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Elton John

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Jeffrey Sanzel

Elton John: So how does a fat boy from nowhere get to be a soul man?

Wilson: You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.

The first moments of “Rocketman” easily establish the world in which this film will take place. In full demonic costume, Elton John descends on a rehab group therapy session. This serves as the framework throughout this unusual musical.

Promoted as “based on a true fantasy,” this is less a biopic of Elton John (who produced) but a fantastical rumination on the power and price of superstardom. Chronology and accuracy of time line are flexible at best but this by no means is a complaint. The result is a flashy, frenetic and wholly engaging two hours where we are treated to John’s rise and ultimate self-destruction. 

The movie is both a traditional and a unique musical, most often using the songs to further the story rather than focusing on his concert career. The unusual gambit pays off in Dexter Fletcher’s imaginative direction of Lee Hall’s scattered but satisfying screenplay.

Taron Egerton as Elton John in a scene from the film Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The film shifts quickly from the rehab group therapy as John literally steps into his past. A cold and distant father (an appropriately uncomfortable Steven Mackintosh) paired with an indifferent and narcissistic mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, in an ugly but believable performance) fuel his need to find himself.

“I wish I was someone else,” laments his boyhood self, Reginald Dwight. With the encouragement of a benevolent grandmother (the always wonderful Gemma Jones), he begins to take piano lessons, graduating to a scholarship at the Royal Academy of Music.

The film hopscotches through the next years as he begins playing with the pub band, Bluesology. The story then hits the highlights. These include connecting with music publisher Dick James (a cigar-and-scenery-chewing Stephen Graham), meeting and working with his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (a saintly Jamie Bell) and his debut at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club. It is here he meets John Reid (Richard Madden, a little too full-on villain) who becomes his manager and his lover.

Much of the film follows this destructive relationship. John then begins the transition to the flamboyant persona that would carry him through much of his career. With success comes a life of excess as he becomes embroiled in alcohol, drugs and sex.

The film’s center needs to be its heartbeat.  In the starring role Taron Egerton creates a mesmerizing, three-dimensional performance and even provides his own vocals. Egerton smoothly arcs from the inhibited Reggie to the outrageous but equally self-doubting
Elton John. He manifests a complete rainbow of humanity, with shades of loneliness showing through even the grandest moments. Egerton is a marvel and drives the entire film.

As for the music, nearly two dozen songs are used, including “The Bitch Is Back” (a fascinating opening), “I Want Love” (highlighting the family’s dysfunction), “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” (chronicling his early years), “Honky Cat” (embracing his life of indulgence), “Rocketman” (an attempted suicide and recovery), “Bennie and the Jets” (spiraling down), “Goodbye, Yellow Brick Road” (emphasizing his break with Taupin), as well as various concert moments.

Special note should be made of Adam Murray’s interesting, sometimes dreamlike and often athletic choreography. Costume designer Julian Day’s reimaging of Elton John’s spectacular wardrobe is a whirlwind of sequins, feathers and glitter.

The creators chose not to present the last three decades of his life, instead opting for a quick summation, including sobriety, marriage and fatherhood. While it would have been nice to follow his recovery and the second act of his career (“The Lion King,” “Candle in the Wind,” etc.), it finds an appropriate ending to an epic journey. “Rocketman” is thoroughly entertaining with all of the glitz and razzle-dazzle one would expect to celebrate this legendary icon.

Rated R, “Rocketman” is now playing in local theaters.

‘This is the story

Of a love that flourished

In a time of hate

Of lovers no tyranny can separate

Love set into motion on the Nile’s shore

Destiny ignited by an act of war’

           — excerpt from Aida’s‘Every Story is a Love Story

By Heidi Sutton

The sands of ancient Egypt have blown into Northport as the Engeman Theater presents the timeless love story “Aida” through June 23. With music by Elton John, lyrics by Tim Rice, and book by Linda Woolverton, Robert Falls and David Henry Hwang, the musical is based on Giuseppe Verdi’s 19th-century opera of the same name.

The Egyptian pharaoh (Julius Chase) wishes to expand his reign beyond the Nile and orders Egyptian captain Radames to make war with neighboring Nubia. In his travels, Radames captures a dark and beautiful Nubian princess, Aida, and presents her as a gift to his fiancé of nine years, Princess Amneris. Over time he finds himself falling in love with Aida and begins to question the course his life should take.

When a plot orchestrated by Radames’ father Zoser (Enrique Acevedo) to poison the Pharaoh is brought to light and Radames and Aida’s forbidden love is discovered, Princess Amneris is tasked with deciding their fate. Without giving away the ending, let’s just say that breaking ancient Egyptian laws never ended well.

Costumes by Kurt Alger are gorgeous, from Princess Amneris’ many gowns and headpieces to the Pharaoh’s royal garbs. The set, designed by Michael Bottari and Ronald Case, is adorned with hieroglyphics, palm trees, an occasional stream and a rotating platform that is utilized in many ways including as a ship, a throne and a prison cell. 

Kayla Cyphers is perfectly cast as Aida, a enslaved princess stolen from her father, Amonsaro (Gavin Gregory) and trying to stay strong for her people. “Nubia will never die! Whether we are enslaved or whether we are far from our native soil, Nubia lives in our hearts. And therefore, it lives.” Regal and strong-willed, she commands the stage in every scene. 

We see the most change in Radames, expertly played by Ken Allen Neely, from a selfish cold-hearted man to a hopeless romantic who just wants to run away with his Nubian princess. 

Jenna Rubaii is divine as the materialistic Princess Amneris, “first in beauty, wisdom … and accessories,” and draws the most laughs — “Are you trying to get me drunk, Radames? You know it’s not necessary,” and special mention should be made of Chaz Alexander Coffin who plays Mereb, a Nubian slave. From his first appearance on stage Coffin quickly becomes an audience favorite. 

The musical numbers are the heart of the show, from the highly charged dance numbers, “Another Pyramid” and “Dance of the Robe,”  to the fun fashion show “Strongest Suit” and the romantic duets “Written in the Stars” and “Elaborate Lives.” 

Director and choreographer Paul Stancato has such a wondrous and mysterious time period to work with and he takes full advantage of it, creating an exciting and colorful show  with a first-rate cast of actors-singers-dancers and live band to produce a wonderful evening of live theater.

The John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport will present “Aida” through June 23. Running time is 2.5 hours with one intermission. Tickets range from $73 to $78 with free valet parking. For more information, call 631-261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

All photos by Michael DeCristofaro/ John W. Engeman Theater

Sherlock Gnomes saves the day in the sequel to ‘Gnomeo & Juliet.' Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

By Heidi Sutton

It’s been seven years since moviegoers were invited into the magical world of garden gnomes with Touchstone Pictures’ “Gnomeo & Juliet,” the charming animated film loosely based on William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy while celebrating the music of Sir Elton John. 

Juliet and Gnomeo are back for a new adventure.

Set in the English town of Stratford-upon-Avon, the story, which features a star-studded cast, takes place in the backyard gardens of two feuding elderly neighbors — Mr. Montague and Miss Capulet. Their garden gnomes, which are blue and red, respectively, are also strict enemies until Gnomeo (blue) and Juliet (red) secretly fall in love and manage to unite the two gnome clans.

I remember taking my daughter and her friends to see this movie and being so enamored by it that I went to a bunch of garden centers the following day and snatched up all the red and blue garden gnomes I could find to put in my rock garden. 

Now Paramount Pictures and MGM Studios bring audiences a sequel to the adorable fairy tale, “Sherlock Gnomes,” with all of the original characters you love including Gnomeo (James McAvoy), Juliet (Emily Blunt), Lord Redbrick (Michael Caine), Lady Bluebury (Maggie Smith), Nanette the Frog (Ashley Jensen), Benny (Matt Lucas), Mankini (Julio Bonet) and Fawn (Ozzy Osbourne) in a brand new mystery adventure directed by John Stevenson.

The Montagues and Capulets have married and moved to London. Their collection of garden gnomes have also made the trip, albeit to a much smaller garden that needs a lot of work, “a fixer upper” of sorts. Gnomeo decides that the garden needs a centerpiece, Juliet’s favorite flower — a Cupid’s Arrow Orchid — and ventures out into the city to find one. When Juliet discovers Gnomeo’s plan, she follows him and ends up rescuing him when he becomes trapped in a florist shop.

Sherlock Gnomes and Watson are on the case of the missing garden gnomes.

When the couple returns home, they find that all of their friends as well as gnomes in seven other gardens have been kidnapped, “an ornamental crime on a scale never seen before.” They must be rescued within 24 hours or they’ll be smashed to smithereens. The police are too busy to help, so Sherlock Gnomes (Johnny Depp), sworn protector of garden gnomes, and his trusty sidekick Watson (Chiwetel Ejiofor) take the case. Sherlock is convinced this is the work of his arch nemesis Moriarity (Jamie Demetriou) and, along with Watson, Gnomeo and Juliet, follows a trail of clues to find the gnomes, with lots of plot twists and turns along the way. Will the case be solved in time?

A nice touch is the many places in London that the detective team visit to find clues including the Royal Green Park, the Natural History Museum, Chinatown and Tower Bridge. While Elton John recently announced he is retiring from touring, his music will live on in this film with catchy songs like “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and “I’m Still Standing” peppered throughout.  

Although this sequel is not as good as the original, as sequels rarely are, “Sherlock Gnomes” is still worth a trip to the theater for its visually stunning and lifelike animation, wonderful music and positive message to not take your friends for granted. By the same token, it is highly recommended that “Gnomeo & Juliet” be seen first as it will help in relating to the humor and connecting to the characters better. And I’ll be visiting the garden center to stock up on green garden gnomes. Running time is 1 hour and 26 minutes. 

Rated PG for rude and suggestive humor, “Sherlock Gnomes” in now playing in local theaters.

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