Tag Archives: PBS

PBS delivers a valentine from London’s National Theatre

Judi Dench performs 'Send in the Clowns.'

Judi Dench performs ‘Send in the Clowns’ from ‘A Little Night Music’ during ‘ National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage,’ tonight on ‘Great Performances.’

If you’re eager to take a break from the Winter Olympic Games, or if you’re just ready for two beguiling hours of television on general principal, Great Performances tonight presents the national television premiere of National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage on many PBS affiliates (as always, check your local TV listings to confirm when it’s airing in your area).
This glittering two-hour special, which was screened as a live satellite transmission to a limited number of U.S. movie theaters last November, spotlights a jaw-dropping array of British actors as they assemble to pay tribute to the first half-century of productions at a venue that is their part-time home: The National Theatre, which opened its doors at the Old Vic in 1983 under the artistic leadership of Sir Laurence Olivier before eventually transferring to its current location on London’s South Bank. The NT, which houses the Olivier, Lyttleton and Cottlesloe Theatres, annual generates an acclaimed combination of both classics and new works each night.
The evening’s program combines archival snippets of great past productions with a number of actors appearing live on stage to perform a speech from a play with which they’re associated. In the most moving example, we see an old clip of Maggie Smith at her most hilariously mannered in a production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever from her salad days, juxtaposed with the veteran actress of today as she recites a worldly-wise monologue from The Beaux’ Strategem, a Restoration comedy.
Another huge audience favorite, Judi Dench, appears to recreate two roles that won her the Olivier Award (London’s equivalent of the Tony Award) as best actress: as Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and as aging actress Desiree Armfeldt in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.
Among Britain’s younger contingent of stars, Benedict Cumberbatch appears in a scene from his past triumph in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, while Cumberbatch’s Sherlock nemesis, Andrew Scott, and Dominic Cooper perform a scene from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.
The cast of 100 performers also includes such familiar faces as Christopher Eccleston, Joan Plowright, Ralph Fiennes, Michael Gambon, Penelope Keith, Helen Mirren and Derek Jacobi.
As the program unfolds, the producers’ desire to pack as much as possible into two hours inevitably starts to feel like the video equivalent of picking one’s way through the greatest Whitman’s chocolate sampler of all time, as one great moment in English drama after another follows all too fleetingly on the other. Also, I do regret that not all plays or even featured performers are identified (for the record, that’s a singer named Clive Rowe bringing down the house in “Sit Down You’re Rockin’ the Boat” from Guys and Dolls).
Still, even if you can’t put a name to an occasional face or performance, there’s no missing that, in terms of quality per minute, National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is an embarrassment of riches.
Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch appears as Rosenkrantz in Tom Stoppard’s ‘Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.’

A new game’s afoot as Sherlock returns for Season 3

Season 3 of 'Sherlock' begins tonight on PBS.

Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch (from left) return as Dr. John Watson and Sherlock Holmes in Season 3 of ‘Sherlock,’ beginning tonight on PBS’ ‘Masterpiece Mystery!’

The last time we saw Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), he was standing quietly in a graveyard and covertly watching as his best friend, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), stood grieving at Sherlock’s graveside. John is numb with shock, having watched in disbelief as his dear friend, by all appearances, committed suicide by jumping from the top of a tall building.
As Sherlock finally returns tonight for its third season on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery!, two years have passed since that day and, for John, they’ve been two very dark years. Grief, as well as a moustache he ill-advisedly is now sporting, has aged him well beyond his years, and he hasn’t even been in touch with his former landlady, Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs), since that fateful day.
Meanwhile, viewers are learning what Sherlock has been doing all this time and why. Only brother Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss, who also wrote tonight’s season premiere) and a few members of his team have known that Sherlock isn’t dead. Now, as a horrifying terrorist threat looms over London, it’s time for the great sleuth to reveal himself to his loved ones.
Sherlock is looking forward to reconnecting with John, brushing aside Mycroft’s suggestion that their reunion may be a little sensitive.
“It’s been two years,” Mycroft tells his brother. “He’s gotten on with his life.”
“What life?” Sherlock snorts incredulously. “I’ve been away.”
The show’s creative team has asked critics not to divulge how John reacts to Sherlock’s reappearance, but think about it: How would you react if you discovered that your dearest friend had just put you through two years of the most hellish grief you could ever imagine?
In fact, the majority of tonight’s episode focuses on the close relationship between these two men, but that doesn’t mean it’s short on laughs. The title of the season premiere is “The Empty Hearse,” which refers to a social group Scotland Yard staffer Philip Anderson (Jonathan Aris) has founded for conspiracy theorists who want to get together to hash out possible scenarios for how Sherlock may have eluded death. It’s a clever tip of the hat to the many, many Sherlock fans who just as obsessively have gone online and shared how-he-dunnit theories during this two-year hiatus.
There’s not much else I can divulge about tonight’s episode – the first of three this season – without wading into some serious spoilers, so let me leave it at this: Sherlock is back, and better than ever.
Amanda Abbington co-stars this season in 'Sherlock.'

Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman’s longtime companion in real life, co-stars this season on ‘Sherlock’ as Mary Morstan, the new woman in John Watson’s life.

Lady Mary mired in grief as Downton Abbey returns Sunday

Michelle Dockery and Joanne Froggat star in 'Downton Abbey' Sunday on PBS.

Lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt, right) tries in vain to help her mistress, Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), get over her grief in the season premiere of ‘Downton Abbey’ Sunday on PBS.

As Downton Abbey returns for its fourth season on PBS’ Masterpiece Classic Sunday night, a chilly day in February 1922 is dawning. Outside, a dense, clammy mist clings to the estate, while inside her bedroom, Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) sits in an emotional fog of her own. It’s been six months since her devoted husband, Matthew, met his death in a ridiculous plot contrivance motoring accident, and Mary is still numb with grief, clinging to her widow’s weeds like armor against further heartache. Worse, she acts completely disconnected from George, her infant son, referring to the boy as a “poor little orphan.”
Understandably, Mary’s refusal to rejoin the living is a matter of concern for both the family and staff of the house, a situation that may have dire repercussions for Downton Abbey. At the time of his death, Matthew had begun to make progress in converting the Crawley estate from a money pit into a self-sustaining business, but without his influence, Mary’s father, Robert (Hugh Bonneville), is inclined to return to his previous, regressive business plans.
Elsewhere in Sunday’s two-hour premiere, the usually woebegone Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) appears finally to have found happiness with London publisher Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards), who, alas, is trapped in a marriage with a mentally ill wife whom British law will not allow him to divorce. He may, however, have found a loophole, one that demonstrates his deep devotion to Edith.
Also stirring things up for the Crawleys is headstrong young Lady Rose MacClare (Lily James), a visiting cousin from Scotland who has taken up temporary residence at Downton Abbey.
The opening episode features encore guest appearances by supporting characters who appeared fleetingly in past seasons. First, Charlie Grigg (Nicky Henson), Mr. Carson’s (Jim Carter) old music hall partner who tried to blackmail the Crawley butler way back in Season 1, returns with a completely different agenda. Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring), the housemaid who last season was sent packing by Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) after she tried to become too familiar with widowed Crawley son-in-law Tom Branson (Allen Leech), also resurfaces, looking to cause more trouble.
PBS made available seven of the eight episodes in this season, enough to demonstrate that Season 4 is far sharper and more focused than last season was. One of the more interesting recurring subplots in these new episodes finds many of the characters “in service” fearing for their jobs as the changing social order motivates homeowners to reduce the size of their household staffs, not to mention new electrical appliances that also reduce the demand for as many servants.
In its fourth year, Downton Abbey is starting to repeat itself in some respects, and the coming and going of household staff – which begins with the departure of mean-spirited Miss O’Brien in the opening minutes of the premiere – hits such a frenetic pace that at one point an exasperated Robert wonders aloud whether he and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) are living under a curse.
For the most part, though, there’s still plenty of life in Downton Abbey, which already has been renewed for a fifth season. The show is more of a dessert than a substantial meal, but as the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) once observed, “It seems a pity to miss such a good pudding.”
Sophie McShera and Lesley Nicol play members of the 'Downton Abbey' kitchen staff.

Assistant cook Daisy Mason (Sophie McShera, right) turns to Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) for romantic advice in season four of ‘Downton Abbey.’

Neil Patrick Harris in good ‘Company’ on PBS

'Great Performances' presents a new concert staging of Stephen Sondheim's 'Company' Friday night on PBS.

Neil Patrick Harris leads an all-star cast in a staged concert performance of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical ‘Company’ from ‘Great Performances’ Friday night on PBS.

Emmy Award winner Neil Patrick Harris heads an all-star cast in one of the most iconic musicals about the Big Apple ever written as Great Performances presents Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Company’ with the New York Philharmonic Friday night on many PBS affiliates (be sure to check your local listings).
Filmed during a staged concert production at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in 2011, this revival of Company marks the second time Great Performances has presented Sondheim’s 1970 musical (with book by George Furth) about Robert, a 35-year-old commitment-phobic Manhattan bachelor, and his gaggle of frustrated girlfriends and meddling married chums. Director John Doyle’s intimate, Tony-winning 2006 revival, anchored by a riveting central performance from Raul Esparza (Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), found the show’s cast members doubling as musicians, with each performer playing an instrument.
This new production, staged by Lonny Price, features Sondheim veteran Paul Gemignani conducting members of the Philharmonic playing Jonathan Tunick’s original 1970 orchestrations arranged for a 35-piece orchestra. The sound is lusher, fuller and far more extroverted, giving all the musical colors in Sondheim’s ground-breaking score their full due.
Among the actors cast as Robert’s (Harris) married friends are two-time Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Katie Finneran (The Michael J. Fox Show), Stephen Colbert (yes, that Stephen Colbert), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope) and Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men), while Robert’s on-stage girlfriends include Christina Hendricks (Mad Men) and Tony Award winner Anika Nona Rose, whom fans of The Good Wife will recognize from her recurring role as Peter Florrick’s formidable political nemesis Wendy Scott Carr.
When Company opened in 1970, some Broadway theatergoers and critics were put off by the show’s acerbic perspective on marriage. Even the most devoted of the couples orbiting their mutual friend Robert had at least fleeting moments of ambivalence about staying together, while Robert’s growing interest in finding a mate was rooted mainly in his fears about winding up alone. In the four decades since Company opened, however, the national culture largely has caught up with the show’s somewhat cynical, certainly cautious attitudes toward love and marriage.
Even during its original run, though, almost everyone agreed that Sondheim’s music and lyrics were dazzling, shot through with a wit and sophistication that came to be the composer-lyricist’s calling cards. It wasn’t just Sondheim’s audacious wordplay, which in one song rhymed “personable” with “coercin’ a bull.” It was also the way this music felt fresh and of-the-moment, reflecting the show’s New York setting. In “Another Hundred People,” an Act One number that quickly became my favorite song in the show, an electronic musical pulse deedle-de-deedles away repeatedly in the orchestra while a character sings about living in this “city of strangers,” where new faces are arriving 24/7:

Another hundred people just got off of the train
And came up through the ground,
While another hundred people just got off of the bus
And are looking around
At another hundred people who got off of the plane
And are looking at us
Who got off of the train
And the plane and the bus
Maybe yesterday.

To the college freshman I was when the original cast recording of Company came out in 1970, this was a Broadway musical that sounded like no other, and it wasn’t long before I was schlepping that LP with its purple cover from door to door in my dorm like a deranged Jehovah’s Witness, urging my friends to take a listen.
Sondheim was only 40 when Company opened, with such masterworks as Follies, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park With George ahead of him. He’s now 83, which explains in part why theater companies and producers are falling all over themselves these days to mount revivals and tributes to his brilliant body of work. This delightful but still surprisingly moving new Company from Great Performances gives us a welcome chance to look back to that moment in Sondheim’s career where everything started to come together in a thrilling way.

‘American Masters’ salutes guitar icon Jimi Hendrix

The Jimi Hendrix Experience performs at thew 1968 Miami Pop Festival.

Among the previously unseen highlights of Tuesday night’s ‘American Masters’ episode devoted to Jimi Hendrix is performance footage of the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the 1968 Miami Pop Festival.

As his 70th birthday year nears its close, iconoclastic ’60s guitarist Jimi Hendrix gets an affectionate two-hour tribute Tuesday night on PBS in American Masters: Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’. The program, which American Masters co-produced with Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings, traces Hendrix’s too-short life and electrifying career from his Seattle childhood through his musical glory days between 1966 and 1970.
Born to a hard-partying mother who only occasionally drifted in and out of his life, Hendrix was raised by his dad, Al, a military veteran who bought his son a heavily used acoustic guitar for $5 when he was a teenager. Seeing how single-mindedly the younger Hendrix applied himself to his practice, Al Hendix subsequently invested in an electric guitar, which would become Jimi’s instrument of choice.
After finishing high school, Jimi joined the Army but saw his service cut short by an injury during a parachute exercise. Determined to establish himself as a musician, he started out with low-paying gigs on the so-called “chitlin’ circuit” of predominantly black music clubs, then landed jobs playing back-up for various acts, although most venues wanted their acts to play only covers of established Top 40 radio hits, not original material.
Hendrix got his first big break when a friend introduced him to Chas Chandler, a former bass player for the Animals who was moving into artist management. In a shrewd move, in 1966 Chandler took Hendrix to London, a musical mecca where the young guitarist’s talent almost immediately was spotted and championed by members of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In 1967, Hendrix returned to the United States for an electrifying and star-making performance at the Monterey (Calif.) International Pop Festival.
Hendrix never looked back after that, although he was so single-mindedly consumed by his music that, as many friends and colleagues freely admit during this documentary, he relied on others to take care of him in other respects. He was only 27 when he died on Sept. 18, 1970, of what apparently was an accidental overdose of barbiturates at the home of his girlfriend.
Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ incorporates extensive, previously unseen performance footage and home movies taken by Hendrix and Mitch Mitchell, drummer for the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with a vast archive of photographs, drawings and letters (Hendrix, happily for the producers, apparently was a faithful correspondent with his friends and family).
Some might argue that this two-hour presentation soft-pedals Hendrix’s drug use (Experience Hendrix LLC and Legacy Recordings are releasing an expanded home video edition of this documentary on Blu-ray and DVD on the same day this American Masters episode airs, but I haven’t seen the former and can’t comment on its content). The portrait of Hendrix that emerges from the PBS presentation is a compelling one, however, emphasizing his intense mistrust of flattery. This was a musician who, very clearly, preferred to let his music speak for itself.
As a run-up to tomorrow’s PBS premiere, Bob Smeaton, director of the documentary, invites Hendrix fans to participate in a 20-minute online-exclusive sneak preview of Jimi Hendrix – Hear My Train A Comin’ tonight (Monday, Nov. 4) at 6:30 p.m. ET via this link: https://ovee.itvs.org/screenings/6jxrc .
Jimi Hendrix

‘Moby-Dick’ a whale of an opera on PBS

Composer Jake Heggie's opera 'Moby-Dick' comes to life on 'Great Performances' using multimedia techniques including projections to suggest action at sea.

An operatic adaptation of ‘Moby-Dick’ uses ingenious projections to suggest sailors tossed about in fragile boats tonight on PBS.

With all due respect to literary scholars and critics over the past couple of centuries, I’ve long suspected that when Mark Twain wrote that “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read,” he must have been thinking about Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. I also feel pretty confident that if you asked a random group of folks, even PBS viewers, whether there is anything they would rather do less than re-read Moby-Dick, many of them might reply, “Yes, spend two and a half hours watching an operatic version of Moby-Dick.
As it turns out, however, in the right hands, Melville’s sprawling novel can make for a whale of a musical-theatrical experience, as evidenced by composer Jake Heggie’s frequently thrilling adaptation premiering tonight on PBS’ Great Performances (check local listings). Taped in conjunction with the opera’s premiere a year ago at the San Francisco Opera, the production is headed by tenor Jay Hunter Morris, who starred as Siegfried in the most recent PBS telecast of Wagner’s Ring cycle, as Ahab, the obsessed captain of the whaler Pequod, who is prepared to risk everything to capture and kill the elusive great white whale of the title.
The Florida-born Heggie, 52, is a hot property in the opera world these days for his well-received previous operatic adaptations of the books and films The End of the Affair and Dead Man Walking. For Moby-Dick, the composer collaborated with Gene Scheer, who faced the near-impossible task of whittling Melville’s occasionally tedious seafaring epic into a taut, backside-friendly libretto. Director Leonard Foglia’s multi-media staging also makes vibrant use of projections to convey the sea churning against the sides of the whaling ship.
Under the baton of SFO’s principal guest conductor Patrick Summers, Heggie’s colorful score reflects the confidence and ingenuity of a contemporary composer who is not afraid of a catchy melody, making free use of sea shanties and nautical dance tunes to depict a sailor’s life at sea. Some critics have pointed out obvious musical parallels to the work of British composer Benjamin Britten, particularly his sea operas Peter Grimes and Billy Budd, but Heggie’s score falls so comfortably on the ear that some of its more muscular passages almost could be lifted directly from one of John Williams’ better film scores.
Since Heggie’s opera takes place entirely at sea, this Moby-Dick is dominated by male voices, apart from a lone female singer, soprano Talise Trevigne, whose charming performance as the cabin boy Pip is a major highlight of the production.
Although the opera is performed in English, PBS wisely provides subtitles, which are especially helpful in non-solo passages. Production values, always a hallmark of performances from the SFO’s home at the historic War Memorial Opera House, are up to the company’s usual high standard.
Jay Hunter Morris is Captain Ahab in 'Moby-Dick,' Jake Heggie's opera derived from a classic novel by Herman Melville.

Tenor Jay Hunter Morris is the obsessed Captain Ahab in a ‘Great Performances’ production of Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Moby-Dick.’

PBS revisits ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

'A Raisin in the Sun Revisited' examines an American classic and its legacy.

Jessica Frances Dukes ages half a century onstage in ‘Beneatha’s Place,’ part of ‘A Raisin in the Sun Revisited’ on PBS.

The PBS Arts Fall Festival continues tonight with a fascinating backstage look at the legacy of an enduring American classic in A Raisin in the Sun Revisited: The Raisin Cycle at Center Stage, a new hour-long performance documentary (be sure to check your local listings).
Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway in 1959 to great acclaim for its examination of a close-knit black family, the Youngers, who attempted to claim its share of the American dream by buying a house in a white working-class Chicago neighborhood. It was the first time a play by a black woman had been produced on Broadway, and in 1961 it was adapted into a feature film with its entire stage cast – headed by Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil – intact. In 2008, a TV adaptation of a well-received theatrical revival starring Sean Combs, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad drew strong ratings on ABC.
More than half a century after its Broadway premiere, Hansberry’s play still resonates with both audiences and playwrights, including Bruce Norris, whose biting 2010 comedy Clybourne Park in large part revisited the events of A Raisin in the Sun from the perspective of the white homeowners selling to the Youngers. Inspired by Raisin and Norris’s unofficial companion piece, Kwame Kwei-Armah, the artistic director of Baltimore’s Center Stage, penned a third play called Beneatha’s Place, which was performed in repertory with Clybourne Park during the theater company’s 50th anniversary season.
Tonight’s absolutely engrossing special takes viewers behind the scenes during rehearsals for both those newer plays to examine how racial attitudes in America have changed – or, in some cases, not changed — since A Raisin in the Sun first premiered. While Clybourne Park, like Raisin, takes place in Chicago, Beneatha’s Place follows a character from A Raisin in the Sun – Beneatha Younger, the Africa-obsessed daughter and sister in Hansberry’s play – to her new husband’s native Nigeria, circa 1959, where the couple are buffeted by the explosive politics of the time.
“Both plays are creating this huge discussion, and that’s the best part of the job: to know that once we stop talking, you start,” says actress Jessica Frances Dukes, who ages from 24 to 70 between the two acts of Beneatha’s Place. She, like her castmates and, indeed, everyone associated with these two Baltimore productions, is eloquent and passionate about this project and her enthusiasm is infectious.
“Lorraine Hansberry’s original play continues to inspire artists and audiences more than 50 years later,” Kwei-Armah says. “The issues raised by the original work, as well as by Clybourne Park and Beneatha’s Place, are vital to the national conversation on race and class, and our hope through staging the two plays simultaneously was to engage the audience and encourage them to consider these issues in their own lives. We’re proud to bring this performance documentary to PBS with the same goal in mind, raising the civic discussion from a local to a national level.”
Very highly recommended for anyone who loves theater.
The PBS special 'A Raisin in the Sun Revsited' includes scenes from 'Clybourne Park.'

Beth Hylton, Jacob H. Knoll, James Ludwig and Jenna Sokolowski (from left) in a scene from ‘Clybourne Park.’