March 20, 2011

Coming Soon: Bernadette Peters

The next act coming to The Paramount makes me want to become one of The Four Tops. That way I can belt out lyrics to one of their hits with unbridled joy. You know what song I'm talking about...


Bernadette Peters is a true multimedia icon. She's a five pointed star: award-winning stage performer, television personality, recording artist, successful film actress and published children's book author. This is what a multi-talented star really looks like; not like those artificially-flavored cross-platform "stars" of today. Sure, Will Smith may have gotten jiggy with it, ruled Bel Air, and battled aliens with Tommy Lee Jones, but I don't recall him appearing on stage at any time. Heck, all he's done lately is inundate us with his children, who practice karate and whip their hair around. Ok, but what about Jennifer Lopez, you may ask? To that I counter with a stout "ha!" J-Lo? Please. She may have played Selena, but was never considerably well-regarded as a pop star. More recently, that diva can't even sustain the ratings of "American Idol."

By comparison, Bernadette's talent is as pure as cane sugar. In a career that has spanned over 50 years thus far, she has won acclaim in nearly every major arena of the performing arts. Starting at age 9, she had joined the second national tour of "Gypsy" at the ripe old age of 13. Over the next few years she added singing to her repertoire and firmly established a stage career for herself, finally making her Broadway debut in 1967. She eventually left the stage for other pursuits, but returned years later and won acclaim for "On the Town" (the revival), "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," and many others.

In the early 1970s Peters blossomed in television and film. She made appearances on variety programming like "Sonny and Cher" and "The Carol Burnett Show." Bernadette was even Emmy nominated for guest stints on "The Muppet Show" (ha! forget you, Cee-Lo Green). Her appearances have dotted the landscape of television over the last few decades, so chances are great that you've seen her in something. Even if you don't know her beautiful face, you can always recognize that distinctive voice.

Her vocal styles were not just limited to the stage, however. Since 1980, Peters has released six solo albums and a number of singles as well. Not merely comprised of show tunes, they display an impressive vocal range and willingness to test herself in the waters of different musical genres. Not surprisingly, all garnered her wide acclaim and is a resultant three-time Grammy nominee.

An avid animal activist, Peters also supports her cause by writing children's books and donating the proceeds to charity. They feature a variety of animals in uplifting stories for young readers. In addition, the books contain CDs with accompanying narration, lullabies, and songs. To children and adults alike, these are treasures. If there's one thing Bernadette demonstrates time and again, it's that you can never overextend yourself if you place your heart and soul into everything you do.

Although she's appeared on film in many different roles and has worked with the likes of Clint Eastwood and Woody Allen, there is one movie that strikes above all others. My unabashed love for Ms. Peters was naturally spawned from my exposure to her at a tender age. For me, that first experience was in the highly underrated comedic gem, The Jerk. It's a film I revisit every few years, and not just for laughs. Yes, I love the zany and moronic antics of Steve Martin, but I treasure the sweet (yet still hilarious) moments provided by Bernadette. Take for instance, this. It's my favorite scene:

Wasn't that just silly yet perfectly endearing? Plus, it had Steve on the banjo! Sweet as honeysuckle on a vine.

Years later, my love for Ms. Peter would be rekindled when I got the opportunity to see her perform live. In the summer of 1993 during a trip to New York City, I saw her and Martin Short in a Broadway production of "The Goodbye Girl." Needless to say, she was fantastic. And I've remained a fan ever since.

Chances are, you won't need the refresher like I did. When she takes the stage here in Austin, you'll likely love her from the moment you hear her (if you don't already). At that point, you can join me as we pay homage by exclaiming her name in joy. You know, like one of The Four Tops.

Ms. Bernadette Peters performs at The Paramount Theatre on Friday, March 25th at 8:00 p.m.

March 10, 2011

Review: Ed Asner

Walking into the auditorium was akin to stepping into a time machine. 1930s-era radio tunes were playing, and the vintage beauty of The Paramount Theatre amplified this illusion. If not for the soft glow of people on the cell phones, one would never know what year it was. An anticipation was building as we knew showtime was approaching, and the buzz of seating patrons was growing. He, after all, is a man with a reputation that far precedes his entrance into a room. A legend in his own time, with a strong personality that seems far bigger than the corporal vessel to which he is confined.

At that moment, I realized that statement could apply to both the man performing that night or the role portrayed. Franklin Roosevelt was an incredibly powerful President, but was crippled by his battle with polio. He never let that get in his way, and projected strength while helping our country back on our feet. Similarly Ed Asner, now in his eighth decade, refuses to slow down. Although showing signs of age, not one spark of his power or energy can be diffused. Asner may be older and more frail, but I assure you his voice hasn't lost one bit of its power.

A one man show, FDR is an account of Roosevelt's years in office told from a memoir point of view. As Roosevelt, Asner would address the audience, and then at certain points would retreat into the setting behind him on stage, dressed to represent the Oval Office. At that point, the story would become reenactments of key moments in FDR's life and administration. Conversations transpire with invisible characters, but it never felt forced or awkward. The transitions were seamless and, despite no visual cues or lighting changes during these shifts, there was never a sense of confusion on the part of the audience.

It was fascinating to watch, like diary entries come to life. The entire production developed on stage like a memoir. Despite having a lone performer on stage, one could easily determine the tone and supporting characters that Asner was "playing" against. The narration had the right tone of hubris one would expect from a man who constantly defied odds and prevailed.

What was most impressive, you ask? The emotion. Often subtle, the power of Asner's performance hinted that for all of Roosevelt's pomp and acheivement, he was still a mortal man. We could diagnose the erosion of the Oval Office on FDR's relationships. I often caught glimpses of how distant Eleanor and Franklin had become. You could detect a hint of loneliness in the performance. After all, it can't be easy to be a leader of the free world when everyone thinks you're a socialist and running the country into the ground by virtue of big government. Isn't that right, Barack I mean, Franklin?

I know what you're thinking. Asner is not the ideal man to match the physical depiction of FDR. Personally, I always picture Roosevelt as long and sickly (probably based solely on the famous photo of him, Churchill and Stalin at Yalta). Ed may be short and stocky, but his age and demeanor fostered a balance of power and frailty that capture FDR's essence. What I'm trying to articulate is: Asner may not have looked the part, but I can think of no one better to embody the spirit of the 32nd President of the United States.

Not that the night was all heavy drama. There was plenty of mirth sprinkled throughout, amplified by that notorious glint in Asner's eye. Many of his monologues to the audience had humorous anecdotes. A memorable story involved regular poker games at the White House, hosted by Roosevelt. One night, a guest was General Dwight Eisenhower, who was honored and humbled to be playing poker with the President. Ike won 20 dollars that night, and wanted FDR to autograph it so he could keep it as a momento. The President quipped, "if all you want is a signature give me the 20 dollar bill back and I'll write you a check." Classic.

One could tell that Asner, a life long liberal political activist, had a blast taking shots at Republicans while in character. Heck, I'm willing to wager that poking fun at Conservatives was part of the allure for Asner to tackle the role in the first place. The digs were never mean-spirited, but were a cocktail of equal parts respect and pity. There was a particular fondness for Republican Wendall Willkie, his opponent in the 1940 Presidential election. Despite a venomous campaign, FDR lamented to the audience, "I liked Willkie, just not the company he kept."

Regardless of your own political affiliation, the evening was far from polarizing. If anything, reminded us that the course of history is shaped by flesh and blood people. We may see them now as statues of granite and marble, but they were human like us when at their best and the worst. The lasting memory that night was easily the most powerful scene. It is Dec 7, 1941, and the tranquility of Roosevelt's morning is interrupted by a historic phone call. When he took the call that notified him about Pearl Harbor, it was like the air was sucked out of the place. Everyone in the theatre was holding their breath, each imagining the terrible dialogue on the other end of the phone. When he finally hangs up and slumps in disbelief, we feel everything: the anger, the pain, and the weight of the world on his shoulders. We all were left in respectful awe, every one of us with a lump in our throat.

That emotion that evening was palpable, and only afterwards did I realize it was crafted solely out of one man on that stage. The show was a precious gift to behold, and came courtesy of one of the most talented veteran actors working today. That, dear friends, is what a legend truly is. Stepping out of that virtual time capsule back into a 21st century night, I held greater appreciation for both FDR and for Ed Asner. He's not only timeless, but also a national treasure; an actor as iconic as Mount Rushmore.

March 4, 2011

Coming Soon: Ed Asner as FDR

The season has been a series of treasured experiences thus far, filled with engaging performances and conversations. As the SXSW festival is about to take the city by storm and grace The Paramount with a ton of cinematic delights, there is one more live event before the week of festival fun. It is another one-man show, but promises to be something extraordinary. If there's one thing I've learned from the likes of John Lithgow, Ira Glass and Garrison Keillor, it's that one man on stage is all you need to make a memorable show.

The lone man coming soon is 7-time Emmy winner Ed Asner, and he really doesn't need an introduction, does he? I mean, he was Lou Grant, for crying out loud. For you younger readers, that is not the guy from Four Weddings and a Funeral. You're thinking of Hugh Grant. Lou was a character that began in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and later got his own spinoff series. The two series may have featured the same character, but the tones were quite different. To this day, Asner remains the only person to win Emmys in dramatic and comedic categories for playing the same role. Do you realize how hard that is? Can you imagine if Keifer Sutherland's Jack Bauer suddenly turned comedic (and pulled it off)? Or if Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy in "30 Rock" turned dramatic and won an Emmy? Yeah, that's how amazing the accomplishment really is.

Over the decades, Asner has established himself as a prominent stage, film, and television actor. In addition to the two aforementioned TV roles, audiences have seen him in the likes of El Dorado, "Roots," JFK, and Elf (as Santa Claus, no less!). What's even more impressive is that in addition to all these visible roles, Asner has also been a prolific voice actor in dozen of cartoons and video games. You'll find his distinctive voice in Batman: The Animated Series, Gargoyles, Captain Planet (remember that one?), Spider-Man, Superman, Justice League, The Cleveland Show, The Boondocks and even two video games in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series. Who knew he was such a integral part of the Comic Con fanboy demographic?? Yet it is in this arena of vocal acting that Asner has perhaps forever stamped himself into the hearts of a whole new generation, as the voice of Carl Frederickson in the acclaimed 2009 Pixar tearjerker, Up. A movie that, if you're not weeping openly within the film's first 10 minutes, reveals you have a heart of stone. There's sentiment behind that gruff exterior, and it's powerful stuff.

For Asner, the power of his performances is matched only by the passion of his politics. I won't go into the details of his left-leaning ideals, but I must say Asner is a true man of conviction. He stands hand-in-hand with his beliefs, and fully supports causes that would make a tea-partier's head explode. Ed Asner is an advocate in the purest sense of the word. Some of the note-worthy principles that he actively champions for include: wildlife conservation, autism awareness and Racism Watch.

It is fitting then, that Ed is to appear in Austin in a one-man show called "FDR", where he portrays the most progressive and (depending on your point-of-view) controversial American President of the past century. If anyone is to embody the spirit of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I can think of no better choice. Based on Dore Schary’s Broadway play “Sunrise at Campobello,” "FDR" is a show that reflects on the iconic president's years in office.

Perhaps it is appropriate considering the current pendulum swing of our nation to revisit the man behind The New Deal. Too often, modern politics is concerned only with reshuffling the deck when we dislike the cards in our hands. The perpetual state of indecisiveness is a consequence of many dragging their heels and refusing to yield their myopic personal gain in exchange of what is best in the long run. These short-sighted acts rarely make for sound long-term decisions. FDR was one who knew that when the chips are down, you can't just fold when you don't like the cards dealt. One must move forward or get out of the way. Ed Asner also knows this, a man who has refused to rest on his laurels or sit on his hands. That's why his solo performance is certain to show the audience why Roosevelt was loved and loathed by so many.

Watch him as he appears as FDR at The Paramount Theatre on Wednesday, March 9th at 8:00 p.m. It's not just Roosevelt and The New Deal, it's Ed Asner on stage. And that, my friends, is a big deal.