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La La Love it or not? Local musical-theater circles weigh in on Oscar frontrunner

"La La Land" opens with an improbability: A ramp that connects two major highways in Los Angeles was shut down to film singer-dancers performing "Another Day of Sun." The colorfully clad characters leap over barriers, tap dance on hoods, spin on roofs while seemingly stalled in traffic.

"It's fantastic. It's filmed in one take," said Topaz Cooks, a stage manager at the Duluth Playhouse who worked on a recent production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." "It was so impressive — that's what blew me away."

After that, not so much, she said.

"La La Land," directed by Damien Chazelle, has fared well in pre-Academy Awards awards (Golden Globes, SAG, Critics Choice, etc.) and goes into the Oscars on Sunday with a record-tying 14 nominations — including Best Picture. In addition to tying "Titanic" and "All About Eve" for most Academy Award nominations, it has a 93 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety noted that it opened the Venice Film Festival "on a voluptuous high note of retro glamour and style ... the most audacious big-screen musical in a long time."

But that's not the whole story.

A New York Times column from Feb. 15 described its in-house Culture Department as "a staff divided." An assistant news editor called it "a love letter to Los Angeles," (ala Woody Allen and New York). An arts reporter said it disappoints true die-hard musical fans and a digital theater editor questioned the same-old, same-old "meet-cute, song-and-dance" escape.

It has drawn the same mixed response among the actors, directors, behind-the-scenes players in local musical-theater circles.

Cooks, for instance, was underwhelmed. She has such a convincing and passionate pan, that she has influenced her coworkers: Kendra Carlson went to the movie because Cooks didn't like it; A desk away, Crystal Pelkey didn't go to it because of it.

'Hype'

"It has all this hype," Cooks said. "It felt like a movie to win awards instead of 'let's make a movie because we need to tell a story.' "

Duluth Playhouse executive director Christine Seitz disagrees. She claims to be among the last people to see "La La Land" — she went with her husband two weeks ago. She didn't walk into the theater expecting to see a musical, and she didn't leave disappointed.

It was refreshing and brave when it could have been really hokey, she said.

"It's a lot different, the style they took, the approach," said Seitz, who spent 15 years in New York City; was Mary Kenny in a Broadway production of "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up"; and toured with an international production of "A Chorus Line." "Using these parts of artful expression to tell a story — as opposed to a musical. ... I thought they did a magnificent job."

Renewed interest in musicals

Liz Larson is a local director and has appeared in movies as well as "The 1940s Radio Hour" — which led to performing as one of the "Lovely Leibowitz Sisters" who opened for Phyllis Diller in the late-1990s. While she hasn't seen "La La Land" — she's sidelined with dueling foot-knee ailments — she said musicals on screen renew interest in the genre.

"To me, it's exciting," she said. "As someone who has done a lot of educational theater, getting young people excited about theater in any way, shape or form is fantastic."

For Carlson, that movie was "Moulin Rouge," and she went into "La La Land" thinking it might hold the same qualities.

"That was better," Carlson said of the 2001 film starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor.

Seitz said before she saw "La La Land" she wondered if she had missed the latest-greatest musical to hit the stages. When she realized it was an original piece created for the big screen, she made the obvious twist as the head of a theater.

"I wondered, 'Would this make a great stage musical?' " she admitted.

Big names versus best singer-dancers

Much has been made in the casting of household names, when Hollywood is teeming with capable singers and dancers. Sure "La La Land" star Ryan Gosling can dance, but is he the best? And co-star Emma Stone has called her own singing voice "my Achilles heel" in an interview on metro.co.uk.

Rebecca Katz Harwood hasn't yet seen the movie, but plans to. The associate professor of dance at the University of Minnesota Duluth was interested in just this — how the seams show.

"The fact that it's not 100 percent perfect," Katz Harwood said. "I'm interested to see what that means on screen."

Carlson noticed instances of the actors devolving into laughter or swelling with emotion — old stage tricks to cover a deficiency. Otherwise, Stone acted the part of Mia beautifully, Carlson said, but she wondered why there would be just one song written within her range.

"That's why they picked her," Carlson recalled thinking when she heard her sing "Audition (The Fools Who Dream").

Larson said it isn't surprising that Gosling and Stone star in the movie. Big names, big audiences, big money.

"Where you think someone else would have sung it better, that person is a star and that's why they got it. Everyone needs to make money. We're a capitalist society."

One of the biggest problems though — it struck both Cooks and Carlson — wasn't the vocal range, tap-dancing skills or that it seems like a movie made to win movie awards.

"A famous white guy trying to save jazz," Cooks said. "That's ... interesting."

• What: 2017 Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel

• When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday on ABC-TV

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