Sweeney Todd, or, When Come Back Bring Pie



Mrs. Lovett hits on the secret formula for success in the ever-competitive pie industry. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Mrs. Lovett hits on the secret formula for success in the ever-competitive pie industry. Photo by Cory Weaver.

I was really looking forward to Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street at San Francisco Opera and, for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. It’s a great show. However, while Show Boat really worked for me on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House, this just seemed like a musical with very good singers in a very nice setting. I’m not quite sure why. I suppose the decision to use amplification is partly to blame, but I also think it’s because this production seemed to emphasize the bombastic music and theatrics more than anything. And Sweeney Todd is nothing if not dramatic.

Plot in 101 Words or Less: We’re not in Seville, but Sweeney Todd is a barber just the same. However, he’s far less jovial than Figaro. Returning from exile to seek revenge on the judge who framed him, raped his wife, and became ward to his daughter, Todd sets up shop in his former digs above Mrs. Lovett’s bakehouse. After killing a rival barber who threatens to expose his identity, Todd and Mrs. Lovett come up with a gruesome way to source the meat needed for Lovett’s pies. Naturally, both shops thrive. Love, madness, and morality all make appearances, but mostly it’s blood, blood, and more blood.

Responsible for most of the blood and gore is Sweeney Todd, played rather demonically (appropriately enough) by Brian Mulligan, a long-standing San Francisco favorite, heard most recently in this summer’s Les Troyens.

Brian Mulligan as Todd in Sweeney Todd. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Brian Mulligan as Todd in Sweeney Todd. Photo by Cory Weaver.

However, the production is anchored by Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett, whose love for Todd drives much of the central plot. I had never seen Stephanie Blythe live, but, as she stars in the Met version of the Ring Cycle I have recorded on my DVR, her beautiful voice was not unknown to me. What I hadn’t realized is what a terrific actress she is, really selling numbers like “A Little Priest” to the crowd. [Side note: One day I’ll finish watching Der Ring des Nibelungen and finally post the long-awaited Wagner edition of my “Opera Plots in 101 Words or Less” series.]

Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Stephanie Blythe as Mrs. Lovett. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Other standout performances include Heidi Stober, another perennial SF favorite, playing Todd’s daughter Johanna, and Elizabeth Futral, who impressed me in the smaller role of the beggar woman even more than when I saw her as Vera Donovan in Dolores Claiborne. Wayne Tigges, also last seen in Dolores Claiborne, seems to specialize in dastardly, predatory men, and his creepy portrayal of Judge Turpin is no exception. Finally, Matthew Grills, playing young Tobias, sang and acted very sweetly, especially on “Nothing’s Going To Harm You” with Blythe.

Elizabeth Futral as the beggar woman. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Elizabeth Futral as the beggar woman. Photo by Cory Weaver.

In conclusion, given that it brought Blythe to the War Memorial stage, I can’t really complain too much about the decision to host this production, but I can’t say it sells me on the idea of producing more musicals either. However, given the enthusiastic crowd reaction to this one, I’m not sure most people agree with me.

Opera 101—Poison Pen Letter



Enjoy yourself while you can, Luisa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Enjoy yourself while you can, Luisa. Photo by Cory Weaver.

As La Maratonista and I sat at the final performance of San Francisco Opera‘s Sweeney Todd on Tuesday, I realized I still had not posted about opening night. And I had such good blogging intentions for the fall. Ah, well… the road to hell and all that goes with it I suppose.

I guess it’s hard to get inspired by Luisa Miller. The opera is far from being one of Giuseppi Verdi’s best. The plot is a bit of a yawn and the music is only so-so. What’s more, the production design on this one was rather lackluster. Really, it just didn’t say “opening night” at all. It’s a good thing the singing was incredible and there were lots of pretty dresses to look at.

Plot in 101 Words or Less: Go, Luisa, it’s your birthday! And… scene. What was the point of that? Anyway, Luisa loves Carlo, but he’s really Rodolfo, son of Count Walter. The reason for this lie is never explained. Wurm wants Luisa for himself so he schemes with Walter to keep the lovers apart. Easy-peasy, since Rodolfo is engaged to Federica and she’s having none of it. So the stupidest scheme in the history of stupid schemes is just crazy enough to work and the resulting miscommunication leads Rodolfo to poison both Luisa and himself. Idiot. But at least he takes down Wurm with his final breath.

In short, nothing to write home about. Even if you are forced to write something in order to free your imprisoned father. The singing, however, was glorious. Leah Crocetto, a former Adler Fellow, who so impressed us as Liù in Turandot, held her own against a strong Michael Fabiano, who I’ve now seen numerous times (most notably in Lucrezia Borgia in San Francisco and Lucia di Lammermoor in Paris) and has never sounded better. Sadly the two didn’t have much chemistry together and weren’t really convincing as a couple. But neither the opera nor the production gives them much to work with.

Leah Crocetto as Luisa in Luisa Miller. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Leah Crocetto as Luisa in Luisa Miller. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael Fabiano as Rodolfo in Luisa Miller. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Highlights from the rest of the stellar cast include Vitaliy Bilyy as Luisa’s father, Ekaterina Semenchuk as Federica, and Andrea Silvestrelli as Wurm. The latter looks to be gearing up for MVP of the season, as he will be coming back for both Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Don Carlo. The chorus didn’t seem to have much to do beyond adding window dressing in some glorious red velvet riding coats, but there was a kick-ass clarinet solo from the orchestra pit.

The ensemble didn't get horses to ride but they did get gorgeous riding coats. Photo by Cory Weaver.

The ensemble didn’t get horses to ride but they did get gorgeous riding coats. Photo by Cory Weaver.

But enough of opera, I hear you saying, what about the dresses?!? Here are some of my favorites of the night:

Afsaneh Akhtari in Pavoni (left) and Belinda Berry (right) in a necktie dress of her own design. Photos by Laura Morton.

Afsaneh Akhtari in Pavoni (left) and Belinda Berry (right) in a necktie dress of her own design. Photos by Laura Morton.

Komal Shah (left) and Lillian Jacks (right) in Oscar de la Renta. Photos by Laura Morton.

Komal Shah (left) and Lillian Jacks (right) in Oscar de la Renta. Photos by Laura Morton.

My own photo of Dixie Lee Mahy as she poses during intermission and La Maratonista putting everyone to shame in the Tenderloin post-opera.

My own photo of Dixie Lee Mahy as she poses during intermission and La Maratonista putting everyone to shame in the Tenderloin post-opera.

All in all, a lovely night at the opera.

Directed by Women


As I wrote in Wet Hot Feminist Summer, I’ve had a pretty female-centric summer at the movies. To take that spirit into fall, I’m participating in my very own “Directed by Women” film festival. Directed by Women is an initiative to celebrate female directors by encouraging and facilitating a worldwide film viewing party from September 1 to September 15, 2015.

I don’t generally watch a film each and every day, but I’m going to do my best to take this opportunity to explore more films directed by women, especially those I’ve had every intention of seeing but just haven’t gotten around to.

First up was last year’s Beyond the Lights, directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, who previously directed Love & Basketball (2000) and The Secret Life of Bees (2008). I had been meaning to see this for some time since I had heard very good things about it and it stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I discovered this year in the underrated Belle (2014), directed by Amma Asante. I also just learned that Mbatha-Raw will be playing a young lawyer opposite my man Keanu in The Whole Truth later this year, so now I have three reasons to see that—the third being that the film is directed by Courtney Hunt, whose debut feature, Frozen River (2008), won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and earned Melissa Leo a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar nod. By the way, both Belle and Frozen River would be excellent choices for any personal “Directed by Women” festival you might be planning.

I’m glad to see my instincts regarding Beyond the Lights were on the money: I really enjoyed the film, which tells the story of Noni Jean (Mbatha-Raw), a rising pop star whose suicide attempt threatens to destroy her burgeoning career. Minnie Driver is pitch perfect as Noni’s obsessed stage mother and Nate Parker makes a great foil as the cop who saves her life. It’s part Notting Hill and part Nina Simone biopic, with a bit of sports movie thrown in for good measure. But more than anything, it’s a feminist take on media sexualization and the pressures of fame, and Prince-Bythewood hits you right out of the gate with this agenda, juxtaposing Noni performing Nina Simone’s “Blackbird” at her first talent show with her winning a Billboard Music Award for the suggestive “Masterpiece.”

This film really deserved more attention last year. It also inspired my next #DirectedbyWomen selection, What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015), a documentary film by Liz Garbus, who is best known for her work on the Oscar-nominated The Farm: Angola, USA (1998). I have no idea yet what will follow that, but I will certainly be writing up my thoughts on all my selections come mid-September.

In the meantime, you can follow #DirectedbyWomen on Twitter to get ideas for your own personal festival or search for film suggestions (by year or by genre) on the Directed by Women site.

The Blue Apron Experiment


If you haven’t heard of Blue Apron, it is one of a number of subscription meal services that have popped up in recent years. In fact, if you are wondering why so many “food” photos seem to be finding their way into your Facebook feed, Blue Apron may be the culprit. I’m not sure why Blue Apron makes people suddenly want to document their cooking, but it’s probably because it vastly improves the way your dinner plate looks. (Well, mine anyway, as I seldom make any effort at actually “plating” anything I cook).

Seared Salmon & Preserved Lemon with Red Quinoa & Pea Shoot Salad

Seared Salmon & Preserved Lemon with Red Quinoa & Pea Shoot Salad

In any case, this tendency dovetails nicely with the fact that Blue Apron is also remarkably generous about giving out free meals, so, if you see someone’s Blue Apron pictures and want to try it yourself, ask them if they have any invitations to give out.* I myself took advantage of one such invitation and have been experimenting with Blue Apron for almost two months. While I have stopped getting regular deliveries (for reasons given below), I will likely keep my account for occasional dips back into the service.

How Does Blue Apron Work?

If you are signed up for the two-person plan, you get one refrigerated box delivered every week with all the ingredients necessary (except salt, pepper, and oil) for three meals. Each meal has its own full-page recipe card with easy-to-follow instructions and photos. There are also tips and videos online. Each meal takes about 30–40 minutes to prepare and cook. There is a decent amount of chopping but almost no measuring (since things like mustard or flour are portioned out for you already).

You can review the menu in advance and decide whether to opt in or out of each week’s delivery. Sometimes you can mix and match among the meat, fish, and vegetarian options but I usually found that when I tried to substitute one of my meat/fish dishes I could only replace it with the most boring vegetarian dish available, usually one that was pasta-based. This is one of the biggest issues I have with Blue Apron since very seldom do ingredients seem to overlap between my recipes so I have no idea why all combinations aren’t available each week. I really wanted to try some of the more adventurous vegetarian dishes but that basically meant getting only vegetarian dishes for that week. Sorry, Blue Apron, but I don’t need you to cook pasta.

I would have loved to have tried making Palak Paneer, one of my favorite Indian dishes, but I couldn't mix and match that week.

I would have loved to have tried making Palak Paneer, one of my favorite Indian dishes, but I couldn’t mix and match that week.

What Are the Pros?

1) New Techniques and Ingredients

By far, the best thing about Blue Apron was reminding myself of techniques long forgotten and learning a few new basics that make all the difference. Favorite tips include soaking shallots and onions in vinegar to reduce bite, cooking raw kernels of corn in a sauté pan instead of boiling corn on the cob, and making a sort-of lemon salsa for fish (called rather inaccurately “preserved lemon”) by dicing a whole lemon, skin and all, and soaking it in a sugar/salt combo. Also, how just the simple act of breading can work wonders with chicken—although I think that Blue Apron recipes rely a bit too heavily on this technique. I also learned the value of ponzu sauce and miso paste, which I’m sure I’ve never bought in my life.

2) Restaurant-Quality Meals

While I definitely didn’t love everything, there were more good meals than bad and the selections made for a nice variety. (I believe that Blue Apron claims that recipes never repeat in a year but I obviously haven’t put that to the test.) Favorite dishes include Stir-Fried Ginger-Basil Chicken with Coconut Rice, Seared Salmon with Preserved Lemon, Sirloin Steak with Mashed Purple Potatoes, Miso-Roasted Chicken with Spring Peas, and the Creamy Potatoes. For the most part, these are dishes that I would never have bothered to make at home before and the recipe cards allowed me to prepare them with confidence. I will probably be keeping about half the recipes to make again on my own (a far better ratio than I achieve with most cookbooks). As stated above, there were vegetarian dishes I would have loved to have tried but Blue Apron never seemed to allow for the weekly combination I would have liked.

3) Value

In addition to the time saved by not having to shop for specific ingredients, which is huge, the real value lies in the aforementioned quality. While Blue Apron meant I was spending more than usual on food cooked at home, the quality of the ingredients and the meals meant I had less of a desire to order take-out food, which I guess means that Blue Apron pays for itself in a way. Also, for me, there was value in being reminded about portion size and what two servings of meat really looks like. I have a feeling that when shopping going forward, I will tend not to overbuy as much as I used to. So, while I do think Blue Apron is pricey, I found it to be worth the cost under certain circumstances.

Stir-Fried Ginger-Basil Chicken with Tinkerbell Peppers and Coconut Rice

Stir-Fried Ginger-Basil Chicken with Tinkerbell Peppers and Coconut Rice

What Are the Cons?

While I’m glad I decided to subscribe to Blue Apron, it was not as ideal for a single person living in the city as I had hoped. Here’s why.

1) Delivery

The biggest argument against Blue Apron for me (and this would likely not be the case for most people) is that I have to be home for delivery. While boxes are packaged to be able to be left on your doorstep all day and still remain cold, in my case, if I am not able to let the delivery person into my apartment building, the box will literally be left on my doorstep. Outside my building. On the sidewalk. On a busy street in downtown San Francisco. So, yeah, that doesn’t work for me. Luckily, I work as a freelancer so I can usually be around, but packages can come at any time from late morning to early evening so I’m essentially stuck at home until they arrive. I’ve had a few other issues with deliveries but I won’t list them here as Blue Apron dealt with them in the best possible manner.

2) Restaurant-Quality Meals

Wait, what? Wasn’t this a “pro”? Yes, but every rose has its thorns. What I hoped would be the solution to the “cooking for one” problem really wasn’t. The downside to restaurant-style meals is that they usually don’t make good leftovers. So, if you are not a couple, you basically get one good meal, and then one that is fair-to-middling at best. I would say maybe a third of the meals held their own after a day. My slow cooker may provide the same meal for days, but at least it is usually just as good (if not better) each time. Since they do provide a “family-meal” subscription, I would love to see them provide one for singles as well. Most of these recipes and the ingredient packaging could easily be adapted for one and I would seriously consider paying the same amount of money for 4 single meals a week versus 3 two-person meals.

3) Packaging and the Environment

I feel very guilty about all the packaging. Everything is recyclable in theory, but in practice, not so much. First, all plastic needs to be rinsed. Aside from being annoying, California is currently undergoing a severe drought so I try to use as little water as possible. (Note: This is also the reason I don’t use the ridiculous numbers of prep bowls they suggest.) But it’s not just a washing issue—I’m well aware that just producing that packaging uses water and energy. If you normally buy your food at the grocery store, this might not be a big deal, but I buy almost all fruits and vegetables at the farmers market so I’m not used to much in the way of plastic and packaging for produce. Finally, the gel cold packs aren’t really recyclable at all. Unless you happen to know an organization that needs ice packs and have a way of hauling them there, those are going in the trash.

4) Catfish

As god is my witness, I will never eat catfish again. I’m not a big fish eater, but out of twenty meals, two were catfish. Just, no. And the only shrimp dish was a New England-Style Shrimp Roll which wasn’t even good the first night. More cod, or other fish or seafood options I might actually buy in a store, would have been nice.

If I could get Szechuan Eggplant and Steak & Potatoes the same week, I would be much more likely to use Blue Apron.

If I could get Szechuan Eggplant and Steak & Potatoes the same week, I would be much more likely to use Blue Apron.

In sum, I think that I would recommend this service for many people, even if it didn’t work for me in the long term. With a few tweaks, they could make the service far more appealing for me, but currently it’s not ideal, despite the value I think it provides.

*The invitation garnered me a “week” of free meals for two, which, in Blue Apron parlance, meant three two-person meals, a $60 value.

Wet Hot Feminist Summer


Film_Mad Max_Belt

Last month, I recommended some 2014 films to watch at home in case you were tired of going the multiplex. Today, I’m singing the praises of the summer movies of 2015. Some of them anyway.

If I had to make a top ten of this summer’s releases it would probably go something like this:

  1. The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  2. Mad Max: Fury Road
  3. Spy
  4. Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
  5. Mistress America
  6. Magic Mike XXL
  7. Trainwreck
  8. Mr. Holmes
  9. Pitch Perfect 2
  10. Ant-Man

On any given day, the exact order might change, but this is pretty much it. And yes, I did see Avengers: Age of Ultron and Inside Out. Blockbusters I didn’t see include Jurassic World, Minions, San Andreas, and Terminator: Genisys, none of which I suspect would make it on this list. Movies I haven’t yet had a chance to see but hope to catch soon include Dope (see comments below), The Gift, Love & Mercy, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and (maybe) Straight Outta Compton.

If one thing stands out on this top ten list, it’s the feminism of it all. Women—their abilities, choices, desires, and friendships—are at the forefront of most of these films. From the more blatantly feminist Spy and The Diary of a Teenage Girl (directed by newcomer Marielle Heller), to the stealth feminist attack of Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (seriously, go see this one and be shocked and amazed to see a woman treated as a peer in every way), to the body-positive Magic Mike XXL, it was a great summer to be a woman at the movies. In fact, one reason Ant-Man is so low on this list is that its patriarchal bent seems rather out-of-touch in comparison—though it’s still light years ahead of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Marvel really needs to get their act together.

In any case, I hope the Hollywood studios are taking notice of the fact that these kinds of films have legs: As of this week, less than one-third of the total box office of Mad Max: Fury Road (30%), Magic Mike XXL (20%), and Spy (26%) is from their opening weekends. Despite opening lower than many tent-pole films, they have risen through the rankings and come out with very respectable numbers. Compare that to a movie such as Age of Ultron, whose opening weekend box office represents 42 percent of its total take.

But enough with statistics, let’s get to specifics!

—If you don’t know what you’re selling, no one will know how to buy it.
—What are you selling?
—So many things!

Mistress America

Here are twenty items to sell you on my top ten.

Most Fun: Spy

Most Charm: Mistress America

Most Tension: Mad Max: Fury Road

Most Pleasant Surprise: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Most Thought-Provoking: The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Best Cinematography: John Seale for Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Screenplay: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig for Mistress America

Best Production Design: Jonah Markowitz for The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Best Trailer: Ant-Man

Best Ensemble: Magic Mike XXL

Outstanding Female Performance: Bel Powley in The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Outstanding Male Performance: Ian McKellen in Mr. Holmes

Outstanding Comedic Performance: Jason Statham in Spy

Best Cameo: Snoop Dogg in Pitch Perfect 2

Best Extended Cameo: LeBron James in Trainwreck

Best Use of Thomas the Tank Engine: Ant-Man

Best Villain: Das Sound Machine in Pitch Perfect 2

Woman I Most Want to Be: Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

Inspector Clouseau Master of Disguise Award: Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck

Stuart Smalley Positive Affirmation Award: Magic Mike XXL

Catch them if you can!


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