Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Storyteller

Last night I took my niece Tashena to see Carrie Underwood's sold-out Storyteller tour at the Maverik Center.  To say that Tashena was in heaven would be an understatement!  In fact, I think my standings have improved dramatically in the Coolest Aunt Ever category!  Country music is not my favorite genre but I like artists who have a pop crossover sound and I like a lot of Carrie Underwood's songs, particularly "Last Name" and "Jesus, Take the Wheel." Tashena, however, absolutely loves her and she sang every single word!  Underwood began her set with "Renegade Runaway" from her latest album Storyteller and sprinkled quite a few others from this album throughout: "Dirty Laundry," "Church Bells," "Heartbeat," "Choctaw County Affair" while playing a mean harmonica, and "Clock Don't Stop."  I sang along with Tashena when she played her hits: "Last Name," a rousing rendition of "Undo It" with lots of audience participation, "Good Girl," "Cowboy Casanova," an emotional rendition of "Jesus, Take the Wheel" (she had to stop to compose herself while the audience sang for her), "Wasted," "Blown Away," "Two Black Cadillacs," "All-American Girl," "Little Toy Guns," and "Before He Cheats." She gave a very heart-felt thanks to all of the fans who have supported her along the way and dedicated Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You" to the crowd.  She sang it a capella because she can!  She performed a fun version of "Mountain Music" with her opening acts, The Swon Brothers and Easton Corbin, and dedicated "What I Never Knew I Always Wanted" to her husband Mike Fisher (a hockey player, sigh) and her son Isaiah with adorable pictures of both on the big screen.  For the encore, she performed "Smoke Break" and "Something in the Water."  She put on a great show on a stage in the round with all of the requisite costume changes, light shows, and pyrotechnics but, more importantly, she can sing and she sang her heart out!  I certainly enjoyed this concert immensely and Tashena?  I could hardly contain her!  I often bemoan the fact that I can't buy Barbies for the little girl any more but I have to admit that I really enjoy spending time with the teen-age Tashena!  She was a great concert buddy!

Note: Tashena and I didn't get to see the opening acts!  We hit the trifecta of bad commutes: construction on I-15, a massive snowstorm, and about a billion people trying to get to the Maverik Center!  It's good thing Carrie Underwood was worth all of the hassle!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Messiah Sing-In 2016

Last night I went to a performance of Handel's Messiah by the Utah Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Eric Schmidt, the Westminster College Choir, the Utah Symphony Chorus, and soloists Abigail Rethwisch, Sarah Coit, Christian Sanders, and Markel Reed.  The audience is invited to sing along during the chorus and it was so much fun!  Handel's music is absolutely glorious and I especially loved "For unto us a Child is Born," "Glory to God in the Highest," and, of course, "Hallelujah!"  Markel Reed sang the baritone part at last year's performance and he was amazing.  He was amazing again this year, especially in "The trumpet shall sound."  He received thunderous applause after this section!  I was a member of the Westminster College Choir all four years of college and seeing them on the stage made me feel very nostalgic.  I used to love performing Christmas music this time of year and, to this day, I still love hearing Christmas music performed live.  The annual performance of Handel's Messiah is a wonderful tradition (I have done it now for three years) and, while I was feeling pretty festive after putting up my tree on Saturday, I am now filled with Christmas spirit after such an amazing concert!

Note:  I bought a copy of the score last year and put it in a very safe place.  Of course this necessitated a massive search of my house to find it for this year.  Luckily I found it in time.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

O Christmas Tree

I love it when my house is decorated for Christmas!  I try to put my decorations up right after Thanksgiving so I can enjoy them for as long as possible.
Yesterday I spent most of the afternoon hauling everything up from the basement and putting up my tree.  Hanging all of the ornaments on my tree is so much fun because most of them bring back lots of memories.  I listened to my favorite Amy Grant Christmas songs and burned a pine scented candle while I decorated and now I am so excited for Christmas!
It's the most wonderful time of the year!

Note: My family has played shanghai rummy every night for the past three nights.  I have won every game!  I think they all hate me now...

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Moana

Yesterday afternoon my Mom, Marilyn, Sean, Tashena, and I went to see the new Disney movie Moana.  I loved this movie so much!  As soon as the credits started rolling I turned to my family and exclaimed that I loved it (and they all agreed with me) and then I started the applause!  In fact, you should probably stop reading right now and go see it because it is that amazing!  I loved the characters, the story, the animation, and the music (one of the composers is Lin-Manuel Miranda!).  Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) is the daughter of the Chief of the island of Motunui.  She is called to the ocean but her father warns her not to go beyond the reef.  When her island is threatened, she learns a legend from her grandmother that says the heart of Te Fiti was stolen by the shape-shifting demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and it must be returned to bring life back to the islands.  The ocean chooses Moana and gives her the heart of Te Fiti so she sets out on an adventure to find Maui and return it.  I loved the character of Moana because she is strong and finds the strength to do what needs to be done to save her people even when she doubts herself.  I loved that Maui is not Moana's love interest but a goofy sidekick and that they work together as a team.  Maui is a fun character and his tattoos are involved in telling the story.  It is hilarious when they mock him!  I also loved the character of Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement), a crab who has stolen Maui's hook because he likes shiny things.  I loved the story of finding your identity and believing in yourself (I may or may not have had a tear in my eye at a crucial moment).  The animation is lush and beautiful and I especially loved how the ocean is used as a character.  Finally, I absolutely loved the music!  My favorite songs are "We Know The Way," (sung by Lin-Manuel Miranda, sigh), "How Far I'll Go," (it gave me goosebumps) "You're Welcome," (who knew that The Rock could sing?) and "Shiny," (I love Jemaine Clement).  We all enjoyed this movie so much we went to see it again late last night!  You should go see it, too!

Note:  We always have fun stories to tell when we see a Disney movie the day after Thanksgiving.  When Tangled was released we were camping in the motor home and the tiny theater in St. George could not deal with the huge crowds who wanted to see it.  Seating was not assigned and it was kill or be killed to get a good seat.  People were climbing across us and spilled our popcorn.  Then a kid climbed over the seats in front of us and spilled Marilyn's drink!  When I took Sean and Tashena to see Frozen, we didn't buy advance tickets and the theater was packed.  We ended up having to sit in the middle of the second row and Sean and Tashena got into a huge fight over who would have to sit by a stranger!  During our first screening of Moana, there were tons of really noisy kids and babies!  Good times!

Friday, November 25, 2016

Thanksgiving 2016

Yesterday was wonderful!  We had our traditional Thanksgiving dinner at my parents' house and everyone was assigned to bring something.  I was assigned rolls and I actually made them (Rhodes Bake and Serve) and they turned out great (I have burned them before).  We had turkey and ham, cheesy potatoes, stuffing, the aforementioned rolls, pomegranate salad (a tradition), and a relish tray.  Everything tasted great!
After dinner we all took naps for a few hours and then we reconvened for a ruthless game of shanghai rummy!  Everyone was assigned to bring a treat (we will play this game every night over the break).  I made caramel corn and we also had fudge, caramels, my Grandma Johnson's traditional scones, and, of course, pie!  Sean is modeling the whipped cream from the pie!
Marilyn is modeling the caramels.
This game is absolutely crazy!  Tashena won the last game we played so we were all gunning for her and she was not happy!
It is kill or be killed, Tashena!  I actually won but I know that everyone will be gunning for me when we play again!  It was so much fun to spend the day with my family!  I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving as well!

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Silver Screen Classics: North By Northwest

The classic North By Northwest is one of my favorite films of all time and it was my first introduction to the genius of Alfred Hitchcock.  It was also one of the first movies that I ever owned and one of the first movies I had to replace on DVD when I got rid of all my VHS tapes.  I have probably seen it over a hundred times but never on the big screen.  I was thrilled when I realized that it was one of the selections on the Silver Screen Classics movie pass and I have been eagerly anticipating this screening since I got it.  One of my favorite scenes is when Alfred Hitchcock himself misses a bus after the opening credits and then I learned that he always appears in his movies!  Ad executive Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for the agent George Kaplan and is pursued by a Russian spy (James Mason) trying to smuggle microfilm out of the country.  He inadvertently puts the real agent (Eva Marie Saint) in jeopardy so they must work together to stop the spy.  From the drunken car chase along the edge of a cliff to the iconic scene with the cropduster to the dramatic ending on top of Mount Rushmore, this film is thrilling and it is arguably one of Hitchcock's best.  Cary Grant is suave and debonair while Eva Marie Saint is icy cool and I particularly enjoy all of the sophisticated banter between the two of them.  They just don't make leading men like Cary Grant any more!  I love this film so much and I had a lot of fun watching it for the first time on the big screen last night.  It was the perfect way to begin the long Thanksgiving weekend!

Note:  Apparently I am not alone in my admiration of this film.  The theater was packed on a snowy night in SLC! 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Johnson Family Pictures 2016

My parents have a big anniversary coming up and, in honor of the occasion, my Mom really wanted some new family pictures taken.  A couple of weeks ago we had our family friend, Lesa, take some and we love how they turned out!

2009

2008

Note:  Lesa took all of these photos and her first comment was how much Sean and Tashena have grown!  How did this happen?

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Miss Basketball Star

This week Tashena tried out for the Bountiful High basketball team and, of course, she made it!  Even though she is a sophomore she will be playing varsity.  The coach told my brother-in-law that college scouts are already interested in her!  What?  She is amazing and we are so incredibly proud of her!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Last night I went to a late night screening of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and I am just a little bit disappointed because it wasn't as, well, magical as I had hoped it would be.  I have long been anticipating the continuation of the Wizarding World because I am such a fan of the Harry Potter books and movies and, while I didn't hate this movie, I didn't love it, either.  Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) visits New York in the 1920s on his way to release a magical creature back into the wilds of Arizona and inadvertently releases several other creatures into the city when he collides with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who has a similar case.  Tensions are high because a dark wizard named Gellert Grindewald (an interesting casting reveal at the end of the film) is trying to provoke a war between the wizards and No-Majs (American Muggles) in the U.S.  The MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America) is trying to suppress the exposure of wizards so Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror trying regain her status, arrests him but ends up helping him along with her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol).  Meanwhile, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell), the Director of Magical Security, is trying to track down a child possessed by an Obscurus, a dark force that is created when a wizard is forced to hide his or her magical powers, and enlists the help of the troubled son (a creepy Ezra Miller) of a woman (Samantha Morton) who leads a group against witchcraft.  There is also a sub-plot involving a U.S. Senator (Josh Cowdery) who is killed by an Obscurus, and his wealthy and powerful father (Jon Voight).  It is very obvious that this film is the beginning of a series (I've heard that five films are planned) because there is so much going on to set up future plots.  Many of the characters are very one-dimensional and I suspect that they will be more fully-developed in future films.  What I enjoyed most about this film are the scenes where Scamander and Kowalski traipse around New York trying to collect the escaped beasts, especially when Scamander must perform a mating dance to get an Erumpet back into the case.  I also enjoyed the scene where Scamander shows all of the beasts to Kowaski (the case is like Harry's tent because it is normal on the outside but large enough on the inside to contain all of Scamader's beasts and their habitats).  Redmayne is a lot of fun as the eccentric and permanently ruffled Scamander and Folger is endearing as the No-Maj caught up in the world of wizards but I did not like Waterston's portrayal of Tina Goldstein because it is so bland.  I suspect that I will enjoy the future films a lot more than this one; Gellert Grindewald has great potential as a villain!  In the meantime, however, this installment is definitely a must-see for fans of the Harry Potter franchise.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Beautiful

I finally got to see a show at the new Eccles Theater!  I've been looking forward to Beautiful for quite a while because several people who went on the New York City theatre trip with me saw this show and absolutely raved about it (I chose not to see it in NYC because I knew I would be seeing it in SLC).  Beautiful is a jukebox musical, a stage show which uses previously released pop songs that are either conceptualized to tell a story like Mamma Mia or used to tell the biographical story about the performer whose music is featured like Jersey Boys, describing how Carole King rose to stardom in the 1970s using the songs she wrote such as "So Far Away," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Up on the Roof," "It's Too Late," "You've Got a Friend," "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," and "I Feel The Earth Move" among others.  I had forgotten how many great songs she wrote (I saw King in concert with James Taylor several years ago and I was surprised then as well).  Act I begins with a sixteen year old King (Julia Knitel) deciding to go Manhattan to sell one of her songs to music producer Don Kirshner (Curt Bouril) and continues with her development as a hit songwriter with her husband Gerry Goffin (Liam Tobin) and the rivalry with the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil (covered by DeLaney Westfall last night) and Barry Mann (Ben Fankhauser).  Act II includes the disintegration of King's marriage to Goffin and the writing and recording of her seminal album Tapestry.  King's legendary concert at Carnegie Hall in 1971 is used as a framing device.  I think this musical is staged brilliantly.  King and Goffin or Weil and Mann would begin singing a song as they wrote it and then the artist who made it famous would continue it in a big production number including "Some Kind of Wonderful" with the Drifters, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" with the Shirelles, "Up on the Roof" with the Drifters, "The Locomotion" with Little Eva, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" with the Everly Brothers (my favorite), and "One Fine Day" with Janelle Wood.  Knitel does great job with the role and I especially enjoyed her rendition of "Natural Woman" and I also loved the comic relief provided by Fankhauser.  This is a fun show to watch and many people around me automatically started singing the songs.  It runs at the Eccles Theater until Nov. 20.

Note:  Jessie Mueller originated the role of Carole King on Broadway (and won a Tony).  I got to see her perform in the original cast of Waitress on Broadway and she was amazing.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Silver Screen Classics: Giant

Wednesdays are becoming my favorite day of the week because I look forward to the Silver Screen Classics movie all day.  Giant, the selection that I saw last night, is a movie that I've wanted to see for a long time because it is widely regarded as one of Elizabeth Taylor's best performances and it is the final film James Dean completed before he was killed in a car accident.  It is an epic generational saga about a Texas rancher named Jordan Benedict (Rock Hudson), his fiery wife Leslie (Taylor), and his rival Jett Rink (Dean).  I have to admit that this film is not at all what I was expecting.  I thought it was a romance involving a love triangle between the three central characters but, while there is definitely a rivalry between Benedict and Rink, it is more about tradition (the cattle barons) vs. progress (the nouveau-riche oil tycoons) and there is a major subplot about the racism of Texans towards Mexican Americans (it is odd to me that Texans praised this film when it was released).  I also have to admit that I didn't entirely like Dean in this film.  I had certain preconceived notions about Dean's persona as a "rebel without a cause" but his performance is completely overwrought and his delivery is oftentimes unintelligible (although Rink's discovery of oil is an incredibly iconic scene).  I'm not really sure what the big deal is about his portrayal (other than the fact that his life was cut tragically short after this role).  I would, however, agree with the critics and say that this is, indeed, one of Taylor's best performances.  Her portrayal of Leslie is both spirited and sensitive and I sometimes think that her turbulent personal life overshadowed her talent as an actress.  This movie is starkly beautiful with incredible shots of the vast and empty Texan plains and I loved the Victorian mansion which is seemingly in the middle of nowhere.  Even though it was not what I was expecting, I'm glad that I finally had a chance to see this classic film.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Auckland

Auckland is the largest city in New Zealand and I had less than a day to explore it!
On our drive into the city, we stopped at the Michael Joseph Savage monument.  Savage was the first Labour Prime Minister of New Zealand and he is known as one of the best and most revered Prime Ministers in the country.  It was a lovely park.  Then we headed to our hotel, which was in a prime location.  The locals say that if you want to play, you turn right and head to the Sky Tower and the casino, and if you want to pray, you turn left and head to St. Patrick's Cathedral.  I did both during my short time in Auckland.
I decided to play first and headed to the Sky Tower.  I went up to the observation deck for some spectacular views of the city and the harbour and to watch people base jumping from the top!
After playing, I decided that I had better pray so I made a stop at St. Patrick's Cathedral and got there just in time to hear mass.  I hadn't been to a mass since I was in Lithuania a few years ago and it was lovely.  The priest thanked God for allowing Wellington to beat South Africa in rugby the night before!
Cathedral Square was a great place for people watching.  You can see the Sky Tower behind the cathedral.
I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon down by the waterfront and imagine my delight when I found the iconic "Red Fence" along Captain Cook Wharf on Quay Street!  Look at those amazing lamp posts!
I found this lovely lamp post near the Ferry Building.
I decided to walk up Queen Street, the main shopping area of Auckland, to look at the beautiful Victorian buildings and found some more amazing lamp posts!
After wandering around Queen Street, I went back to the hotel for our farewell dinner and just like that my adventure Down Under was over! I got on a plane to come back to the United States (and start school shortly thereafter) the next morning!  You can read all about my adventures:  Melbourne, Alice Springs, The Kangaroo Sanctuary, Sunrise Ballooning in the Outback, Uluru, The Great Barrier Reef, Kuranda Rainforest, Sydney Harbour Cruise, Sydney, Whale Watching, The Beautiful South Island of New Zealand, Milford SoundLOTR Tour,  and Hobbiton.
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