The Mystery of Edwin Drood: Madcap Music Hall with a Dash of Murder

If one were to bring up the subject of Victorian literature, you would almost undoubtedly hear someone bring up the name of Charles Dickens. First exposed to the rough elements and harsh treatment of the poor when he was young, Dickens rose up to become a popular literary figure in his time and an enduring literary force to this day. His stories, which offer fascinating and memorable characters along with sharp critiques of the social conditions in his day, have endured thanks to his skillful writing and powerful plots. In fact, many of his works are still adapted to different media these days, most frequently with A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist. However, one story that is not as adapted is his last work, a mystery called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Written in his final years, Dickens had died before he could complete the story. However, there is one adaptation that deals with the problem in a unique way and that is in the form of a stage musical.

Based upon the Dickens story, this adaptation of The Mystery of Edwin Drood keeps most of the original tale of Edwin Drood and his arrival to Cloisterham intact. There with his fiancee Rosa Bud, they become wrapped in trouble and turmoil. For one, Rosa is the subject of an obsession for John Jasper, Drood’s uncle and her musical teacher. For another, an emigrant named Neville Landless falls for Rosa and wants her free from Drood. After a bitter fight that sparks at a Christmas party, Drood departs and ends up disappearing. From there, it becomes a search to find the murderer, something added to with the mysterious appearance of a detective named Dick Datchery. Now, that is only part of the story, for there is an additional layer to it. Namely, the show is done as if it were a Victorian music hall show, with Victorian actors playing the parts in their telling of Dickens’ story. As a result, you also have a side story of the actors as they perform this show, along with all of the issues that come in the world of theatre.

The result is a rather inspired approach to tackling an unfinished work. Rather than try to figure out how Dickens might have ended his story, the show takes on a different tactic by instead using audience participation to determine some of the key mysteries in the plot, namely who murdered Edwin Drood and what is the true identity of Dick Datchery. It offers a more engaging method, allowing the audience to determine some of the story while allowing the show’s writers to sidestep the issue of determining for themselves what Dickens would have written. It’s a method that works for the stage and goes along with its music hall style. As for the overall music hall approach, it is used to full effect. It allows the show to inject some humor and fun into a story that is one of Dickens’ bleaker works, and makes use of techniques of the time to reinforce the time period. For example, the part of Edwin Drood is that of a principal boy, which was a type of role from Victorian pantomime which would have an actress play a lead young male role. It is the sort of role that is all but gone in today’s theatre world, but was a major presence in the Victorian Era.

Even the music goes along with helping to reinforce the time period of this show. The songs take two different approaches throughout. Some are songs that fit within the show within the show, pushing the plot of The Mystery of Edwin Drood and its characters forward. The other style is that of bawdy music hall numbers, designed as crowd-pleasers with a touch of naughty humor straight from the Victorian stage. This double-sided style works well, offering a fun soundtrack that helps to push the story along with the occasional break for a bawdy music hall tune. Over all, the show is an inspired idea for not only adapting a story to the stage, but for adapting an unfinished one at that. It not only takes a classic work of literature and transfers it to the stage, but it uses theatrical elements and styles of the time to both reinforce its time period and to add upon the experience. More than that, it uses the medium of theatre to sidestep challenges in adapting an unfinished work by allowing the audience to vote on the answer to the story’s mystery. The result is a fun musical that is worth seeing if it plays around your area. In the meantime, there are soundtracks available of the 1985 original Broadway cast and the 2012 Broadway revival cast.

Advertisements

My Apologies

Hello there, dear readers. I would like to apologize for missing yesterday’s post date. It would seem that the trip had taken more out of me than I had expected and I needed more rest than I had thought. Thus, I am sorry that I had missed posting an entry for yesterday. I shall strive to avoid missing my schedule in the future. I want to be sure that I live up to my promise to you of an entry every Monday through Friday.

Expect my next entry on the morning of September 28th.

Jessica Jones – Alias: Through a Panel, Darkly

For a long time, superhero comic books had been something regarded for all audiences. The colorful battles between superheroes and supervillains were seen as something for everyone. However, the changing times came to comics and brought with them a darker subject matter. Superhero comics grew more willing to explore issues such as drug use, sex, and death, using their great heroes to tackle these more mature subjects with a new lens. This came to be a mixed blessing, bringing a natural evolution to what superhero comics were capable of thanks to writers like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, but also bringing those terrible attempts to be “mature” by throwing out gratuitous sex and violence. Still, this new change brought about a new form to superhero comics, and along with that was an idea at Marvel Comics. Much as there are G or PG rated films, there are also R-rated films. Thus, it made sense to create an imprint they called MAX, which was devoted to comics made for an adult audience. With this new element, they had room to explore subject matters in a darker depth than would be appropriate in their mainstream fare. Though there were plenty of titles that used existing characters, this imprint was launched with a comic centered around a brand new character. Her name was Jessica Jones and the comic was Jessica Jones: Alias.

Created by comics writer Brian Michael Bendis, the series centered around the work of Jessica Jones. Once a former superhero and Avengers member who had super strength and could fly to a degree, she had experienced a traumatic event that inspired her to give up that line of work. In its place, she formed a private detective agency known as Alias Investigations. Spending her days drinking away her pain, she takes on all sorts of cases. Of course, some of her cases involve her dealing with people of extraordinary powers, from investigating the disappearance of noted sidekick and Avengers member Rick Jones to finding a girl persecuted in her small town for being a mutant. No matter the case, she takes them on as she takes on her own issues and frustrations.

For being the first MAX title, the series definitely stands out with making its more adult presence known. It has a frank tackling of subjects like sex and violence, but where it really shines in being a more “adult” comic is in terms of its characters. Jessica Jones is shown as a character haunted, both by her tragedy and by her past as a superhero. Her interactions with people are colored by her superheroic past, with many who question why she’d give up being a hero with her powers. It comes in all forms, from a boy named Malcolm who is a fan of her choosing to work as a detective to police who deliver a demeaning interrogation where they bombard her with questions about her superhero past. It even affects her love life, as the issue of “cape chasers” and those who want to be with her solely because she was a superhero factors in. As for the trauma, it has left her as a bitter soul, one who drinks away the pain and lashes out whenever her temper gets the better of her. Still, she manages to cling to some form of justice as she seeks out the truth and protects other. Jessica feels like a character who would fit in snug company alongside the heroes of pulp detective stories.

This “adult” handling of characters also extends to criminals, such as with Zebediah Killgrave, better known as the Purple Man. Prior to this series, he was a C-list Daredevil villain, a criminal who could release pheromones that allow him to dominate a person’s will and make them do whatever he wanted. With this series, however, the Purple Man became one of Marvel’s most monstrous villains. Though he had committed heinous crimes with his power in prior comics, this series reinforced the horrifying potential of such a villain on a personal level. It portrays him as a man who can simply take whatever he wants, with his powers allowing him to partake in psychological torture and sexual abuse, and it shows the impact of such a man in his role of Jessica Jones’s trauma. The intimate portrayal of these acts and seeing how much their impact has burned into Jessica over the course of this series really solidifies the true horror of such a criminal, bringing him beyond just another mind-controlling villain.

Though the fruits of the Marvel MAX imprint has brought mixed results, Jessica Jones: Alias is a strong and well-written series that shows what can happen when the idea of a mature story of superheroes is handled akin to a film noir detective story. Jessica Jones herself has even become a bigger figure within Marvel itself, becoming a regular presence in the main comics universe alongside heroes like Luke Cage. In fact, as Netflix moves forward with original content set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of their upcoming shows will be centered around her, simply known as Jessica Jones. That series will arrive on Netflix on November 20th. Hopefully it can capture the same skill in writing and character that this series does so well.

For those wanting to check out the original comics, Marvel is re-releasing the four volumes of Jessica Jones: Alias. The first volume is currently released, with the second volume in November, the third in December, and the fourth in January. There will also be an omnibus of the complete series released on September 29th.

The Muppets: It’s Time to Raise the Curtain…

Ever since Jim Henson first brought his rag-tag team to the television screen with The Muppet Show, the Muppets have become an endearing pop culture force. They worked their way into the hearts of audiences back in 1976, bringing with them a storm of bad jokes, self-aware humor, musical numbers, and celebrity appearances. More than that, they brought along a sense of fun and optimistic cheerfulness that proved to be irresistible. Since that TV show, the Muppets have starred in numerous films and TV specials with their signature brand of humor. Now, the results of these works varies in quality, but even the worst can’t dim the fun that comes with the Muppets. In fact, the 2011 film The Muppets was a great reminder of it, capturing their optimistic spirit while framing the Muppets against a cynical world. Now, the Muppets have made their return to television with their new series, which is also called The Muppets. Though it is still early and the result is a bit mixed, there is still a glimmer of that promise.

Done in a mockumentary style, the series follows the Muppets as they make and shoot a late-night talk show. Hosted by Miss Piggy, the show has Fozzie Bear as a warm-up comedian and Kermit the Frog as executive producer and showrunner. Even with the challenges of making a late-night talk show, things are particularly tense when it comes to Kermit and Miss Piggy. The two of them have broken up, with Miss Piggy being her usual stormy self while Kermit has the company of Denise, a pig who serves as Head of Marketing and his new girlfriend. As such, the tension mounts between Kermit and Miss Piggy as they try to work together, even with all the other headaches that come with making a talk show.

Now, the format of the show is done in the style of mockumentary, a format that has really taken a hold on television through the successes of shows like The Office and Parks and Recreation. Those are shows where part of the humor comes from a drier approach, from awkward pauses and tension built between characters. This is generally not a style used by the Muppets. Their work tends to be quicker paced, filled with jokes and punchlines and the sort of gags that hail from the days of vaudeville. It’s really a more old-fashioned style, one made to move fast and pull for laughs. Seeing the familiar characters utilized in this drier, more slow and modern approach feels…well, weird. I hesitate to say bad, because the writing is still sharp. There are also doses and dashes of the sort of fun but groan-worthy jokes that most people associate with the Muppets. It’s just…different. It could be that the format is simply one that requires a little adjustment to accepting. After all, the Muppets have generally had one specific style for the many years of their franchise. A major change like this will take some getting used to. However, a more direct issue that could use some better handling is in how it can use this format to its best advantage.

Honestly, the Muppets have always had an adult sensibility. There was a clever wit to their proceedings, one that can be enjoyed on both an adult level and on a kid level. True, this show does use more specifically adult jokes which might rub some groups the wrong way, but those jokes are solidly-done for the most part. Rather, how this series can achieve its tonal goal of being a more “adult” Muppet series is in really making the Muppets do more than just make us laugh. Rather, they can make us feel for them. Near the end of this first episode, we see a flashback to the break up between Miss Piggy and Kermit and the pain is palpable. Frustrations that have built up over the course of this franchise, finally at their breaking point. When the break up finally occurs, it is a quiet moment. When its impact finally sets in, Miss Piggy doesn’t showcase any of her histrionic bawling. It’s a simple, constrained cry, the sort that can come from a bad turn in fate. The moment is emotional, and one that allows us to feel and connect to a pig who’s most known for taking up the spotlight or eagerly feasting on meals. This is something that is truly more “adult”, not simply jokes that relate to adult subjects like drugs or sex. This is allowing us to peel back away from more than the jokes and letting see the all-too-familiar emotions that lay in us all. That is what can make this a truly more “adult” Muppet series, by showing us the pathos behind the Muppets while still delivering on the fine humor and optimistic spirit that comes with them.

Now, the show just premiered on ABC, so there is still plenty of time to see if The Muppets can live up to its potential. If it can, then it will make for a strong and fascinating addition to the Muppets franchise. Viwers can watch the show on ABC at 8 PM on Tuesdays, or catch up with Hulu if you don’t have cable. For the meantime, I recommend viewers give it five to six episodes to see if it reaches that glimmering of potential.

Little Nemo – Adventures in Slumberland: A Breezy Dream with Realistic Flaws

(My apologies for such a late post. I shall try to avoid this in the future. Still, I did my best to keep to my word about having a post on the 22nd.)

Back in 1905, a cartoonist named Windsor McCay started a comic strip that would become one of the earliest influential works in the medium of comics. He created a comic strip called Little Nemo in Slumberland. The concept was simple: it followed the adventures of Nemo, a pajama-clad boy who goes on adventures through the wondrous Slumberland after being summoned by King Morpheus. The series was packed with colorful visuals and an interesting assortment of characters, from the very serious Dr. Pill to the cigar-chomping clown Flip, but it cemented itself as such a force by way of McCay’s experimentation. He played around with coloring and panel layouts, allowing him to twist and bend his Art Nouveau visuals for full effect. He even had a post-modern element to his stories, with characters handling and interacting with panels or comic strip text long before our current concept of post-modernism came to be. Such a striking and original work in the early years of its medium allowed it to gain a rich legacy, becoming an influence not only to comic book writers like Neil Gaiman and Robert Crumb but also to filmmakers like Federico Fellini and authors like William Joyce. It only seems fitting that someday there would be an animated movie based on the legendary comic strip, especially considering McCay’s own work in animation. Thus, in 1989 (a good 84 years later), there was a movie made jointly between Japanese and American animation studios with a veritable roster of talent. The result was Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland, a fun take on the material even if it’s a bit so-so in some of the content.

Based loosely upon the original comic strip, the film follows Nemo, who falls asleep after a day of witnessing a circus parade and attempting to sneak a night-time treat of a slice of pie despite his mother’s warning. Finding himself greeted by a colorful visiting party and the somewhat smug Professor Genius, he is brought to Slumberland and informed that he is to become the new playmate of Princess Camille. Along the way, he ends up becoming caught up in the hijinx of local mischief maker Flip, only to find the Nightmare King unleashed. Having to own up to his own mistakes, Nemo sets forth to take down the Nightmare King and restore order to Slumberland.

On the whole, the film is rather fun to watch. Though it doesn’t quite capture the same visual splendor as McCay’s work, the movie still showcases Slumberland as a circus-like labyrinth of city streets and a candy-colored palace of wonders. Also, while it might not capture the same puzzling madness and dream logic as its source material, this does a good job in capturing the pace and flow of a dream. Bounced around like a pinball as he moves from moment to moment, Nemo’s adventures flow effortlessly between episodes. From training for a royal life to fleeing from bumbling cops to bouncing across floating balls, the pace captures the feel of a dream, which can change between two instants without explanation yet feel completely natural. It also adds to the impact of such a dreamscape by showing part of Nemo’s life before he goes on his dream adventures. It helps to not only root Nemo a bit more by showing us his normal world first, but also shows the influence of it upon his dreams. The aesthetic of Slumberland and its many inhabitants are clearly inspired by the circus parade he witnesses, such as King Morpheus baring a resemblance to the parade’s ringmaster. These are good touches to go along with a movie that captures the feel of a fun dream, but there are some faults that bring it down to reality.

I had mentioned earlier that there was a veritable roster of talent that had served on this film. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata had taken turns as directors, Brad Bird had done some work as an animator, Chris Columbus did some work on the script, and Robert and Richard Sherman wrote songs. Even famous author Ray Bradbury had a hand in the script. It is not like all of them were involved with the project at the same time, however. They were among many who went in and out of the project since it began in 1982. As a result, the movie feels like it was made by committee to a certain degree, pieced together from the many versions and drafts that went through the mill. This also shows in details like the inclusion of Icarus, a flying squirrel and pet for Nemo who was never in the original comic strip and feels made to be a copy of Disney sidekick characters. Not only that, such a character makes the normal world feel slightly more cartoonish and unreal, when it should be more grounded in comparison to Slumberland. Such flaws dampen what could have been a great tribute to a legendary piece of work.

Still, even with the by-committee feel, Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland is a fun watch. It slipped between the cracks in the wake of The Little Mermaid and the birth of the Disney Renaissance when it was first released, but it manages to have a fun story that captures the mercurial flow of dreams and some of the whimsy of Windsor McCay’s original comic. If you’re curious about this animated adaptation, it is available on Blu Ray and DVD. For those who want to visit the original Windsor McCay work and see what had made such an impact many years ago, there are several volumes of Little Nemo in Slumberland printed, along with a complete (if pricy) collection of the whole series. If a more modern version captures your eye, IDW released a new comic book called Little Nemo: Return to Slumberland. Centered around a modern-day boy named Nemo, the limited series will be released as a trade volume on September 25th as of the time of this post.

A Brief Hiatus

Hello there, dear readers. I will be taking a brief hiatus from my blog, as I will be on a trip. I know it may seem a bit odd to take a break, while this blog is still young and waiting for potential readers to discover it. However, I thank those of you who have been taking the time out to read this blog. There are many things on the internet which can take up your time. I thank you for being willing to spare a little of it to read the entries I write. I promise not to give up on this. I am just factoring in a little time for what life has to offer during this trip and making the time to soak that in.

Expect my next entry to arrive on September 22nd.

EarthBound: A Strange Journey in a Cult Classic

Nintendo is a video game company that has many beloved franchises to its name. These franchises are ones that have grabbed the attention of gamers throughout the years thanks to fun gameplay and memorable characters. Who hasn’t enjoyed the fun platforming with Mario and Luigi in the Super Mario Bros. franchise, or the adventure and exploration undertaken by Link in the Legend of Zelda series? Even newer games have already gained their followers, such as with Pokemon. However, while Nintendo games are pretty well-known, they do have certain titles that slip through the cracks. A variety of circumstances may cause this, but such games can still be worth checking out. In fact, there is one such title from the Super Nintendo that has gained a cult following over the years, even if it may not have been a financial success during its original release. This title is the always fun if definitely odd RPG known as EarthBound.

Set in the present-day world of Eagleland, the game is centered around Ness, a young boy who wanders from home one night when he discovers a meteorite crashed in a nearby mountain. Going to investigate, he finds a bee-like traveler from the future, who warns him that the world will plunge into chaos at the hands of a vile force known as Giygas. Entrusted with this goal, Ness sets out with his mother’s blessing and a little pocket money to journey on and destroy Giygas before he can reach his full power. Along the way, he is joined by the kind-hearted psychic Paula, the mechanically-gifted inventor Jeff, and the mysterious Prince Poo. Together, they must use their gifts to take down Giygas and all those beings who have become twisted by his evil. The style of game is a turn-based RPG, with your team battling all sorts of bizarre baddies as you journey around the world and collect the tools necessary for preventing a horrible future at the hands of Giygas. This turn-based combat does offer an interesting mechanic in that health is represented with an odometer-like meter which can tick away even as you go through your choices for actions. That means that, if you’re quick enough, you can use a healing item to save yourself if you’re hit by a particularly powerful attack. The gameplay is very much in the style of classic JRPGs, so expect a certain degree of grinding to raise your levels. However, it is not simply gameplay that has gotten this title its cult following. That comes more from the fascinating world, characters, and perspective developed by creator Shigesato Itoi.

Most RPGs tend to be set in some fantasy realm that is very distinct and separate from our own. EarthBound is not such an RPG. Though it may have countries with such names as Eagleland and Winters or cities known as Onett or Fourside, this is a world that is firmly rooted in our own. To go along with that, the enemies faced here are not just fantastical monsters. Though there are a few of that type, they are also plenty of foes along the lines of new age retro hippies, mad taxis, and skateboard-riding punks. The result is an odd and interesting juxtaposition, of psychic powers and futuristic aliens clashing against real-world setting and characters. Such an odd combination also serves as Shigesato’s viewing point for satire, offering a fun-house reflection of things from our world. A lot of the major areas and villains tend to showcase their ill will packaged within greed, a lust for power, or even apathy. For example, the town of Twoson is plagued by a cult that follows a religion known as Happy-Happyism, which preaches world peace and betterment through the color blue. As a result, there are families broken up as people fall under the cult sway of its founder, Mr. Carpainter, and all of his ardent worshippers who seek to paint everything blue. Over in the city of Fourside, it finds itself under the thumb of new mayor Geldegarde Monotoli. Rich and powerful, his influence has even made the local police swear to protect him over any other citizens. Though the game was released in the United States back in 1995, such ideas still feel fresh in our world. Another thing worth noting is a villain who has become one of my favorite video game villains: Pokey Minch.

Appearing early on in the game, Pokey is a boy who lives next door to Ness. He is cruel and mean-spirited, considering himself superior to Ness. He is a rather rotten boy, one who has been raised by parents who treat him callously and are very mean and vain themselves. However, over the course of the game, Pokey gains more and more power. At one point, he gets his first taste of power as a major assistant in the Happy-Happy cult. At another, he receives wealth and influence when he manages to become a business consultant to Mr. Monotoli. Through such encounters, Pokey grows more steadily twisted and cruel, even as Ness prepares for his battle against Giygas. In a way, Pokey serves as an encapsulation of human vice. He starts out selfish, then steadily grows more cruel as he gains a taste for power through society and institutions that put him on a level above others. Such an evolution makes him a natural foil against Ness, who gains more power as the game goes on but uses it to help better the world around him. It makes him a fascinating villain to watch, as he starts out as a rotten neighbor next door and grows into a powerful threat.

Sadly, such an interesting RPG didn’t prove to be such a hit when it had originally come out. The marketing for the game seemed to high-light a gross-out sense of humor that is not really in the game, along with a higher price tag due to the game being packaged with a strategy guide. Along with that, its 16-bit graphics seemed basic next to the then-recent release of Donkey Kong Country, which used computer graphics to create sumptuous visuals. However, time has been kind to this game and people have come to recognize the sharp writing and offbeat sensibility that makes this game stand out. If you’d like to give EarthBound a try, it is currently available for the Nintendo Wii U thanks to its Virtual Console component and sold in the Nintendo eShop.