Archive for March, 2010

Theater Review (Boston): Adding Machine: A Musical at Speakeasy Stage

Friday, March 26th, 2010

My sojourn in Boston has given me, not for the first time, the opportunity to see a show that was well-received in a major New York production that I missed. So, while I can't compare Speakeasy's production of Adding Machine: A Musical to the multi-award-winning New York version, I can say that it's a demanding, rewarding, complex, beautiful piece of work. It's graced with a marvelous cast and a rich depth of talent, from the musicians and costumes to the lighting and sound and everything in between.

Basing their work on Elmer Rice's Expressionist play from 1923, creators Joshua Schmidt and Jason Loewith have accomplished a number of things with Adding Machine: A Musical. One is solving the puzzle of how to put numbers into song with style. Schmidt, a skilled sound designer as well as a composer, sets the tone with the prologue and its precision timing. The cast hammers through a day in the life of a retailer's accounting department circa 1923 with robotic determination but all-too-human frustration.

"In numbers," goes the message, "the mystery of life can be revealed." Full of difficult intervals and polyrhythms, the music crescendos to a nightmarish peak; then, suddenly, all the noise drops away and the focus comes down to two people, a bean-counter and sagging Everyman named Zero (Brendan McNab), and his assistant, the comely but slightly blowsy Daisy.

And then Mr. Zero comes home, where he silently endures the chatter and criticism of his frustrated wife, whose plaint, "I want to go downtown," epitomizes her clotted dissatisfaction with her constricted middle-class life. Amelia Broome delivers the intricately metered quasi-operatic number in spectacular fashion. This is difficult music but she, along with the rest of the cast, makes it look easy throughout. Away from the wife, Zero is relieved: "I dream in figures/They don't ask questions of me." It doesn't hurt that Schmidt and Loewith have crafted Rice's original words into melodies and meters that seem to pulse and rise and fall with the rhythm of thought, even when those thoughts are about the comfort of numbers.

The music doesn't always follow the rhythms of natural speech, however, and that too is fitting. In an Expressionist piece, traditional plot and naturalistic dialogue are often sacrificed so that the characters may express their psychologies more directly, closer to the heart, if less "realistically." And the psychologies of these people are frightfully disturbed. Everything about the production mirrors the psychosocial difficulties of the times, so much like ours, in which "profit is the ultimate goal." New ways of thinking and measuring were replacing the old – symbolized by the adding machine of the title, which, as it happens, is putting Mr. Zero out of a job.

I looked back into history and was surprised to realize that Rice's original play predates both Fritz Lang's classic Expressionist film Metropolis and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, not to mention Sartre's No Exit. Unlike some machine age classics, The Adding Machine has humor, preserved here in a number of scenes, easing the grimness of the tale. But like them, it's no walk in the park. In fact there's not a touch of green anywhere (and no sign of the existence of any children). From the ghastly red and white stripes of the cold opening to the featureless white of the afterlife, nothing has warmth and true meaning, except numbers, which can't love you back. Only in Daisy's blooming name – Daisy Dorothea Devore, in full – is there any promise of life.

But a name isn't enough; brazen violence is the only way Zero can escape his soul-numbing predicament. Two of the other main characters also use extreme measures to break free, including Shrdlu (the intense and golden-voiced John Bambery), a passionate young man Zero meets in prison. A suffocating piety was Shrdlu's own pre-prison prison, and he has thought long and hard about right and wrong, but nothing gets decided here.

On trial for his own crime, Zero cries out in stark melody, "I'm like anyone else/What would you do?" There's no adequate answer, and he gets none. Yet when confronted with something that looks like salvation, and even love, he's overcome by disgust and rejects the existential "freedom" on offer and its embodiment in love in the person of Daisy (the wonderful Liz Hayes, who, incidentally, does a fabulous working-class Barbra Streisand).

In 1984, Orwell's lovers Winston and Julia are doomed by the police state; but Rice's Zero and Daisy get clobbered by Zero's own misguided conscience. In a way it's even more sad. Frustration seems to await no matter what, and in the powerful climactic scene, a lurid assembly line of souls offers, again, no way out.

Somehow, through the magic of theater, this bleak and barren story becomes an astonishingly refreshing and rewarding experience. Beautifully acted and sung, and sensitively directed by Paul Melone, with music brilliantly performed by a band of three led by pianist Steven Bergman, it's a triumph. Don't miss it. It runs through April 10 at the Boston Center for the Arts. Visit the Speakeasy Stage website for tickets, or call the box office at 617-933-8600.

Photos by Mark L. Saperstein.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Fight the Quiet, John Milstead, Tolstrup & Haskell

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Fight the Quiet, Let Me In

Having joined the iPod generation, I often lose track of bands' promotional materials, not to mention their physical CDs with those informative inserts (assuming I had them in the first place). There's something to be said for having no preconceived notions, though. As I write this, I know nothing about how Fight the Quiet see themselves. Certainly, slick pop-rock describes them fairly. But did they intend an homage to 1970's arena rock?

If so, they've succeeded, and very well, thanks first to catchy songs and second to high, clear lead vocals (imagine Dennis DeYoung with a slight scratchy edge). The first song on this six-track EP, the title track, actually sounds like it could be one of the better efforts of one of those dinosaur bands. The contemplative "Won't Let Go" has a more modern edge, with shimmery verses alternating with power-chord choruses and wedged around a bridge highlighted by a deliberately retro synth.

"Sway" inches towards a moderate punk beat, with a straight-ahead structure and melody that wouldn't have been out of place in the age of T. Rex, though the icy-dirty guitar attack would have, as would the nod to Aerosmith in the bridge and coda. Overall the tracks have a fresh, youthful appeal, whatever decade(s) they take their inspiration from. Solid songwriting is still Number One in this business, and these guys have it. Making a memorable hook out of the tired (though still resonant) phrase "Here's looking at you," as they do in the closing track, is no mean trick.

John Milstead, Sides of the Soul

Here's a well-produced album with solid (if sometimes a little overly derivative) musical ideas, excellent vocals, and one main flaw: weak lyrics. Song after song starts promisingly only to fade under the weight of words that don't flow, and tend to drag down the melodies with them. A couple of songs break out, notably "Your Crime" (the "hardest" track on this ballad-heavy disc) and the decidedly hooky "Got This Love Thing." There and in numerous other tracks one can hear a strong thread of Marc Broussard-like soul. Milstead is capable of jazzy phrasing, like Van Morrison with clearer diction, and owns a strong high tenor that soars into Michael Bolton territory when he wants it to; listening to him sing is an unadulterated pleasure. The ballad "Easy Goodbye," for example, goes down easy for that reason. Raising the level of his material a notch could lift Milstead into pretty exalted territory.

Mark Tolstrup & Dale Haskell, Street Corner Holler

These two bluesmen make an excellent pairing, like a smooth but hearty wine with a comfort-food dinner. Drummer Haskell's country-rock vocals complement Tolstrup's more laid-back country-blues style; together they've produced an album of mostly basic but satisfyingly varied blues, their electric songs and acoustic numbers equally rough and fundamental. The haunting rendition of Skip James's "Hard Time Killin' Floor" is a highlight. Others are Tolstrup's simple folk ballad "City in the Rain," and Haskell's "Death Don't Disappoint Me" which brings to mind the lyrical songs of Beaucoup Blue. In both originals and covers (including an effective and surprising "It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry") Tolstrup and Haskell strike an effective balance between their own expressive creativity and reverence for what made the blues the powerful medium it is, still. Wailing backing vocals from the fabulous Mother Judge are the icing on the cake.

Theater Review: Happy in the Poorhouse

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

Playwright/director Derek Ahonen and the Amoralists specialize in "going there" – that is, where other troupes usually dare not tread. In Happy in the Poorhouse "there" includes constipation, an unconsummated marriage, a half-infantile little sister, and a fight involving a paraplegic. It also – like Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera sequel – means going to Coney Island.

Fresh off their critically acclaimed (including by this critic) Pied Pipers of the Lower East Side, the Amoralists have picked up and re-settled in Coney, where pugilist Paulie "The Pug" (James Kautz), an over-30 would-be pro fighter trying to make ends meet as a bouncer, and his wife of eight months, Mary (Sarah Lemp), are preparing to welcome home Paulie's old buddy Petie "The Pit," who is also Mary's ex-husband, from the war in Afghanistan.

Ahonen is very skilled at writing characters and dialogue that are larger and louder than life yet reflect with an awkward accuracy the universally recognizable aches and pains of the human heart. In the long opening scene Paulie and Mary hash through their inability to truly unite despite loving each other, a battle with which she's clearly losing patience. And it's not just Paulie's unwillingness to have sex, it's what lies behind it, in both of their pasts.

Paulie: "…it's like I'm thinking of you when we was kids. Back when we was building them forts and hiding from them imaginary bad guys. I'm seeing you at six…skipping around on the pogo stick across the street. That's when I first knew I loved you…"

And shortly thereafter:

Mary: "The only reason I don't wander around with the lustful eyes is because I know it will destroy your sad heart and I'm a good person who don't want to see your cookies crumble down the fire escape."

This is Ahonen at his best, and he has two fiery actors making it all shine.

Now, "going there" is all very well. Pied Pipers went where it went with enough focus to sustain itself. Happy in the Poorhouse, though, goes too many places. It has a lot of fun getting there, with memorable characters, much humor, and the kind of elevated working-class writing, self-conscious yet honestly poetic, that marks this playwright as a writer of great talent, and an evident nostalgia for the unsubtle big style of writers of the 1930's. And the troupe is up to the challenge of living his words, allowing the writing to transform their bodies into giants: often shouting, often laughable and stereotyped and overcooked, but acutely touching in the way the best cartoon characters can be.

What's missing – not throughout, but for significant stretches of both acts – is focus. More characters pile on, announcing themselves with overdone aria-like bombast, and some seem to be there just for local color. Rochelle Mikulich is delightful as Paulie's country-singer little sis, and Matthew Pilieci deserves notice as Mary's preening mailman brother. But the structure feels imposed, the flow uneven.

The satisfying ending and the attention-grabbing fun on the way there make this, on balance, a show I can recommend, but with distinct reservations. Happy in the Poorhouse runs through April 5 at Theatre 80 St. Marks, NYC. Visit that Theatre 80 St. Marks website for tickets.

Photo by Larry Cobra

Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon Times

Wednesday, March 17th, 2010

Music Review: Jason & the Scorchers – Halcyon TimesJason & the Scorchers don't have to look back; they've been the genuine article since the early 1980's, and have the Americana Music Association's Lifetime Achievement Award to prove it. Opening with a half-crazed two-step about a "moonshine guy in a six-pack world," their new disc – their first of new material since 1996, hard to believe as that may be – barrels through the glorious clichés of country-rock like they weren't clichés at all.

Backed by a crack new rhythm section, founding Scorchers Jason Ringenberg and Warner E. Hodges pile layer upon layer of American dreams and nightmares. The wonderful "Beat on the Mountain" speaks of striking miners: "I beat on the mountain/but the mountain don't say a thing." "Mona Lee" hollers like an army of Chuck Berrys, and the band's sense of humor shines in "Fear Not Gear Rot" with its exaggerated freight-train twang and playful lyrics. "Mother of Greed" tangily evokes the immigrant experience and its resonance in later generations.

A spirit of fun and celebration runs through the record despite the presence of such serious themes, even in the epic "Land of the Free" with its portentous beat and clanging guitars and Vietnam War tale. Propped up by killer guitar licks, it's a mini-symphony of rock and roll goodness.

The atmospheric "Twang Town Blues" evokes busted dreams and Music City viciousness, while "Days of Wine and Roses" feels a little like countrified Springsteen meets the Byrds, with a steely midtempo beat and hard-pulled guitar strings. In the hard-driving southern rock number "Better Than This" a superb hook tops off a ropy chromatic guitar riff; if it had come out in the late 1970's the song would be a classic rock hit today. "It gets good but it don't get better than this." So true.

Dan Baird provides guest vocals on the stripped-down country number "When Did It Get So Easy (To Lie to Me)." Hard to say just how or when it got that way – where the magic comes from, that is – but Jason & the Scorchers make everything sound easy on this scorcher of a disc, even making a good go of youthfully snotty country-punk in the final track.

Here's a video of the band performing "Mona Lee" live.

Theater Review: Glee Club by Matthew Freeman

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

With the popularity of Fox's TV show Glee, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that a "glee club" traditionally meant an all-male choir (often based at a college) singing witty arrangements of pop and traditional songs, chorus-style (i.e. without choreography). That's the sort of glee club Matthew Freeman shows us in his new one-act play by that name.

This particular glee club consists of a group of grown men in a small town in Vermont who meet weekly to sing under the leadership of pianist Ben. This club has one thing going for it: an excellent new song, actually written by Stephen Spieghts, who plays Ben, which they're preparing to sing for a group of retirees — one of whom is the club's main financial sponsor. So the stakes are high. The problem: Hank (Tom Staggs), the group's star singer and soloist, has just decided to quit drinking, and it turns out he can sing only when drunk.

It's an absurd but potentially amusing premise. As an increasingly angry Ben tries to lead the group through a rehearsal of the song, he's repeatedly interrupted by his own pickiness and the men having various failures. This first scene has a number of funny bits, some earmarks of a zany ensemble piece to come.

But that impulsive energy screeches to a halt once the men discover and start dealing with Hank's not-drinking problem. The play devolves into a couple of modestly funny jokes stretched over much too long a time. There's lots of yelling and cursing, without the development of character that makes such moments anything but annoying. Yes, we're shown that Mark is going through a bitter divorce, Stan is a milquetoast, and Nick has a mean streak, but not to the point that they earn their moments or our sympathy.  The only really appealing character is Paul (Steven Burns), an apparent serial killer whose chilling non sequiturs always draw a laugh.

The situation makes little sense; for one thing, who'd stay in a community glee club run by such an angry, bitter man as Ben? For another, he keeps stopping the rehearsal to criticize the men for flaws that we, the audience, can't hear; that's funny (or at least telling) once or twice, but fast loses its power to amuse us or drive the story. The actors do their best with the weak material, but little good results besides some isolated funny lines.

On a positive note, the song, though too long in coming, is delightful when we finally hear it. Half earnest and half silly, it perfectly captures the spirited zaniness the script only hints at, and sends us into the street with a happy tune in our hearts.

Glee Club is presented by Blue Coyote and runs at the Access Theater, 380 Broadway, New York, through April 3. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Music Review: Boston Early Music Festival Concert—”The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute”

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

The Boston Early Music Festival has been bringing distinguished performers of early music to Boston audiences for two decades. It also presents Baroque operas, exhibitions, and a well-regarded concert series at the Morgan Library in New York.

A highlight of BEMF's 20th anniversary season was Friday night's concert at the First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, by viola da gamba player Vittorio Ghielmi and lutenist Luca Pianca. The duo have played together for over ten years, and their familiarity with each other and their repertoire makes their playing together quite special; each is a masterful musician on his own, but together they seem to breathe as one organism.

It was a formal event, compared to many of the more freewheeling early music concerts I see in New York, more like a classical chamber music recital than a foot-stomping affair—this despite the relative youth of the audience. (In New York my wife and I, in our forties, are often just about the youngest people there; not so in Cambridge.) Nevertheless Mssrs. Ghielmi and Pianca played with a youthful, if somewhat restrained, brio.

Titled "The Golden Age of the Viola da Gamba and the Lute," the concert traced in more or less chronological order some of the best of the repertoire for these two instruments together and separately, a repertoire which went further into the 18th century than I knew. It opened with probably the most familiar selections, a set of "picture" pieces by French composer Marin Marais. Many people were introduced to this composer and his uncannily beautiful gamba music when Gérard Depardieu played Marais in the 1991 film Tous Les Matins Du Monde (All the Mornings of the World) with its extremely popular soundtrack. Mr. Ghielmi's fancy fretwork on the viol during "La Saillie du Caffeé" ("The Issue of the Coffee") impressed, as did the duo's sensitive, limpid rendering of the famous "Rêveuse" (dreamer); in their take, the spaces meant as much as the notes.

Mr. Pianca then played a set of three very old pieces by Jacques Gallot, opening with "The Comet." He introduced this imagistic chaconne by demonstrating how the composer depicts the fuzzy tail of the comet, then its bright fiery head, by means of an initial dissonant chord, with modern-sounding intervals, moving in increments towards a simple major triad. The set closed with a lovely, dense little "Gigue."

The chronology resumed with four duo pieces by Antoine Forqueray, representing "Le Diable" in opposition to Marais's "L'Ange." In the head-spinning "La Girouette" ("The Wind Vane") Mr. Ghielmi's left hand darted about the fretboard like a spider; in "Le Carillon du Passy" ("The Bells of Passy") ringing bass notes from the viol helped evoke the bells.

The second half of the concert opened with "Partita for Lute" by Silvius Leopold Weiss, an exact contemporary of J. S. Bach whom the latter is said to have admired; it was easy to see why, though one might wonder how closely Mr. Pianca's conversational expressiveness resembled 18th century performance style. The emotional precision of this music, conveyed here to maximum advantage by the celestial tones of Mr. Pianca's lute work, indeed suggests some of the genius of Bach. The somber "Sarabanda" made a beautiful focal point.

Mr. Ghielmi's turn consisted of two manuscript pieces for solo gamba by Carl Friedrich Abel. These had a highly improvisational quality, and Mr. Ghielmi took the rhythms so loosely, especially in the Adagio, as to make time signature seem almost irrelevant; at the center of that piece, harmony too seemed unneeded, as a long swelling single note swayed into a dissonant flatted-second "chord" in a long moment of hushed emotion.

Finally, a Sonata by Andreas Lidl had an early classical flavor, with straightforward themes and development, cantabile and Haydn-like (Lidl was at the Esterházy court with Haydn prior to settling in London). The age of the gamba and the lute was coming to a close, but it overlapped with the early classical age. Exactly what do we mean by "early music?" Pre-Mozart and Haydn? Does this work by Lidl count even though it's in a classical "sonata" form, simply because it's written for "old-fashioned" instruments? Probably not. What defines "early" rock and roll, one might just as well ask—is it the use of the acoustic bass? The short haircuts? Such definitions must be to some degree arbitrary, as this accomplished duo demonstrated in this fine program.