Seen & Heard


Seen at the Movies:

OK, I confess to being one of those fooled by Vin Diesel. I thought he was pretty cool in Pitch Black and Boiler Room and The Fast and the Furious--great voice, lots of presence, and so on. All it took to cure me of this delusion, however, was sitting through about 15 minutes of XXX, and there were another 110 minutes left to go. No matter how big a hit this movie turns out to be, it's swill. Diesel's XXX is supposedly the modern answer to James Bond: he's an X-treme sport-loving outlaw recruited to lend his nihilistic brio to secret agent service for the NSA, and he has an I-don't-give-a-shit sneer and lame wisecrack ready for every occasion. This movie is one elaborately staged yet often unpersuasive stunt after another; watching one outlandish sequence of Diesel supposedly skiboarding down a mountain with an avalanche in hot pursuit, I wondered if DP Dean Semler and visual effects supervisor Joel Hynek had even been introduced. Costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hays was charged with getting our hero out of a Bondian tuxedo, so all Diesel has to keep him warm are voluminous muscles and tattoos, along with a plush wool jacket that looks like it was designed for a Russian pimp. Star Wars I and II production designer Gavin Bocquet at least got a trip to Prague out of the movie.

A Bond for the 'Aughts?…Not!
Photo: Sony Pictures

By comparison, Clint Eastwood's Blood Work at least seems like a real movie. It's a leisurely and coherent tale of a former FBI agent (Clint, of course) who's just had a heart transplant, but is lured out of retirement by the unsolved murder of his donor, a young mother shot to death in a bodega. The gimmicky plotting is perfectly agreeable until Clint cracks the case, in a twist worthy of a second-string Perry Mason episode. But for most of its length, Blood Work is easy to take. Regular Eastwood DP Jack Green has passed on the reins to Tom Stern, who makes his feature debut as a cinematographer after working as a gaffer on many of Clint's movies and on the recent Road to Perdition. The images here are crisp and clean, tending less towards the dark side than Green's work for the director. Veteran production designer Henry Bumstead gets the job done without much fuss, which fits the movie's style.--John Calhoun

Clint Eastwood: Less Dark This Time
Photo: Merle W. Wallace/Warner Bros.

Seen in Harlem: Harlem Song is a new revue, designed for the tourist trade, at the Apollo Theatre on 125th Street. Written and directed by George C. Wolfe, it blends new and old songs with dance, period photography, and video interviews with Harlem residents to tell the story of the nation’s most vibrant African-American community. It’s a smart, witty, frequently exciting production, filled with vivid moments—strolling socialites parading their Sunday best, Cotton Club cuties strutting their stuff in faux-African finery, a Depression-era housewife bitterly welcoming love while surrounded by images of poverty, a James-Brown–like singer heralding the years of riots and emerging black consciousness. Everything about the production is impeccable: Riccardo Hernandez’s two–level set allows for nearly instantaneous transitions and makes evocative use of the projections and videos by Batwin + Robin; Paul Tazewell’s dazzling costumes nail the details of several decades; the superb lighting by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer unleashes blasts of torrid color, then goes suddenly white for moments of stark drama; the sound design by Acme Sound Partners is flexible and lifelike. Time and again, however, Harlem Song comes right to the brink of being truly exciting without getting there. It’s the nature of the revue format: Without any particular interest in character or narrative, each number exists apart from the rest, and the show never builds any real emotional momentum. On the other hand, Harlem Song is its own genre, a kind of fabulous one–off and, taken on its own terms, it has a great deal to offer its target audience.

Jazzy Lighting by Fisher and Eisenhauer for

Harlem Song

Seen on Broadway: The hit revival of Noises Off has a new cast, led by Jane Curtin, but otherwise, it’s business as usual, as we follow the company of a seedy sex farce (titled Nothing On) as they tour the provinces under increasingly dire circumstances. Interestingly, this production works better with a less starry ensemble. The original lineup, with Patti LuPone, Peter Gallagher, and Faith Prince, was fine, but Curtin and Co. work together more cohesively. Of course, Curtin’s talent for mutely registering embarrassment mixed with rage is well used here: Observe her intense concentration as she waits for an onstage phone to ring, followed by her reaction, when it finally does ring, after she picks it up. She packs a lifetime of hilarious emotion into those few moments. There are also fine contributions from Byron Jennings as an actor who faints at the sight of blood, Kaitlin Hopkins as the company busybody, Leigh Lawson as the libidinous, overbearing director, and Kali Rocha as the myopic, rather dim, ingenue. Michael Frayn’s script, a sex farce about a sex farce, remains the 20th century’s most incomparable piece of comic construction. As for that second act, a precisely staged ballet of silent, backstage mayhem—how do they do it? Robert Jones’ set is the perfect distillation of all the tacky touring productions that ever were (one suspects that he has a couple of productions of Boeing-Boeing or Don’t Dress for Dinner on his résumé) and his costumes are frequently witty. Fergus O’Hare’s sound cues add to the fun (that opening music for Nothing On is priceless). The straightforward lighting is by Tim Mitchell. Noises Off remains the funniest show in New York.--David Barbour

Seen on the Concert Circuit: Well, the third time must be the charm. After being driven out of Jones Beach by driving rain and lightning, after a second date was cancelled due to "throat stress," I finally got to see Lenny Kravitz in concert. After driving 250 miles, I was ready to rock and designer Jon Pollack provided the creative juice to highlight Kravitz and his band. Pollack, who has been designing Kravitz’s tours since 1991, has a creative rapport with the artist and when Lenny had an idea for a back wall that curved up and over to become a ceiling, Pollack was ready for the challenge. Working with his video designer, Kevin Campbell, Pollack designed a custom truss and rear-projection screen concept that Tait Towers fabricated. Rose Brand fabricated the RP panels from Rosco RP material. Campbell did some extensive research to accommodate the artistic vision of a curved wall of videos and films behind the concert. He discovered a Norwegian company that makes a system for the wraparound screens for flight simulators. By combining the hardware and software with two Barco ELM 12,000 Lumen DLP projectors turned on their sides, Campbell was able to bend and correct the projection to create two side-by-side images. Tied back to six DVD players and his computer system, Campbell could pull up videos and images within four seconds, thus allowing Kravitz the artistic freedom to play any song, any time. The images were stunning and provided great counterpoint and support to the music. The projectors and video gear was supplied by Performance Video and supported by Brad Reiman.

Lenny Makes up and Makes Good

Pollack, who operated the show off a Flying Pig Systems Wholehog II, presented a simple yet effective lighting show. His theatrical design background as well as his diverse lighting career was evident. Occasionally, we were treated to a bit of "retinal tanning," as Pollack refers to audience washes, but overall the units hung from the curved truss that supported the video screens were used to highlight and focus a very good set from Kravitz. Well used were Coemar SuperCycs for downlighting and audience washes, High End Systems Cyberlights at the bottom rear of the truss for up lighting and pattern washes, and Martin Professional MAC2000 luminaires hung from the curved spines. The lighting package and trucking is supplied by Upstaging.

The concert was a big success, especially since this was a makeup date for the Boston crowd. I feel that Kravitz played longer and harder to make up for the earlier cancellation. Everyone had a good time and Pollack, Campbell, and company are off to the west and then to Japan for the next few months. If you get a chance to catch the Lenny Kravitz tour, you will not be disappointed in the least. Pollack’s groundbreaking projection design will be covered more in depth in the November Entertainment Design magazine. --Michael S. Eddy

Another View of Lenny K in Concert

Heard From 18th Street: The theatre consultants at Fisher Dachs Associates are putting the finishing touches on a variety of projects around the United States, from the just completed Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in Houston, TX (designed by architect Robert Stern) to CalArts' experimental theatre space, nicknamed REDCAT, in the new Disney Concert Hall in LA (this one with a wild design by architect Frank Gehry).

Other projects include the Clay Center for the Performing Arts in Charleston, WV, the Omaha Performing Arts Center in Omaha, NE (architect for this one is James Polshek Partners), Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor, MI, and the renovation of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ.--Ellen Lampert-Gréaux

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