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Archive for the ‘theater direction’ Category
Miley Cyrus, in yellow blouse, cheers on Britney Spears at the opening night performance of her Piece of Me show at the Planet Hollywood Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada, December 28, 2013.
Like everyone else who follows popular culture, I’ve been aware of Madonna, Britney Spears, and more recently Miley Cyrus, as power pop performers who deliberately court “controversy.” During the summer of 1999, when I was guest lecturing at The University of Amsterdam, Britney Spears was exploding out of every record store in the city, as well as on The Box, a 24/7 music cable television station that played Britney’s hits in heavy rotation. My Dutch students bought her CDs, played them incessantly, and her early hits became instant teen anthems.
Britney Spears was just 18 at the time, but already the ruling pop star of the era, eclipsing Madonna’s long reign as the queen of pop, something Madonna was smart enough to acknowledge and embrace, thus assuring her own continued longevity as a performer. Now, Britney Spears is 32 years old, and what seemed easy at 18 is considerably more difficult. Spears went into a well-publicized meltdown a few years back, which seemed to me an utterly genuine cry for help; shaving her head bald on impulse, acting out in public, seemingly unable to handle the undoubted pressures of stardom anymore.
Now, Britney’s back, for a two-year residency at the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, in a glitzy, lavish show entitled Piece of Me, something out of Cirque de Soleil. The show opened to middling reviews this past Friday, December 28, 2013. Spears is committed to doing roughly 90 shows through 2015, with more in the offing if things go well. This is, make no mistake about it, a major production, whether you care for this sort of thing or not. A lot is at stake, not least of which is Britney’s continued currency as a pop icon.
It’s also very hard work; E! aired a two hour documentary on the pre-production of the show just before it opened, which actually had some substance for a change, illustrating just how many people, how much money, how much rehearsal, how much time, energy, and blood, sweat and years went into creating the entire spectacle.
Performers suffered injuries, dance routines were drilled into Britney’s surrounding ensemble in non-stop rehearsals, enormous sets built, elaborate videos shot, and in what seems to me to be a rather questionable choice simply from a safety angle, Britney spends part of the show suspended in the air on wires as an angel, and later swoops out of a giant revolving tree, also with the aid of wires, as her troupe of dancers do everything they possibly can to showcase her to best advantage.
For, truth to be told, Britney’s dance work isn’t as crisp now as it was in 1999; how could it be? She’s older now, and more careful. Watching a video of the entire concert in segments, it’s clear that Britney is leaving heavily on her support staff at this point. She needs the spectacle to prop her up, as she rockets through a medley of past hits as well some new material, with an air of detached and somewhat bewildered resignation. This is her job, she needs the money, and if this is what it takes to keep on top, she’ll dutifully hit her marks and deliver.
Yet another graduate of the Disney stable, Spears is above all a professional performer, and has been a star since she was a child. Her meltdown was all but inevitable as she morphed from teen idol into adulthood, but now she seems to be grounded in the one true ethic that always gets professionals though anything: work, work, and more work. And I personally have no doubt that she’ll get through this two year gig, hopefully bank some cash, and then perhaps consider retiring.
But in the audience on her first night, in one of the front rows, was the new pop tart of the moment, Miley Cyrus, whose recent “provocative” videos “Wrecking Ball” and “Adore You” have grabbed literally hundreds of millions of views on YouTube. She’s clearly the next big threat on the horizon. Ostensibly, Miley just came to Britney’s show, and that was all.
But in what might be construed as an incredibly smart and yet seemingly generous gesture, Miley stood in the front row throughout Britney’s entire opening night performance, not hanging back, but rather singing along to the hits word for word, exhorting the audience to higher peaks of frenzy with shrieks of delight, jumping up and down in time to the music, pumping her fist in the air, at one with the music. It was her show, too.
It was clear to me what was happening; like the famous Madonna/Britney kiss at the VMA awards at Radio City Music Hall on August 28, 2003, in which Madonna both acknowledged and passed the torch to Spears as the next ruling princess of pop, this was the moment when the past met the future. With Miley simultaneously paying court to Britney while also amplifying her own celebrity, the 21 year old pop star was there to pay homage, but also to announce to the world that she, Miley Cyrus, was the new pop diva.
After the show, Britney tweeted “@MileyCyrus Love you so much! Thank you for coming to #PieceOfMe! I adore you ,” and she’s right to be grateful; Miley Cyrus really pushed Britney through her all-important first night, and got plenty of publicity for her herself in the process. Help a friend out, and help yourself out at the same time; it’s very convenient. It was abundantly clear that a lot was riding on Britney’s “comeback,” and Miley’s fame and energy was certainly an asset.
But as I watched, I wondered; what will Miley feel like when she’s 32, and the white-hot blast furnace of pop fame has cooled a bit? Yet another Disney alumnus herself, Miley Cyrus may well find herself doing a residency gig in some other Vegas hotel, as the newest pop diva of the era cheers her on, while also signaling her obsolescence. One day, perhaps, Madonna, Britney and Miley will team up together for a triple threat show, say in 2023 or so, in response to the attention being paid to the next big pop female star, whomever she may be.
There are, as of this writing, just 52 performances left of this amazing theatrical experience; astoundingly, Cumming’s Macbeth — in which he plays all the major characters, with the assistance of only two other players, neatly telescoped into one hour and forty minutes of non-stop wizardry — was snubbed by the Tony Awards, when it should have at least been nominated in any number of categories, most obviously for Best Actor. One might think that the entire idea is a gimmick — that one person couldn’t possibly play all of the roles in Macbeth without the entire production degenerating into a mere stunt — but Cumming commands the stage for every instant of the play, never leaves any doubt in the audience’s mind as to whom he’s playing at any given moment, and does a remarkable job of shifting characters at express train speed without even the slightest trace of hesitancy.
Consider that he’s got to memorize all the roles — the entire play from beginning to end — and perform on a stage, which is designed to look like a stark, institutional mental hospital, with absolutely no way of receiving prompts on the text, and you’ll begin to get some idea of the Herculean feat that Cumming undertakes, and brilliantly executes. As the play’s website notes, “directed by Tony winner John Tiffany (Once) and Andrew Goldberg, this ’stirring turn by Alan Cumming packing theatrical thunder and lightning’ (Daily News) is set in a clinical room deep within a dark psychiatric unit.
Cumming is the lone patient, reliving the infamous story and inhabiting each role himself. Closed circuit television camera watch the patient’s every move as the walls of the psychiatric ward come to life . . .” — and the most harrowing thing about the play is one gets the distinct feeling that Cumming, as Macbeth, will be forced to relive the experiences of the play night after night, endlessly looping out on the tragedy that he’s been sucked into, over and over again until the madness and horror of the scenario is well-nigh unbearable. This is a piece that will only work as live theater; you have to witness it directly. Anything else would get in the way.
As a reviewer in The Huffington Post wrote, “Macbeth with Alan Cumming: another dazzling and brilliant one-person show. Yes, Macbeth as a one-man show. I am so jealous; they did it so right. Johnson said that Shakespeare held the mirror up to nature; well, yes, if we say that the mirror is reflecting the essence of nature but not a realistic view of nature. Here is a way to do Shakespeare as realism; you have a single madman in a hospital reciting all the parts. In that way the Elizabethan dialogue is no longer high Shakespearian; it is the expression of a mad character. His portrayals of the familiar Scottish murderers can’t be over the top because the characters are being played by an insane character. Macbeth is not Macbeth; it is a portrayal of Macbeth by a man losing his mind in an institution. Cumming is superb.”
Want an authentic slice of Warholiana? Then get thee to the The Gershwin Hotel, 27 East 27th Street, at 8PM on Thursday, March 14th, where for a mere $10 — what is this? 1965? — you get to see footage by Andy Warhol associate Danny Williams of Warhol shooting his film The Bed, based on Robert Heide’s play of the same name, plus John Gilman and Tim Cusack performing a segment of the play, one of the authentic classics of the avantgarde, as well as James Dean’s first screen test, and music by the Dave Clark Five. Plus, Robert Heide chats about The Bed with an all-star panel of experts. It’s all just too good to miss if you’re in The Big Apple this coming Thursday, so come on out and meet some authentic survivors of one of the most vibrant eras in American art history. You won’t get this chance again, so really — be there!
About the Author
Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.
In The National News
Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.
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- Frame by Frame: Science Fiction FuturismUNL Film Studies Professor Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses the 2015 Ridley Scott film "The Martian," and the accuracy (and often inaccuracy) of science-fiction films at predicting real advancements in science and technology. http://www.unl.edu/english/film-studies […]
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