Away tells the true story of when 7000 people were forced to emergency land in the small town of Gander, Newfoundland after planes were grounded on 9/11. The show features a cast of 12 actors who play the various roles of both the townspeople and the passengers on the planes. They are all great switching from their characters seemlessly but my favorite is Jenn Colella as a pilot Beverley Bass.

Because most of the songs are group numbers there is not as much the director can do to make the show cinematic. It’s a filmed stage musical. If that’s not your thing than you won’t enjoy this but if you are open to the artform there’s lots to love. The show is so positive and hopeful without being cloying. It reminds you that when things get tough most humans respond with kindness and love. And in this day and age we need more of that- or at least I certainly do!

This is a kind of a musical where the songs flow together and there aren’t solo numbers you’d hear at a Broadway concert. In that sense you could say they are forgettable but they work very well within the show. My favorite song is probably ‘Me and the Sky’ which is sung by Colella.

If you are looking for something to boost your spirits and remind you of the good in the world Come From Away is the perfect watch. It comes to Apple Plus on September 10th and is under 2 hours (short for musical theater!) so it is definitely worth your time. Cheers to the good people of Gander who were there for strangers when they were displaced and cheers to the whole Broadway community who were left dark by COVID. We value and believe in you!

8 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘VIVO’ or Play That Guitar Kinkajou

For musical fans like myself 2021 has been a very exciting year. It’s like people finished 2020 and decided to sing! We’ve had everything from In the Heights in the theater to Schmigadoon on streaming. Now we have our first animated musical of the year in Vivo and it’s maybe not the top-tier film I hoped it would be but it’s still entertaining with some beautiful animation and music.

Vivo features the music of Lin-Manuel Miranda and is another solid offering from Sony Pictures Animation (the weakest was Wish Dragon which I found a little dull but still a great year for the studio). It’s also been a busy year for Miranda with this, In the Heights and Encanto coming up. I love that Miranda has embraced animation so fully since Moana and that studios are putting out diverse films that introduce children to different music and cultures.

The music for Vivo comes from the streets of Havana and in particular a kinkajou named Vivo. He loves performing with his owner Andrés in the town square. However, one day tragedy strikes and Vivo has to take a letter to Andrés’ love Marta who lives in Miami, Florida. All of the Vivo aspects worked well with outstanding animation and catchy music.

Sony Pictures Animation has once again shown their master skill at combining 2D and CGI animation in new and inventive ways. I loved in Vivo how the backgrounds moved and flowed and the characters burst forward out of the screen. I wish I could find an image to show you how great the animation looks in these sequences.

The downside to the movie is Vivo meets a little girl named Gabi who helps him on his journey to Miami. While she had her cute moments, I found her to be mostly pretty grating. I also don’t think she was needed. The story would have been perfectly sweet with just Vivo trying to help out his friend Andrés. Maybe give him another animal friend like a bird or a fish? That’s how I would have gone.

That said, there’s still a lot to like in this film and families will have a good time watching it together on Netflix. It’s got a sweet message about friendship and loyalty while celebrating Cuban culture with energy and pizazz. The good certainly outweighs any negative.

7 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘Schmigadoon!’ or Sing Out Musical Parody

If you are following me on social media you know not only am I huge fan of musicals but since I got vaccinated I have had a goal to support local musical theater as much as possible. I currently have seen 18 shows since April including everything from The Music Man to Next to Normal and loved all of them. (Here is my ranking of my first 10 shows)

Evidently I’m not the only one who has been on a musical kick in 2021 because movies and series have embraced them to an unusual degree. In fact, I have deemed 2021 as ‘The Year of Musicals’. The latest entry is from director Barry Sonnenfeld and can be streamed on Apple Plus: it is an enchanting and hilarious parody series called Schmigadoon!.

The first 2 episodes lands today but I have been able to watch the entire first season. It tells the story of a couple Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh (Keegan-Michael Key) who in a weak spot in their relationship stumble upon the magical town of Schmigadoon.

The name of the town and show is an obvious homage to Brigadoon (which I have always felt is a very underrated classic musical!). But the series takes shots at many musicals with everything from Carousel, Oklahoma, The Sound of Music, The Music Man and even La La Land. Sometimes the jokes are a little on-the-nose but I was consistently laughing throughout.

Naturally the traditional values of classic musicals get a brunt of the jokes with Alan Cumming being particularly funny as the closeted mayor Aloysius Menlove. Fred Armisen plays the town reverend and gets a lot of laughs while Strong’s doctor bristles up against the traditional Doc Lopez played by Jaime Camil.

The rest of the cast is loaded with Broadway’s best including Kristen Chenoweth, Jane Krakowski, Aaron Tveit (so great!), Dove Cameron and more. I’m not sure how they are going to continue this concept into a second season but the cast is having a blast and their joy is contagious.

The original music is written by Cinco Paul who mainly has an animation background. The songs are a lot of fun. I especially enjoyed every time Key tried to avoid bursting into song. Another highlight is a The Music Man inspired number (especially ‘Trouble’ ) sung by Chenoweth about the danger these big city folks are to Schmigadoon. Whenever Tveit sings it is also perfection! I love his voice so much.

I don’t think Schmigadoon! will appeal much to non-musical fans but I don’t think it has to. It’s made for those of us that love the genre and will both appreciate the jokes and the actual musical numbers. It both laughs at and embraces musicals at the same time.

All I know is Schmigadoon! won over this musical-lover’s heart. Delightful.

8 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘In the Heights’ or You’re Not Taking Away Their Shot

Most of you who know me well know I absolutely love musicals. Whether it is animated musicals from Disney and other studios, original films like Sing Street or The Greatest Showman or Broadway adaptations like Hairspray or My Fair Lady I am down with musicals!

In fact, this summer I am making a goal to see and support as many local musical and theater productions as I can. I have already seen 9 since I was cleared after my vaccination with more to come. You can read my theater reviews on my other blog here.

With this being my summer of musicals It is such kismet that 2021 is fixing to be the best year for musicals at the movies ever. In both live action and animated films we have practically a musical film opening (or going to streaming) every month! This includes filmed musicals like Diana and Come From Away to animated films like Vivo and Encanto! I can’t wait!

The first up in the live action department is In the Heights. This is based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tony award winning musical of the same name and tells the story of Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos) who dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic and run a bar there. Meanwhile he is grinding it out running a bodega in Washington Heights with an array of friends and family in the rapidly changing area.

Gentrification is coming and even the beloved hair salon is being forced to move. There is Nina back from Stanford. Abuela Claudia who Mothers and Grandmothers the entire street. Usnavi’s cousin Sonny helps him at the bodega but he has his own share of troubles. Usnavi also has a crush on Vanessa who can’t wait to get out of Washington Heights.

In the Heights is directed by Jon M Chu who is at his best in these spectacle musicals. He made the Step Up movies entertaining to watch despite their somewhat flimsy plots and he made the best rom-com in a long while with Crazy Rich Asians. (We won’t talk about his abysmal Jen and the Holograms adaptation. Yikes…). With him at the helm, it should be no surprise that the big bombastic (people are literally dancing on the side of buildings) dance and musical sequences are where In the Heights shines. They are so much fun!

There is also a nice heart to the film. I saw the show years ago and really enjoyed it and the team has done a great job translating the energy and sense of community of the stage musical into this feature film. The whole cast has an effortless chemistry (including Miranda as Piraguero, the piragua guy or shaved ice salesman).

They manage to touch on important issues facing areas like Washington Heights in effective ways and juggle a lot of characters without it seeming cluttered or flimsy. Watching In the Heights will leave you smiling but also reflective on what we can do better as a society to support communities especially with minority populations.

The only real flaw in the film is for the non-musical buffs the 143 minute runtime may be a bit wearing. They could have definitely cut down a few numbers and made things tighter- even for a musical fan like myself it ran a bit long.

Nevertheless, I loved In the Heights. It’s an energetic burst of song and passion at the movies. It promises to be the movie event of the summer!

8 out of 10

[REVIEW] ‘Over the Moon’: in a Word Enchanting!

So I don’t know if you knew, but I love animated films. LOL. Obviously not all animated films but I love the medium and all it can offer the filmgoer. I love being swept away by the artistry and characters and it is even better when it is also a musical! So, I was primed to love the new animated musical Over the Moon, and fortunately it did not disappoint. What a beautiful hope-filled animated musical. I loved it and can’t wait to watch it again!

Over the Moon is the first feature film from famed animator Glen Keane who created such memorable characters like Ariel, Aladdin, and Beast. Here he is taking us to China with the help of China’s Pearl Studio (who did last year’s Abominable with DreamWorks, which I also really enjoyed). It is a retelling of the classic Chinese myth of the mysterious moon goddess Chang’e.

Chang’e is voiced by Phillipa Soo of Hamilton fame and our young heroine Fei Fei goes after her on a quest to find her Mother who has passed away. Voiced by Cathy Ang, Fei Fei sings about her desire to find answers for her grief:

The music is written by Steven Price, and while I could have used even more songs, what we get is enchanting. I loved Fei Fei as a character and ‘Rocket to the Moon’ is probably the best ‘I want’ song we’ve gotten from a studio since ‘Let it Go’ from Frozen.

I also really enjoyed the sense of family in Over the Moon. Fei Fei’s mother makes mooncakes, which are then sold at the market. When the family has meals together it feels warm and authentic, all sitting together talking. Eventually Fei Fei must learn to get along with a new energetic step-brother Chin (Robert G Chiu) and that is sweet and challenging. A lot of kids will be able to relate to these family dynamics as they felt real and authentic.

When Fei Fei gets to the moon things get a little convoluted, but I still found it charming. I really liked the characters and the heart. It’s the kind of film the entire family can watch together and enjoy. Plus, the animation is completely stunning. What a treat to watch! We even get some 2D animation in sequences!!

I still think Tomm Moore’s Wolfwalkers is the best animated film of the year but Over the Moon is a complete delight. If you are an animation fan and/or a musical fan you will love it!

What do you think of Over the Moon? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section

8.5 out of 10

[REVIEW] Cats: It’s Cats Singing and Dancing

Adaptations of Broadway musicals are a tough nut to crack. Due to fears of box office losses typically the movies come many years after the initial hype of the shows. Then to make matters worse, film directors often seem to have  a difficult time translating the energy of a musical show into a film. It’s a really strange phenomenon and it makes me wonder if the best is movie to Broadway (Mean Girls, Heathers, Beetlejuice, etc) rather than musical to movie.

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The latest attempt is one of the longest running shows in the history of Broadway: the strange Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Cats. In the musical, ALW takes an epic poem by T.S. Eliot and adds songs. The problem is the poem is not very cinematic. It’s all introductions of various cats all leading to the jellicle ball. While there, the ‘jellicle choice’ is made. So literally we spend time getting to know cat A and then cat B until the cat Old Deuteronomy  (Judi Dench) decides which cat deserves to ‘ascend to the heavens for a new life’.

Fortunately where the narrative in Cats isn’t the best, the singing and dancing is enjoyable. I actually got used to the unique visual style very quickly and found songs like ”Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats’ to be catchy. I also liked ‘Mr Mistoffelees’ and ‘Skimbleshanks: The Railway Cat’.  They even have trained ballet dancers Francesca Hayward as Victoria and Steven McRae as Skimbleshanks.

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Of course. the highlight of Cats is ‘Memory’ sung by Jennifer Hudson. She is such a powerful singer, and I thought she knocked it out of the park.

I also appreciated with Cats seeing something different. Everything is to scale so the cats look like the size of a normal cat. I personally have never seen a movie like that so it was a neat experience at the theater.

Taylor Swift as Bombalurina in Cats, co-written and directed by Tom Hooper.

The downsides to Cats is because it has so little narrative the pacing suffers. Especially the middle is slow, and I got sleepy watching it. It almost seems like it would be better as a short or a series of youtube sing-alongs rather than a movie. There is just not enough meat on the bones for a feature film.

I was also not a fan of Rebel Wilson as Jennyanydots or her song with mice and cockroaches (a step too far! I hate cockroaches!). James Corden as Bustopher Jones was also pretty annoying but I’m in general not a fan of his.

Sir Ian McKellen as Gus the Theatre Cat is probably the strangest of the group with his method acting song.  Taylor Swift fans will probably be disappointed that her character Bombalurina takes a long time to show up and only has one song in the film and another in the closing credits.

I think people expecting something super bonkers will be a little disappointed in Cats. It’s unusual but not something like Pottersville where you are just completely baffled the entire time.

I wish the choice to make it a stop motion animated film had happened with Cats. That would have been amazing. Alas this version is fun enough for a musical theater junkie. The songs are well done and the dancing is impressive. All the actors are trying their hardest and the visual style is unique. It’s far from perfect but take your other Broadway fan friends and go watch something different with some catchy tunes. You’ll have a good time or at least my friend and I did!

5 out of 10

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‘Wild Rose’ REVIEW

The last few years have been a lot of fun for those of us that love movie musicals. Whether they are musical biopics or traditional musicals there have been a lot of fun entries lately. I wasn’t a big fan of Bohemian Rhapsody because of its terrible script but others I have loved like Sing Street, Rocketman, Mary Poppins Returns, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, A Star is Born, The Greatest Showman and even Disney Channel’s Zombies! Fortunately, I have another indie musical darling to tell you about called Wild Rose that fans of musicals and just good storytelling will love.

Wild Rose tells the story of girl named Rose-Lynn Harlan played by Jessie Buckley. She is from Glasgow, Scotland but she dreams of going to Nashville and becoming a country music singer (not country/western as she corrects people). Unfortunately, she had 2 children before she was 18 and then got involved in some drug shenanigans which sent her to jail for a year. Meanwhile, her mother Marion, played by the incredible Julie Walters, is tired of holding down the fort for her daughter and worries her dreams are robbing her from living in the moment with her children.

film wild rose with Julie walters

Evidently Jessie Buckley is famous for being on an American Idol type show in Scotland, and I believe it, because she has an incredible voice. I hope the original songs get remembered come Oscar season because they certainly deserve to be. Sometimes her speaking voice is hard to understand with that thick Scottish accent but it’s all worth it when she sings.

The story in Wild Rose isn’t the most original but the characters are layered and interesting. At first I didn’t like Rose as she is very selfish, but her character’s journey worked on me, until I was rooting for her. They also don’t muddy her story with much of a romance, which I appreciated. It’s just a woman trying to decide between her children and her dreams and how much sacrifice is too much.

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Julie Walters deserves all the awards for her performance as Rose’s mother. I felt for her even more than Rose (it is kind of like Lady Bird in that regard). She is a mixture of worry, fear, love, hope, kindness and frustration. It’s easy to make parental characters in these films one-note, judgemental types, but that’s not the case here. There’s such humanity in Walters’ performance anyone should be able to connect with her and her struggles.

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Like I said, the only major weakness in Wild Rose is that sometimes the dialogue can be tough to understand. I will be grateful when I can watch it with subtitles at home and can pick up on a few scenes I might have missed! It also has some predictable moments but nothing that bothered me personally. It’s a real hidden gem of the year, which I hope you seek out.

Wild Rose earns its R rating for language and a little sexuality but it should be fine for mature teens.

If you love music and human stories check out Wild Rose!

8.5 out of 10

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‘Rocketman’ Review

Everyone who knows me knows I love a good musical/musician biopic. I was not a fan of last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody because of the terrible script, but I love Walk the Line, DreamGirls, A Star is Born 2018, Sing Street, Blinded by the Light, Love and Mercy and many more. A good musician piece uses the music and tropes of the genre to draw the viewer in and make for a satisfying heroes journey. However, for every film that gets the balance right there’s tons that get it wrong. After being burned by Bohemian Rhapsody I approached the biopic about Elton John called  Rocketman cautiously. Fortunately, I kind of loved it!

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What I loved so much about Rocketman is how fresh and new it felt. Sure it hits the traditional beats but the fantasy elements helped everything feel alive and the use of the music was so creatively done! There would be a basic moment and then it would cut away to a musical fantasy sequence put to Elton John’s songs. This was so much better than a dry boring version of his rock n’ roll story.

The casting is also phenomenal. Taron Egerton is perfect as Elton John and his singing voice is so good (any of us who enjoyed Sing already knew that). I also loved Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin (the real hero of the movie!) and the 2 little boys who play young Elton (or Reggie I should say) do a great job. Richard Madden is very dreamy as John Reid (his role is a bit one-note but I didn’t really care because the movie is so over-the-top it fit to have a big bad hunky villain).

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The concert scenes were great and heightened by the incredible costumes by Julian Day and the energy/singing of Taron Egerton’s takes on Elton John’s fantastic songs. It was like Across the Universe but way better.

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Going into it I heard a lot of talk of it being a strong R rating and maybe I’ve been desensitized, but I have to disagree. Everything seemed totally conventional on that level to other biopics (alcoholism, drug use, a little profanity). Honestly unless a gay relationship/intimate scene depicted makes something R, which it shouldn’t, it seemed no more offensive than the PG-13 Bohemian Rhapsody.

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Finally, I loved the message of Rocketman. Like many a biopic, it’s about overcoming demons and the power of a creative genius at work; however, I also responded to the theme of dealing with loneliness and never giving up hope for a happy life. I especially loved the relationship between Bernie and Elton both as a creative force together and a friendship that never had an argument. It’s a beautiful, hopeful thing and will make you want to call your friends and thank them for being there for you.

The only flaws I have with Rocketman are more nitpicks. Bryce Dallas Howard didn’t quite work for me as his Mom and there were a couple characters I could have seen more of or gotten to know better.

Mostly I loved the creative vision of Rocketman. It was new and vibrant and had me grinning from ear to ear the entire time (even the grim sections were done with so much visual flair that I thoroughly enjoyed them). Go see it! It’s terrific!

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9 out of 10