May 21, 2013

Disneyland entertainment bubbles with joy

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Travel at 9:04 pm by dinaheng

The magic of Disneyland and Disney California Adventure lies in their ability to take you out of the everyday world, and transport you to a place where surprises put a smile on your face at every turn. Chief among those surprises is a delightful array of live entertainment offered throughout the day.

There are street musicians who perform everything from rock to country, comic storytellers, musical theater, parades and more. At night, there are fireworks at Disneyland and a spectacular multimedia water show called World of Color at California Adventure.

On May 25, Disneyland will premiere its first new musical show in nearly a decade, “Mickey and the Magical Map” at the refurbished Fantasyland Theatre, featuring live and “virtual” interaction with Disney characters, music and dancing.Dinah Eng

“We want all our live entertainment and experiences to resonate with our guests, and shows can last six months to 10 to 15 years,” says Kevin Eld, head of creative entertainment for Walt Disney Imagineering. ”I have a feeling ‘Mickey and the Magical Map’ will be a long-running guest favorite.”

The new musical, which features special visual effects and musical mash-ups, tells the story of the apprentice Mickey, who yearns to be a mapmaker in the Sorcerer’s workshop. When Mickey sets off to finish an unfinished spot on a map, the spot takes him on a madcap journey, foiling his every attempt to finish the spot.

“The spot is imagination,” Eld reveals. “Mickey discovers his own power of imagination, and learns it’s important for imagination to exist in the world, and maybe the spot should never be finished.”

“Mickey and the Magical Map” joins an impressive lineup of live entertainment at the Anaheim theme parks. Many of the shows run around 20 minutes, drawing young and old alike to sit back and relax in themed venues.

At Disneyland’s Royal Theatre in Fantasy Faire, there’s “Tangled,” featuring two comic actors — Smythe and Jones — who narrate the familiar Disney tales, with a twist. While Rapunzel and Eugene participate in telling their story, the two who do the singing are the narrators. Youngsters sit on carpet circles up front, while the adults get the benches in back.

“They’re a little like Abbott and Costello, and the show has something for adults and children,” Eld says.

Kevin Eld, head of creative entertainment, Walt Disney Imagineering; Photo courtesy of Disney

Kevin Eld, head of creative entertainment, Walt Disney Imagineering; Photo courtesy of Disney

If you visit the Golden Horseshoe Revue in Frontierland, a saloon with eats ranging from fish and chips to ice cream sundaes, you can catch Billy Hill and the Hillbillies strum their guitars, bass cello and banjos to rollicking country tunes with a little stand-up comedy mixed in. This long-running act, which first performed in the park in 1987, is a crowd pleaser, so if you want a good view, be sure to grab a seat up front by the stage or in the balcony above.

At California Adventure, pre-schoolers through age 10 will love Disney Jr. Live on Stage! where favorites from the Disney Junior Channel — like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Sophia the First and Doc McStuffins — make an appearance in an interactive show that will have the kids dancing and laughing throughout.

A long-running favorite for children and adults alike is “Disney’s Aladdin — A Musical Spectacular” at the flagship Hyperion Theater, which features a multicultural cast and a Geni whose dance moves and witty comments will have you laughing whenever he appears. This 45 minute production, staged in a 2,011 seat venue, offers what you’d expect from a Broadway show, with material that’s updated with pop culture references to keep it fresh.

“We initially thought ‘Aladdin’ would be there three to five years, and 10 years later, it’s so beloved by the guests that when it comes time to change the show, whatever goes in there will have big shoes to fill,” Eld says. “It’s luxurious and the music is incredible. This cast of color also represents a broad spectrum of our guests, which we’re very proud of.”

"Aladdin" genies at Disney California Adventure; Photo courtesy of Disney

“Aladdin” genies at Disney California Adventure; Photo courtesy of Disney

The parades, which feature characters from Disney TV shows or movies, feature music with each float that makes you want to dance with the characters going by. (If you happen to be on the sidewalk when the Pixar Play Parade passes by, be prepared to get wet as the floats spray water into the crowd — a welcome special effect on hot days.)

Those are just a few of the live acts to be found in the two parks, all designed to delight the young and the young at heart.

“Everything we do, from the intimacy of a guest meeting Mickey to the theater productions to the big night spectaculars are meant to surprise,” Eld says. “The theme parks are fantasy worlds we create, telling a story with the buildings, the rides, and the characters. Everything that happens in those land needs to enhance that experience. Seeing the guests enjoy it all really puts a smile on our faces.”

For more information on entertainment at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, check out http://disneyland.disney.go.com/entertainment/list/.

May 17, 2013

Summertime reads on the horizon

Posted in Between Us column, Books at 6:56 pm by dinaheng

In my mind, summertime reading should be fun for all ages. Whether it’s a good mystery, a romantic tale, or a story that teaches us about another culture, books that take us away from our everyday lives can give our minds a vacation wherever we are.

Anyone interested in the political landscape of China will find an intriguing behind-the-scenes true tale in “A Death In the Lucky Holiday Hotel… Murder, Money, and an Epic Power Struggle in China” by Pin Ho and Wenguang Huang (Public Affairs Books, $27.99). Dinah Eng

The book, based on previously undisclosed interviews with officials and political insiders in China, uses the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood in November 2011 to reveal the kind of politburo-level power struggles that go on in China’s secretive Communist society.

Gu Kailai, the wife of former rising Communist Party politician Bo Xilai, pled guilty to murdering Heywood in 2011, but the authors raise questions about the evidence against her, and the political maneuverings that led to Xilai’s trial, which is still pending.

“We used this scandal to give people a broader context to the Chinese political system,” says Wenguang Huang, author of “The Little Red Guard” and a journalist whose articles and translations have appeared in The New York Times, the Paris Review and other publications.DeathInLucky

“Hollywood, or other businesses that want to do business with China need to see how it works. It’s all corrupt and shrouded in secrecy. You’ll learn how business is interconnected with politics, how law enforcement works, and how women are treated in China.”

A complex tale, the book is dense with details and not for those who are looking for a light read. But if you want to know how things really work in the world’s most populous country, this is the kind of investigative journalism worth reading.

China plays a key role in another summer thriller, this one an apocalyptic vision of a future predicted by the distant past in “The Eye of God” by James Rollins (William Morrow, $27.99). This novel, the next in Rollins’ Sigma Force series, will intrigue fans who enjoy this author’s signature style of combining scientific theories with historical and religious facts.

In “The Eye of God,” Sigma Force’s Commander Gray Pierce, aided by a pair of Vatican historians, delves into the mystery of artifacts that are confirmed to come from the body of Mongol king Genghis Khan. Couple that with the hunt for a crashed U.S. military research satellite in the wilds of Mongolia and China, and you have another prescient tale penned by a storyteller whose specialty is fast-paced action combined with  intellectual curiosity.

This leads me to one more China-related tale, “Chu’s Day” by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins Children’s Books, $17.99), which is a sweet picture book (aimed at ages 4 to 8) about a baby panda whose enormous sneeze has both humorous and disastrous consequences.

Chu'sDay_Hi Res cIllustrated by Adam Rex, the story came out of Gaiman’s desire to write a book so charming that even Chinese censors would be disarmed. I think he succeeded.

For parents with little ones building their reading skills, Mead Early Learning books are a good way to keep those minds active during summer vacation. For example, “Learning Through Hidden Pictures” ($4.49) teaches reading comprehension, math skills, science and more for preschool through kindergarten-age children. The hidden picture searches are engaging enough for adults to enjoy, along with their youngsters.

For pre-teens in search of adventure, “Summerkin” by Sarah Prineas (HARPER, $16.95) tells the tale of Fer, the rightful Lady of the Summerlands, who must fight for the right to rule her land in an enchanted world that exists alongside our own. Being half-human, Fer questions the rules that other royals follow in the way they reign over their subjects, giving readers encouragement that rules aren’t always meant to be obeyed.

Similarly, those 10 years old and older will enjoy a re-imagining of the King Arthur legend in “Otherworld Chronicles: The Invisible Tower” by Nils Johnson-Shelton (HARPER, $16.99). In this version, Artie Kingfisher’s world is turned upside down when the characters in his video game Otherworld come to life, and he finds himself charged with saving the world as the once-and-future king in the 21st century.

For readers 13 and older, Michael Reaves and Mallory Reaves have written a thought-provoking novel about Walkers, soldiers who can pass between multiple dimensions to keep peace, in “The Silver Dream” (HARPER, $18.99), based on a story by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. (Yes, that’s the same Neil Gaiman who pens everything from picture books to adult science fiction.)

This sequel to “InterWorld” shares what happens when a young woman named Acaia becomes involved in the mission and life of Joey Harker, an InterWorld soldier whose colleagues are all iterations of him from different parts of the Altiverse, “a swirling maelstrom that contains all the infinite possible Earths that have existed, or might, or will exist.”

And for those 14 and older, a sci-fi romance that’s a fast-paced page turner (how’s that for a tongue-twister) can be found in “The Game: Book 1 — Rush” by Eve Silver (Katherine Tegen Books, $17.99).Rush hc c

In the book, teenagers are pulled from their lives, through time and space, to play a deadly game that results in the death of the Drau, terrifying alien creatures, or their own deaths. Miki Jones, who finds herself learning to be a leader in the game from the enigmatic Jackson Tate, must survive if she and her teammates are to save humanity. Be warned — as soon as you finish this one, you’ll immediately want more.

Clearly the sign of a good summer read.

May 3, 2013

‘Iron Man 3’ blasts into theaters

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Movies at 4:36 pm by dinaheng

The last time we saw billionaire-inventor Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, he had teamed up with fellow superheroes Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk  in “Marvel’s The Avengers” to save the world from an unexpected enemy.

After sharing that limelight, the man in a robo-suit (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) returns to save the world from biologically-enhanced human supervillains in “Iron Man 3,” a task complicated by the need to deal with his own demons, as well.Dinah Eng

“Iron Man 3 is a sequel to both ‘Iron Man 2’ and ‘Avengers,’ “ says Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios and producer of “Iron Man 3.” “We wanted to acknowledge the events of ‘The Avengers’ by focusing on the fact that Tony worries he’s just a man in a can, next to these other heroes. This is about re-discovery, that even with nothing, he still has his brain.”

Indeed, the best moments in this film are the ones in which the very human Stark figures out how to get himself out of jams without his armored suit. On the trail of the bad guys, he gets stuck in a small town without his lab equipment, so does what every enterprising scientist does — he goes shopping at Home Depot, and concocts some pretty effective weaponry on the fly.

Robert Downey, Jr. stars in "Iron Man 3." Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Robert Downey, Jr. stars in “Iron Man 3.” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Beyond the heroics of saving the world, Stark has to decide how to save his relationship with Pepper Pots (Gwyneth Paltrow), a challenge that becomes clear when she’s kidnapped by bad guy Killian (Guy Pearce), who’s working with The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). Fortunately, Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle) is back to be Stark’s wingman.

The Marvel superheroes franchise has scored box office hits with every film, grossing more than $1.5 billion worldwide with last year’s “Marvel’s The Avengers.” Why do audiences love the comic book heroes so much?

“There’s a simplicity to the myths we adhere to as a society,” says Shane Black, director and screenwriter (with Drew Pearce) of the film. “Comic books don’t stop. For 75 years, you could find out what Captain America was doing by going to the next comic book. It’s comforting to have a hero who doesn’t lose his ongoing values.”

Feige notes that while superheroes inspire audiences, real life heroes are already among us.

“When you see people run toward a disaster, those are real life heroes,” he says, adding that the Marvel superheroes always have obstacles to overcome, just like the rest of us. “Our movies would be boring if our superheroes could blast through everything easily.”

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. star in "Iron Man 3." Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert Downey, Jr. star in “Iron Man 3.” Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Happily, Iron Man is guaranteed to save the day, yet again, and while it feels a little odd to watch a summer blockbuster set during the Christmas holidays, it’s not going to stop moviegoers from cheering for our man Stark.

“If you’re in a movie palace, belief is suspended,” Black says. “I don’t think it matters that the movie takes place during the Christmas holidays. It’s about a man (Stark) standing in the snow on Christmas Eve. It’s a Capra movie, a journey of ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ story. Ilike Christmas.”

And we love “Iron Man 3.”

May 1, 2013

Scooby-Doo rocks in musical tour

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Television at 6:07 am by dinaheng

His name makes youngsters scream, parents smile, and ghosts quiver. He’ll do anything for a snack — if his best buddy sidekick doesn’t eat it first — and now, he’s shaking his famous paws in the live stage performance of “Scooby-Doo Live! Musical Mysteries.”

The Great Dane that has captivated television audiences for decades and the rest of the  Mystery Inc. Gang stars in the musical’s first North American tour, with an upcoming appearance at The Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, May 12, in three back-to-back performances on Mother’s Day.Dinah Eng

The show, presented by Warner Bros. Consumer Products and Life Like Touring, is one of many stage productions developed by the touring company in Melbourne, Australia. In 2009, Life Like Touring — which has written, produced and managed live theater show tours pegged to brands like Sesame Street, BEN 10 and Dora the Explorer — was approached by Warner Bros. with a portfolio of brands it wanted to develop.

“We choose brands that have a positive message for kids, and Scooby-Doo is big around the world,” says Anton Berezin, producer and head of Life Like Touring. “My wife (Theresa Borg) wrote the music and the script, and we did the first three tours in 2011 and 2012 in Australia. Warner Bros. saw it as a fresh approach to the brand, and gave us a chance to do it internationally.”

The show’s humor was tweaked for American audiences, and content was rewritten to make the musical fun for parents, as well as children. In the interactive production, the Scooby-Doo gang investigates a ghostly mystery that is pegged to each local theater, giving performances a truly local feel.

“It’s a thrill to be playing at The Dolby® Theatre, where the Academy Awards take place,” Berezin says. ”There’ll be Hollywood references so the kids feel the drama’s playing out in the theater they’re in. In York, Pa., we reference Big Foot, where in Australia, we talk about koalas and kangaroos. We’ve creating a show with an original story, and a shared experience, without forgetting that the primary audience is the kids.”

The producer says the Scooby-Doo brand is so beloved because the values the characters promote are so positive.

“The characters are teenagers you’d trust your kids with,” Berezin says. “They’re role models. They solve issues having to do with overcoming fear, problem-solving, cooperation, teamwork, and helping people.”

Melissa Rapelje, who plays Daphne Blake in the show, says the most challenging aspect of her role is portraying an iconic character that audiences have watched on television since 1969.

Photo of Melissa Rapelje as Daphne in "Scooby-Doo Live! Musical Mysteries"  courtesy of Life Like Touring.

Photo of Melissa Rapelje as Daphne in “Scooby-Doo Live! Musical Mysteries” courtesy of Life Like Touring. 

“I watched the show in the ‘90s growing up, and my parents grew up watching it,” Rapelje says. “I actually wanted to be Daphne, with her purple dress and purple shoes.”

Happily, Rapelje got her wish, playing the redhead who’s usually in a bevel position…  you know, that pose perfected by beauty queens where one leg is straight, while the other is slightly bent with the foot pointing, and one hand is on the hip.

“The common misconception is that Daphne’s a party girl with no brains, but she always partakes in the mystery and helps to solve it,” Rapelje says. “She’s so fun-loving and cares so much about each member of the gang. In this show, she takes charge of setting us up as a band, and is all about love, friendship, and fashion.”

As for the rest of the gang, Rapelje says Velma (Michele Dumoulin) is the true brains of the operation, while Freddy (Noah Michael Fish) is always in charge and the leader of the group. Shaggy (Garrett Lewis) and Scooby (Cody Collier) are always used in Freddy’s traps as the bait, and are always the first ones to be in touch with the ghosts.

“It’s about people you wouldn’t think would get along, and they do because of a common goal,” she notes. “Plus, Scooby-Doo is the cutest dog in the world.”

Tickets to The Dolby® Theatre performances range from $25 to the $85 VIP Ticket Package, which offers a pre-show meet and greet, photo with Scooby-Doo, music, and goodie bag, and are available through Ticketmaster.com (plus booking fees), by phone at 1-800-745-3000, and at The Dolby® Theatre Box Office (hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

The North American tour runs through June 16. For more information, tour dates and cities, check out http://www.scoobydoolive.com/.