Sunday, November 5, 2017

HELLO AGAIN: Tom Gustafson's film of Michael John LaChiusa's musical hits U.S. theaters

A huge musical theater fan, TrustMovies first saw Hello Again back in 1993, when it made its debut at New York's Lincoln Center. He found it only a middling musical: well-performed with some nice moments along the way and an occasional song in which brief melody could be ascertained but overall as though its creator, Michael John LaChiusa, had been flirting with atonality to the point at which it began to sound like someone had foolishly convinced Igor Stravinsky to write a Broadway musical (and, worse, he had accepted the challenge). Now, nearly 25 years later, we have HELLO AGAIN, the movie, in a version filmed for cinema by Tom Gustafson, shown below, with a screenplay by Cory Krueckeberg, adapted from LaChiusa's original.

If you're a musical theater buff, you will need no special encouragement to seek out the film version, but if you're new to this property, a warning may be in order. The musical is based upon the Arthur Schnitzler play, La Ronde, in which one character indulges in an assignation with another, and that other with the next in a kind of romantic/sexual rondelay of love and lust that eventually comes full circle, with each character appearing in two consecutive tales. Both filmed versions -- the first, brilliant, by Max Ophüls, the second, inferior but not awful, by Roger Vadim -- are better than LaChiusa's musical version, due mostly to the fact that characterization is stronger. The good news here is that Mr. Gustafson's film improves upon the original musical. The bad news is that the first half of the film is weak enough that I fear some viewers may not stick it out. That would be a shame because the movie grows ever stronger as it moves along.

LaChiusa also made a major change in his adaptation of the original La Ronde: Instead of having his characters all come from the same time period, he places them all over the past century -- and then flashes forward and backward at will. Some have noted that this gives the musical more universality and timeliness (it certainly gives the sets and costume people plenty of work, as well as us viewers the chance to oooh and aaaaah). And yet: Schnitzler's original remains about as timely and universal a series of tales as you could wish for, covering class, sexism, the male prerogative and humanity's hypocrisy as thoroughly, and with remarkable brevity and wit, as anyone ever has.

The weakness inherent in the film's first half comes, I believe, from three standpoints: The first is that the cast assembled is much stronger in the second half, where musical theater powerhouses like Audra McDonald and Cheyenne Jackson shine at their very best. They are joined by that terrific actress Martha Plimpton (below), who, it turns out, can also sing. (Ms Plimpton actually begins the film but comes into her own only at its conclusion.)

The actors used in the initial segments are certainly not bad, but they are also not given the characterization necessary by LaChiusa and Krueckeberg to be able to make us care much about what is going on. And they are not helped by LaChiusa's score, which is weakest throughout the first half. We keep waiting for a melody to hang onto, but the composer seems satisfied to give us what sounds like mostly recitative. Gustafson, too, is happy to so hype up the sexual element in the initial segments that, at times, we feel a little closer to porno than to real people.

My spouse was about to give up on the film when we hit the segment that takes place in a stateroom on, yes, the Titanic, where an upper class passenger (played by T.R. Knight, above, right) is in the process of seducing a third class one (Tyler Blackburn, above, left) and not only desire and specific detail (for instance, training on which piece of flatware to use) but also enormous need and longing assert themselves, and suddenly the episode comes to life in a way that the former ones have not.

This carries on into the following episode (between Blackburn and Jackson, above) and then onward, stronger and stronger, until the movie finishes in a blast of emotion and music that becomes enormously compelling. Did LaChiusa write new material for the film? I don't remember the stage musical being this powerful toward the finale, but perhaps my tastes and appreciation have changed down the ensuing decades.

So: stronger performers and stronger music in the latter half. And finally the third element -- a much stronger infusion of GLBT material in the film than was in the original show. I remember some non-hetero sex, certainly, but I would say that this element has more than doubled in this filmed version, and given the resumes of both screenwriter and director, as well as certain of the actors, this seems appropriate and reasonable. And certainly, the GLBT scenes resonate the most powerfully here (unless, of course, all this is simply in the eye of the beholder).

So, see what you think. Die-hard musical theaters fans should not miss this adaptation, nor should GLBT audiences, nor maybe those who are fans of the original La Ronde. The general public? As I say, stick it out if you can, if only for the opportunity to see Ms McDonald doing things -- and so powerfully -- you'll not have probably witnessed previously. Also worth seeing is Sam Underwood, who doubles a kind of host for the tales, as well as the closest thing to the "T" part of the GLBT equation.

From Screen Vision Media and running 110 minutes, Hello Again begins its special-screenings theatrical run this Wednesday, November 8, all across the country. To find the theaters nearest you, click here, and then scroll down (theaters are listed by state). And maybe reserve your seats a bit early to prevent disappointment.

No comments: