Goodman Theatre’s ‘Christmas Carol’ audio play review: a heartfelt gift to all

This is Larry Yando’s 13th year as Ebenezer Scrooge in the Goodman’s “A Christmas Carol” — he’s been at it nearly twice as long as Jacob Marley’s been dead (as a doornail) when Charles Dickens’ Christmas ghost story begins.

If you’ve seen Yando’s Scrooge, you know that he and the rest of the Goodman’s repeat cast members and designers have set a high bar for themselves with past productions. It’s unfair to compare director Jessica Thebus’ audio play version this year with the “Christmas Carols” of Christmas past. But it’s difficult not to. What’s lost this year, along with the opulent visuals, is the grand sense of scale created by a sprawling ensemble bustling about (and sometimes literally flying over) London.

That’s a comparatively small price for what the audio play gains, arriving as it does in the context of a pandemic that has decimated the economy and thrown millions out of work, live theater artists among those hit the hardest. The food insecurity and dire health-care straits of Tiny Tim (Vikram Konkimalla ) hit with acuteness in 2020. So does the call to connect with fellow humans, lest ye be doomed like poor Jacob Marley (Kareem Bandealy).

Like its live stage predecessors, audio “Christmas Carol” is rich with compelling drama and well-drawn characters. There are real stakes, memorable performances and glorious music. Before it ends, you will feel you are curled up with a plate of gingerbread before a roaring fireplace and a pile of presents even if none of that is remotely in the cards this season.

Tom Creamer’s stage adaptation has been adapted for audio by Neena Arndt, Thebus and sound designer Richard Woodbury. They’ve beefed up the exposition, giving the Narrator (Andrew White) a lot of the heavy lifting. White is fabulous with the adjectives, even when the script itself lays them on thick. The visuals he creates are vivid.

Sound is obviously in the spotlight, so to speak. Not to worry. Woodbury, composer Andrew Hansen and music director Malcolm Ruhl are, as the dialogue describes the house-band at the Fezziwig office party: “people who know their business.”

Larry Yando records the role of Scrooge for the Goodman Theatre’s audio play of “A Christmas Carol.”

Larry Yando records the role of Scrooge for the Goodman Theatre’s audio play of “A Christmas Carol.”
Frank Ishman

The music paints pictures: A Copland-esque surge of elation crescendos as Scrooge takes flight with the Ghost of Christmas Past (Aurora Real de Asua, delivering a childlike spirit luminous with ancient wisdom). A rollicking jig provides a glitter bomb of merriment at the Fezziwig’s (Penelope Walker, Cindy Gold) party. The soprano of the lone child (Asher Alcantara) singing carols in the dark is as piercing as an icicle. The wailing wraiths closing out Jacob Marley’s visitation are haunting. And make sure to listen for the “Noel” carol sung at the “Christmas Present” party hosted by Scrooge’s niece Frida (Dee Dee Batteast). It’s as gorgeous as the first snowfall.

Yando’s

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Review: ‘Summer’ completes Ali Smith’s Seasons quartet, showing how beauty persist in all times | Book Reviews

SUMMER. By Ali Smith. Pantheon. 384 pages. $27.95.

Ali Smith is back with “Summer,” the final installment of her Seasons quartet. We can now see this project for what it is: a daredevil feat, with all kinds of pitfalls built in and bypassed. I don’t recall any recent literature that ties itself so ambitiously to our historical moment.

“Autumn” gave us Brexit; “Winter” gave us Trump; “Spring” gave us the refugee crisis; and now we’re here. It’s “Summer, and our own COVID-19 moment jumps off the page.

In “Autumn,” the first volume, Daniel Gluck (a character who’s back for “Summer”) tells a friend that “every history is a story,” and “whoever makes up the story, makes up the world.” So, what kind of world has Ali Smith made up for us? First, her story leans toward forgiveness. She’s a loving creator (if it’s not too sappy to say), generous with second chances. Take Art, for instance. In “Winter,” he creates a blog, “Art in Nature,” with which he intends to “cut through fake narratives with razor-edge writing. It’ll be searing, it’ll be honest.”

But, it’s neither searing nor honest. Art is a poseur who fabricates experiences and loses his girlfriend, Charlotte, in the bargain. Now, they’re back together and here to play a central part in one of the book’s acts of restitution. No one is stuck forever with the proceeds of sloppy mistakes, although Smith can be scathing when the crime demands it.

No voice here carries the day. Smith is ever aware of the wide streak between what seems to be and what is. She lets us listen in, play emotional detective and unscramble what we can of what is and what was (always crucial in a story that hopscotches across time and geography).

In her Paris Review interview, Smith says that she likes to use the “step-back motion” borrowed from Dickens. By getting a clear bead on the past, she hopes to create a space where we can see the way we live now (“the way that famous first paragraph of ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ creates space by being its own opposite”). Never has she been more dedicated to the long view. And never has the long, settled view seemed more inconclusive.

Smith begins “Summer,” like the other Seasons books, with an overture, this one commemorating a dismissive vocal note, when everyone said: “So?” Smith is not a shrugger. Already, the fashion of pretending not to care seems like a lifetime ago. She begins by introducing us to a new family, the Greenlaws.

Uncover more stories from Charleston’s 350 years of history that have been long forgotten over time. Sign up for this 5-part newsletter course to learn about key historical moments that aren’t told in the story of Charleston.

Grace was once a famous actress and still has a head full of lines and scenes. Her first line nods to Dickens: “Whether I shall turn out to be the heroine of my own life

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‘Black Beauty’ Review: A Melodrama in Need of Rougher Edges

Written in 1877, Anna Sewell’s classic children’s novel “Black Beauty” warned against the abuse of horses. The pristine adaptation streaming on Disney+ is a melodrama in need of rougher edges. Directed by Ashley Avis (a former competitive equestrian), the movie is set in the present-day United States and features two female protagonists: the fiery mustang Black Beauty (voiced by Kate Winslet) and the recently orphaned Jo (Mackenzie Foy), now living with her uncle John (Iain Glen), training horses at Birtwick Stables.

Angry at the world, Jo softens after meeting Beauty, a kindred spirit without a family, too. On the ranch’s sun-kissed pastures, the girl and horse heal each other, until a fire destroys the stables at Birtwick. Struggling financially, John leases Beauty as a show horse to a wealthy equestrian family, the Winthrops, for their spoiled tween daughter Georgina (Fern Deacon). Jo despises Georgina’s abusiveness toward Beauty — the brat kicks holes into the horse — yet Jo still falls for Georgina’s dreamy older brother, George (Calam Lynch). Ultimately, Birtwick sells Beauty out from under Jo. Beauty, now forced to work for new owners, endures hardships: She performs grueling rescues of lost hikers and later pulls carriages through Central Park.

Though Winslet is the marquee name on the cast list, “Black Beauty” materializes not as the horse’s story, but Jo’s. Unfortunately, even that character’s grief is underwritten as she pines for a daydream teen romance and a reunion with her steadfast horse, rather than ever revisiting her parents’ death. Avis loses the novel’s sincerity by watering down Sewell’s animal welfare plea. In this update, the humans are not as villainous. Beauty is not as prominent. And the novel’s mustang spirit diminishes into a ho-hum horse movie.

Black Beauty
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour and 49 minutes. Watch on Disney+.

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‘Black Beauty’ review: Disney+ update an uplifting horse story

For more than a century, every generation has had its cinematic adaptation of “Black Beauty,” and while the new Disney+ version switches the genders of the magnificent horse as well as the young protagonist and moves the locale from the English countryside of the late 19th century to the American West of today, it’s thematically and spiritually faithful to Anna Sewell’s timeless classic, from the horse serving as narrator to the episodic nature of the storyline to the powerful and still-relevant message about humane treatment of animals — and the undeniably healing and lasting dynamic between human and creature.

I loved this movie. Yes, it’s an unapologetically sentimental, anthropomorphic, family-friendly, sugar-sweet story aimed squarely at the younger members of your brood — and stop me if you think there’s anything wrong with that. This is a beautifully uplifting film at a time we can all use a dose of old-fashioned, cynicism-free storytelling. Writer-director Ashley Avis and her production team have created a gorgeous, sweeping epic (please watch this on the biggest screen available in your house), with Kate Winslet voicing Black Beauty’s thoughts and feelings to heart-melting effect, the wonderfully talented Mackenzie Foy delivering a sublime performance as the girl who finds a kindred spirit in Black Beauty, and Iain Glen from “Game of Thrones” and “Downton Abbey” playing the most dashing and empathetic horse whisperer this side of Robert Redford.

“Black Beauty” isn’t one of those photorealistic movies with animals literally talking, e.g., the most recent versions of “The Lion King” and “Doctor Dolittle.” From the moment we meet the energetic and adventure-seeking mustang foal who will be named Black Beauty, roaming free in the wild with her mother and extended family, her thoughts and emotions are expressed through Winslet’s warm and comforting voice-over, similar to what Kevin Costner did as Enzo the dog in “The Art of Racing in the Rain” (2019) and Josh Gad did in “A Dog’s Purpose” (2017) and “A Dog’s Journey” (2019).

Jo’s uncle (Iain Glen), a horse trainer, takes in the wild filly who would late be called Black Beauty.
Disney+

The first of many lump-in-your throat moments occurs when 21st century cowboys, complete with tracking helicopter overhead, round up the herd and Beauty is separated from her mother, never to see her again. Fortunately, the young filly winds up with the horse-loving, quietly noble and goodhearted trainer John Manly (even that name sounds like a Gary Cooper character), who believes wild horses can be broken in a humane fashion and should be treated with care and respect.

Just as Beauty is coming to terms with her new life, there’s another new arrival at the ranch: the teenage girl Jo Green (Mackenzie Foy), who lost her family as well when a tragic car accident claimed the lives of her parents. Alone and closed-off, a city girl in the country, Jo barely knows her Uncle Jack and wants nothing

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Review: ‘Ma Rainey’ is Boseman’s final, perhaps finest gift

This image released by Netflix shows Michael Potts, from left, Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo in "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."

This image released by Netflix shows Michael Potts, from left, Chadwick Boseman and Colman Domingo in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

AP

Chadwick Boseman surges onto the screen as fast-talking trumpeter Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” like a man on an electrified tightrope — balancing precariously between hope and cynicism, humor and sadness, joy and pain, and love and hate.

Unlike with some of Boseman’s other famous characters who’ve had a clear moral center from the start, it’s not clear what Levee, a creation of legendary playwright August Wilson, has up his sleeve. Handsome and wiry, he’s constantly on edge, and behind even his most brilliant smile there’s a whiff of something amiss. We don’t really know what we’re looking at. But we sure don’t want to look away.

Boseman’s performance in this film adaptation of Wilson’s 1982 play, lovingly directed by George C. Wolfe, would be heartbreaking even if the actor hadn’t tragically lost his life to cancer this year.

But watching it now, that knowledge informs every moment, as one imagines the challenges he must have faced in a famously taxing role that was clearly so important to him. It goes without saying that the performance is brilliant, and yes, electric, but it’s also heroic. If there had to be a final role, what a gift that it was this, an exclamation point to a career that seems ever more momentous.

Boseman isn’t the only volcanic force in “Ma Rainey,” a meditation on power, race, sex and commerce in early 20th-century America treated with sensitivity and grace by Wolfe, with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and score by Branford Marsalis. There’s also the matter of the titular Ma herself, played by a superb Viola Davis, nearly unrecognizable in her broadened silhouette, mouth of gold teeth, and coat upon coat of eye makeup. Together, she and Boseman conduct a master class.

A historical note: Ma Rainey, who died in 1939, was a groundbreaking Black singer from Georgia known as “Mother of the Blues.” She’s the only real-life character in Wilson’s 10-play cycle documenting the African American experience, and the only LBGT character, too.

Wolfe, who doesn’t try to underplay the material’s theatrical roots, gives us a a few tone-setting performance scenes. But the action takes place almost exclusively inside a white-owned studio in Chicago, where Ma and her band are scheduled one afternoon in 1927 to record a few hits. Intensifying the claustrophobia, Wolfe has turned it from winter to sultry summer; Ma is perpetually glistening in sweat.

Before Ma arrives — suitably late — her band gathers. There’s the fatherly Cutler (Colman Domingo), Slow Drag (Michael Potts), and pianist Toledo (Glynn Turman). Then Levee bursts in, brandishing a prized new pair of shoes. Not only does he have talent, he boasts to the older guys: “I got STYLE.”

That he does. And ambition. Encouraged by the white studio owner, he’s writing songs and plans to launch his own band. And he has his own, jazzier version

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Review: ‘Ma Rainey’ is Boseman’s final, perhaps finest gift | Entertainment

Chadwick Boseman surges onto the screen as fast-talking trumpeter Levee in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” like a man on an electrified tightrope — balancing precariously between hope and cynicism, humor and sadness, joy and pain, and love and hate.

Unlike with some of Boseman’s other famous characters who’ve had a clear moral center from the start, it’s not clear what Levee, a creation of legendary playwright August Wilson, has up his sleeve. Handsome and wiry, he’s constantly on edge, and behind even his most brilliant smile there’s a whiff of something amiss. We don’t really know what we’re looking at. But we sure don’t want to look away.

Boseman’s performance in this film adaptation of Wilson’s 1982 play, lovingly directed by George C. Wolfe, would be heartbreaking even if the actor hadn’t tragically lost his life to cancer this year.

But watching it now, that knowledge informs every moment, as one imagines the challenges he must have faced in a famously taxing role that was clearly so important to him. It goes without saying that the performance is brilliant, and yes, electric, but it’s also heroic. If there had to be a final role, what a gift that it was this, an exclamation point to a career that seems ever more momentous.

Boseman isn’t the only volcanic force in “Ma Rainey,” a meditation on power, race, sex and commerce in early 20th-century America treated with sensitivity and grace by Wolfe, with a screenplay by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and score by Branford Marsalis. There’s also the matter of the titular Ma herself, played by a superb Viola Davis, nearly unrecognizable in her broadened silhouette, mouth of gold teeth, and coat upon coat of eye makeup. Together, she and Boseman conduct a master class.

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