Archive for January, 2010

Music Review: Matt Morris – When Everything Breaks Open

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Matt Morris is a strong and unusually thoughtful pop singer-songwriter who is entirely unafraid to put his heart and soul on the line, and has the talent, intelligence, and pluck to pull it off. The first song pounds out the industrial-sounding refrain: "I told you everything, I swear! / So don't you dare!" "Don't you dare leave" is what we infer the command to mean. And we don't – after this powerful intro it's hard to do anything but give Morris full attention.

He switches gear immediately with "Money," with its moody brassy introduction, jazzy guitar, and silken R&B vocals. "Money ain't the villain / It's greed that's the killer." The subtle reggae beats of the light-as-air "Love" enfold understated, vaguely angelic vocals, while the gorgeous string-fueled "Bloodline," which became a favorite ballad of mine when it appeared on Morris's earlier EP, is here in all its glory, as is "The Un-American," a concise, "Eleanor Rigby"-like polemic against capitalist excess. "Let It Go" is a piano ballad that feels like Beethoven meets "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Morris's falsetto here is little short of divine.

The lesser songs, like "Live Forever" and the James Brown-inspired jam "You Do It For Me," often still have enough pop grit to be worth a listen, though the tough-guy persona of the latter doesn't quite ring true, nor does the Coldplay-like shimmer of "Just Before the Morning." Morris does less well when he adopts derivative styles. And a couple of slow songs near the end of the disc go on too long and feel a bit like filler, despite evocative arrangements and pleasing displays of that killer falsetto.

But the longest song, the nearly eight-minute opus appropriately titled "Eternity," earns its expansiveness with a Biblical evocation of the stretch of human history and mythology. There's a wide gulf between this and the pleasant pop fluffiness of "You Do It For Me" – it feels like we've moved onto a different album, one recorded by, say, a cantor gone batty. The U2-ish bombast of "Forgiveness" works, too, aided by the religious imagery Morris calls upon more than once: "I've broken holy laws, and I wept beneath her cross / I've cried for what's been lost, and for all that I've done." Far from crying, Morris can be very proud of what he's done. Do check it out.

Theater Review (Boston): [title of show]

Saturday, January 23rd, 2010

[title of show], the little musical that referenced itself all the way to a 2008 Broadway run, is enjoying a solid New England premiere in a SpeakEasy Stage production at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Originally, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book) played themselves in the process of creating, revising, expanding, and taking to ever-greater heights the show itself, with the help of two actress friends. The self-referentiality is constant and provides much of the meat of the show: ("Susan, you're quiet." "Well, I didn't have a line until now"…"It's OK, Larry, we worked it out with the union so you can talk.") Cute, clever, and different, the show also boasted some of the best theatrical lyric writing that's come along in a while, along with much comedy, many (perhaps a couple too many) in-jokes, and, mercifully, almost no schmaltz.

Does the show work outside the city of its birth? This production proves that it can. The struggle to create something new, to express oneself, and to touch people is universal; New York just happens to be a place with an unusually large concentration of people with an inexplicable desire to do so through theater.

Happily, the Boston version has two gifted musical comedy performers at its center. Jordan Ahnquist and Joe Lanza furrow and shimmy their way through a lighthearted yet soulful dramatization of friendship and the creative process, with agility, panache, and musicality. Both have the ability to command the stage without hamming (though Mr. Lanza is a more than credible ham when he wants to be).

Val Sullivan and Amy Barker as Susan and Heidi give the boys a run for their money in grace and charm (and acting chops). Their voices, though, especially Ms. Barker's, were on the weak side; perhaps it was an amplification or monitoring issue, but there were also some intonation problems during four-part harmony sections. These flaws marred a few of the musical numbers a bit. However, Ms. Sullivan milked the wackiness of her role to very funny effect, and Ms. Barker sparkled in her more straightforward part. And the sterling, deadpan work of music director Will McGarragan, behind the piano as Larry, shouldn't go unmentioned either.

It's not an especially long show, but it feels a little pudgy around the middle to me. I found myself growing a little impatient with how quotidian it gets at times. The whole concept is that it's a show about the trials, tribulations, and details of producing a show, right down to the filling out of forms; but these bouts of musicalized realism now and then interrupted the dramatic arc of the story, such as it is, and grew a tiny bit tiresome.

Nonetheless, overall it's a delightful evening of theater, with loads of energy, sprightly staging by director Paul Daigneault, smart and boisterous choreography by David Connolly, and very well-executed technicals, including impressive sound (Aaron Mack) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) and Seághan McKay's perfectly timed projections. Most of all, the whole cast, and especially the two brilliant leads, take us on a joyful, funny, and refreshing ride.

[title of show] runs through Feb. 13 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Ticket prices vary; visit the website or call 617-933-8600.

Photo: Todd H. Page

Theater Review (Boston): The Good Negro by Tracey Scott Wilson

Monday, January 18th, 2010

That’s right: Boston. I’m here for three months, four days a week or so, working as an editor at Book of Odds. So of course I’m taking the opportunity to check out some Boston theater. And I can't think of too many better ways to celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we observed this past weekend, than to attend a performance of Tracey Scott Wilson's critically acclaimed The Good Negro. This also happened to be the opening weekend of the play's Boston premiere. It's the first play I've seen in Boston since my time here in the dimly remembered 1980s, but if it's characteristic of the quality of Boston's homegrown theater, I have a lot to look forward to during my stay in 2010.

After its critically acclaimed run at the Public Theater in New York last year, this award-winning exploration of the Civil Rights movement focused well-deserved attention on its author. The new, debut production in this even more northern city, with its own racially charged history, bodes well for the 2010 season of Company One, a resident troupe at the Boston Center for the Arts, where a full house greeted the play on Saturday night with whoops and cheers even before the performance had begun.

The audience's high hopes were not misplaced. This is a solid production of a very good play, brought to life by an excellent cast. It succeeds in humanizing the civil rights leaders who too often appear in history books as pure angels of perseverance and moral clarity. For example, it's fairly well known today that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a philanderer, but here we witness Rev. James Lawrence (the charismatic Jonathan L. Dent) – roughly based on Dr. King – struggling in a very human way with this major character flaw even as he doggedly pursues his vision of equality and freedom for his people.

It's 1962, and after unsuccessful attempts to galvanize the Movement in several other cities, Rev. Lawrence has arrived in Birmingham, Alabama, "the most segregated city in America," with his lieutenant, the emotional minister Henry Evans (the impressive Cliff Odle). They're joined by a newcomer, Bill Rutherford (Cedric Lilly), just arrived from Europe and something of a dandy. Though out of touch with the daily struggles and religious zeal of blacks in the American South, Rutherford brings badly needed organizational skills, so the three do their best to get along, with volatile and often humorous results. Concisely handled in the script, this interplay provides an important strand of the drama, focusing attention on the highly imperfect natures of the civil rights leaders who became legends.

One thing the leaders must find is a "good Negro" – a figurehead victim of racial injustice with a spotless character as well as a moving story. In Birmingham they encounter Claudette Sullivan, beaten and arrested for allowing her four-year-old daughter to use a whites-only bathroom. Not only is Claudette tossed in jail, the little girl too spends hours in lockup. Educated, well-spoken, living a quiet life without troublesome associations or activities, Claudette (the quietly dignified Marvelyn McFarlane) seems perfect. Unfortunately her husband Pelzie (the superbly smoldering James Milord) isn't at all keen on subjecting himself and his family to the murderous dangers of the spotlight, and with very good reason.

All this takes place under the watchful eyes (actually the electronic ears) of two FBI agents, who bug the Movement's offices and enlist the prejudiced but not entirely unreasonable Tommy Rowe (the excellent Greg Maraio) to infiltrate the local KKK, hoping to head off any violence. They also do everything they can to impugn the characters of the civil rights leaders, leading to a powerful confrontation between the philandering Lawrence and his sturdy wife, Corinne (the very fine Kris Sidberry) – but also, ironically, to shocking violence. It comes in a masterly stroke of surprise, and we spend the play's last few scenes aquiver.

Boston area theatergoers have a great way to start their year and this well-acted, well-directed production deserves attention beyond the Martin Luther King Day celebration. If you're in the area, don't miss it.

The Good Negro runs through Feb. 6 at the Boston Center for the Arts.

Cabaret Review: The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies with Jessica Medoff and Michael Bunchman

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Like the prose poem, the art song can seem a neglected foster child. A song but not a pop song, it typically has the musical sophistication and seriousness we associate with the great traditions of classical and romantic music, but its subject matter can be frothy as well as fiery, humorous as easily as heavy. But American composers like Aaron Copland and Charles Ives are generally better known for instrumental or choral works than for their art songs, while even many classical music lovers may not know Franz Schubert's stunning song cycle Winterreisse, an important progenitor of the genre.

Soprano Jessica Medoff, the fabulous Sorceress in Purcell's opera Dido and Aeneas a year ago, showcased another side of her ability in The Truth About Love…and the Usual Lies. Weaving art songs and show tunes together, she and her husband, the very talented pianist Michael Bunchman, presented a song cycle of their own on the inexhaustible subject of love. While I know a bit about art songs, something about musical theater, and even some Schubert, I cheerfully admit I didn't recognize many of the selections. Cheerfully because it made the show edifying as well as enjoyable. I wasn't familiar with Copland's settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and here was the lovely "Heart we will forget him." I didn't know the American composer William Bolcom's witty ditty "Toothbrush Time" – here it was. Another revelation: Jason Robert Brown's "Stars and the Moon."

A highlight for me was Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny," a hyper-passionate wail that can really take the measure of a singer; Ms. Medoff was all over that thing like a hungry lioness. "I Don't Care Much" from Cabaret was equally intense in a quieter way. To lighten the mood we had the very funny "Taylor the Latte Boy" together with its answer, "Taylor's Response" (sung artfully by Mr. Bunchman from the piano). The overrated Avenue Q has given us one lasting tune, the plaintively sweet "There's a Fine, Fine Line," sung by Ms. Medoff with understated sensitivity.

One remarkable thing about the show is the two performers' seamless connection; it's as if they can read each others' minds, piano and voice flowing together in perfect sympathy. This makes just about any song they perform something more than the sum of its parts. It reminded me of seeing a longstanding piano trio or string quartet, or a singing group consisting of siblings – a conductorless ensemble breathing together as if one creature. During the quietest passages the piano occasionally drowned out the voice, but this was not the performers' fault. The operatically-trained Ms. Medoff has a finely calibrated control, equally steady from pianissimo to fortissimo, and the program showed off her range without going overboard. The purpose wasn't to impress (or didn't come across that way), but to amuse and delight, and maybe introduce us to some unfamiliar but very worthwhile material. And that it did.

The duo has put together a few such cabaret cycles. If you have an opportunity to see this one, or anything else they do, grab it!