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Jeffrey Sanzel

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By Julianne Mosher

For what is now a quarter of a century, Theatre Three’s Annual Festival of One-Act Plays is a favorite tradition that should not be missed out on. 

Now in its 25th year, more than 12,000 submissions from playwrights across the country have been sent to the Port Jefferson-based theater over the years in hopes that their short, under 30-minute shows have a shot of being performed on stage. This season, Director Jeffrey Sanzel said there were over 2,000 submissions and just eight made the cut. Of those eight, none disappointed. 

For an-hour-and-a-half, during Sunday, Feb. 25th’s performance, the nearly sold-out audience sat quietly, engaged, watching, listening to what is about to appear on stage. The festival brings these little vignettes that are full of story — some that are hysterically funny, while others leave the room quiet because of how serious and emotional the act ends. 

The festival opens with Brian C. Petti’s Bovine Existential, with Linda May and Phyllis March playing two cows who are waiting in a slaughterhouse holding pen discussing fate, mortality and morality. Both May and March play the animals well, and while a serious topic of philosophy, they still had the audience in stitches. 

The second act features Deirdre Girard’s A Year to Grieve and at first the audience doesn’t expect what will eventually happen. We see Thomas (Evan Teich) and Heather (Brittany Lacey), two mystery crime writers working on Heather’s latest novel. The friendship between the two is sweet, until one decides to make fiction real. Both Teich and Lacey shine — as usual, since both are returning Festival performers. 

To lighten the mood, we’re sent to a tomb in Verona, Italy to see Juliet (Cassidy Rose O’Brien) who woke up from her slumber and didn’t kill herself with her fiancé’s dagger in Juliet Wakes Up by Laura Neill. Compared to the original Shakespearean tragedy, this is anything but. Quite frankly, this should be a whole show on Broadway, rather than the & Juliet musical that is currently out. I like this version better. Juliet is met by Rosaline (Julia Albino), her cousin, and Willow (Gina Lardi), the apothecary worker who sold the poison to begin with. The three ladies hatch a plan to hide Romeo’s (Jae Hughes) body after Juliet stabbed him to death, instead.

The first half ends with Rescue by Kevin Podgorski, and this one is not for the weak at heart. We’re introduced to Dot (Ginger Dalton), who has a large bruise on her face. She’s talking on the phone with her two friends, Maeve (March) and Allen (Andrew Markowitz), who are desperately trying to help her out of a toxic and dangerous home situation at the hands of her grandson, Charlie (Steven Uihlein) that Dot has been taking care of since his mother died. Powerful and sad, when the act ended there was a silence, with several audience members saying, “wow.”

After a brief intermission, we’re set in a car on a highway leading to the Colorado border for Aleks Merilo’s The Nearest Far Away Place. A young woman (Courtney Gilmore) hitch hiked a ride from Wisconsin by a man who eventually we learn is a corrections officer played by Rob Schindlar. Uncomfortable and nervous about what is waiting for her across state lines, the young girl tries to chat the man up, but quietly spoken, he has no interest until he begins talking about his own family and how he hasn’t spoken to his own daughter in years. With a serious undertone, it has its highlights that will make you laugh because of the two opposite personalities; Gilmore’s annoying teenage girl self (which we can all relate to somehow) and Schindlar’s stoic manly façade. 

A complete left turn into Lisa Dellagiarino Feriend’s The Curse, we’re taken into an alternate version of The Little Mermaid featuring a mer-man, Jeremy (Sean Amato) who was washed up on land and realizes he has feet. Turns out, an evil enchantress named Donna (his co-worker of all things) turned him human as punishment for his man-splaning over her during staff meetings. He only comes to this realization by Beth (O’Brien), a passerby who sides with Donna. After some serious plays beforehand, this one was funny and lighthearted, which is just what we needed.

In Grave Matters by Michele Markarian, Paula (Lardi) is at the grave of her father asking for a sign from him to get over the family drama since her parents had passed. Well, the dad didn’t show, but her mom, Beth (Dalton) came by instead. This one, again, has those serious undertones, but Dalton’s annoying motherly comments (that again, we can all relate to somehow) make it funny and surprisingly realistic — despite her being a ghost, of course.

And we end with the beautifully crafted The Hike to Hart Lake by Johanna Beale Keller which features Albino, Amato, Hughes, O’Brien and Uihlein as five friends who hike up a mountain in their 20s to a beautiful scenic view they never forget. Always saying they should all go back, life happens, there are deaths and slowly the group becomes one over the course of 80 years. While all five actors are standouts, Hughes had the audience in tears with their powerful monologue at the end of the performance. 

With a minimal set with just a few props moved around for each play, the costumes designed by Jason Allyn match each performance perfectly — and remember, we’re sent from present day, to the 14th Century and then into the future. So, buckle up, grab some tissues and make sure you sit in for The 25th Annual Festival of One-Act Plays. It isn’t just a show… it’s an experience you won’t want to miss.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents the 25th annual Festival of One-Act Plays through March 23 at The Ronald F. Peierls Theatre, on the Second Stage. All seats are $25. Please note: Adult content and language. Parental discretion is advised. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

By Heidi Sutton

Who doesn’t love The Wizard of Oz? The 1939 classic starred a 16-year-old Judy Garland who stole our hearts as Dorothy Gale, a young girl swept away by a tornado to the land of Oz and her quest to return home with the help of her three friends — the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow.

Now Theatre Three brings us Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz, an original musical adapted from the stories of L. Frank Baum by Jeffrey Sanzel and Douglas J. Quattrock. While the opening scene and songs may be different, the overall story and message remains the same and makes for a wonderful afternoon of live theater. 

Jeffrey Sanzel directs an amazing cast —  Cassidy Rose O’Brien (Dorothy Gale), Josie McSwane (Scarecrow), Steven Uihlein (Tin Man), Sean Amato (Lion), Jason Furnari (The Wizard of Oz), Louisa Bikowski (Wicked Witch of the West), Julia Albino (Glinda), Liam Marsigliano (Gatekeeper and Winkie) and Kaitlyn Jehle (Judy Gumm, Winged Monkey) and a special appearance by Tasha PoyFair as Toto — who  whisk the audience away to the land of Oz with gusto.

The story begins as Dorothy Gale, chief editor of her high school newspaper, the Baum Bugle, is busy putting the paper to bed when a fierce storm blows in and knocks her to the ground. When she wakes up, she finds herself in Munchkinland. Her news stand has landed on the Wicked Witch of the East causing her demise, much to the delight of the Munchkins.

When the Wicked Witch of the West shows up, Dorothy is protected by Glinda the Good Witch of the North who fits her with the Wicked Witch of the West’s ruby slippers and tells her to take the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City to find the Wizard of Oz who can help her get home. Along the way, Dorothy meets a Scarecrow who wants a brain (even though she comes up with the best ideas!), a Tinman who yearns for a heart, and a Lion who longs for courage. The three join her on her quest and the musical adventure begins.

Amazingly all of the memorable scenes from the film are here as well, from the talking apple trees, the enchanted poppies, to meeting the Wizard in the Emerald City, the Witch’s castle and her crystal ball, and the infamous melting scene. 

Choreographed by Sari Feldman and accompanied on piano by Douglas Quattrock, each main character has a chance to shine with a song and dance number including Cassidy Rose O’Brien’s “I Close My Eyes,” Josie McSwane’s “I Think,” Steven Uihlein’s “Pitta-Pat” and Sean Amato’s “I’m a Lion.” 

The supporting cast is gifted with many great scenes as well with special mention to Liam Marsigliano who is hilarious as the Gatekeeper holding a sign that says “ZO” and as a grumpy Winkie who is tired of always saying O-Ee-Yah/ Eoh-Ah. And did I mention a special guest appearance with fur, four legs and a tail (and it’s not the lion!)?

A nice touch is the flawless scene changes — each time Dorothy meets a new friend, they walk through the aisles of the theater (the yellow brick road) and by the time they reach the stage, the next scene is already set up like magic. 

Costumes by Jason Allyn are incredible as always, especially Glinda’s gorgeous dress and the special lighting and sound effects tie everything together perfectly. 

In the end, the show reminds us to be true to our hearts and to our friends and that there is no place like home. Souvenier plush lions will be on sale for $5 during intermission and stop by the lobby on your way out for a group photo with the cast.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz through March 16. Running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes with one intermission. Costumes are encouraged. Children’s theater continues with The Adventures of Peter Rabbit from April 13 to 27 and a brand new show, The Mystery of the Missing Ever After from May 25 to June 15. All seats are $12. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

By Julianne Mosher

Before there was Rent, playwright Jonathan Larson had a one-man show drafted on several pieces of paper. A semi-autobiographical account of what it is like to be turning 30 and not having it all figured out, Theatre Three’s latest production is a story of friendship, growth and love in the years leading up to a mid-life crisis.

Beautifully directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, tick, tick… BOOM! features just three actors, but all of whom have a combined talent of a full theatrical ensemble. 

Larson, who is famed for creating Rent, tragically died just before the rock opera show’s opening night at age 35. tick, tick… BOOM! is the show Larson created before Rent was even a thought in the young artists’ mind. 

Originally penned in 1990, the initial production for tick, tick… BOOM! was performed by Larson as a solo show, but after his death in 1996, it was revamped by playwright David Auburn as a three-piece ensemble and premiered off-Broadway in 2001. A film adaptation directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and starring Andrew Garfield as Jon was released by Netflix in 2021. Garfield won an Academy Award for his performance.

Based on Larson’s own life, the show starts off with Jon (Robbie Torres), an aspiring composer, who lives in New York City in 1990. Similar to Larson, he had been trying to make a name for himself in theater since the early 80s and he voices worry that he is turning 30 with no solid future in sight. He lives with his childhood friend, Michael (Jason Furnari), who is a marketing executive — and former actor before he “sold out” — in an apartment in SoHo. Susan (Veronica Fox) is Jon’s girlfriend who is a dancer who “teaches ballet to wealthy and untalented children.”

For years, Jon has been workshopping a musical he wrote called Superbia (which was a real unpublished play written by Larson discovered after his death) and he is nervous about how critics might take it. Susan starts to ask Jon if he’s willing to leave the city as she begins to dream of marriage, kids and Cape Cod. Meanwhile Michael knows Jon needs more stability and helps him snag an interview at his marketing firm. We see Jon’s day-to-day working at the Moondance Diner, catering to annoying tourists and customers as he just tries to finish his shift so he can go back home and continue writing.

Throughout the show, we begin to see the changes in his friends lives while Jon continues to feel stagnant as his 30th birthday nears closer and closer. The anxiety he feels penetrates in his chest and mind going “tick, tick… BOOM!.”

In typical Larson fashion, the set, designed by Randall Parsons, is minimal, but shows the grungy aesthetic that these starving artists were living in during the early 1990s. The cast is able to add furniture in certain scenes to give the appearance of different settings, and as a special treat, the band, which at Theatre Three is typically set off to the side, sits on stage with the cast and is part of the show. 

But what stands out the most are the performances of Torres, Furnari and Fox who work together in such harmony that you’d think the parts they are playing are real life. 

A music-heavy show with no intermission, Torres, Furnari and Fox do an excellent job of memorizing the words of Larson whose lyrics tend to be fast-paced and thought-provoking. A hit number of the night that had the audience applauding was “Therapy,” which features Fox and Torres “arguing” as a couple with two separate choruses intertwined together in a fast-paced rhythm. 

During the show’s opening night, the entire audience gave the cast a standing ovation which will undoubtedly happen again and again for all the upcoming shows. Don’t miss this one.

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents tick, tick… BOOM! through March 16. Tickets are $40 adults, $32 seniors and students, $25 children (ages 5 to 12) and Wednesday matinees. The Mainstage season continues with Murder on the Orient Express from April 6 to May 4, and The Producers from May 18 to June 22. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

By Heidi Sutton

The temperature outside was a bone-chilling 22 degrees as I drove into Theatre Three’s parking lot in Port Jefferson last Sunday morning. Once inside, however, the atmosphere was warm and inviting as families with young children settled in their seats to watch a most excellent performance of Jack and the Beanstalk or The Boy Who Cried Giant!

Written by Jeffrey Hoffman, Douglas J. Quattrock and Jeffrey Sanzel the original musical combines the well known fairytale with the classic fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf and tells the story of a nice boy named Jack (played by Sean Amato) who lives in a small village with his mother (Josie McSwane) and his best friend in the entire world, Filpail the Cow (Julia Albino).

But Jack has a problem — he tends to exaggerate and has told so many tall tales (“I can even wash a cat!,” “My cow can speak in seven different languages!”) that no one believes him anymore. “Someday your stories are going to get you in trouble,” his mother warns. Jack also receives a visit from the Fairy Mary Goodwing (Cassidy Rose O’Brien) who tries to convince him to “always tell the truth and you will be true to yourself.”

One day his mother tells him that they have no other choice than to sell Filpail to Butcher Blackstone (Ryan Worrell). On the way to the market, Jack and his cow meet two pirate gypsies, Marco and Margot (Liam Marsigliano and Kaitlyn Jehle), who claim they want to buy Filpail for “cowpanionship” (they really want to sell her to Butcher Blackstone) and trick Jack into trading her for some magic beans.

Jack’s mother is furious when she finds out what happened and throws the beans away. A giant beanstalk suddenly appears, signaling the start of a wonderful adventure.

In Act Two, Jack climbs the beanstalk and discovers a castle in the sky occupied by a cranky (and whiny!) giant (Ryan Worrell), the giant’s wife (Gina Lardi), a golden harp (Liam Marsigliano) and a hen that lays golden eggs (Kaitlyn Jehle). 

When Jack returns home and tells his mother and the villagers what he has seen no one believes him. He decides to return to the giant’s castle with Filpail to bring something back as evidence. The giant’s wife gives Jack a pair of her husband’s enormous pants. But as they are about to leave, the giant gets a whiff of the boy and his cow (“Fee Fi Fo Fum!”). Will they escape in time?

Under the direction of Steven Uihlein, a talented cast of eight adult actors play multiple roles during this action adventure. The songs, accompanied on piano by Douglas J. Quattrock, are catchy and fun and there’s even a tap dance number choreographed by Sari Feldman.

Costume designer Jason Allyn deserves “giant” accolades for the beautiful outfits and props, including a three-foot-long sneaker and a beanstalk that magically grows all the way to the ceiling. 

With the important message that one should always tell the truth, Jack and the Beanstalk will warm your heart. Don’t miss this one. Meet the cast in the lobby after the show for photos. 

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Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents Jack and the Beanstalk through Feb. 3. Children’s theater continues with Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz from Feb. 21 to March 16; The Adventures of Peter Rabbit from April 13 to 27; and a brand new show, The Mystery of the Missing Ever After, from May 25 to June 15. All seats are $12. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

Timothée Chalamet stars as chocolatier Willy Wonka. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Among British author Roald Dahl’s best-known children’s novels are James and the Giant Peach, The Witches, Matilda, and Fantastic Mr. Fox. The hilarious but macabre tales garnered controversy for their darkness and violence, as well as racist and sexist bents. However, his work remains popular, with many stage and screen adaptations. Published in 1964, his ninth and most popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, followed a poor London boy, Charlie Bucket, and his venture in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. To date, over twenty million copies have been sold in fifty-five different languages. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory takes its place with classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. 

While Dahl vocally disliked the 1971 Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, it remains a visually clever, entertaining, and original film. Gene Wilder’s enigmatic, eccentric, and underplayed Wonka contrasts smartly with Jack Albertson’s likably gruff Grandpa Joe and a group of excellent child actors supported by equally strong adults. The film does not ignore Dahl’s vision that children can be selfish and often reprehensible. Tim Burton’s divisive and polarizing 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory claimed to return to the Dahl’s original. But the unpleasant film was hampered by John August’s shrill script and Johnny Depp’s disturbing Michael Jackson-like Wonka.

Sam Mendes directed the stage musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in London’s West End, which ran for over three and a half years. However, the Broadway transfer barely eked out nine months. 

The prequel Wonka offers a technicolor glimpse into the early life of the inventor. Director Paul King (best known for the popular Paddington and Paddington 2 films) co-wrote the screenplay with Simon Farnaby. With a potential for a rich and exciting story, King and Farnaby deliver a pedestrian, often tedious, and surprisingly bland prequel.

Timothée Chalamet as Willy Wonka and Hugh Grant as Lofty the Oompa Loompa in a scene from ‘Wonka.’ Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.

Opening with the strains of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s “Pure Imagination,” Willy Wonka (Timothée Chalamet) boisterously arrives in an unnamed European city. The magician-inventor-chocolatier aims to open a candy shop at the Galeries Gourmet. Quickly, the city bilks the eager youth of his pocketful of sovereigns. Additionally, he comes up against the city’s Chocolate Cartel: Arthur Slugworth (Paterson Joseph), Gerald Prodnose (Matt Lucas), and Felix Ficklegruber (Mathew Baynton).

Broke, with no place to sleep, the brutish Bleacher (Tom Davis) guides Wonka to a boarding house run by the sly Mrs. Scrubitt (Olivia Coleman). Ignoring the fine print, Wonka signs a one-night contract that sentences the boy to work in Scrubitt’s prison-like laundry. There he meets other victims of the Scrubitt and Bleacher plot: orphan Noodle (Calah Lane), Abacus Crunch (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter), plumber Piper Benz (Natasha Rothwell), switchboard operator Lottie Bell (Rakhee Thakrar), and failed standup comedian Larry Chucklesworth (Rich Fulcher). 

With Noodle’s support, Wonka hatches a scheme to sell illicit chocolate around the city, using the sewers as a means and mode. Eventually, the Cartel destroys Wonka’s legally established store on its opening day.

King and Farnaby have gathered the components of an entertaining, if by-the-numbers plot. However, rather than seeking novel inspirations, the story rehashes successful and more effective predecessors. Elements of Oliver!, Annie, Matilda, and Newsies are “borrowed.” Coleman wickedly chews the scenery, but the character is a clumsy hybrid of Miss Hannigan, Widow Corney, and even Les Misérables’ Madame Thenardier. Her cohort, Davis, is a Disney thug come to life. (Their relationship is not for the younger audience.) 

Wonka’s underground team means well but is given so little development the resolutions to their stories hardly register. The Cartel is an amusing trio, but their predictable bits wear thin. Keegan-Michael Key’s chocolate-addicted chief of police becomes a running fat joke, and Rowan Atkinson’s corrupt Father Julius is just another one of his clerical buffoons. (However, the singing monks make for a clever aside.) The CGI-ed Oompa-Loompa, Lofty, allows Hugh Grant to display his wonderfully wry style. Still, the Oompa-Loompa subplot barely registers and contradicts most of the known Dahl mythology of the diminutive tribe. 

And it is perhaps here where Wonka fails strongly: it lacks the flavor of Dahl’s brilliant, distinctly edgy, and wildly unpredictable world. Nothing separates the film from dozens of children’s movies that build to a caper ending (here, replete with a giraffe and flamingos). Neil Hannon’s original songs offer ersatz melodies and dull lyrics. (Clearly, King and Farnaby were not unaware of this: they use “Pure Imagination” as a finale and have even brought back the Oompa-Loompa song with new lyrics.) Even the visuals seem strangely muted.

As for Wonka’s center, Chalamet is not without charm, but his performance is nothing mercurial or unexpected. The spark that will catch fire to the later Wonka is absent. Whether he is miscast or it is a failure of the material itself (most likely a combination), Wonka must be more than just likable. He must be “more than.” And Chalamet, for all his warmth, is not Wonka.

The creators had an opportunity to give insight into one of the most intriguing icons of twentieth-century children’s literature and produce a bright, thrilling odyssey. While Wonka could have soared as Mary Poppins, it instead lands with the thud of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Rated PG, Wonka is now playing in local theaters.

From left, Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in a scene from the film. Photo courtesy of Amazon Prime

By Jeffrey Sanzel

The Faust story continually appears on stage and screen. Whether complicit or duped, someone—almost always a man—makes a deal with a satanic figure in exchange for a particular gratification. All That Money Can Buy (also known as The Devil and Daniel Webster) and Angel Heart exemplify the darker side. Damn Yankees!, Bedazzled (the original 1967 and its 2000 remake), and Oh, God! You Devil skew lighter. Now on Amazon Prime, Candy Cane Lane is a guileless, uninspired take on the legend.

Just days before Christmas, Chris Carver (Eddie Murphy) is part of a callous layoff by California’s Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics. Simultaneously, the already cut-throat neighborhood decorating competition receives a boost from local Prism Cable, offering $100,000 for the most festive house. Year after year, Chris has decked his home and yard with beautifully carved and hand-crafted pieces but has consistently lost to his shrill neighbors, Bruce and Suz (Ken Marino and Riki Lindhome), who populate their dwelling with crass inflatables. 

Determined to win the prize, Chris happens upon the mysterious Kringle’s, a Christmas shop located beneath an underpass, looking much like the toy store in Jingle Jangle. The proprietor, an elf named Pepper (Jillian Bell), coaxes Chris into a trove of large purchases. Chris signs the receipt without reading the fine print, a sinister contract that will turn him into one of her animated glass ornaments. The centerpiece of the decorations is a massive “Twelve Days of Christmas” Tree, which comes to life. Most of the film is taken up with the chase to acquire the “Golden Rings” that will break the spell. 

The premise is simple, and the action is predictable. Murphy is pleasantly understated and once again proves his easy, likable charm. Tracee Ellis Ross plays his wife, Carol, an executive on the cusp of a big promotion. She demonstrates the same wry command she showed in the series Blackish (basically the same character). They have three children: college-bound Joy (Genneya Walton), a struggling student but gifted musician Nick (Thaddeus J. Mixson), and the sweet, innocent youngest Holly (Madison Thomas). The older two children harbor secrets, which, when revealed, help solve the challenges the family faces. (Please note the lack of subtlety: Chris, Carol, Joy, Nick, Holly.)

Chris is aided and advised by three of Pepper’s previous victims, now glass figurines: Pip, Lamplighter Gary, and Cordelia (voiced by Nick Offerman, Chris Redd, and Robin Thede, respectively). The vocal group Pentatonix is a nice touch, as out-of-control carolers who are also under the enchantment.

The major problems with Candy Cane Lane are Kelly Younger’s meandering script and Reginald Hudlin’s pedestrian direction. Neither committed to a tone or style, with constant shifts from traditional holiday fare to fantasy to topical satire to family drama to slapstick to sitcom to … occasional flashes of genuine wit nod toward the premise’s possibility. 

Prism hosts Emerson (Timothy Simons) and Kit (Danielle Pinnock) are genuinely funny, especially in the revelation of the prize status. A chaotic glimpse of Walmart followed by Target is smartly perceptive. A Hannukah house tops a Matrix-themed home in outrageousness. But these sparks get lost in the boomerang of treacly messages.

The film relies mostly on Murphy and Ross’s chemistry, along with some nice effects. The children play as many shades as possible within the limitations of the writing. Bell seems lost as Pepper, not finding the fun in her villain. “What’s Christmas without a little terror?” stated as the true meaning of the holiday seems unsure. Her joke about “human-splaining Christmas” falls flat. One wishes she was allowed to let loose rather than play Pepper like a Saturday morning children’s show baddy. Redd is hilarious as Lamplighter Gary, landing some of the biggest laughs. David Alan Grier smartly assays his contemporary Santa with just the right amount of wink.

A track meet dealing with “The Ten Lords a Leaping” and a quick debate about Die Hard as a Christmas movie furnish nice moments. (Though the “Maids a Milking” has an uncomfortable horror movie edge.) And the payoff of the “Five Golden Rings” contains genuine heart. 

Ultimately, the biggest problem is the sluggish pacing. Additionally, the film would have benefited from a shorter running time. Eighty minutes of break-neck whimsy would have played better than the nearly two hours of fits and starts. A mathematical loophole in Pepper’s contract adds twenty-plus minutes for a labored farcical finale. 

While benign if slightly saccharine, Candy Cane Lane is destined to be a lesser seasonal offering, an empty stocking to be packed away and forgotten.

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Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte in one of the expansive battle scenes of Ridley Scott’s 'Napoleon.' Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Director Ridley Scott’s career spans over four decades. His earliest films include Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Legend (1985), and Thelma and Louise (1991). Gladiator (2000) garnered twelve Oscar nominations, winning five, including Best Picture. Scott received three nominations for Best Director: Thelma and Louise, Gladiator, and Black Hawk Down (2001). Additional nominations include three British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA), four Golden Globe Awards for Best Director, and two Primetime Emmy Awards. So … shame on you, Mr. Scott.

His latest contribution to the world of overstuffed, overlong, and overdone cinema is the one-hundred-and-fifty-seven-minute Napoleon, a biopic of staggering boredom. Passionless and plodding, the film’s sole strengths are in its excellent visuals, with brutal (albeit seemingly repetitive) battles. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

A great deal has already surfaced about the film’s historical inaccuracies: Napoleon was not present at the execution of Marie Antoinette; he did not order his troupes to fire on the Pyramids of Giza; he never charged into battle; he never came face-to-face with the Duke of Wellington; there was no giant frozen lake at Austerlitz. But a film does not have to be a history lesson. 

Apocrypha—and even invention—can be forgivable in the name of art, insight, or entertainment. The latter cavils are two of the better moments in Napoleon. The Austerlitz confrontation is powerful but has also been seen in the film’s trailers, spoiling the most dramatic sequence. Napoleon’s meeting with Wellington aboard the HMS Bellerophon contains one of the few moments of dramatic subtext. But a handful of moments do not rescue this Waterloo.

Napoleon opens in 1793, at the height of the Reign of Terror during France’s French Revolution, and ends in 1821, with Napoleon exiled on the island of Saint Helena. Absent of pacing, the story’s twenty-eight years feel like they are playing in real-time. Scott announced he has a four-and-a-half hour cut. (Enough said.)

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

Joaquin Phoenix plays Napoleon like a ventriloquist, his lips barely moving, his eyes vacant (somehow reminiscent of Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female.) Occasionally, he throws an ineffectual temper tantrum to show the emperor’s immaturity—more man-child Stanley Kowalski than a legendary conqueror. When he discovers Joséphine’s infidelity, he whines like a frustrated teenager.

If this choice is to show his humanity, it is odd: Phoenix is distinctly modern, surrounded by a company playing some semblance of period style. Ultimately, Phoenix never loses himself in the character, and the audience remains aware of the actor making methodical choices for the sake of effect rather than motivation. (He also seems to live in his bicorne hat.) Vanessa Kirby’s Joséphine de Beauharnais is not without interest. She conveys thought and depth but feels distinctly unfinished. Her mercurial shifts seemed manufactured rather than rooted in emotional struggle. The fault lies in the script and direction, not the actors’ work.

The rest of the cast barely registers. The many cabinet members and historical denizens are interchangeable figures in costumes and wigs—albeit exceptional. Even the great Rupert Everett’s Wellington struggles to find individuality. The French street rabble wave and pump their fists like an overly eager community theatre production of Les Misérables. Oddly, the horrific deaths of the horses in battle convey stronger horror than the murder of the thousands of soldiers. 

A scene from Ridley Scott’s ‘Napoleon.’ Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films/Columbia Pictures

The battles are impressive, epically staged with hundreds of extras. But they seem almost generic. The military conflicts alternate with scenes of pomp and pageantry—balls and meals and a remarkable coronation, all gloriously and beautifully designed and executed. These contrast with scenes of domestic stagnation with Napoleon and Josephine sitting next to each other, staring blankly as if locked into a period spoof of Scenes from a Marriage. Whether it is the actors or the characters, the relationship lacks spark. The sexual encounters are painfully, unintentionally comic. (Or one would hope unintentionally.) Scott’s refusal to find a tonal center results in stretches that seem like a violent episode of Blackadder. 

In the end, Napoleon is mostly style and little substance. Oppenheimer made science and math riveting. Napoleon makes extraordinary political intrigue banal. With a story of power struggles, revolution, betrayals, and world-shattering choices—including the death of millions, the result is strangely hollow. With clunky dialogue and lacking a true core, Napoleon tries—and fails—to clothe this emperor. 

Rated R, the film is now playing in local theaters.

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Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel 

“I had a couple of script pages in my hands (my palms were also good and sweaty): I had six lines to read. The show, titled Happy Days, was to revolve around a group of wholesome high school kids in 1950s Milwaukee. The character I was reading was the group’s one renegade. His name was Arthur Fonzarelli, aka the Fonz.”

Henry Winkler fittingly opens his extraordinary autobiography Being Henry (Celadon Books) with his audition for the television sitcom that would make him one of the most memorable cultural icons of the 70s. Happy Days would run for eleven seasons: Winkler (along with Tom Bosley) would appear in all 255 episodes.

But Winkler is not solely defined by this. In a nearly sixty-year career, in addition to a wide range of acting, he has been a producer, a director, a philanthropist, and a children’s book author. With Being Henry, Winkler offers an honest, engaging, and thoroughly entertaining memoir. At that heart is a man who “can’t remember not feeling an intense need to perform.”

Born in New York City to German Jewish immigrants who fled Berlin in 1939, Winkler shares his difficult childhood with emotionally distant parents and dyslexia—undiagnosed until he was thirty-four. He “was the kid who couldn’t read, couldn’t spell, couldn’t even begin to do algebra, or geometry, or even basic arithmetic.” His failing grades led to humiliation; his parents referred to him as dummer Hund—dumb dog. With these challenges, he marvels at graduating from high school and college (a BA in drama from Emerson College, with a minor in psychology) and a Masters in acting (Yale School of Drama). 

From there, he paints a portrait of a struggling New York actor working in commercials to support low and non-paying theatre. His film break came with The Lords of Flatbush. Soon after, he moved to Hollywood, making a memorable guest appearance on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Continuing through rounds of auditions and disappointments, he landed the role of Fonzie when he was twenty-eight.

The career-defining rebel eventually became a bit of a trap, but Winkler shows enormous gratitude for Happy Days. He is particularly generous in praise of his colleagues on both sides of the camera. He is forthcoming about his relationship with the cast, especially Ron Howard, who was the original focus of the series. Howard’s frustration with the shift from ensemble to a Fonzie-centered show moved him towards his directorial pursuits. Winkler and Howard maintained a personal and professional relationship, with projects spanning from Night Shift to Arrested Development.

He claims many of his initial movie jobs came from fame and not necessarily talent; he spent years trying to escape the shadow of the Happy Days persona. “The truth was that the Fonz aside, I was half-baked as an actor. Self-conscious.” Few performers are as brave and self-reflective. 

Winkler is honest about his insecurities, his frugality, and even his occasions of obliviousness. He addresses the double-edged dangers of stardom. He talks about his verbosity, which increases when he is insecure or nervous. He admits when he feels disconnected or unsure, he talks too much.

He finds humor in his early failed romantic forays and smartly lets his wife, Stacey, speak for herself in various junctures in the book’s narrative. He does not shy away from his guilt and frustrations with intimacy and communication, something he did not fully deal with until therapy in the last decade. (He has been married to Stacey since 1978. He helped raise a son from her first marriage, and they have two children together. In addition, they have six grandchildren). 

After the Happy Days run, he did not act for seven years. Rather than retreating, he embarked on new vistas. He started a production company, began directing, and developed into a sought-after voice artist. Years later, he added best-selling children’s author, collaborating on twenty-eight “Hank Zipzer” novels about an elementary school student with dyslexia. The books became a well-received television series. 

Eventually, his acting career blossomed again. Scream, The Water Boy, and Royal Pains, along with “a string of authority figures lacking authority,” were hallmarks in later years. He returned to the stage, appearing in two Broadway productions, including a Neil Simon premiere.

His most recent sensation, HBO’s Barry, rewarded him with a much-deserved Primetime Emmy Award. (Note: He had already received two Daytime Emmy Awards.)

Winkler analyzes his initial meteoric fame and values its many gifts; he remains humble in his over half a century of remarkable and unique achievements. He is philosophical, embracing “that you couldn’t have known then what you know now. That only the process of living gets you there: you must do the work in order to eat the fruit of growing—of being.”

Henry Winkler’s beautiful account is, of course, a book for Happy Days fans. But it is also for readers seeking to understand the world of show business as told through a transparent and often profound narrator. And finally, Being Henry should be read by every actor or artist who has ever questioned their own value.

Being Henry: The Fonz…and Beyond is available on Amazon and at your local Barnes and Noble bookstore.

By Heidi Sutton

While three spirits haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Theatre Three’s Mainstage, the spirit of the season carries over to the children’s theater production of Barnaby Saves Christmas. The holiday favorite, written in 2003 by Douglas J. Quattrock and Jeffrey Sanzel with music and lyrics by Quattrock, has become a beloved tradition in Port Jefferson and one that is looked forward to each year. The show opened last Saturday and runs through the end of the year.

It’s Christmas Eve at the North Pole and Santa’s elves Sam (Josie McSwane), Crystal (Kaitlyn Jehle) and Blizzard (Julia Albino) are busy putting the finishing touches on the presents and loading the sleigh. Barnaby (Ryan Worrell), the newest and littlest elf trainee, tries his best to help but only succeeds in making a mess.

When Santa (Sean Amato) and the elves leave to deliver the gifts to children across the world, Barnaby realizes that they left behind a special toy, a “little stuffed bear with dark blue pants, buckles on his shoes and a bright yellow vest,” he enlists the help of Blizzard’s fawn Franklynne (Cassidy Rose O’Brien) to find Santa and “save Christmas.” Along their adventures they discover that an evil villain named S. B. Dombulbury (Steven Uihlein) who, with his partner in crime Irving (Jason Furnari), is trying to ruin Christmas for everyone, and meet a Jewish couple (played by Gina Lardi and Sean Amato) and learn all Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. There’s even a great chase scene through the theater!

Directed by Jeffrey Sanzel, the nine adult cast members do a wonderful job telling this adorable tale. Reprising his role as Barnaby, Ryan Worrell’s solo “Still With a Ribbon on Top” is beautifully executed and wait until you see him dance! And yes, Barnaby will save the day but just wait until you see how! 

Costumes by Jason Allyn are exquisite and the choreography by Sari Feldman is superb. Utilizing the set of A Christmas Carol, the special effects are terrific, elevated by the futuristic lighting and, spoiler alert, it even snows in the theater!

With the ultimate message that “every day is a golden opportunity to be better than you used to be,” Barnaby Saves Christmas is a must see this holiday season. Your kids will love it! Souvenir elf and reindeer dolls will be available for purchase during intermission and the entire cast will be in the lobby after the show for photos. 

Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson presents Barnaby Saves Christmas through Dec. 30. Children’s theater continues with Jack and the Beanstalk from Jan. 20 to Feb. 3, Dorothy’s Adventures in Oz from Feb. 21 to March 16, and The Adventures of Peter Rabbit from April 13 to April 27. All seats are $12. To order, call 631-928-9100 or visit www.theatrethree.com.

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Rachel Zegler stars in The Hunger Games prequel. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate

Reviewed by Jeffrey Sanzel

Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008) and its sequels, Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010), sold over one hundred million copies. The four films (2012 – 2015) made nearly three billion dollars worldwide. They featured John Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland, with the role of Katniss Everdeen elevating Jennifer Lawrence to superstar. Like J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter, Collins’ Hunger Games transcended into a cultural phenomenon. 

The Hunger Games takes place in the ruins of Panem, a North American country composed of the central Capitol and thirteen surrounding districts. Each year, the remaining twelve districts (the thirteenth destroyed in the war) hold a lottery called “The Reaping” and send tributes to the Capitol to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised death match. The trilogy begins with the seventy-fourth Hunger Games.

In 2020, Collins published a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, focusing on eighteen-year-old Coriolanus Snow, the young man who would become president. The story opens on the cusp of the tenth annual Hunger Games, a time when the districts’ rebellion is still fresh.

The inherent problem with prequels is ending up where the story starts. At best, you gain insight into the characters’ development, but, for the most part, they either reinforce previous knowledge or, at worst, contradict established canon. The Many Saints of Newark proved to be a tacit outing, giving a little to enrich The Sopranos universe. Conversely, the entertaining Cruella seemed in opposition to much known about the titular character. 

Michael Lesslie and Michael Arndt’s screenplay for The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes hews faithfully to the novel, offering an interesting portrait of Snow at age eighteen. Born into a prestigious Capitol family, the orphaned Snow lives in borderline poverty with his grandmother and cousin in a lavish home that has seen better days.

Ballad’s action kicks in with the Academy’s graduating class conscripted to mentor the two dozen tributes. To win a coveted scholarship, Snow must somehow guide his charge to win. Out of spite, the Dean of the Academy, Casca Highbottom, assigns Snow a longshot: the female tribute from District Twelve, Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy Gray, a nomadic musician, is a Covey (read “Sinti” or “Roma”). Her skills as a singer become the game-changer, revealing an unusual—and more importantly—engaging persona to the Panem television audience.

The Hunger Games of Ballad are more akin to gladiators in Rome. The high-tech world of the trilogy comes later in the history. The tributes arrive in cattle cars and are imprisoned in an abandoned zoo without food. The savagery in the tenth games results from brute strength, alliances, and raw cunning. Hints and flashes of the technology that will dominate the later Games are teased, as is the burgeoning, quirky reality television, here shown with a retro 1950s vibe. 

The first hour and a half focuses on the buildup and execution of the Hunger Games. The remaining hour centers on a new track, focusing on district intrigue, political unrest, plotting, and betrayal. A distinctly Third Reich aura infuses the military components, emphasizing the fascist nature of the government.

As a film, it is neither more nor less than. Visually strong, its messages of corruption and guilt play on the surface. Director Francis Lawrence, who directed the final three Hunger Games, briskly paces the story. While absent of much innovation, the straightforward, brutal nature reflects Collins’ vision.

Tom Blyth creates a passionate and conflicted Snow. His understated performance pays off in his final transition, which he achieves flawlessly, wholly casting the shadow of who Snow will become. With an Appalachian twang, Rachel Zegler is an ideal Lucy Gray. She shows strength and an underlying danger and is one of the few in the film who achieves a third dimension. (She even makes the almost corny musical pieces work.) 

Josh Andrés Rivera is sympathetic if a bit overwrought as Snow’s classmate, the guilt-plagued Sejanus Plinth. Peter Dinklage mines the darkness of Highbottom (he is an actor incapable of giving anything less than a great performance). Jason Schwartzmann is hilariously callous as the weatherman-amateur magician Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, the first Hunger Games host.

But the film’s prize performance is Viola Davis’s deliciously over-the-top Dr. Volumnia Gaul, mastermind of the Hunger Games. Her unblinking, monomaniacal evil scientist is a riveting portrait of unbridled sadistic and political cruelty. Only an actor of her caliber could fashion a monster of such unrestrained villainy, endowing every moment with perfect plausibility. 

The film makes bold statements about actions and repercussions and the misuse of power, presented with little subtlety. But the depiction of the depravity of reality television resonates. Additionally, the concept of incentivized patriotism is a disturbing but accurate target. Here, Ballad succeeds on a higher plain. Ultimately, the message comes through: Pain can be turned into spectacle and revenge into profit. 

Rated PG-13, the film is now playing in local theaters.