Saturday, November 28, 2009

'Wicked' - new view of Wizard of Oz - and the wicked

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif., USA - The stage show/musical Wicked is fabulous for a dozen reasons.  Ironically the music might not be among them.

True, there are some catchy tunes, but except for Defying Gravity, none seems to have latched onto the collective musical consciousness like tunes from some musicals or the latest Susan Boyle CD. Maybe that's a good thing. How many tunes like Over the Rainbow (from the 1939 movie) can there be?

But musical likes aside, the tale told in Wicked is actually incredibly uplifting - in a different way from the movie starring Judy Garland. In that film, one lesson is 'there's no place like home.' Another, perhaps, is check to see if you are wearing magic shoes.

But the lesson in Wicked is, well, hold on just a minute ...

Right here I have to offer a disclaimer that this is a spoiler review. If you believe you are going to see Wicked in the theatre, read no further. Read no further because the punchline to the whole movie, is, well, a punchline and shocker/surprise. And I would hate to spoil it. So stop here.


Still reading? Okay, proceed at your own risk through this enchanted forest, er, review.

Teal Wicks
Teal Wicks - as the 'Wicked' Witch of the West

Wicked is the tale of the Wicked Witch of the West from birth until the time Dorothy tosses a bucket of water on her, mistakenly believing she was putting out a fire, when in fact, she was melting the witch down to nothingness.

Or so you have thought ever since seeing Judy Garland and her little dog Toto taking on Margaret Hamilton (in the role of the witch) in that film.

In Wicked, the witch has a name - Elphaba - and a family, including a younger sister, a father and mother. And in Wicked, Elphaba grows up and goes away to school, where she has a roommate named Glinda - who is destined to be a good witch.

In Wicked, it becomes clear early in the play that distinguishing between good and evil can be complicated.

But complications aside, what was uncomplicated was a stunning singing and acting performance by Teal Wicks as Elphaba, who even though painted green - and wearing odd-looking glasses - was still drop-dead gorgeous from 20 rows back. Perhaps that shade of green might become the new tan for young women of the non-Oz set.

Teal Wicks
Elphaba at school

We are getting really close to the major spoiler part, so if you ignored earlier warnings, stop now.

Still there? Okay. This really is the point to turn back.

In the 1939 film, the climatic scene in the movie is when Margaret Hamilton gets hit full-on with a bucket of water and melts right down in front of Dorothy's eyes. "I'm melting, I'm melting," Hamilton shrieks. How many times when someone says they don't want to get wet, do people shoot off the rejoinder: Afraid you will melt? Har, Har!

Indeed, my pretty, indeed.

But in Wicked, it turns out the Wicked Witch of the West isn't wicked at all. In fact, she and her boyfriend (A witch with a boyfriend? What kind of play is this?), turn out to be the most virtuous people in the whole show, with the possible exception of Glinda, who learns late about honesty after getting caught up in some evil machinations. A good deal of those evil machinations were the work of the Wizard of Oz himself. In Wicked, he is not always the lovable, bumbling fellow from the 1939 film.

And the Wizard of Oz has a press secretary. Do I need to elaborate on that?

Patty Duke
Patty Duke playing the Wizard's press secretary

Wicked Witch Elphaba, who as noted is really not wicked at all, gets labeled wicked as part of a Oz-style political plot. A fall guy - in this case, fall-witch - was needed and Elphaba was convenient. And being green, well, you just can't trust those people can you?

Fear and fear of 'the other,' was played convincingly enough that from the audience some parts were as painful to watch as the 6 o'clock news on any television station.

And yes, at the very end of the play, Dorothy makes a cameo guest appearance complete with water, and Elphaba appears to melt away after being doused.

But wait! She doesn't melt at all. It was trick. Witches don't melt when hit with water. That just an old witches' tale to make people feel less threatened.

Instead, Elphaba reappears and reunites with her boyfriend/love to head off, away from Oz, presumably to live happily ever after.

And the Wizard and his press secretary?

Well, it turns out Glinda the Good Witch could be good - but also mete out some good justice.

Glinda the good witch

Wicked is a stage play that I might want to see again - even knowing the punchline and how the story progresses over two music-filled acts.

It's like watching the 1942 film Casablanca (with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman) over and over and over.

In Casablanca, I keep waiting for a different ending. (I want Rick to get on the plane with Ilsa and run away.)

In Wicked, the ending - watching Elphaba head off to somewhere over the rainbow - is arguably the best part of the entire experience.

Teal Wicks
Elphaba sans 
green makeup

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sometimes it takes Jimmy Buffett to get things done

SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - Writing inspiration for me comes from lots of different places. And for most of my adult life, I have been what pros in the writing bizz call a 'facile' writer.

The short definition is, if I want to write, I generally just starting banging away on the keyboard.

Just like this.


But this fall, the writing hasn't been coming just like this much of the time.  In fact, for the last two months, I thought I was afflicted by the dreaded writer's block, a syndrome most professional writers will tell you is, well, total crap. They also are the same writers who have never faced it.

Even though for months I have been outraged at the lunacy of ideologues like Glenn Beck, the lack of caring (and arrogance) of the people entrusted with running the two public university systems in California, and the seeming inability of Americans to have rational discourse, writing about these issues (and corollary matters) has seemed, well, sooooo daunting.

Daunting and frankly just plain old depressing.

Enter Jimmy Buffett.

Jimmy Buffett
Jimmy Buffett on stage

It wasn't actually Jimmy Buffett himself who got mixed up in my writing, it was a book by Buffett, A Salty Piece of Land,  mailed to me by my nephew Tony Fitzgerald.

Tony had read the book, and while he admitted the prose wasn't exactly 'Homer,' he said it had certain style to it and that he thought I would enjoy it.

If it had been Homer, I doubt it would have been as effective.

The tale is about a cowboy/sailor from Wyoming who ends up in the tropics tending to the rebuilding of a lighthouse. That's about all I'll reveal today, because I am about halfway through reading the book and suspect that I will be recommending it later on in a longer review.

But even if I didn't read another page, A Salty Piece of Land, has helped me crack the formation of a writer's block.

While reading about the odyssey of Tully Mars (the main character), I suddenly envisioned myself writing about (and living in) sub-tropical Mexico - the very place Admiral Fox and I will be as soon as the fall semester at the university ends. And the thought of that writing - as opposed to spilling words about the idiocies of a Glenn Beck, for example - made my fingers positively twitch to get to a keyboard.

Is the writer's block gone? Will I never write again about loons like Glenn Beck or the trustees of the California State University system?

No to the first, and probably no to the second, too.

But thanks to Jimmy Buffett and Tully Mars, I think I understand what was blocking the words, and keeping the blood pressure up.

Get the lighthouse back on line Tully, please. I have things to write.

A Salty Piece of Land

Thursday, November 19, 2009

George Orwell would love these security cameras

TIBURON, Calif., USA - The City of Tiburon is getting ready to install surveillance cameras so that every car, truck, motorcycle and horse going in - or out - will be photographed.

Yup, every single one.

At this point, the city says it will be taking photos of license plates, just to keep track of possible felons, and perhaps to grab pix of stolen vehicles. The cameras will be tied to a data base that will flag cars - and, of course, their drivers.

  • LINK: Orwell would be proud

  • Perhaps.

    But suppose this system gets used for other purposes? Suppose the system gets used by the city's merchants to figure out who is driving in and out of town and uses it to target them for some sales pitches.

    A good hacker might use the system to figure out when people are not home.

    All the ramblings of a paranoid, one might suppose.

    And considering all the data that grocery stores, banks, credit card companies and universities collect, perhaps one more intrusion into what passes for privacy in 2009 isn't that great.

    But this time - these cameras - seem to be such an obvious affront, it's amazing that the city is willing to sell itself out so cheaply.

    And what city will be next?

    Wednesday, November 11, 2009

    So what is it about revolutions?

    (NOTE: This entry was originally written and posted at a website called The Red Room, a website for writers and editor.)

    There is a song making the rounds of many places in California these days called 'Union Maid,' a rousing tune that was written by Woody Guthrie in 1940.

    There once was a union maid, she never was afraid
    Of goons and ginks and company finks and the deputy sheriffs who made the raid.
    She went to the union hall when a meeting it was called,
    And when the Legion boys come 'round
    She always stood her ground.

    It's the kind of song that gets people stomping their feet and clapping their hands and the kind of song that sociologists like to point to as beacons that bring people together and cement social units - units that will promote social activism and change.

    Well, that may be true, to a degree. I've even learned to play the tune on the ukulele at meetings and gatherings to get the crowd fired up when some of that social activism and change is called for as the U.S. economy continues to melt quicker than an iceberg off the coast of Greenland.(Economic recovery my ass...)

    But it has been my experience - as a journalist and a university professor - that real change, Revolutions, occur not because of group think, but because someone steps up to the plate and takes a solid swing. And those people I have always thought of as champions, champions in the sense that they were willing to stand up for what they believed was right, and take the hits for doing so.

    It's not a popular way of looking at leadership and social change. My sociologist amigos tell me I am naive. They tell others (out of my earshot) that I am romantic and don't understand the research and data on the topic about revolutions.

    I may be romantic and naive - and, OK, sociologist-collected data doesn't impress me that much. Champions and heroes do.

    My sociologist friends might be averse to the theory because, frankly it's hard to ever be that champion, hard to stand up alone and hard to take the hits. I have been called Don Quixote more than once by journalism and academic colleagues.

    There are worse sobriquets.

    Perhaps the hardest thing about all this, is that all-too-frequently when a champion steps aside, (having won whatever victory was sought) the ground gained is lost, perhaps completely.

    Still, two feet forward, one foot back is a better way to live than studying the data, I believe.

    Today we often seek champions and at the same time immediately try to discount their courage (or claim self-interest or any number of sins). We can blame media for this, but media in many ways is as reflective of us as it is a force itself.

    You say you want a revolution? Look for a champion to arise. Better yet, play Don Quixote yourself and grab a lance.

    Without a champion, you might get some good harmonies, but you won't get change.

    Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
    I'm sticking to the union, I'm sticking to the union.
    Oh, you can't scare me, I'm sticking to the union,
    I'm sticking to the union 'til the day I die.

    Sunday, November 08, 2009

    Taking a trip to Ireland - via the book 'Shannon'

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - As a sucker for most books about Ireland, it was a no-brainer to pick up a copy of Shannon, a book by Frank Delany.

    But this book is no travelogue, though the river Shannon is one device that Delany uses to move along the main character in the book - a shell-shocked Catholic priest named Robert Shannon.

    And the book is set in 1922, the countryside roiling in a civil war.

    shannon cover
    The novel, Shannon

    Without giving away the whole plot, Shannon travels from the U.S. to Ireland and travels the length of the river looking for his family roots. But he has a lot stalking him, real and spiritual.

    The book is also revealing about the politics of the Catholic Church at that time.

    Catholic priests, bishops, cardinals, a civil war, and the aftermath of World War I. A great palette for an excellent book.

    And, at least in my opinion, a book worth picking up.

    Friday, November 06, 2009

    'A Night at the Roxbury' with the Butabi Brothers

    SACRAMENTO, Calif., USA - So what if disco is dead and the movie is a lampoon? And an old lampoon at that. Watching A Night at the Roxbury with Chris Kattan and Will Ferrell is funny - and oddly compelling.

    No, I am not on any medications right now. And cocktails don't start until 6 p.m. (Four hours and two minutes, but who is counting?)

    The 'oddly compelling' aspects are why I got a copy from Netflix and laughed my way through the movie one night this week. The Admiral, however, is not amused at my movie-induced dance moves around the house, wearing my IPod on my belt.

    If you have been living in Tibet for the last 20 years or so and missed this 1998 gem of a film, it's worth picking up. And if the story of Doug and Steve Butabi doesn't really float your boat, the music should. In fact, the music is probably be the best part of the film.

    Naw, the jokes are great, too.

    The Butabi Brothers
    Doug and Steve Butabi, brothers idiotus

    The girls
    Would be dates

    The whole movie is topical in its satire, not surprising because the characters are based on what had been a running gag and skit on Saturday Night Live at the time.

    Cell phones, parent grown-child squabbles, business, the night club scene and relationships between the sexes all take plenty of heat in this comedy.

    And at the end, there is a scene stolen almost directly from The Graduate, sans Dustin Hoffman and Katherine Ross, of course.

    The Butabi Brothers - they would be a lot of fun to go out clubbing with, if I ever went clubbing, of course.

    But, first, I would have to get one of those wild-color suits to wear.

    Here's a trailer for the movie:

    At the club entrance, yes, we are brothers...