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'Into the Woods' Is Not Happily Ever After

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff

Welcome back to the "Mom Review"! My sidekick Noelle is now a teenager at 13 but she is still willing to share her thoughts on the movies, plays and other family-friendly events we experience to give our Berkshires.com readers a different take on the local cultural scene. First, I'll share my thoughts, and then Noelle will share hers.

I would have been OK leaving it at "happily ever after."

Noelle and I saw Barrington Stage Company's "Into the Woods" on Sunday, June 23. I have never seen the play or the movie, so I didn't know what to expect. 

I loved the first act; it was fun and funny and witty and cool. The story, for those of you who also are unfamiliar with it, centers on a childless baker and his wife who are trying to lift the curse that is preventing them from starting a family. The witch who had cast the spell tells them to secure four items in order to negate the spell: a white cow, a red cape, a gold shoe and blonde hair. (The actual list was much more poetic, but you get the idea.) The couple must go "into the woods" to find these items. While there, they encounter fairy-tale favorites Jack (of Beanstalk fame), who has a white cow; Little Red Riding Hood, who of course has a red cape; Cinderella, who has a gold shoe; and Rapunzel, who has blonde hair (which turns out not to be the RIGHT blonde hair, but you'll have to see it to understand that). The spell is broken and they all live happily ever after.

Well, it's not quite that simple. 

There is much hilarity in the resolution of the spell. Barrington Stage's performance has strong actors with lovely voices and gorgeous live music (can't go wrong with Stephen Sondheim). The story of act one is a crowd-pleaser that all ages will enjoy; reminder that Barrington Stage doesn't allow kids under 5 in the theater. At intermission you'll be left tapping your toes and chuckling with happiness at how well it worked out for everyone and how wonderful life is. The baker and his wife found happiness with a baby, Cinderella found her prince, Jack found prosperity with the magic chicken and golden harp, Rapunzel found freedom and Little Red Riding Hood found how nice it is not to be eaten by a wolf and how important it is to always, always listen to your mother.

Ah, intermission. Sweet, sweet intermission.

Can I make a recommendation? If you bring a child under 10, or maybe even 12, just leave at intermission. You'll all be happier. Don't believe me? Fine. Stay and watch it all fall apart. Not for Barrington Stage, where the performance is still as technically riveting as the first half, with perhaps the exception of the vengeful giantess, whose voice just isn't quite right. It's really just the story itself. They say the story is "much-loved," but I don't know by whom. It's dark and messy and just plain depressing. The moral(s)? Be careful what you wish for: You might get it. There are unintended consequences to every action. Children don't listen to their parents so why bother. Retribution and revenge can sometimes be OK.

And let's not even talk about the misogyny of the female character who cheats on her husband and is killed nearly immediately while the (also married) male character who cheats with her gets to live.

What the heck? Where did my fairy tale go?

I've mentioned before in these reviews that there's enough gloom and doom in the world without adding to it. Maybe that wasn't the case when Sondheim wrote "Into the Woods" in the 1980s. I don't know; I was just a kid in the '80s and everything seemed awesome to me then as I roamed my neighborhood free as a bird with no cell phones monitoring me and nothing to do but make up street games and ride my bike until the sun set. But these days, our country is a mess, kids are being locked in cages and shot in schools, adults are yelling at each other on social media and over the dinner table, we seem closer than ever to a nuclear war, and our commander in a chief is a big liar. I need my happily ever after SOMEWHERE.

None of that is the fault of Sondheim, or Barrington Stage. You can't please everyone all the time. If I had a do-over, though, I would have left at intermission and felt happy the rest of the day instead of uneasy and confused.

So in conclusion, here's my note to fellow parents about this show, which runs through July 13: You can't bring kids under 5. Kids up to ages 10 or 12 might enjoy some of the first act (though be aware there is a little sexual content) but likely will be confused by the second act (where there is a little more sexual content and then lots of death). Or just stay home and watch something that actually does end happily ever after. "The Little Mermaid" usually does the trick for me.

Noelle says: I agree with Mom that the second half was creepier and not as good. The first act could be a story on its own. When they said "stay tuned" and I found out there was a second act, I was surprised, because I thought it was over. Kids under 10 won't like it. The takeaway seemed kind of confusing; mine is that parents shouldn't tell their kids to do anything because they're not going to listen anyway, though I don't really think that's what they meant! The costumes and set were great, and I mostly liked the music, though sometimes there was some overlapping that made it hard to understand. I especially thought it was cool to see the band director from my school playing in the live orchestra. I like seeing musicals and the first act was great.

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'Aladdin' Goes Dark, Political and Not As Much Fun

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff

Welcome back to the "Mom Review"! My sidekick Noelle is now a teenager at 13 but she is still willing to share her thoughts on the movies, plays and other family-friendly events we experience to give our Berkshires.com readers a different take on the local cultural scene. First, I'll share my thoughts, and then Noelle will share hers.

Well, I liked this one more than "Dumbo." Which isn't saying much, because I didn't like "Dumbo" all that much. In fact, I haven't much liked any of the Disney live-action remakes of the classics. (Spoiler alert: I will not be seeing "The Lion King." I hate talking animals that aren't cartoons.)

But OK. "Aladdin" wasn't ALL awful.

We saw it at Hathaway's Drive-In Theatre under the stars, which is always fun - if you don't mind the bugs and the less-than-stellar sound quality. Yes, I know, both of those would be improved if we sat INSIDE the car, but I still don't know how that would work with four people. So instead, the kids cozied up with a pile of blankets and pillows in the hatchback of my little Pruis with the backseat folded down and their heads sticking out and we adults gripped cans of bug spray while sitting on folding chairs flanking the car - well away from my admittedly wimpy radio playing the soundtrack on front-seat-only speakers. Hence the less-than-stellar sound quality. (And while we're talking about drive-in etiquette, if you own a large car - which includes crossovers like a Kia Sportage, Mr. and Mrs. Rude Vermont Couple - please follow the rules and don't set up camp in the spots reserved for little cars. And once the movie starts - I'm looking at you, Mr. and Mrs. Chatty Massachusetts Family - stop talking already. Sound does carry in a large open field. Who knew?)

Back to the movie. In "Aladdin," a magical genie helps a charming street rat find love with a princess. If this isn't too creepy for a 40-something mom to say, Aladdin was pretty charming, all right. Played by Mena Massoud, he was sweet and cute and devilish and I just wanted to hug him tight. Unfortunately, he seemed too young for Naomi Scott, who played Jasmine and who seemed much older even though the she's actually a year younger than Massoud in real life.

That might have been because Disney got a little political with Jasmine in this remake. The cartoon Jasmine had an independent, stubborn streak, for sure, but this Jasmine was all about becoming the sultan and women's rights and speaking up for herself; in fact, she sings a new song in this version that's actually called "Speechless" (I won't be silenced/you can't keep me quiet/won't tremble when you try it/all I know is I won't go speechless.) As the mother of a daughter, I appreciate Disney's effort to try to take the original princess in her belly-baring clothing and make her a little more of a modern feminist figure. But more modest clothing and one song don't really change the fact that she's a princess whose father has basically locked her up for fear of losing his precious little girl. So, yeah. It's nice for Disney to try to modernize its princesses, but this particular one was a tough sell.

And now to the elephant in the room: the Genie. I was a huge fan of Robin Williams, not just as the voice of the Genie in the original Aladdin but in pretty much everything else he did, including the silly but classic "Mrs. Doubtfire." He was the perfect actor to portray the versatile, funny, cranky, swanky, loveable and insecure Genie.

Will Smith tried. And in many ways, he succeeded - but mostly when he tried to make the Genie his own creation, not just a copy of Robin Williams. In those cases, he failed, because all I could think of was that he just wasn't as good as Robin Williams. I'm not sure any living actor could fill those shoes, so kudos to Smith for trying and not falling flat on his face.

The other characters were kind of mediocre - Jafar was evil but didn't really steal any scenes. The Sultan wasn't quite as dopey and bumbling as in the original. The animal sidekicks seemed to play a lesser role. There were two new characters - Jasmine's maid, who (spoiler alert) ends up falling for the Genie in an unnecessary plot twist, and the head guard, who gets to play out a nice little ethical dilemma of whether to stay loyal to the Sultan or to Jafar when Jafar steals the throne. A moral message, parents!

Overall, as with most of the live-action remakes, younger kids likely will be less entertained than with the cartoon versions - not only because they aren't exactly the same (and we know how kids like things that are familiar) but also because they just are darker than the originals. Granted, it's hard to turn the casual violence of the animated "Aladdin" into real life without some of that, but it's just the nature of the movie business these days, it seems. Even "kids movies" are dark and serious. Maybe that's why I'm not liking them as much. Maybe, just maybe, there's enough darkness in the world that I want happy and bright and light.

We'll be watching "Toy Story 4" next. We'll see if that fits the bill.

Noelle says: "Aladdin" was OK. There was nothing to make my mom cry, so that was good. I liked watching it from the back of the car in the drive-in, except it starts so late I fell asleep for some of it near the end. I don't know who could stay awake for the second movie after it! But I thought the Genie was really funny. I agree with my mom that little kids probably won't like it. I might try to get her to see "The Lion King" anyway. We'll see.

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New 'Dumbo' Left This Mom With Dry Eyes

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff

Welcome back to the first "Mom Review" in a few years! My sidekick Noelle is now a teenager at 13 but she is still willing to share her thoughts on the movies, plays and other family-friendly events we experience to give our Berkshires.com readers a different take on the local cultural scene. First, I'll share my thoughts, and then Noelle will share hers.

When I first heard that Disney was making a live-action version of "Dumbo," I was pretty skeptical. After all, the main characters in this movie are animals, so unless Disney was going to venture into the territory of creepy "talking" real-life creatures, how were they going to pull this one off?

They didn't.

First the good news: Disney WAS able to create a story that didn't require creepy talking real-life animals, thank goodness. Instead, they used very cool special effects to create Dumbo and his mother, and the results of that were pretty spectacular. Dumbo, with his awkward-but-somehow-adorable ears and soulful eyes was as lifelike as possible - and he didn't have to say a word. Neither did his mother, though she had many fewer scenes, nor did the mouse, which appeared only briefly.

Now the bad news: The story was just terrible. Besides the elephant family, the film centers on a family of three: a grieving war hero dad and his two children - who didn't (or maybe couldn't?) breathe much life into the story. There was way too much going on with them: war hero dad returns with one arm to find a wife dead from the flu, no job and a pre-teen daughter he can't relate to because she wants to be scientist and not a circus performer. Had the screenwriters followed any ONE of those storylines, the film could have gone in a more interesting direction. The other actors were lackluster at best, with the possible exception of Danny DeVito, who was as entertaining as always. It pains me to say this, because I've loved Michael Keaton since he was Batman so many years ago, but he was uneven as well. I know it's a Tim Burton-directed piece, but Keaton's character's evil side seemed forced, particularly since it appeared Burton was poking fun at Disney himself and his Disney World. Wanting to kill Mrs. Jumbo just so Dumbo wasn't "distracted" from his flying shows didn't seem deliciously diabolical; it just seemed confusing and mean.

But the worst part for me? I just wasn't touched. To be honest, I can't watch the original "Dumbo" without crying when mama and her baby are separated. And - full disclosure - I cry at most other Disney movies, too. When Simba tries to wake up his dead father? When Rapunzel and her parents are reunited? In "Toy Story 3" when Andy leaves his toys with Bonnie? Total waterworks. I even sniffled before "Dumbo" during the trailer for "Toy Story 4" when it flashes back to that scene in "Toy Story 3." How sappy am I?

In this remake of "Dumbo," thought, it was dry eyes all around. All I could think about was why Mrs. Jumbo's trunk seemed way too long suddenly in an effort to make it wrap around Dumbo.

This "Dumbo" just isn't touching. Maybe it's because watching the exploitation of circus animals isn't heartwarming at all in 2019. Maybe that's not something we want to pass on to today's children - who, by the way, probably won't enjoy this movie very much anyway. The young girl during our showing who was running around during the movie certainly didn't. It's not a cartoon, it's not a musical (though kudos to Disney for working some of the original songs into this film, even in an instrumental fashion so that those of us who remembered the original music recognized it). It's just not FUN. There's a reason it's PG; kids under 8 or so probably will be bored or confused much of time, except when Dumbo is flying, which they will probably think is cool. And they might be scared at the end, which is pretty fiery. Older kids might start to question the whole circus animal morality issue - which Disney ignores in this remake all the way up until the end when Dumbo and his mother are set free in their native India to live out their lives with their wild brethren and the original circus becomes animal-free. (Sorry, spoiler alert.)

Disney has an ambitious slate of releases this year, with the live-action "Aladdin" up next, followed by "Toy Story 4" and then "Frozen 2" this fall. I hope I like those better than "Dumbo." I'm optimistic those will be better. I'll bring the Kleenex.

Noelle says: I didn't really like "Dumbo" either, but I think my mom was a little harsh in her review. I really liked the animation; it seemed pretty real. I agreed that it wasn't very emotional, but I don't cry at movies like my mom does. I just saw "Five Feet Apart" and my friends were all crying but I wasn't. (That was a better movie than "Dumbo," in case you were wondering.) I did like Danny DeVito because he was funny; I don't know him from any other movies but I've seen him in memes on Instagram. I thought the end was very fast-paced, where everything happened very quickly. I didn't think it was scary but I think little kids might be scared by all the fire.

Rebecca Dravis is community editor at iBerkshires.com.

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The Mom Review: Fairy Tales Come True at Jacob's Pillow

By Rebecca Dravis
iBerkshires Staff

The stepsisters, far right, stole the show at 'Cinderella.'

Editor's Note: This is the first installment of the 2015 edition of The Mom Review, a summer-long series of reviews of family-friendly theater, dance, art exhibits, etc., by iBerkshires Community Editor Rebecca Dravis and her 9 1/2-year-old daughter, Noelle, who hope to give you some ideas for summer family fun.

BECKET, Mass. — One of the most amazing things about the New York Theatre Ballet's production of "Cinderella" was revealed after the show during a post-show question-and-answer session at Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival on Thursday evening.

In a response to an audience question about the company's outreach in New York City Schools, founder and artistic director Diana Byer explained that the company had expanded a program that took children living in homeless shelters and introduced them to dance for two weeks to a scholarship program for children with talent and passion for continuing beyond.

And one of those students, she revealed, was the young man, Stephen Melendez, who the audience had just seen dancing the role of The Prince in the lovely and magical performance of "Cinderella." It's a real-life fairy tale befitting the beloved story of an abused servant girl who finds love and happiness with her own Prince Charming.

Boyishly cute Melendez was adorable as the shy and humble prince that more resembled the Disney version of the story than the more recent live action version, in which the prince was a bit cocky. On Thursday, he danced with Elena Zahlmann's Cinderella, bringing the idea of a happy ending to the full house that consisted of a nice co-mingling of young children and older adults.

But as much as you would want the performance to be about Cinderella and her prince, the show was stolen by the two stepsisters, played by Mitchell Kilby and Michael Wells. Yes, you read that right: Two male dancers played the role of the stepsisters, which is a rather brilliant move to convey the awkwardness and homliness the sisters are supposed to portray. It was immediately apparent to the adults in the audience that the sisters were actually boys in dresses, but I had to whisper the "secret" to Noelle, and I did hear another child exclaim "those are boys!" about 10 minutes after the stepsisters appeared on stage.

Kilby and Wells were brilliant as the stepsisters, playing the roles for the laughs they deserved but not venturing too far into ridiculousness. Plus, very impressively, they danced - albeit not classical ballet - on high-heeled dance shoes, which Byer told the audience afterward they just had to get used to like women have to get used to wearing uncomfortable shoes sometimes. Amen to that.

The entire performance lasted one hour, making it the perfect length for children. The costumes were bright and colorful, and because the story is so familiar to both young and old there was no need for any speaking roles to move the story along. The company will perform four more shows at Jacob's Pillow - Friday, June 26, at 8:15 p.m.; Saturday, June 27, at 2:15 and 8:15 p.m.; and Sunday, June 28, at 2:15 p.m. Tickets for adults range from $25-$35 but tickets for kids are just $10 for all performances. Visit jacobspillow.org for all the details. It's worth a visit to see this ballet, which made its world premier at Jacob's Pillow back in 1982 and has been in repertoire ever since.

Now that's the definition of a timeless classic.

Now for Noelle: I liked the costumes because they were really pretty, especially the fairies who danced with the Fairy Godmother. I liked that Cinderella's dress wasn't the big blue gown but instead was a small white dress that sparkled. My favorite part was the ball scene where Cinderella and the Prince were dancing together and the other dancers were on stage, too. I laughed when the king waddled and the sisters were fighting, and the clock made me laugh, too. I was wondering how the sets moved during the show and I got to ask afterward, and she told me the sets were moved by people and it was a good question. It's fun to visit Jacob's Pillow, especially the gift shop!
 

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The Mom Review: Follow the Yellow Brick Road to Tanglewood

By Rebecca Dravis
iberkshires Staff

The witch might have been wicked, but the Boston Pops were nothing short of wicked awesome on Friday night when they accompanied a screening of 'The Wizard of Oz' at Tanglewood.

Editor's Note: This is the eighth installment of The Mom Review, a summer-long series of reviews of family-friendly theater, dance, art exhibits, etc., by iBerkshires Community Editor Rebecca Dravis and her 8-year-old daughter, Noelle, who hope to give you some ideas for summer family fun.

 

The first time I brought Noelle to Tanglewood, she was 18 months old. Needless to say, she doesn't remember the trip to see a family-friendly matinee orchestra concert with her cousins who were visiting from Oregon. 

Those cousins at the time were about the same age as Noelle is now, so it seemed appropriate to bring her back to Tanglewood this summer to experience a place I have loved since I was a kid growing up in Pittsfield.

Noelle plays the viola, so I knew she would enjoy an orchestra show, but I didn't think she had the patience to sit through a full-length "regular" concert. But when I saw that Tanglewood was hosting a screening of "The Wizard of Oz" with live accompaniment by the Boston Pops, I knew this was our best chance.

And it was amazing.

Last Friday was a lovely, if unseasonably cool, night in Lenox. The movie was scheduled to start at 8:30, which was a little late for a true family-friendly experience, but that didn't stop lots of children of all ages from attending. We arrived at 7:30 and I was surprised at how dark it already was; fall most certainly is approaching. Because of this, we didn't get a chance to explore the grounds as much as I would have liked, but we did walk around some before showtime. Noelle was the first to point out a particularly lovely view of the mountains from a corner of the grounds near the Tent Club.

We had seats in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. On our way to finding them, an older gentlemen usher stopped us and said he always stops the pretty young ladies. He proceeded to play a game with Noelle, prompting her to pick a fist for a treat, eventually giving her a butterscotch candy. It was silly and sweet and I loved how kind the ushers were.

As we waited for the movie to start, we tried to spot the orchestra's violas, which from a distance are tough to distinguish from violins. (OK, I'll be honest, violas are tough for me to distinguish from violins close up, too. They look like slightly bigger violins and since Noelle plays a tiny student viola, everything looks bigger than hers!) She delighted in seeing how many violists were in the production and vowed to bring the program to her viola teacher to show him, as they often lament together about the lack of violists in the world.

When the orchestra took the stage and the movie started, it was magical. I don't know about you, but "The Wizard of Oz" always brings out the sentimental sap in me. From Dorothy's love of Toto, to her concert for Auntie Em, to the poor flammable Scarecrow, the movie has the ability to make me tear up. (As an aside, I was afraid that having read the "Wicked" series would make me cherish the move less, but that didn't seem to happen on this night, which was my first viewing of the movie since finishing the books.)

And now, having seen it with live music, it will always have the ability to make me appreciate the score of a movie. Of course I knew all of the songs by heart, but until this performance I don't think I paid that much attention to how many other scenes in the movie were accompanied by music.

There is indeed no place like home, and I'm truly blessed to have Tanglewood so close to my home.

Now for Noelle: I really liked the live concert. It was cool watching everybody else play. Watching the movie was super cool. I liked the bathrooms and the gift shop. I hope to someday play my viola on stage at Tanglewood. I would love to play my viola to my new favorite movie, "West Side Story." I would definitely go there again.

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'Into the Woods' Is Not Happily Ever After
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