Archive for January, 2008

Theater Review (NYC): Glimpses of the Moon at the Oak Room in the Algonquin Hotel

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

Glimpses of the Moon is a new but charmingly old-fashioned “jazz age musical.” Based on a novel by Edith Wharton, it was written specifically for the Algonquin Hotel’s famous Oak Room. As soon as we hear composer John Mercurio’s first, Gershiwinian piano chords and see Lisa Zinni’s authentic-looking costumes, we settle comfortably into the 1920s, and the bright-eyed cast and almost Wodehouse-like plot do nothing to dispel the spell.

A musical comedy of manners, Glimpses tells a jaunty little story that’s very specific to its time. In the Roaring Twenties, divorce was newly acceptable. almost fashionable, and women in particular were beginning to wriggle out of some of the chains of social convention. Susy Branch (Xanadu‘s Patti Murin) and the perfectly named Nick Lansing (Stephen Plunkett, with Michael Minarek taking over on Feb. 19) are moneyless social climbers who’ve attached themselves rather precariously to high society. Their scheme, to marry for convenience and live off their pricey wedding gifts until they can find wealthy “real” spouses, intersects with the lives of their high-living friends, who include Streffy, a British fop with little money but a handy property in Maine, and Ellie and Nelson Vanderlyn, a rich older couple with a New York City brownstone and a Newport mansion.

Glimpses of the Moon

If you’re envisioning elaborate sets, stop. There are no sets, not even a stage, just a small space in front of the piano. The Oak Room is a cabaret supper club, not a theater. This is pointed up during the number “Right Here, Right Now,” set at the Oak Room itself (of 1922) and sung by a different guest performer at each show. (Last night it was KT Sullivan; Susan Lucci and Joyce DeWitt are among those coming up.)

Director Marc Bruni uses the small central space and the room’s shape cleverly, keeping the action tightly controlled and more or less intelligible, though those seated at the far ends of the room may have missed some of the lyrics during the faster sections. In general the actors’ unamplified voices carried Tajlei Levis’s witty lyrics loudly enough, which is important, for they are sharp and precise, with occasionally Cowardly turns of phrase.

Ms. Murin is sweetly disarming as Susy. Her Disney-perfect voice contrasts nicely with the knowing alto of Beth Glover, who steals many scenes as the riper Ellie. Ellie’s social independence takes a hard-hearted form, but she gets the funniest lines, particularly in the hilarious number “Letters to Nelson.” For his part, the clueless Nelson (Daren Kelly) makes much of the show’s one ultimately sad development, in “Tell Her I’m Happy.” Mr. Plunkett, as Nick, is suitably unprepossessing, but it is the scholarly young swain’s celebration of the Vanderlyns’ Newport manse as the perfect place to get started writing his novel that sets the story’s moral conflict in motion.

Algonquin Hotel, EntranceAct II opens with a comical boating accident that suddenly makes the dandyish Streffy into the Earl he’s always pined to be, giving Mr. Peters, who plays him with an intense, absurd, and very funny grace, the opportunity to bring down the house with “Terrible News.” A shopping scene in B. Altman’s has Ellie make the ambitious but stuffy Coral over into a more glamorous creature, the better to make off with Nick. I suspect you’re beginning to get the picture.The Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel

Mr. Mercurio interprets his own music on the piano. He has collaborated before with Ms. Levis, and the partnership results in songs that trip lightly through the ears – and, to some degree, the eras. The chords and rhythms evoke jazz age music, but big sustained vocal blasts at climactic moments suggest modern-day, corporate Broadway. Though designed for this limited space, the show could certainly do well in a bigger setting. But the elegant, dark-paneled Oak Room suits the show’s jazz age finery just fine.

Through March 10, Mondays only. For tickets, visit the show’s website or call (212) 419-9331.

Some Other Place

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Get your Whisperado here! This post is showing off a playlist of our CD Some Other Place using the Last.fm playlist widget.

Theater Review (NYC): Fabrik

Wednesday, January 23rd, 2008

After an extensive run through Norway, where it originated, a powerful little piece of theater called Fabrik, subtitled The Legend of M. Rabinowitz, has landed in New York City. A historical drama about Norwegian Jews prior to and during the Holocaust, Fabrik is told through puppetry, music, miniatures, and masks, but its power lies in its fusion of crafty stage magic with a near-minimalist – dare I say Lutheran? – economy of narrative.

The Wakka Wakka Ensemble's three talented puppeteers and whip-smart production team present the true story of Moritz Rabinowitz, who immigrated from Poland to Norway in 1911. Starting with very little, he eventually became a prominent businessman with a chain of clothing stores. But he was also a prolific writer of articles attacking anti-Semitism and warning Norwegians about the rise of Hitler. Upon the German invasion of Norway in 1940, Rabinowitz's volubility caused the Nazis to perceive him as the leader of the local Jewish resistance.

Fabrik010This is an edge-of-your-seat production, and waiting to learn whether Moritz will escape the Nazis is the least of the reasons for the suspense. Scenes of commerce, domesticity, battle, singing, dancing, and the play's centerpiece, a lovely and terrifying dream sequence, flow smoothly one into the next, but from moment to moment we almost never know what's coming. In the midst of every kind of theatrical artifice, we are completely swept up in the reality of the story.

This, I know, is a big reason people use puppetry and other distancing techniques. Just as storylines that wouldn't work on a live-action sitcom can feel touching and real on The Simpsons, puppets can create a magical space that frees our minds in a way live actors – because we feel their presence so viscerally – cannot.

Fabrik003The Wakka Wakka Ensemble masterfully employs fabrication to sharpen history's blurry reality, and not only through their puppets and masks, evocative and magnetic as those are. Blasting through a darkened theater, a German spotlight seeks out the puppet-boat on which puppet-Moritz has purchased an attempt at escape to England. The air over the stage has become the water of the harbor merely through sound and the motion of the puppet figures and puppet props. In another scene on another scale, a miniature Nazi ship slides into the miniature town's miniature harbor, and I literally saw the tiny vessel bobbing in the "water," though it wasn't bobbing at all.

A brutal Nazi guard is nothing but a pair of boots – no more is needed. A murderous-looking mask stunningly personifies the evil behind the infamous, fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And so on. It feels pedestrian and a little bit wrong to even be picking out such moments, since the play is so seamless. Indeed, the production itself felt like such a team effort that the printed program's failure to list which ensemble members were the actual puppeteers, and the identities of all of the many characters they portrayed, seemed not just okay but appropriate. But I hope they give you a sense of Fabrik's many small marvels, and of why it is well worth seeing.

Through Feb. 17 at Urban Stages Theatre, 259 W. 30 St., NYC. Tickets online at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Photo captions: 1. THE RABINOWITZ FAMILY, l to r, JOHANNA (wife), EDITH (daughter) and MORITZ. 2. MORITZ RABINOWITZ facing boots and DAVID ARKEMA. Photo credit: Nordland Visual Theatre

Theater Review (NYC): Wanda’s World

Monday, January 21st, 2008

Aimed at “the tween in all of us,” the brash, sparkling new musical Wanda’s World lives up to its billing splendidly. Director-choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett fashions Beth Falcone’s rock and pop-inspired tunes into a series of colorful song-and-dance numbers that tug the ear, delight the eye, and yank you through the story in spite of yourself.

It’s a story with universal kid appeal, including for the kids who still live inside adults. Thirteen-year-old Wanda, played by a petite firecracker named Sandie Rosa, has a rich imaginative life: she stars in her own TV show, but only in her bedroom, attended solely by her loyal dog Spangles (Chris Vettel). In real life, Wanda is starting at a new school and terrified of not making any friends. An additional, more unusual problem magnifies her fears, and things look grim when we’re introduced to the cliquey kids she’s going to be thrown in with.

A number called “She’s So Last Week” exemplifies the show’s cleverness, as the popular girls quiz Wanda on what bands she likes and so forth. Putting on a friendly front, cheerleader Jenny Hightower (Jennifer Bowles) undercuts the newcomer with every other line. Meanwhile, football star and straight-A heartthrob Ty Belvedere (the superb tenor James Royce Edwards) is running for class president. In his number “What’s Not to Like?” he extols his own perfect virtues while allowing a peek at the good heart inside. When jealous P.J. Dunbar (Leo Ash Evens) prods Wanda and her videocamera to pursue Ty to his house for a post-game interview, a dangerous, if not very original, scheme is afoot.

It’s a feel-good tale that actually makes you feel good, not icky. Encouraged by a pair of sympathetic teachers, played twinkly-eyed by Broadway veteran Valerie Wright and the delightful Mr. Vettel, Wanda’s true talents and social skills emerge. The “villians” get their comeuppance without cruelty, and there’s even a romantic side plot furthered by a couple of charming cups of coffee. Though directed pointedly at “tweens” – kids roughly ten to twelve – the show mostly held the attention of my not-quite-eight year old companion, who “liked the dog” but also, as it turned out later at “how was the show?” time, had followed most of the fairly complex plot and was anxious to relate it.

Wanda's World

The performances are excellent, with not a single weak link. A few colorfully painted pieces of furniture and backdrop video effects create the necessary schoolyard, TV studio, and bedroom sets, while Aaron Spivey’s inventive lighting and Jennifer Caprio’s wonderful costumes are almost supporting characters of their own, especially during the appropriately garish and slightly scary Halloween Dance segment. Only a small technical problem with one of the microphones (and the small stage) reminded us that we weren’t seeing a full-on Broadway production.

Speaking of Broadway, Wanda’s World is rather long for a one-act; it would take only a modest expansion to turn it into a two-act fit for the Broadway stage. It has all the ingredients. The spoken scenes – written by Eric H. Weinberger, who cooked up the story with Ms. Falcone – are just long enough to advance the plot and give us needed breathers between the highly energized musical numbers. And the limber cast delivers it all with kid-friendly, enlarged realism.

The music itself relies on kicked-up but fluid modern rock arrangements of a fairly small number of easy-to-grasp themes. It’s not easy to write and arrange music that seems to effortlessly balance simplicity and fun with originality and musical literacy. Ms. Falcone, with musical director Douglas Oberhamer, has done so.

In short, this romp of a show is a pure delight, appropriate for any but the smallest children, and for any adult with a yen for fun. Wanda’s World, presented by Amas Musical Theatre, plays through Feb. 10 at the 45th Street Theatre, 354 W. 45 St., NYC. Tickets at Theatermania or call (212) 352-3101.

Theater Review (NYC): North at La Mama

Sunday, January 20th, 2008

Ready for something different? North is a different kind of show, and that's appropriate, as it's the creation of Heather Christian, a different kind of singer.

Neither a drama nor a musical, North consists of an hour of music on a white-decked stage, with several dance segments, a shadow puppet number, and striking, if unexplained, visual and sonic imagery. Ms. Christian's band of musician-dancers, the Arbornauts, first enter, marionette-like, amid a series of blackouts, and the songspiel begins with Ms. Christian playing Chopin on a grand piano, which leads into a beautiful song by The Decemberists called "The Engine Driver."

Here it becomes apparent that Ms. Christian – in the most general sense, a singer-songwriter – is fundamentally a voice fetishist. Like pop singer Regina Spektor but to a much greater extreme, she makes her voice a self-referential and autoerotic object rather than an instrument through which thoughts and feelings are expressed. The expression here, the drama, is in the musical arrangements and the staging.

Whether the star's alternately breathy, nasal, infantilized, and heavily vibrating vocalizations strike you as interesting or annoying will determine to a great extent how much you enjoy the avant-garde entertainment she has devised. The songs themselves, some her own and some covers, are set with sometimes lovely, sometimes howling, occasionally bewildering arrangements and in some cases, curiously alluring choreography and evocative video. The snowy, angelic, dreamy, outlandish costumes and white-clad set suggest a winter landscape; there is a recurring theme of an airline flight; and the order of the songs feels vaguely meaningful. But otherwise the cantata has no story.

Ms. Christian's own piano-based compositions tend to be sparely written art songs and mood pieces that climax dramatically. The other four musicians play trumpet, clarinet, violin, electric guitar, melodica, and drums, and despite some out-of-tune playing (intentional? I couldn't tell) the impassioned builds are very effective. Set among the singer's own compositions are an assortment of classical and pop covers (Debussy, the Beatles), which carry most of the musical hooks.

For many singer-songwriters, it's dangerous to place your own compositions among recognized masterworks for fear they'll suffer by comparison. But here the atmospheric staging and the strange vocalizing take some of the burden off the songs themselves, and we are left with an impression that we have witnessed a sensational event while half-asleep or drugged. North continues through Feb. 2 at La Mama.

Best. TV Show. Ever.

Wednesday, January 16th, 2008

I have seen the past, present, and future of television. I have seen the ultimate and fundamental raison d’être for the invention of cathode ray tube technology and its modern successors. In short, I have seen the greatest TV show ever created: Shimmy, which airs Tuesday nights at 8 PM (ET and PT) on FitTV.

Turn on this show and you will be (if female) drawn to get up and start gyrating along with the dancers’ belly-dancing moves, or (if male) unable to lower your eyes from the humming sensuality on the screen or shut out the soothing yet energizing music.

If Shimmy doesn’t change your life in 30 minutes, I will gladly refund the money you paid to read this blog entry. With interest.

Staggering

Monday, January 14th, 2008

I turn 45 this month and I am glad to be the age that I am. In those four and a half decades I’ve been amazed to observe staggering changes in the world. Although technology will continue to advance rapidly, and today’s children will see many changes in their lifetimes, the world may not again change in such a fundamental way. I say that because we have crossed a very significant line: the digital line, which has enabled an unprecedented level of interconnectedness.

The next leap will be to a “firmament of all knowledge” that will provide something approaching telepathy. That may be some decades off, and catastrophe could intervene to prevent it. So it’s possible that the digital line will be the last really major techno-social line we will cross for a very long time.

Since 1963 we’ve gone from…

  • 8-tracks, LPs, and cassettes to CDs, MP3s, iTunes, and Bittorrent (i.e. analog to digital)
  • Cold War, the American Century, and American untouchability to a borderless Europe, 9-11, and American decline
  • Nixon, Humphrey, and McGovern to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and Mitt Romney
  • Moon landings and oil rigs to nanotechnology and spooky action at a distance

And in the month that I turn 45, I am setting a personal record for playing gigs with the most different bands ever in one month: five. How we get recorded music may have changed, but people still want to play it live and hear it live. I suspect live music will remain a fairly recession-proof business. No matter how high the seas rise.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – American World Edition

Saturday, January 12th, 2008

American world? Sure. This week we feature music from artists who, although based in the US, make music that breaks boundaries and feels like it’s built from colorful, jagged pieces of the whole world.

Susan Krebs & the Soaring Sextet, Jazz Aviary

A jazz concept album about birds – not Charlie Parker, but actual birds – sounds potentially pretentious, or precious, or both. But this disc, from singer Susan Krebs, musical director-pianist Rich Eames, and some ace sidemen, is actually a sweet, sincere, unprepossessing, and lovely set of bird-themed tunes. Most of the tracks could stand alone, but the set also flows together like a flock of – I don’t know – some kind of flocking bird.

There are well-known songs, like “Skylark,” “A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square,” the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” and, in a nod to Bird with a capital B, “Ornithology.” There are more obscure songs, like Abbey Lincoln’s “Bird Alone” and Krebs and Eames’s original, meditative tune “The Peace of Wild Things,” which faintly echoes “‘Round Midnight” and features some beautiful flute playing by Rob Lackart. And there are surprises, like Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “The Lark Ascending,” which the musicians give a reverential, meditative treatment, aided by a string section.

A few tracks feel a little icy and overly careful, but Krebs and Co. hit the mark far more often. One of my favorites is their epic take on Dave Brubeck’s “Strange Meadowlark.” Another is “Bob White” with its herky-jerky rhythms. Krebs is not the most powerful or adventuresome vocalist; she sings with what I think of as a shy artistry with a touch of humor. The latter comes into play, for example, in Hoagy Carmichael’s “Baltimore Oriole,” and in the medley of roots and pop (non-jazz) standards that starts with Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” My biggest beef with jazz vocalists is that they frequently lack a sense of fun. Not so here. The “twinkle” in Krebs’s delivery is an important part of this disc’s appeal. So are the little throwaways – quotes from poems, recorded bird sounds, percussion sound effects – that dot the tracks.

Sample all tracks and purchase the CD at CD Baby.

One World, Share My Love

Here’s a band that wears its heart on its sleeve. One World’s new disc contains an hour of jazzy Latin adult contemporary tracks, touched by rock and funk and soft pop, most sung in English. It’s all very smooth, but loaded with good cheer, and has plenty of melodic hooks and rhythmic bounce to keep you on your toes. There are sad moods (“She Longed For His Love”), but One World’s one world is one world without anger and meanness. Check out some sample tracks from this great party record.

N-Side, Just a broke brotha’ tryin’ to come up!

It’s easy to dig jazz poet N-Side. He’s chill. He’s solid. He speaks his poems as neither an angry young man nor a self-satisfied old one, but as a literary artist. As a result he makes you really pay attention to his lyrics. “People wait for me to get fed up, frustrated – hate-filled with aggression, preparing myself to throw down. / But those folks rich in spirit have taught me force isn’t needed to keep this prize called knowledge around.” N’s poems – some rhyming, some more freeflowing and prosy, but all engaged with the complete human experience – are backed by Ricardo Love’s nu-soul grooves and organic hip-hop beats decorated with small splashes of jazz. (Two tracks are by Russell Case.)

The tracks rest in easy grooves that match the poet’s calm intensity as he talks to people we can’t see or hear but whom he makes us envision clearly. “Someone said… they had no culture here and neither did I… ‘Can you lay claim to an original thought of your own?’ / I loaded up with all the names that I was about to call him: sellout, racist, double agent, cultural perpetrator, antebellum negro, no-risk vicarious activist… but I didn’t say a word… finally I… realized once again, I was talking to myself. / Hopefully these type of conversations will change, and not be taken so personally.”

Deep and useful stuff. Sample all tracks and purchase the CD at CD Baby.

Finally, here’s a pic of Stratospheerius, the “full-on electro-fiddle-trip-funk” band whose CD I reviewed back in July. They rocked the legendary Bitter End last night with an all-too-short early set.

stratospheerius_500

It’s good to know that some things, like the Bitter End’s tiny bathrooms, never change. But electric six-string violinist Joe Deninzon (who was born in St. Petersburg, Russia) leads this most excellent band through some serious rhythmic changes. Is it prog-rock? Jazz fusion? A jam band? Ask the portraits of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell on the walls, I don’t know. A little of each maybe. All I know is it’s kickass. They closed the set with the instrumental “Heavy Shtettle II: Heavier Shtettle.” I said kickass, right?

Here’s a bonus shot of drummer Lucianna Padmore in action. She is an even more awesome musician in person than on CD.

stratospheerius_padmore_500

In Which Kenny Vance Calls In from the New Jersey Turnpike

Friday, January 11th, 2008

The other night I had the chance to interview Kenny Vance, a founding member of the seminal group Jay and the Americans and currently leader of Kenny Vance and the Planotones. He was also the music director for American Hot Wax, Animal House, and Saturday Night Live. I had recently reviewed the Planotones’ new CD.

In person Kenny turns out to be a one-man treasure trove of information and perspective on the early rock and roll era (and a really nice guy). You can listen to the whole interview online at BC Radio Live, and/or read excerpts over at Blogcritics. Then pick up the new disc Countdown To Love.

Theater Review (NYC): The Pirates of Penzance

Thursday, January 10th, 2008

The Pirates of Penzance, one of Gilbert & Sullivan's most popular light operas, has just a couple more performances this go-round at City Center, and you ought to catch it if you can. Dazzling staging and choreography, superb singing, and an emphasis on rich, zany humor add up to an exhilarating evening for all ages. If you're like me you won't want it to end.

Purists might find a little too much stage business – mugging, gesturing and the like – for their tastes, but if you're a Gilbert & Sullivan "purist" you should probably be going back to chill school anyway. This New York Gilbert & Sullivan Players production is a sheer delight.

The soprano Laurelyn Watson Chase, a NYGASP veteran, brings her fluid coloratura voice and a bright-eyed but knowing wink to the role of Mabel. She's matched in vocal skill and acting warmth by newcomer Colm Fitzmaurice, an operatic tenor who turns out to be a natural for the demanding but relatively "straight" role of Frederic, the "poor wand'ring one" whose devotion to "duty" will lead him anywhere – for or against his own principles.

The cast also includes the very droll Stephen Quint as Major-General Stanley, a Howard Stern-bewigged David Wannen as the boastful but too soft-hearted Pirate King, and the ball-of-fire alto Angela Smith as Ruth, the Pirate Maid-of-all-work. From these leads, down through the featured performers (like the delightful David Macaluso as the Pirate King's right hand man), all the way to the least-featured company members, the entire cast flounces and leaps about Lou Anne Gilleland's imaginative set, in Gail J. Wofford's fanciful costumes, with what seems the greatest of ease. In fact the whole production is made to look easy, which it assuredly is not.

This is no doubt due in part to the company's long experience. Some of these performers have been with NYGASP for a quarter of a century. Almost all have considerable Gilbert & Sullivan experience. And it shows.

There are just two more performances of NYGASP's Pirates of Penzance at City Center this winter season. (It is playing in repertory through January 13.) For tickets visit the City Center website or call (212) 581-1212.

Holiday Games

Saturday, January 5th, 2008

The holidays are all about being someone you’re not. They say that about Halloween, but since I’m usually hiding at home during Halloween, the winter holiday season does just as well. Here I am at the Central Park Blockhouse on Christmas Day. The year is 1812, and I am defending New York City from the British.
blockhouse

These ducks (also in Central Park) are pretending to be all nonchalant, but they know I am taking their picture.
ducks_centralpark

Unaware of the danger, these revelers enjoy a game of Drink Pong at Fat Cat, farther downtown in the populated part of the Isle of Manhattan.
pingpong

On New Year’s Eve, the British stage a surprise attack, targeting Prospect Park in Brooklyn rather than the more heavily fortified Central Park. Forced to retreat, the Yanks blow up their munitions depot rather than allow it to fall to the British.
fireworks

Safe and snug in an undisclosed location, civilians enjoy a relaxing game of Pimps and Hos. It’s like Monopoly, only you’re pimps and you buy hos instead of real estate. When someone lands on your ho… you get the picture. Foreground right, with her back to the daguerreotype machine, is the notorious Madame Plumerais, no doubt thinking about her war profits and enjoying a good laugh. (The unidentified woman to the far left may be a British spy.)
pimps_and_hos

When the danger was finally past, we were free to resume our normal activities. Here’s the vastly talented Jud Caswell jud_caswell_bowery performing at the Bowery Poetry Club, where we go for coffee, hard liquor, bawdy music… everything but poetry, really. I purchased Jud’s latest compact disc for one silver ducat – a bargain at any price! Jud came down from the Maine Territories, which, as you probably know, we have just purchased from Canada for forty mules and a ho. So he didn’t even need a passport. Observe how his strumming hand moves so fast you can’t even see it. That’s some north woods mojo right there. meg_braun_bowery I also put down my musket long enough to pick up my bass lute and play this gig backing up Meg Braun. I have it on good authority that Meg has “buzz.” She is, you might say, the Barack Obama of the folk music scene.

That’s all for now. I must put down my quill and try to get some sleep, to ready myself for tomorrow’s battle. Word is that the British invasion may really be all about targeting our singer-songwriters. In the morning I’ll try to hit up Madame Plumerais for information. If I succeed I’ll pass it along via pigeon. If not, well… it’s been pleasant being an atheist in this foxhole with you.