Oh do do the Xanadu that you do so well

Xanadu 2You have to believe we are magic: Chloe Condon is Kira, the muse from Mt. Olympus, and Joe Wicht is real estate mogul Daniel in the New Conservatory Theatre Center production of Xanadu: The Musical. Photo by Lois Tema Photography

When I called playwright Douglas Carter Beane to interview him for a San Francisco Chronicle story on Xanadu: The Musical at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, he happened to be taking a break from rehearsals for his latest Broadway show, Lysistrata Jones. That musical, a hip, funny adaptation of the Aristophanes classic, happens to rehearse in the same building as the Foxwoods Theatre, home to Broadway’s notorious web slinger, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.

Douglas Carter BeaneWith his ear pressed to his cell phone, Beane surveyed the crowded sidewalk and quipped, “I hope people don’t think I’m buying tickets.”

Lyssie Jay, as Beane calls it, opens Wednesday (Dec. 14) after a successful run off-Broadway. It’s something of a family affair what with Beane’s partner, Lewis Flinn, providing the music and lyrics and Beane providing the book. The story has been updated so that instead of Greek women withholding sex until the men stop warring, it’s now a college cheerleading squad withholding nookie from a losing basketball team until they start winning some games.

While San Francisco audiences get a gander at what magic Beane worked with Xanadu (he wrote the book), Beane is essentially storming Manhattan. There’s buzz about his libretto revision for Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella popping up next year. He’s also casting for The Big Time, what he describes as his “feel-good musical about terrorism.” The show is slated for off-Broadway. “The G-8 is on a cruise ship that’s taken over by terrorists, and the lounge singers on the ship end up saving the day,” Beane explains. “How would the Freed Unit at MGM back in the day deal with terrorism? It’s silly but very moving. I’m quite proud of it.”

He’s also working on a new play called The Nance for Nathan Lane (“the great genius Nathan Lane” as Beane puts it). “It’s a real period gay play I’ve been wanting do for a while,” Beane says. “It’s set in the world of burlesque and it’s about the gay stock comedy character, the nance.”

As if Beane weren’t busy enough (did I mention he also did all the re-writes on Sister Act: The Musical?), he and Flinn are raising two kids, Cooper, 7, and Gabby, 5. The secret to his success, he says, is: “A cute partner who is significantly younger. The children are also younger. Even our dog is younger.”

Visit the official website for Lysistrata Jones here.

Read my San Francisco Chronicle feature on NCTC’s Xanadu here.


Xanadu: The Musical continues through Jan. 15 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, Decker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $25 to $45. Call 415-861-8972 or visit www.nctcsf.org.

Bless my Blu-ray forever…


The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews, 1965. TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.
All rights reserved. Courtesy: Everett Collection.


Back in the dark ages of VHS, I remember being thrilled when I could actually buy The Sound of Music and watch it whenever I wanted, not just on whatever holiday the networks chose to trot it out. Ever since I saw the movie on the big screen in the early ’70s, it had become one of my favorite things because Julie Andrews was right up there with Carol Burnett and Mary Tyler Moore in my youthful pantheon of perfection.

Then, as an adult, I saw The Sound of Music again on a big screen. It was like seeing a whole different movie from what I was used to seeing on videotape. The TV version was pan-and-scan, meaning they decided widescreen (with the black bars across the top and the bottom) was unacceptable but shifting focus on certain parts of that widescreen and cutting out the rest was perfectly all right. From then on I couldn’t watch the movie on TV unless it was letterboxed.

With the advent of DVD, letterboxing became the norm – preserving the original screen ration as the cinematographer and director intended. No more cutting out VonTrapp children during “Do Re Mi.” I didn’t mind shelling out more money for the DVD because the format seemed to be the apex of the home video revolution. Then came the special anniversary DVD edition of the movie, which featured new features, including interviews with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer (not to mention a promotional film starring Charmian Carr about her life as a teen movie star working in Austria). Had to buy that one.

Then the Rodgers and Hammerstein folks released a box-set collection of all the R&H movie musicals (except Flower Drum Song), which included the special edition Sound of Music discs I already had. But I had to have the whole set.

If you’re counting, that’s four times I purchased The Sound of Music for my home collection. Somehow I bypassed the LaserDisc craze, so that saved me some money. And please don’t get me started on all the various versions of the soundtrack I’ve owned through the years (remember 8-track?).

I’m savvy enough to know that I’ll probably never be done spending money on The Sound of Music. Couldn’t resist going (more than once) to the Sing-Along Sound of Music at the Castro Theatre, and I’m always open to seeing the movie on a big screen in a theater with a great sound system. I thought about downloading a digital version of the movie, but it’s not available … yet. That one can’t be too far away.

Until then, we have yet another format and another potential purchase. Come next Christmas, we’ll be able to have a near-perfect Sound of Music experience in our own homes with the Blu-ray release. Here’s a teaser trailer.

For further VonTrappist fun, check out this entry in a long line of re-cut trailers casting sunny musicals as horror films. This one is my favorite of the Sound of Music efforts.


A jolly holiday with the Sherman Brothers

My love of things Disney is no secret, so imagine what a thrill it was to get a chance to talk with Disney songwriter Richard M. Sherman about his long-running rift with songwriting partner and brother Robert B. Sherman and about the just-released documentary about their lives and careers, The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story, which was made by Richard’s son Gregory V. Sherman and Robert’s son Jeffrey C. Sherman. The cousins grew up mere blocks from one another in Beverly Hills but didn’t get to know each other until adults because their fathers did not socialize, nor did they allow their families to socialize.

Ah, families.

I wrote a feature on Richard M. Sherman and the movie for the San Francisco Examiner. Read it here.

I also reviewed the movie (four stars) for the Examiner. Read it here.

Both pieces are pretty short, so here’s some bonus Richard M. Sherman.

On his and Bob’s love of Walt Disney: “We were under the wing of a genius. He pushed us that much further, gave us these giant assignments. We adored him, and he was fantastic to us. Let it never be said that Walt was just a figurehead. He was an inspiration to everyone he worked with and was totally a hands-on producer no matter who was directing, writing or composing.”

On his son and nephew collaborating on the film: “It’s another Sherman partnership. Fate has wonderful twists and turns. They came to us about five years ago and asked for permission to do the story of our careers and our life together. I thought, `Sounds good to me.’ I didn’t realize they were going to get so in depth. It’s really an intense documentary.”

On the lesser-known work: “There are songs in a lot of different pictures I’m fond of. I love Shelby Flint’s recording of `Do You Remember me?’ from Snoopy Come Home. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous recording. She sang it with all her heart. There are other obscure things I like: 1Tell Him Anything But Not That I Love Him’ from The Slipper and the Rose — that’s a very mature piece. We’ve written a lot of songs people don’t know. They tend to remember the funny, clever ones.”

On Busker Alley, a Broadway-bound musical that never got to Broadway: “It’s a great show. I’d love to see it re-mounted. I always keep a little prayer in my heart. Who knows? Tomorrow is another day. I’m an optimistic guy. Always have been. There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow!”

On a favorite memory: “It was the opening of Mary Poppins, a gigantic party. My folks were there, and when they went over to Walt, my dad said, `Thank you for the opportunity you’ve given my sons.’ Walt shook my dad’s hand and said, `Al, I want to thank you for your sons.'”

Here’s a preview of the documentary:

Go see `Were the World Mine’

Forget about High School Musical. The real teen movie musical to see is Were the World Mine, a favorite of the gay film festival circuit that is now seeing wider release.

While Disney’s HSM franchise exploits the shiny pop pleasures of high school, Were the World Mine offers a darker fantasy guided by the magic of theater and, more specifically, by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Directed by Tom Gustafson and co-written by Gustafson and Cory James Krueckeberg, this bit of low-budget indie film enchantment (now at the Opera Plaza in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley) takes its cue from Max Reinhardt’s lush 1935 movie (and earlier stage production) of Midsummer and its ultra-romantic take on the world of lovers in the forest and the faeries that guide them.

The movie also seems inspired, in part, by Dead Poet’s Society, which includes a tormented, sensitive protagonist at its center who plays Puck in the all-boy academy’s production of Midsummer, but he commits suicide.

In Gustafson and Krueckeberg’s version, the protagonist is out gay student Timothy (Tanner Cohen), who is regularly roughed up by his rugby-playing compatriots. An English teacher/drama director (Wendy Robie), forces all the senior boys into her production of Midsummer, and Timothy lands the role of Puck because he can actually sing.

Invested in the role of the merry sprite, Timothy somehow borrows one of the play’s magic spells – the one that makes you fall in love with the next person you see – and begins turning his small town into the same-sex capitol of the world.

The farcical aspects of the plot never get too far out of hand, thanks primarily to the score (original music by Jessica Fogle and Tim Sandusky, lyrics by Krueckeberg and Shakespeare), which is beautiful and eerie and anything but farcical. (Soundtrack is available from PS Classics and on iTunes.)

More Dead Poets vibe comes from Zelda Williams, Robin’s daughter, who plays one of Timothy’s best friends. She sings the brightest song in the score, a sort of light-rock re-telling of the Pyramus and Thisbe story from Midsummer.

I could have used more music and some bigger musical numbers. Cohen has a gorgeous voice, and it’s a shame we don’t get to hear it more.

But it’s hard to complain when there’s so much that’s wonderful in this movie. How can you resist a movie where townsfolk are practically waving pitchforks and torches to get the school NOT to produce a Shakespeare play?

If only theater in the real world could inspire such vehement response.

Here’s the trailer for Were the World Mine:

Here’s an interview with director Gustafson and stars Cohen and Nathaniel David Becker:

High School Musical 3: Senior moments

Perhaps it’s a sign that I’m old and have bad taste, but Disney’s High School Musical 3: Senior Year kept reminding of my favorite bad movie musical of all time: Grease 2.

You’ve got a story that goes nowhere, a primary romantic couple that hits a few road blocks but ends up together, a cap-tossing graduation scene and the must unrealistic school musical of all time (in Grease 2 it involves the wretchedly wonderful production number “Girl for All Seasons”). You’ve also got a leading man in a salvage yard (in Grease 2, Maxwell Caulfield is building the ultimate chick-magnet motorcycle) and a song that echoes one of the worst numbers ever: “Who’s That Guy?” (in HSM3 the line occurs during a paean to prom night called “A Night to Remember,” which also happens to be the name of a movie about the Titanic, but I digress).

Surely, HSM3 is far more accomplished than Grease 2, and the stable of Disney stars, now in their final round of HSM servitude, actually appear to be close to their characters’ age and not 35. Though all those fresh-faced kids should mightily try to avoid playing high school students in their ensuing projects.

I’ll say this about Senior Year — it’s not as good as HSM2, which just about gets the formula perfect, and it’s a heck of a lot more fun than the dreadful, soul-numbing movie version of Mamma Mia!.

Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens are as appealing as ever, though Efron’s charisma pretty much blows pretty Vanessa off the screen. Ashley Tisdale, with her sassy new nose, has fun with her ultra-bitchy character, Sharpay, though on the big screen it becomes quite apparent that Ms. Tisdale is not a great actress, nor does she have a whole lot of comic flair. Lucas Grabeel (right) as Sharpay’s, twin, Ryan, is mostly consigned to reaction shots as Sharpay flounces about, flipping her extensions and making the most of her cutie cute outfits. I’m a little sorry Ryan doesn’t get to fully come out of the closet and take a boy to prom. Instead he takes Kelsi(Olesya Rulin), the “composer” of the school shows. I’m not sure if that means Kelsi is a budding lesbian and the two recognize each other through the golden high school haze or Kelsi is doomed to a life of fag haggery. I’m hoping for the former. For the best analysis of HSM3 as gay metaphor, check out Prince Gomolvilas’ Bamboo Nation report here.

The songs in this final installment, well, they stall. There’s a sameness to them such that when there’s a reprise of “We’re All in This Together,” it’s like a fresh New Mexico breeze. Efron sounds like a boy band standby and Hudgens sounds more than a little electronic, which is strange.

Sharpay and Ryan’s Broadway-size duet, “I Want It All,” is fun, but the best all-around number is Efron’s duet with Corbin Bleu, “The Boys Are Back,” complete with a childhood flashback and an homage to Kevin Bacon in Footloose, the remake of which happens to be a future Efron project. Sure Efron’s got the goods, but Bleu matches him in the charisma department, and of all the HSM stable other than Efron, this is the guy to watch.

The ballads are boring, but because the budget is bigger this time out, we get boring ballads in the rain, in a rotating treehouse and on the Stanford campus. Oddly, many of the production numbers are performed on moving sets that appear to be stage ready — could it be director Kenny Ortega is just making it easier for the inevitable stage productions of HSM3 to replicate its “movie” magic?

The choreography — by Ortega, Chucky Klapow (sorry, credited onscreen as Charles Klapow) and Bonnie Story is actually a lot of fun. There’s a heavy Michael Jackson influence and a whole lot of irresistible energy. Watching the beefed-up cast dance to the lame title song (it took three tries to finally get a song called “High School Musical”?), it made me sad for Ortega — not that he needs my pity, but I lamented the missed opportunity known as Newsies, the early ’90s Disney musical helmed by Ortega that should have been great. If Ortega had only had anything approaching this budget (reported to be measly $13 million but still bigger than the TV versions), he might have made Newsies something more than a wonderfully awful little musical that has spawned gazillions of fans over the years.

This is innocuous movie musical making, and there’s surely a place for that (no one has quite revived the harmless spirit of the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals quite as effectively). But I wanted this final installment, since it already has the attention of the world, to be a little bolder and fold some real life into the fantasy. There was a chance to be great or be fabulously bad — like Grease 2 — but that would have required taking a risk, and this money-minting Disney thoroughbred wasn’t about to do any such thing.

And now, just because I worked up an appetite for it, here’s Michelle Pfeiffer singing “Cool Rider” set to a montage of scenes from, yep, Grease 2.

Robots in love: WALL-E meets `Dolly’

Not only is Pixar’s WALL-E an extraordinary movie – it’s also, in its strange way, a paean to musical theater.

You just don’t head into a computer-animated film set in the 2100s to feature tunes by the great Jerry Herman, but that’s exactly what you get. WALL-E is about a soulful little robot, one of the last moving creatures on Earth (save for his faithful and resilient cockroach friend), whose duty is to compact the mounds of garbage humans left on the planet into stackable little cubes.

How WALL-E the robot got his soul is left for us to ponder, but this adorable little guy – a cross between E.T., the robot from Short Circuit and a little bit of V.I.N.C.E.N.T from Disney’s The Black Hole – is fascinated by the detritus of humanity. When he comes across items that intrigue him, he throws them into a little cooler and takes them home to the Dumpster he lives in (and has festooned with Christmas lights). One of his favorite items is an old VHS tape copy of the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly! starring Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau. Using an old VCR, an iPod and some sort of magnifying lens, WALL-E watches two scenes over and over again: “Before the Parade Passes By” with Michael Crawford as Cornelius Hackl strutting down the street and the ballad “It Only Takes a Moment” with Crawford crooning sweetly with Marianne McAndrew as Irene Molloy.

There’s no Streisand or Matthau in sight (which is probably for the best – Hello, Dolly!, though directed by Gene Kelly, is not a great movie musical). Rather, WALL-E is attracted to the high stepping of “Sunday Clothes” and the song’s naively romantic message about joining the human race to discover wonderful things and the heart-fluttering, hand-holding romance of “It Only Takes a Moment.” The fact that the movie and the original 1964 Broadway musical are based on a Thornton Wilder play (The Matchmaker) all play into the movie’s core message about the vital importance of connection and consciousness.

WALL-E director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) understands the potent romance of musical theater – the same thing that people who hate musicals deride as silly and unrealistic. In a post-apocalyptic setting, Herman’s sweet music represents an idealistic side of humanity not visible for all the junk and rubble. That’s what little WALL-E responds to – he wants to dance and be in love like Cornelius Hackl.

There’s a scene of WALL-E trying to dance with a hubcap for a hat that is priceless. But that’s just a prelude to the robot’s actual chance to fall in love with EVE, a slick droid sent down from the mother ship (where all the too-fat humans are carried on floating chairs, eyes glued to the screens in front of their faces). Neither of the ‘bots really speaks, so the true expression of their feelings (again, why these robots have developed feelings is mysterious, but intriguing) is by touching, or holding hands, just like Irene and Cornelius do in Hello, Dolly!

Is it corny? Yes. Is it effective? Undeniably.

Stanton comes by his affection for musical theater naturally. Apparently he was in a high school production of Hello, Dolly! See what we risk losing when we cut arts programs from our schools?

And Herman, whose music is so integral to one of the best movies of the year (animated or otherwise), is getting the kind of exposure he deserves. He told the Associated Press: “I’m still blown away by the fact that two songs of mine that are close to 50 years old have been used as the underpinning of the movie.”

Herman sold Pixar the rights to use the songs, but he was unaware of just how they’d be used in the final product. He said the movie brought tears to his eyes. He told the Hartford Courant: “It really blew me away. You’re talking to someone still in a haze. I couldn’t believe how beautifully the songs expressed the entire intent of the film.”

Now it’s time for those geniuses at Pixar, who haven’t made a bad movie yet, to create a full-bore musical of their very own. Maybe they’ll get Jerry Herman to help them out.

Here are clips of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from the 1969 movie Hello, Dolly!:

‘Mama,’ Meryl, musings

Got a little excited when I saw the Mamma Mia! trailer in a movie theater recently. With the success of Hairspray last year, it looks like summer is becoming the season for frothy stage musicals turned silver screen tuners.

Here’s one of the trailers. I like this one because it actually shows Meryl Streep singing.

Here’s the trailer I saw in the theater:

Aaargh! The tyranny of ABBA! Why is that music so fun? Mamma Mia! the movie opens July 18.

‘Sweeney Todd’ on screen: Nice slice

The movies have not been all that kind to Stephen Sondheim.

His early Broadway hits, for which he supplied lyrics only, West Side Story and Gypsy, became classic studio musicals (with West Side Story being a movie for the ages and Gypsy being an interesting movie with some good work by Rosalind Russell and Natalie Wood).

But once Sondheim emerged as SONDHEIM, cinema got a little tricky. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) cut about half of the songs, and let’s not even talk about the movie of A Little Night Music (1978). His incidental music for Stavisky and Reds is lovely, but Sondheim is best when he’s pairing music and words.

Sondheim did win an Academy Award for “Sooner or Later,” one of five songs he contributed to the 1990 Warren Beatty version of Dick Tracy, so he has some film pedigree (compared to his seven some Tony Awards, but Sondheim’s theatrical pedigree has never been in question).

Given the Sondheim-cinema track record, lowered expectations might be considered acceptable for the new Sweeney Todd movie from the Tim Burton-Johnny Depp team (this is their fifth collaboration after Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

Well, I’m here to tell you that heightened expectations are OK. I saw Sweeney Todd last week and was delighted and horrified – a good reaction for Sweeney.

The thing that amazed me most is how faithful Burton is to Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s Broadway musical (which is in turn based on a Christopher Bond play). You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but this Sweeney is a full-blown movie musical with as much (if not more) singing than talking.

Earlier this fall, the Bay Area got a taste of the Sweeney Broadway revival, which pared down the orchestrations so that the actors could play their own instruments. That stage version had its merits (attention to Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics, for one), but oh, the lush, glorious orchestrations in the movie (courtesy of Jonathan Tunick), conducted by Paul Gemignani.

Those massive, bone-rattling movie theater sound systems are put to wondrous effect as Sondheim’s dark, chilling score pours out of them. This is one thing movies can do better than Broadway – a massive orchestra playing so loudly you feel every instrument and note.

Most discussions I’ve had about this movie Sweeney have begun with one question: How are the voices? And my answer is: fine. Not great. Not Broadway. But fine in the context of the movie. Depp’s Sweeney, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, who wields straight razors and slices necks like a jungle explorer clearing a path, has an appealing pop-rock voice with touches of early David Bowie.

Depp’s co-star, Helena Bonham Carter, isn’t quite as successful. Her wispy vocals don’t really register. In fact, Bonham Carter is miscast. Her Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop owner who turns Sweeney’s victims into deliciously greasy meat pies, is simply too sexy. No matter how much dark makeup they slather on her eyes, no matter how gaunt and pale they make her, she’s still sexy.

An older, more desperate Mrs. Lovett makes more sense in the context of the story. She’s smart enough to know how to woo Sweeney and desperate enough to do horrible things simply because she has run out of options. Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett is just too young and hot to be at the end of her rope.

Still, she looks great, and because Burton’s approach has so much to do with creating a sinister gothic look, looking good is half the battle.

The supporting cast is stellar. Hard to go wrong with Alan Rickman (as the creepily sexy Judge Turpin) and Sacha Baron Cohen (as Signor Adolfo Pirelli), both of whom appear to be having a great time being bad. Jamie Campbell Bower is an impressive Anthony (and he’s only 19), and Jayne Wisener (another youngster at 20) is an angelic Johanna (though in her early scenes she looks a little like one of the big-eyed aliens at the end of Close Encounters). Special mention must be made of seemingly older-than-his-years Ed Sanders as Toby. He’s all of about 14 years old, and he more than holds up his end of the movie (which is fairly significant). He and Bonham Carter are wonderful together on “Not While I’m Around.”

When making holiday plans to slice and dice with Sweeney, keep in mind that this musical is rated R for very good reason. The blood flows like pub ale, and Sweeney’s specially rigged barber’s chair is incredibly violent. Even though the gore is self-consciously theatrical, it still packs a wallop. This is the bloodiest movie musical since Can’t Stop the Music.

At long last, Stephen Sondheim’s genius has been captured on film in a way that doesn’t cheapen or apologize or dumb down.

Here’s a Sweeney Todd behind-the-scenes teaser to whet your whistle.

Reilly’s ‘Cox’ comes alive

When does a movie become theater? The easy answer is when it’s adapted a la Hairspray, The Lion King, The Producers and the like.

But there have been rare instances when movies become theater, usually when music is involved. I’m thinking of the rock band Spinal Tap, which, after their mockumentary became a hit, toured like a real band. Same is true of the “folk singers” in the genius Christopher Guest movie A Mighty Wind. I remember going to the Warfield to see the entire cast reassemble, in character, for a concert. The fictional becomes real – or if not real, exactly, then three-dimensional.

During the Mighty Wind show, the New Main Street Singers took the stage, and someone, spotting Parker Posey, shouted out, “Parker, I love you!” Posey didn’t acknowledge the shout in any way, so the shouter re-phrased using her character’s name: “Sissy, I love you,” and Posey, whipped her head around, a big smile on her face, and waved madly at her fan.

Another movie character recently stepped off the big screen for a concert in San Francisco. On Monday, fans and media attended a screening of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, the latest from super-hot Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Superbad), who co-wrote and produced.

The movie bundles every music biography cliché you can imagine and skewers them all gleefully. The humor is broad, dirty and silly – it’s sophomoric in the smartest way.

John C. Reilly is Dewey Cox, a kid from hardscrabble Alabama who is born to sing. He rises through the ranks – taught by African-American blues and soul men, schooled by peers such as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. Drugs and alcohol, of course, play a big part in Dewey’s dark period, and then the ‘60s flower, and next thing you know he’s in India with the Beatles (played hilariously by Paul Rudd, Jack Black, Justin Long and Jason Schwartzman).

Jenna Fischer of “The Office” is Dewey’s lifelong love, Darlene, and their duet, “Let’s Duet,” is a musical highlight. Music plays a huge part, obviously, but the skill with which the songs are executed (great pastiche songs in all the right styles, with assists from Apatow, director/co-writer Jake Kasdan), Dan Bern and Marshall Crenshaw, among others) is a huge part of the movie’s success.

Reilly is a real singer – you only need to see him perform “Mr. Cellophane” in Chicago or hear him duet with Woody Harrelson in A Prairie Home Comapnion to know that – and a sincere and sincerely funny performer. He carries the movie with effortless skill.

I can say with some authority that Reilly is a real singer because, as good as he is in the movie, he was equally as good in person. After the screening on Monday, fans walked down the block to the Great American Music Hall, where the marquee proudly proclaimed, “Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers: The Cox Across America Tour.” (If you think the last name Cox was accidental and won’t be joked about in every conceivable way, think again.)

Reilly performed for about an hour with a four-piece band (he played guitar and harmonica), and he never broke character. He was Dewey Cox, outfitted in a black-and-red bolero outfit seen in the movie when he’s performing “Guilty as Charged.”

Because the song stylings move from ‘50s blues and rock ‘n’ roll to ‘60s folk and psychedelia, Reilly really gets to show off his skills as a singer. He’s a little bit Roy Orbison, which is a great thing to be. His live high notes weren’t quite as pristine as his movie high notes, but he makes up for it in enthusiasm and humor.

The best song in the movie is the title song, “Walk Hard,” though I’m awfully fond of the nearly dirty “Let’s Duet.” Dewey’s posthumous tribute to himself, “(Have You Heard the News) Dewey Cox Died,” is probably something every famous singer/songwriter wishes he/she wrote, and his anthemic plea for the rights of little people, “Let Me Hold You (Little Man)” is a hoot.

Reilly is a theater veteran (A Streetcar Named Desire on
Broadway in 2005, Tony nomination for True West opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman, lead in the musical version of Marty), and his comfort onstage shows. He’s great onscreen, but in his Dewe Cox guise, he knows how to give good theater.

In the spirit of the film, let me just add that he rocks out with his Cox out.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is in theaters Dec. 21. Here are two trailers. The first is for all audiences. The second is rated R. Choose appropriately.

Stage presents: A theater gift guide

So many fine gift ideas, so little space. Let’s get started with some great theater books.

In the realm of books about theater, this year’s standout comes from San Mateo native Thomas Schumacher, who also happens to be the president of Disney Theatrical, the producer of such hits as The Lion King and Mary Poppins. Schumacher’s How Does the Show Go On? An Introduction to the Theater (Disney Editions, $19.95) is geared toward the young theatergoer (ages 9 to 12), but it’s a hugely entertaining look at the entire theatrical picture, from the beginning of a show to the most intricate details of daily production.

The Bay Area can’t get enough of the musical Jersey Boys. For the most avid fans, there is, of course, a coffee-table book. Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Broadway, $40) contains the show’s libretto, lots of photos and a thorough guide to the real Four Seasons and their Broadway counterparts.

You think you know everything about The Sound of Music? Think again. Author Laurence Maslon has assembled the ultimate look behind the scenes of the world’s most beloved movie musical. The Sound of Music Companion (Fireside, $40) covers every aspect of the show, right up to the British reality TV show that allowed viewers to vote on the actress who wound up playing Maria on London’s West End.

The hottest show on Broadway is the multi-Tony Award-winning Spring Awakening. Fans already have memorized the great cast album, so give them Spring Awakening (Theatre Communications Group, $13.95), the libretto (by Steven Sater) and a new adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s original play by novelist Jonathan Franzen (Faber and Faber, $11.70). Franzen hates the musical, by the way, so it’s interesting to see how the play and the musical diverge.

This was the year of the movie musical — or maybe I should say the good movie musical. If your gift recipient loves musicals, make sure he or she has Hairspray (New Line Home Entertainment, $34.98 for two-disc version, $28.98 for single-disc), the joyous movie version of the Broadway hit; Once (20th Century Fox, $29.99), a fascinating and musically rich love story about an Irish street musician and an interesting woman he meets by chance; Colma: The Musical (Lionsgate, $27.98), a locally grown musical with catchy tunes and a better-than-average cast of characters. The best of the big-ticket DVD items this year is The Noel Coward Collection ($79.98 BBC/Warner), a veritable treasure trove of Cowardly delights. The set contains seven discs and runs some 19 hours (plus another 12 hours of bonus material that includes interviews, radio plays and more). The plays included are Private Lives (with the delectable Penelope Keith), Hay Fever, Design for Living, Present Laughter, A Song at Twilight, Mr. and Mrs. Edgehill and Tonight at 8:30.

This isn’t a CD, but while we’re on the subject of Coward, this year saw the release of a fantastic volume of Coward’s letters: The Letters of Noel Coward (Knopf, $37.50), edited by Barry Day. The beauty is that the book contains letters both from and to Coward, whose beastly wit entertains in every epistle.

The fine folks at PS Classics, the show-minded label that, in addition to turning out excellent original-cast albums, allows musical theater performers the chance to show their vocal stuff, have released some terrific new discs just in time for the holidays.

The best of the bunch is Lauren Kennedy’s Here and Now, a marvelous collection of show music and pop. Album highlight is Andrew Lippa’s “Spread a Little Joy,” followed closely by Jason Robert Brown’s “In This Room” and Adam Guettel‘s “Through the Mountain” (from Floyd Collins). Kennedy’s voice is so vibrant — at times so Streisandian — it’s irresistible.

PS Classics also is offering two more Broadway divas: Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (Light in the Piazza) with Fifteen Seconds to Love, a solid collection mixing standards (“Right as the Rain,” “I Got Lost in His Arms”) and newer material (Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Red Dress,” Jane Kelly Williams’ “Fifteen Seconds of Grace”); and Andrea Burns (soon to be on Broadway again in In the Heights) with A Deeper Shade of Red, a set that mixes Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) with Stephen Sondheim (“What More Do I Need?”) and Melissa Manchester (“Through the Eyes of Grace”) with Kate Bush and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Man with the Child in His Eyes/Something Wonderful”).

PS Classics’ Songwriter Series with the Library of Congress’ latest offering is a doozy: Jonathan Larson: Jonathan Sings Larson. The composer of Rent, who died tragically the night before his show opened, is heard singing demos and performing live, and the disc paints an incredible portrait of an artist full of talent, humor and ambition. The accompanying DVD features four live performances from Larson’s gig at New York’s Village Gate.