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Television: Forget movies, top stars now flock to small screen

My recent conversation with Cindy Williams, famously Shirley from TV classic “Laverne and Shirley” started me thinking about actors and their reaction to television.

Williams, who was appearing at Bucks County Playhouse in a comic retrospective of her life and career, “Me, Myself, and Shirley,” a success by the way, talked about how she and others of her acting generation shied away from taking television roles in the early ‘70s, a particularly fertile time for the medium, because TV was considered a step down from movies, and movie casting directors might ignore you if you were too closely associated with a series or a character.

Today the wheel has turned so the opposite situation is true.

Television, in spite of the glut and dilution of product that has made so much of it copycat and mediocre, is where most of the best writing and acting is found. The multi-part series has replaced the movie or latest play as the place to look for the sharp, new, and sophisticated, even if all of those traits are getting rarer.

Look at the landscape to see what I mean. I see more than 100 plays most years, COVID reducing that in this decade. The majority are entertaining but only occasionally go beyond that basic and important element to achieve the weight or insight Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, William Inge, and Lillian Hellman (all with double l’s) did two generations ago.

The best new play of this season, Tracy Letts’s “The Minutes” cannot compete with 20th century predecessors for literary or thematic quality. In fact, Letts, who also appears in the play, subtracts from the keen insights in “The Minutes” by turning it into an example of the exact phenomenon it’s satirizing.

I also see about 100 movies a year. Many are fun, but few, all packed for release between late September and Christmas, elevate to the art or entertainment level of the average movie I catch on Turner Classic Movies or another network simply called Movies!

For an actor, television is a new Mecca. Times have brought about a 180-degree difference from the days Loretta Young, Donna Reed, and even Lucille Ball capped film careers by doing series that proved popular. Or the days since Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Bruce Willis, Sally Field, Dick Van Dyke and others launched movie stardom from television success.

Once upon a time, it caused gasps when Laurence Olivier or Orson Welles would appear on a TV commercial. Now seeing any star on TV won’t rate a blink, hearing Morgan Freeman’s voice is a given, and more performers are likely to agree with James Earl Jones, who, when asked why he did a commercial, said, “I’m a working actor. I say ‘yes’ to jobs that keep me working.”

Now the roster of bona fide stars on television is legion.

Why not? Are there running collections of bon mots Maggie Smith delivered with precise acidity from her many movies, or are most such memes based on things her character, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, said on “Downton Abbey,” the upcoming movie of which is causing a stir.

Because it derives from a TV series so wildly popular in America.

In the last couple of years, Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett augmented their august movie careers with appearance in major roles in major TV skeins. Just in the past few weeks, Toni Collette has made her mark in two series, “Pieces of Her” and “The Staircase,” the latter of which gives audiences a new perspective on Oscar-winning actor, Colin Firth and includes another Oscar recipient, Juliette Binoche.

Nicole Kidman had a major movie success in “Being the Ricardos” this year, but her film career pales lately next to the mass of work she’s starred in, produced, or both for television.

A recent series about 1972’s Watergate scandal featured Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as leads. Laura Linney, who has four Oscar nominations and a few Tony nods, tears up the little screen and shows what acting is all about with her phenomenal work as Wendy Byrde in “Ozark. Reese Witherspoon gets most of her attention these days from her turn with Jennifer Aniston, mostly a television gal, in “Morning Show” or annual mini-series. The main reason I tuned into the current “Under the Banner of Heaven” was to see Andrew Garfield, so magnificent in a pair of 2021 movies and equally brilliant in last decade’s revival of “Angels in America” on Broadway and London’s West End.

One of the glories of television these days is being able to see great stars in quantity, running the gamut from the frequently seen Al Pacino and ubiquitous Bryan Cranston to a running role for Anthony Hopkins or Meryl Streep. Viola Davis and Michelle Pfeiffer recently played Presidents’ wives in a series, “First Lady.”

Olivia Colman may be the queen of the new era, taking roles that range from tour de force leads to small but significant supporting parts on TV while glomming pretty much annual Oscar nominations for her movie work.

Broadway also benefits from TV luster. A show for people with an acquired taste for Martin McDonagh, “Hangmen,” boasts Alfie Allen, an Emmy nominee for playing Theon Greyjoy, the troubled son and heir to the Greyjoy throne on “Game of Thrones,” while “The Minutes” features a marvelous turn by Noah Reid, who played Patrick, David Rose’s husband on “Sch**tt’s Creek,” and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, a staple of the long-running and often top-rated “Modern Family” appears in a pivotal role in “Take Me Out.”

Deborah Messing from “Will and Grace” stars in a new show, “Birthday Candles,” Jane Lynch from “The Weakest Link” and “Glee” sings and dances while remaining indelibly Jane Lynch as Fanny Brice’s mother, Rosie, in “Funny Girl,” Billy Crystal headlines a wonderful musical adaptation of his 1992 movie, “Mr. Saturday Night,” and of course, Hugh Jackman from many TV movies appears with an all-star cast numbering six Tony recipients in “The Music Man,” the one show among the above I haven’t seen because the lowest price I’ve seen for a ticket is $485 (highest $614), and I haven’t scored a comp or even a house seat.

The person on Broadway I wish had TV credits is Philadelphia resident Rob McClure, who is providing a massive in good time in the musical version of “Mrs. Doubtfire,” the first truly excellent adaptation of a popular movie I’ve seen in ages with top-notch performances galore but none as exciting, fussless, and assured as McClure’s, the single best on Broadway right now.

Thursday, Mike Myers made his return to television and, seemingly, the world in ‘Pentaverate” for Netflix. He plays eight parts in a series that also features Keegan-Michael Key. Friday, Glenn Close debuted as a new character in the third season of “Tehran” on Apple+. Upcoming, look tonight for Jessica Biel in “Candy” on Hulu, Colin Firth again in a movie streaming on Netflix, “Operation Mincemeat,” Jean Smart returning Thursday for a new season of HBO Max’s “Hacks,” Claire Danes and Tom Hiddleston on Friday in “The Essex Serpent” for Netflix, and further down the line on May 19, Emmy Rossum in “Angelyne,” about a D-list Hollywood partyer for Peacock.

Sissy Spacek, J.K. Simmons, and Rosie Perez also have series premiering in May.

Movies and plays have their place. Hey, Richard Thomas will be coming to Philadelphia in “To Kill a Mockingbird. Television, though, is the place to be. Even when it is overloaded and seems a mess, its thousand-channel world allows room for subject and theme exploration the stage and movies seem to have abdicated to it.

Cindy Williams, you were ahead of your time.

Firstenberg teaching flight

Teaching others to fly through the air with the greatest ease is a passion for one of the most prominent people on the flying trapeze, Al Firstenberg, who coached contestant Alex Wong on “So You Think You Can Dance” in addition to supermodel Gigi Hadid and Vice President Kamala Harris’s daughter, Ella Emhoff.

This weekend, Friday to Sunday, Firstenberg gives lessons on the flying trapeze at the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts (PSCA), at 6452 Greene Street, in West Mt. Airy.

There is a fee, $65, for which students will have a two-hour session and learn how to take off from the platform, swing, transfer to the catcher, and drop to the net.

Firstenberg helped to install the trapeze at PSCA, which they ran briefly from 2019 until COVID shut down all programs.To find out more or enroll in a class, please visit www.phillycircus.com/flying-trapeze.

Girl Named Tom gets a ‘Voice’ bump

When the sibling singing trio Girl Named Tom was booked at Lancaster’s American Music Theatre, it hadn’t won the Fall 2021 season of NBC’s “The Voice” as a member of coach Kelly Clarkson’s team.

I’ve had my ticket for months, but I just checked the AMT web site to see what might be available for Girl Named Tom’s appearances on Friday, May 27 and Saturday, May 28.Nothing! Nada! Zilch!

Totally sold out!

This shows both the power of television, the popularity of “The Voice,” which is not yet scheduled for its next season. It also proves that talented people will find an audience. I searched possible local appearances of Girl Named Tom the second or third time I saw them.

As a veteran theatergoer and reporter about theaters, I don’t believe in total sell-outs. There may not be a lot of hope, but the optimist in me says there’s always some. If I was a fan who wanted to see this group, I’d persist by checking AMT for cancellations and seeing if there’s a waiting list.

Meanwhile, I hope NBC doesn’t do to “The Voice” what ABC did to its frequent Monday night rival for ratings, “Dancing With the Stars.”Yes, “Dancing With the Stars” has cheapened in recent seasons. Its decline made it easy for me for choose “The Voice” ahead of it.

The premise of the show retains merit. Its problem is keeping judging more consistent with the performances of the dancers competing and not allowing fan voting to turn a competition that should be based solely on quality of dance to a popularity contest.

ABC is making “Dancing With the Stars” less accessible in its next season by moving it to from the main over-the-air network to its streaming partner, Disney+.

The show will continue to be seen on Monday evenings, but fans will have to subscribe to Disney+ to see it.

The good news is Derek Hough will return as a judge, and Carrie Ann Inaba will brave through a debilitating ailment to continue her role on the judging panel.

The better, best, most outstanding news is Tyra Banks, who did a dreadful job as host, especially when compared to Tom Bergeron, will not return for Season 31 on Disney+.

Neal Zoren’s television column appears every Monday.


Source: Berkshire mont

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