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Television: ‘Many Saints of Newark’ can’t hold up to high standards of ‘The Sopranos’

Nothing like its model, “The Sopranos,” on any level, “The Many Saints of Newark” never takes flight on his own or as a prequel.It lacks everything, but mostly a compelling reason to keep watching it.

The only reason I continued, besides waiting almost an hour for Michael Gandolfini to appear as the teenage version of “Soprano” lead, Tony Soprano, was to see if anything exciting, textured, or even important was going to happen.

My perseverance went unrewarded. “The Many Saints of Newark” stayed dry, slow, and, worst of all, boring, throughout its two-hour run. About the only thing elements that sparked anything but patient attention were those that foreshadow classic, ongoing traits of “The Sopranos” series, such as Tony meeting with a high school counselor who later tells his mother how much latent potential he has or the domestic scenes involving heaping plates of mouth-watering pasta and sarcastic exchanges that lead at times to violence.

“The Many Saints of Newark” purports to show the influences, observations, direct lessons, and slights that led to the career of character of Tony Soprano, a mob boss of great resource and ruthlessness who also enjoyed culture and had a warm side that longed for attention, understanding, and recognition.

It answers many questions but mostly shows what Tony witnessed and how it formed his personality and mode of being a successful mob boss.

The problem is it does it work matter-of-factly, almost blandly. The closest “The Many Saints of Newark” comes to achieving even a modicum of depth is in scenes in which Tony’s uncle and idol, Dicky Molisanti (which means ‘many saints’), visits his long neglected uncle, Sal, in prison, to discuss his life and mob strategy. Otherwise, it smacks of piece that is trying to be special but never finds the right rhythm, intensity, or complexity to realize its aspirations.

About the only thing that was consistently fascinating about the movie, currently on HBO Max and in theaters, is its scenes of 1968 Newark. Production designer Bob Shaw and set decorator Regina Graves keep the eye hungry and fulfilled in a way director Alan Taylor and writers David Chase and Lawrence Konner can’t muster.

Chase, who created “The Sopranos,” Konner, and Taylor never find the heart of the original HBO series that established the kind of episodic drama that is now a staple of cable networks and streamers. They never invest you in the characters or make you care what happens to them, particularly young Tony Soprano.

The Soprano women, played with a sense of resigned anguish by Vera Farmiga, Gabriella Piazza, and Michela De Rossi, provoke sympathy, interest, and lived-in compassion more than the men, the focus of Chase and Konner’s story do. Add Talia Balsam to the list as the counselor who frames the movie’s best segment.

Rivalry and competition are major themes of “The Many Saints.” You see members of the DiMeo crime family, which evolves into the Soprano crime family, jockeying for power and taking control, even when one is clearly the capo or nominated head of the operated. It being 1968, you also see the rise of a Black syndicate that wants to wrest the numbers and drug business in minority neighborhoods from the DiMeos, starting a gang war.

You’d think those interwoven plot lines alone would drive the series and make it a good and satisfying a watch as “The Sopranos” remained for multiple seasons.

This image released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Michael Gandolfini, left, and Alessandro Nivola in “The Many Saints of Newark.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

But, no, all registers as formulaic. You might as well read a few paragraphs on Tony’s backstory and the people who affected him most. That’s how dull and flavorless “The Many Saints of Newark” feels. Even whacks and outburst of violence, including Newark race riots, have no oomph or cause you to sit up and take special notice.

One irony is “The Many Saints of Newark” has three strong performances, four when you count Farmiga as Tony’s mother, Livia, who leaves her son’s raising to the clever, dapper Dickie Moltisanti.

As Dickie, Alessandro Nivola lives up to his usual standard of creating nuanced, textured characters. His Dickie copes with a lot, from spotty, absentee management of the DiMeo interests by Tony’s uncle, Junior Soprano, to his lust for his father’s young bride from Italy and his desire to bring up Tony is a way that is correct and honorable beyond the code of a Mafioso.

Nivola can express businesslike coldness and painful regret simultaneously, as he displays when Dickie commits two significant murders and when he takes his uncle’s jailhouse advice about his relationship with Tony.

Ray Liotta is routine, maybe a little overdone, as veteran DiMeo soldier and made man, Hollywood Dick Moltisanti, Dickie’s father, but he penetrates “Many Saint’s” bland barrier with his unrelentingly cold-blooded performance as Dickie’s uncle, the unimpressed, laconic, and wise Sal, who spends what he acknowledges as his deserved prison years reading and taking a realistic look at life, both in the mob and in the home. One looks forward to the prison scenes when the searching Nivola and unmoved Liotta offer glimpses of what “The Many Saints of Newark” might have been if more carefully conceived and more intensely realized.

The third gem is provided by one of today’s most prolific and versatile actors who cut his performing teeth at Philadelphia’s Freedom Theatre, Leslie Odom, Jr.

What a chameleon Odom is, so strong as powerful in his breakthrough role as Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton, and following it with equally excellent, equally powerful turns in the movies, “Harriet” and “One Night in Miami,” the latter of which earned him an Oscar nomination for playing ‘50s singer, Sam Cooke. Last week, he also redeemed the art of being host of an awards show with a magnificent turn as emcee of the Tony Awards.

Odom lengthens that resume with a performance as a Black gangster determined to build his own crime fiefdom rather than be subservient to the Moltisantis and the DiMeo family. Odom is so good, he makes his character someone to root for even though that character is at odds with the Soprano interests that usually earn allegiance.

Where “The Many Saints of Newark” fails most, and most surprisingly, is in its reason for being, the grooming of Tony Soprano, intentional or not, to be an effective mobster and eventual made man.

Of course, you see the evolution occurring. Michael Gandolfini, son of James, who played the adult Tony so brilliantly on “The Sopranos,” is seen witnessing, taking in, assessing, and incorporating what he sees in Dickie, his model, his father, and others surrounding him, but that’s where the situation ends, a simple act of observation.

In Michael Gandolfini’s hands, it is also self-consciously played observation. He is not yet developed as actor the way his father was. Or Nivola, Farmiga, Balsam, Liotta, or Odom.

Gandolfini comes off as a brat whose intelligence surfaces late in the movie. It is only in his two last scenes, you see wheels turning behind those studying eyes. In general, Gandolfini never leaves the surface. He never takes over the screen or makes you concerned about Tony let alone able to predict his future as one of the most effective, and psychologically curious, mobsters in film/television history.

Tony Awards a fun watch

Except for some cloying political moments, overwrought and dripping with sentiment more than misplaced or genuinely poignant, the Tony Award ceremony recognizing achievements from the 2019-2020 season but delayed for 15 months because of COVID, was quite good.

Leslie Odom Jr., left, and Nicolette Robinson arrive at the 74th annual Tony Awards at Winter Garden Theatre on Sunday, Sept. 26, 2021, in New York. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Odom, Jr. was a remarkable host, as good as the wonderful Neil Patrick Harris, is his ability to sparkle as an emcee, a song-and-dance man, a comedian, an actor, and all-around exciting talent. Odom created liveliness and exuded quality in everything he did, a far cry from Cedric the Entertainer’s labored, cliched work on the Emmy Awards the week before.

Interestingly, these belated Tonys proved a theory I’ve harbored for, well, this entire century.

“The Producers,” “Hairspray, “Light in the Piazza,” “Spring Awakening,” “Grey Gardens,” “Kinky Boots,” “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder,” and “Hamilton” aside, 21st Century musicals have neither the power or lyrical excellence of 20th Century works. (Seeing the movie version of “Dear Evan Hansen” reinforced this even more.)

The most stirring moments on the after-Tony broadcast, “Back on Broadway,” came when marvelous stars, such as Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, Anthony Rapp and an off-key but effective Adam Pascal, and Tituss Burgess and Andrew Rannells, did duets from shows of the past, especially McDonald and Mitchell’s soaring version of Flaherty and Ahrens’s “Wheels of a Dream” from 1998’s “Ragtime,” for my money the last thoroughly great and meant-to-last musical produced.

The shows from which these duets came – “Ragtime,” “Rent,” and “Into the Woods,” have become classic with time. The difference between them and newer material lies in their lyrics, which have the traditional musical theater quality of storytelling and evoking emotion instead of being a list of angsts and neurotic complaints that accounts for many lyrics today.

Several of the musicals nominated for Best of 2020 didn’t even have original scores. “Moulin Rouge,” the recipient of Best Musical and three acting honors, relies on recent pop music. Its scene on the Tony broadcast featured “Lady Marmalade,” a Patti LaBelle pop hit. Other shows recycle recorded songs by Alanis Morisette and David Byrne. Yet another employs, rightfully, tunes made famous by Tina Turner. One wonders where original music is? (Morisette’s and Byrne’s are original but adapted from recordings, and not written, specifically for the stage.)

Sequences from current musicals looked more like “bread and circus,” general variety than works with integrated books and music that tell a unified story. I have been going to Broadway regularly since 1971, that’s 50 years, and have seen most musicals produced in that period in person, including ones only I and other dinosaurs are likely to remember. I am buoyed each season by the prospect of seeing the new and savoring revivals of classics. Because of COVID, I have not been to Broadway since early 2020. I looked forward to catching up, but after seeing the scenes from current musicals on the Tony broadcast, my enthusiasm is slaked. Take note producers and whoever chose what was seen on the Tonys. Nothing I saw enticed me to see the entire show. Rather than being eager, I am wondering if it’s worth the expense to visit Broadway. “Moulin Rouge” looked lively, but also busy and empty, pizazz for pizazz’s sake (often an asset) rather than anything of substance.

Broadway, you did yourself a disservice with the passages from “Moulin Rouge,” “Jagged Little Pill,” and even “Tina.” You didn’t convince you’re worth $200 or more.

Considering I have the appetite to see more than 125 shows most years, that’s bad marketing.

Also, veteran awards producer/director Glenn Weiss was listed as director in the “Back to Broadway” credits. I have doubts he called most shots, but whoever did, had no clue about how to combine theater with television. The camera work was abysmal, worse than amateur and without any semblance of how to photograph, let alone televise, a live theater event. Shame on you, CBS.

Neal Zoren’s television column appears every Monday


Source: Berkshire mont

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