Archive for November, 2014

The Penguins of Madagascar

Horrible Bosses 2

The Imitation Game

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1



The stage musical genre has crossed paths with popular music on a few occasions over the last 30 or so years. When that inter-mingling of styles occurs, it is often met with praise and varying degrees of success. Mamma Mia, from Abba, was a resounding success on Broadway and as a touring show. American Idiot, by Green Day, was also a success, albeit a more subdued one; finding most of its acclaim as a tour after a short Broadway run.

The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is the latest entry into the world of stage musical by an artist, or artists, known more for their work on other types of stages. Which artists have taken the leap into the world of Broadway theatre now? Stephen King, John Mellencamp, and T Bone Burnett. These three men; King, Mellencamp and Burnett, have combined their distinctive talents to venture into a world where none of them can claim any past experience or success.

The Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is described by Mellencamp and King as a “haunting tale of fraternal love, lust, jealousy and revenge.” The trio, including Burnett, called the show a “southern gothic, supernatural musical.”

The show has just begun a national tour that will cover 20 dates coast to coast. On November 14th the show made its 4th stop in Durham, NC at the wonderful Durham Performing Arts Center. When the curtain opens at DPAC, the cast was met with a nearly packed house that was curious to see what King, Mellencamp, and Burnett had done.

The story, as written by the master of the genre, Stephen King, is full of emotion that rarely, if ever, transitions to anything even close to “happy.” The story is full of anger, hatred, remorse, sadness, and ultimately vengeance.

When I walked into the theatre and got my first look at the stage I knew that this show was different. On stage there was a single old style microphone on a stand, front and center, with a spotlight shining down on it. There did not appear to be any tradition set pieces at all; merely a semi-circle of older style wooden folding chairs. To the left was a section of the stage set up with instruments waiting for musicians to pick them up and put them to work. To the right was a table with a set of common items that were to be used to produce specific sound effects to add to the story. There was a backdrop hanging from floor to ceiling at the back of the stage with the image of a creepy looking old shack of some kind. Overall, a truly minimalist approach to a set design that was very reminiscent of a 1940s radio broadcast studio.

As the show started my initial thoughts of, “this is different” were immediately affirmed. A harsh red light blanketed the stage as Jake La Botz performed the opening number, It’s Me. Drastic swings in the light design took the place of set changes. The ghosts were always bathed in a heavy white light with the living were all drenched in sepia tint that aged them.

Once the music starts, you find yourself on an emotional roller coaster of a story that takes you up and down and pays off at the end with a set of twists that will leave you with a nearly dislocated jaw. Each set of brothers would hit you with lines and lyrics filled with high energy based in anger and hatred. Each of the female characters would bring you emotionally down with songs and lines riddled with such depression and despair. To balance the angst and dreariness, The Shape and The Zydeco Cowboy would interject unexpected laughs in the middle of it all.

The cast itself was also a bit of a roller coaster when it comes to their individual talents and how they were used. Billy Burke and Gina Gershon are both powerhouses on stage when comes to delivering the emotions of their respective characters; Joe and Monique McCandless. But, they are also, clearly, not stage singers. Neither of them delivers a musical performance that is going to make you want to cover your ears to spare them from harm, but they are also not anything you will look back on and think of as something noteworthy.

A similar, albeit reversed, statement can be said for each set of brothers in the story; Drake and Frank McCandless (Joe Tippett and Lucas Kavner) and Andy and Jack McCandless, (Travis Smith and Peter Albrink). These four men all deliver solid performances vocally in song, but their spoken elements often come off as insignificant.

Where the cast gathers steam is in the supporting cast members. Kylie Brown, who plays Anna Wicklow, delivers a vocal performance in A Rose for Poor Anna that will make you sit up in your seat and listen. Jake La Botz as The Shape is dynamic in the way he takes over the stage and in the dark gravely vocals that he pairs perfectly with his songs It’s Me and Lounging Around Heaven. The absolute strongest performer has to be Eric Moore, who plays Dan Coker. His soulful solo, Burn This Cabin Down, at the end of Act 1 completely steals the show.

The trio of unique talents that is King, Mellencamp, and Burnett have created a story, a story-telling style, and music that is different and refreshing. They have started out on a venture that could possibly open them up to new avenues to showcase their individual talents. Is this show going to garner any of them even a sniff at a Tony Award? Not even close. What it will get them is night after night of packed houses of audiences that walk out of various theatres impressed by and shocked at what they have just experienced.



Dumb and Dumber To

Beyond the Lights



Epic: extending beyond the usual or ordinary especially in size or scope.

Too often the adjective “epic” is applied to movies that have no business carrying that moniker. A sad byproduct of that misuse of the word is that when a movie that really deserves it comes along, the word means nothing to the ear and mind. Christopher Nolan has delivered just such a movie to the world.

Cooper is a former NASA test pilot that now lives in the American heartland with his aging father, Donald, and two children, Murphy and Tom. Cooper spends his days working not as a brilliant engineer or pilot, but toiling in the hopeless task of tending his corn fields.

Cooper is in the position of farmer because the world has crossed over the threshold of disaster. The planet is in the grip of a famine that is responsible for killing the vast majority of the world’s population, either by starvation or war over resources. A blight is causing crop failures all over the world. Massive dust storms ravage the heartland destroying valuable farmland and covering everything in their path with a heavy layer of lifeless dirt.

The planet Earth is facing a future where human beings will not be the dominate form of life on the planet. If the human species is to survive, finding a new home is going to be imperative. Interstellar is the epic story of how Cooper and his family shape the course that the human race has to follow for survival.

As a writer, Christopher Nolan has brought some truly amazing work to the big screen. Since Memento debuted on the big screen in 2000 he has established himself as one the best Hollywood has to offer. With Man of Steel, Inception, The Prestige and his biggest success The Dark Knight trilogy making up his resume, Nolan has taken on a story, in Interstellar, that is far and away his most ambitious endeavor. Interstellar is a film that truly deserves the use of the word epic.

The first thing that really captured my attention with the movie were the visuals. Maybe it was the fact that I was watching the movie in IMAX, but the scenery and overall scale of everything was close to breathtaking at times. The scenes of the dust storms, the depictions of flight through our galaxy, and the visits to the other worlds were all incredible to the eye. The filming locations were all ideal for the story and the special effects were all perfectly suited to the level of this film. In all, no expense appeared to be spared in making everything “look” perfect.

As stunning as the visuals were, the movie did not rely solely on the eye to keep the viewers engaged. The incredible cast that was brought in was able to really bring this massive story to life. To run down the list of well-known talent in this movie is an exercise in, “how many big name actors can we squeeze into one movie.” Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, John Lithgow, Michael Cain, Matt Damon, Ellen Burnstyn, Topher Grace, Casey Affleck, and MacKenzie Foy make up the majority of a cast that all impressed regardless of the amount of screen time each had.

The best performance of the movie has to go to Matthew McConaughey who continues his recent string of impressive performances that include his roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and The Dallas Buyers Club. McConaughey plays the lead role of Cooper, a dedicated family man, farmer, and former NASA talent. Cooper is completely miserable in his existence in a world that sees technology and exploration as wastes of time and resources. The performance of McConaughey as Cooper is one that will only add more weight to his already impressive list of accolades.

If the actors and the visuals are the main positives, the size of the story will be the closest thing I can think of to a negative. The story as a whole is incredibly complex and challenging in size and scope. The movie could have been effectively made by focusing on the characters or the story, maybe even as two movies; Nolan did both in one. The main cast of actors all received a fair amount of development to anchor them into the sprawling story. With the story itself, there was no detail left to assumption. It is very clear that Nolan was not going to cut any corners with this movie and the result is a run time that clocks in at over 3 hours. Again, my only negative.

As I think about the experience as a whole, I am convinced that I have seen a movie that will eventually be regarded as one of the best ever. I am sure there are those out there that will say they didn’t like it, to each their own. For me, Interstellar blended stunning visuals, great acting, an immersive story, and to ice the cake, the legendary Hans Zimmer produced the score. This movie has everything going for it. Get out of your house this weekend and into an IMAX theater, IMAX is a must, and see this future “best ever.”



In addition to, Michael Smith is also a regular contributing writer for the Fayetteville, NC weekly newspaper, Up and Coming Weekly.

This week’s edition of Up and Coming Weekly features an article about the upcoming performance of Sister Act at the Crown Theatre on November 14th.

Click the link below to read more
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Michael Smith at Up and Coming Weekly



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The Theory of Everything