On stage: ‘9 to 5’ in 2019


“I’ve never met a man I didn’t like. But I’ve never met a man who I couldn’t kick his ass if he didn’t treat me with the respect he should” -Dolly Parton in an interview


The largely sold-out play “9 to 5” at Oak Ridge Playhouse, a small-town community theater is nearing its last weekend and may well have sold out by the time I run this.
I point this out because theater reviews for me aren’t so much about whether to see the play as they are about what the play makes me think of. After all, most of this blog’s readers aren’t necessarily able to seen the plays in the Knoxville area. And with this play, there’s plenty to think about.

Community theater shows tend to bank on nostalgia and recognizability. Indeed the play “9 to 5” is both nostalgic and recognizable, especially in East Tennessee where it’s lyricist Dolly Parton owns or at least has her name on, a theme park, a water park and several dinner theaters. The film it’s based on came out in 1980 and the play takes place in the late 1970s as Dolly Parton herself, who appears by projection at the play’s beginning emphasizes that time period, a time of typewriters and secretaries and when “the boss didn’t care about no women’s movement unless it was under his desk.”

See, that’s what makes this play so interesting now, as opposed to 2008 when it originated in Los Angeles. It’s something that can be popular at a community theater still, but is something typically only associated with college productions and small regional theater shows: a story with a topical message about the current world. And, perhaps, unintentionally so.

The original film was intended by Jane Fonda as a work of advocacy, even if she was trying to avoid it being too preachy by cloaking the film’s point in farcical antics. As a side note, I am happy that Oak Ridge Playhouse used the US version rather than the UK version, keeping in the fantasy dream sequences, parodying gangster films, westerns and Disney films that was one of the film’s highlights.

As another side note, Dolly is one of the few people who can enjoy a friendship with “Hanoi Jane,” openly embrace an LGBTQ fanbase and still enjoy a thriving amusement park business in the middle of a red state.

Anyway, reviews of the original musical, many years later in 2008 and later when it debuted on Broadway tended to portray it as “harmless” at best or dated at worst. And given the play’s explicit setting in the 1970s, people might consider it like they originally did “Hairspray”: a campy musical about stuff we’ve already overcome.

But then in 2017 #metoo hit, making sexual abuse a topic on people’s minds again. And this play was positioned to already be a response.

With Dolly writing music and lyrics, the character of Doralee who she originally played, naturally seems to have gotten an expanded role. And, as in the film she’s a sexual harassment survivor. The show, especially in Parton’s lyrics makes more light of sexual harassment than people probably would if it was written now. But the show gets away with it because there’s no mistaking where the play’s sympathies ultimately lie, given Hart being bound and kidnapped and the empowerment anthems the leads belt throughout the rest of the show.

And to be fair Dolly, a businesswoman who seems to have won by being at least outwardly nice to everyone, doesn’t call herself “feminist” or endorse political candidates. But there’s no mistaking where she stands.

I’m calling this focus on sexual harassment, somewhat greater than in the original, “unintentional” on the part of the creators because Doralee’s expanded role was probably just because Dolly was writing the music and lyrics, so giving her songs like her rather meta “I am” song, “Backwoods Barbie” was probably just what appealed to her. But now it reads differently.

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The nature of “The Beast” and Kong Skull Island while we’re at it.


So, what did I think of the 2017 “Beauty and the Beast”?

First my actual review: It was enjoyable. I recommend it to people who liked the original cartoon and want to see different actors and designers take it on, allowing people to see it in live action. It’s a bit like seeing one of Disney’s stage plays or even any stage play with a different cast than you’ve seen before: a chance to revisit old friends doing something just a little, not a lot, different.

My problem, and I’ll admit, I got over it, is what the movie represents.

I don’t hate Disney or modern mass-produced pop-culture in general. Neither shouldn’t be the only thing that’s out there but neither is. There’s always stuff for other tastes if you know where to find it.

No, I’m talking about the movie’s problem, which also its greatest strength: It’s very much like the cartoon.

Sure they add some new songs, add extra scenes including backstories for some characters, use a somewhat different design to avoid anything too cartoony, but much of the dialogue, plot, characters costumes, etc. are exactly what you’ve probably seen bef0re. For the most part, it’s not a re-adaptation of an earlier version of the fairy tale. It’s a remake of their own. Nothing is too different.

“Certain as the sun/Rising in the east,” indeed.

Now that’s what people came to see. I’ll admit that the whole nostalgically etched-in-my-mind lines, moments and songs have a certain appeal to me because by this point they have to. But shouldn’t we want something different from what we’ve already seen?

It’s rather odd that right now one of the other less-successful blockbusters out there is Kong Skull Island, which I also enjoyed, deliberately avoids this problem in favor of keeping only the title character and setting while avoiding any direct analogue to the original’s iconic Empire State Building scene. Its most interesting character, played by John C. Reiley, d0es not correspond to anyone in the Peter Jackson movie and probably not in the original either (full disclosure: never saw the original). Kong Skull Island did, however, have everything I wanted in a big monster flick, with plenty of action scenes and monsters. If you want that, Kong Skull Island is for you.

As a side note, nowadays Disney is more original than they ever were at the height of their Renaissance, as people call the 1990s era. Would Renaissance era Disney have ever made a completely original (apart from some allusions) story about a police rabbit in a city of racist animals?

Somehow, and this is rather strange: Beauty and the Beast at first when I heard about it seemed a bit too soon. Which is downright weird because of how old it actually is.

What happened was that my family owned it and my sister, being a big fan 0f it, and I liked it too as I recall, in spite of it being considered a girls’ movie kinda ran it into the ground. But I haven’t seen it in ages. So that’s the backstory here. I assumed before seeing it the movie would come off as clichéd, then, when watching the movie, realized I hadn’t seen the older movie recently enough for it to come off that way.

Review: Poodle Springs, Chandler and Hardboiled Detectives in general


Yes, I’m late getting on this bandwagon. Poodle Springs is  a 1950s novel, by Raymond Chandler finished in the 1990s by Robert B. Parker. And I liked it. That’s coming from someone who has read “Red Wind” and “Danger is my Business,” which I apologize for not reviewing on this blog. I confess I never read “The Long Goodbye” which would have been the better book to read before judging this one. I have also seen the movie version of “The Big Sleep.”

All of them feature a classic hardboiled private detective of a kind more familiar to my generation thr0ugh parodies, such as in “Calvin and Hobbes” than serious works. His name is Phillip Marlowe, a man frequently threatened but not above joking when threatened.

Parker, jumping into that same universe, one of threats, twists, witty descriptions of characters and the like, seems to be enjoying himself rather than just imitating Chandler’s style. I won’t give away too many plot spoilers in this post, possibly saving them for another one. Having Phillip be married to Linda, rather than single as in other novels gave Parker a chance to have Marlowe explain his own obsessions, making the novel a far more self-conscious study of hardboiled detective norms, which actually made it more accessible to a modern audience.

But what is that hardboiled genre? It involves a detective, but the mystery itself isn’t always something there for the reader to figure out, although sometimes it is. It doesn’t start out with the murder, usually, but rather some other kind of case and the murder(s) happen midway. The plot can get convoluted. Although it’s not action on the level of a modern blockbuster, a hardboiled detective usually gets plenty of threats too and is pretty decent at shooting at punching.

Chandler popularized, though he did not create the hardboiled detective genre, which he explained in his essay “The Simple Art of Murder,” an artistic manifesto as interesting as it flawed.

In it, he declared why he wanted to break free of the more genteel mystery style popularized by Agatha Christie, although he uses A.A. Milne’s work as his main example.

The manifesto’s effects were wonderful and defined a genre, but its premises make little sense. So rather than give spoilers about any of the above book, I will discuss that manifesto, a little bit here, possibly returning to it.

Right off the bat he makes a small mistake:

Fiction in any form has always intended to be realistic.”

In reality, fiction runs the full gamut. There have always been people trying to write realistically, but there have also been people who intended to portray something bizarre and unlike reality. Some of the best fiction combines the two. In fact, Chandler’s world of a private eye taking on murders and surviving frequent threats on his life isn’t particularly realistic either to the average modern reader, even if it might be enjoyable. Reality contains implausible many things, however, and Chandler stories could happen, as, theoretically, could “Murder on the Orient Express,” which he picks on and which I have also read.

At a later point he almost contradicts himself: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds,” he says at one point and yet earlier he says “The cool-headed constructionist does not also come across with lively characters, sharp dialogue, a sense of pace and an acute use of observed detail. The grim logician has as much atmosphere as a drawing-board.” In other words, he seems to hold that science is a dull subject. And besides which, go ask Joseph Bell how to combine observance of people with observance of say, medicine and as a result inspire Sherlock Holmes, who, as a side note, Chandler faintly praises as a trailblazer for being the first to popularize detective writing. It’s hard but can be done.

But what he was getting at, and this is probably more important than his superficial and confused pronouncements was a desire to speak to his own time period with a style that broke free of what some authorities considered the “best” style, with a different style, that of his contemporary Hammett, which he took and made it his own, although I’ll admit, I have not read Hammett and do not know how much the two resemble each other.

Having a different style, rejecting the established “good” style and speaking to the concerns of your own times: That is a worthy goal.

 

 

 

Outside Mullingar


There are plays, like “The Crucible” about which I can get intellectual  and do two posts. Then there plays like the Clarence Brown’s recent “Outside Mullingar“: Enjoyable, funny, short, not particularly intellectual. I saw it today on its last day and liked it.

In order to work, a Rom-Com, specifically the kind I saw today needs to have characters distinct and likeable enough and likeable enough actors if it’s going to work for me. This production had those things. So it worked. Not much more to say.