What’s it all about, Alfie

What an amazing name for a song! Kudos on your international smash hit, Burt Bacharach and Hal David (cf).

I've never seen the movie Alfie starring Michael Caine, which is supposedly a classic, although I did once walk out of the remake Alfie starring Jude Law, who I typically adore but who really screwed the pooch on this one. I sat through about as much "handsome lad balling lots of babes" as a person can handle before they got to this scene where he's romancing Sienna Miller in a cab—I think—and at that point the dialogue and acting reached such a crescendo of atrocity that I had no choice but to storm out of the theater in a huff. There are some things that offend me on a very basic, personal level and the toxic mixture of tedious storytelling and bad acting is one of them. Then I was in such a foul mood that I drove straight to Marshall Field's (RIP) at the Fox Valley Mall and bought myself a Swiss Army watch that looked similar to the one Jude Law had been wearing in the film I'd stormed out of only fifteen minutes earlier. I felt strongly that somebody owed me something, even if it was just me dropping clams on myself as a form of stupidly expensive cinematic recovery shock therapy. Obviously I'm a poor decision maker in more ways than one, except I do still own this watch 11 whole years later and wear it all the time, so joke's on you, people behind Alfie! Your movie remains crap while my elegant timepiece lives on and on and on.

Sadly, Alfie has nothing to do with the actual subject of this entry, which was supposed to be how much I loved the movie Ricki and the Flash, which I saw on Friday. But I recently decided to start using arbitrary song lyrics for post titles, which led to remembering this great story about acquiring my favorite watch, which then morphed into a kind of parable about mining shit for diamonds. So factor all that into the cost of my lazy creative brainstorming, and thanks for sticking with it; tenacity and patience will pay dividends in your future lives, it is certain.

Anyway, Ricki and the Flash. I went into it a little skeptical, per the usual when Meryl Streep plays a normal, but ended up loving it pretty intensely and voluminously, which I'm using here to mean both largely and loudly. As I texted to CV immediately upon exiting the theater, it's the only movie I've seen this summer that got applause from Us, the Audience, at the end, which is always the mark of a special experience in a city as blasĂ© as this one. If like me you enjoy small character dramas where adults make the kind of impulsive but human decisions that damage but don't destroy the lives around them, and where just enough forgiveness is what it takes for them all to move forward, perhaps you too will enjoy this movie. And while—spoiler alert—Meryl Streep does indeed sport that aggressively "rock 'n roll" hairstyle throughout the entire picture, it makes sense that a person who cared enough to chuck her family in the service of a dream that ultimately failed would need to cloak themselves in armor to pretend otherwise, in order to simply get through another random disappointing day. Perhaps you can relate.

p.s. Time to start measuring things in an exponent of "love to the power of Audra McDonald." Is she ever less than amazing?

p.p.s. Lyle Lovett is playing at Damrosch Park tonight (Sunday) for free! I'll have to stand in line for a million hours with friends and crabbily entitled Upper West Siders, but still. What a world!

Sunday in the Park with George @ Ravinia

White. A blank page or canvas. His favorite. So many possibilities...

—Stephen Sondheim, Sunday in the Park with George

Ah, details, details....

The pre-show interview: Stephen Sondheim on stage. Reason enough to live in Chicago, to love the audience that attends and listens. Posterity, he says, does not interest him. But who will be here in twenty years? Nobody. There is nobody to take his place. What he has given, what he stands for, the intelligence, the care, the craft, the light and the weight of it, it's all dying. Pay attention. Be present. Be grateful.

What we learn: they chose Seurat because his life history is a blank ("with Van Gogh, you would have to do the ear"); they could fashion any fiction they liked from the painting. Forty-eight people and not one of them is looking at anybody else. The only figure missing is the artist.

Act I: 1884. Costumes in coffees and creams, a neutral palette; you cannot compete with the colors in the painting, so why try? The effect is the same.

Audra McDonald is gorgeous but somehow too strong—too confident from the start, which hampers the evolution of her character: she is what she is the whole way through. Her voice is strong, glorious, but she frequently drowns out Michael Cerveris in their duets. He is better on his own, and freer, especially with “The Day Off,” a number I’ve always skipped on the CD. (He barks like a dog? He barks like a dog!) Some 14 years after I first heard this music, it is new for me again. A small treasure I’ve been overlooking all along. Shame on me. And as for my dear Patti: she is magic. One brief song, one brief scene, when Yvonne confesses to Dot that her husband will not paint her—“Too flat. Too...angular.”—you glimpse the inside of something.

And throughout: Seurat’s sketches projected against a blank white screen, as we see what he sees in his pad. The making of art. Staccato beats, refrains and echoes, the color, the light, the hat. The extraordinary cost of it all.

Finishing the hat,
How you have to finish the hat.
How you watch the rest of the world
From a window
While you finish the hat.
Mapping out a sky,
What you feel like, planning a sky,
What you feel when voices that come
through the window
until they distance and die,
Until there's nothing but sky.

The end of the act is thrilling as always, the characters align and shift, pause and shift again, reach their final positions and freeze—a breath, a heartbeat, a shiver—as “the Seurats” sweep the white canvas away and you see it in full for the first time. A masterpiece. Here the presence of the orchestra onstage is obtrusive; it effectively cuts the painting in half. But that moment is enough. It is what lasts.

People strolling through the trees
Of a small suburban park
On an island in the river
On an ordinary Sunday...

Act II: The characters resume their places in the painting. A long pause as the orchestra waits, as the audience waits—time suspended—for the spell to be broken. Immortality stifles. It's hot up there, and dull. They did not ask for this. The figures unfreeze, bicker and fidget and begin to break apart. The ladies lower their parasols. Seurat is "no longer," they tell us. One by one they leave the stage. Everything changes.

1984. Michael Cerveris: I can’t be the first person who sees Mike Myers doing Dr. Evil? A minor distraction, but all those poor Seurats, forced to shave their heads; goodness, that is dedication for a three-performance concert. (Note that Patti’s son was spared.) “Putting It Together”: the lyrics are a bit muddied, but it is a difficult scene, navigating levels, fixing his doubles in their places, pulling them back as they threaten to drift away. Audra as Marie is magnificent—warm, funny, calming. Here is the character, not the actress. “Children and Art” is by far her best number. In “Move On,” we revert somewhat, but her confidence fits. Dot has become the teacher.

And the finale: The characters, ghosts now, return once more to take up their poses (and again, it is thrilling), but the background rehearsal film playing over the final chords diminishes the whole. The intent is clear (and powerful: there is one shot of the actors standing in their characters’ places on the grounds of the Ravinia park, trees towering behind them; it fades to white as an image of Sondheim and James Lapine fades in), but where should my attention be? Here or there? An odd staging choice that makes what should be resonant feel rushed.

But complaints are trivial. The summer ends as all summers should, and I am reminded.

Lesson: Ask yourself every day, again and again and again, in the midst of all this deep, unknowing darkness: what is your greatest joy in life? And then find an answer.

This is mine.