Archive for July, 2010

Theater Review: Modotti by Wendy Beckett

Saturday, July 31st, 2010

The Italian photographer Tina Modotti (1896-1942)—artist, agitator, femme fatale—led a fascinating life at the intersection of art, politics, and idealism. A silent-movie actress, a comrade-in-arms of Diego Rivera in Mexico, a documentarian of and participant in the Communist movement, she deserves to be better known—and for her story to be much better told than this very bad play tells it. Modotti—by Wendy Beckett, author of the flawed but far better Anaïs Nin: One of Her Lives—is the worst thing I've ever seen Off Broadway.

Episodes in Modotti's life play out disconnectedly. Tina (Alysia Reiner) moves from political crisis to crisis and from lover to lover. Her unfortunate, idealistic husband is played by Andy Paris as a vain dandy one would think utterly unappealing to the deep-thinking and emotionally demanding Tina. The photographer Edward Weston, who becomes her mentor and lover, gets a wooden, mumbling, Shatner-esque portrayal by an utterly lost Jack Gwaltney. Suffering like the rest from a lack of direction, Marco Greco's Diego Rivera blusters through scene after interminable scene like a John Belushi character searching for a funny line. Only the young Cuban revolutionary whom Tina takes up with later on (played, again, by Paris) evinces the slightest bit of chemistry with our heroine, making their brief Act II bedroom scene one of the very few bright moments in a long, dull evening.

I wasn't sure whom I felt sorrier for, myself or the actors forced to deliver the painfully stilted dialogue through which the playwright insists on telling, not showing, this inherently interesting story. And with all that, we don't even get a good history lesson, as the script fails to provide enough of the context that a historical piece like this needs. The large projections of Modotti's bluntly beautiful photographs and Rivera's famous agitprop murals give a sense of what was at stake artistically and how socialist idealism fed the art of these passionate, creative minds. But the stills, alas, have a good deal more vibrancy to them than most of what happens on stage.  

Though Ms. Reiner starts off well, smoldering through the first scene, that bit of life is all too quickly extinguished amid the dry, amateurish exposition that follows. No Italian accent, no charismatic sexiness, no acting skills could be enough to give her a chance of salvaging this poorly conceived and poorly executed play.

Modotti runs at the Acorn at Theatre Row through July 3.


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Modotti by Wendy Beckett” on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY

Friday, July 30th, 2010

The string quintet version of the chamber group behind The Dido Project made its Brooklyn debut last night with a flourish. Bassist Louis Levitt worried aloud whether the group was "cool enough" to play Brooklyn, but these young boundary-challenging musicians' lack of hipster attitude is as refreshing as their playing is acute.

With technique that approached impeccable, the five members of Sybarite5 showed off their love and mastery of a variety of 20th century music (and beyond), from Barber and Piazzolla to Led Zeppelin and Radiohead. The best moments, though, came in the new works crafted specifically for this type of group. Jazzy percussiveness met minimalism in Piotr Szewczyk's "The Rebel" to start things off; then the evening really took off with a piece written for the ensemble, "Black Bend" by Dan Visconti. It started modernistically, showing off violinist Sarah Whitney's ability to draw emotion out of squeaks and clawing sounds, then morphed into a blues shuffle underlying coruscating near-chaos punctuated with dabs of humor. This was one of a number of passages during the concert in which the quintet pulled from its strings the coming-from-everywhere sound of a larger group.

Thomas Osborne's "Furioso: Vendetta for String Quintet" had a very different feel but a similar aliveness. Frantic, syncopated sixteenth-note stretches and chromatic frenzies were relieved by brief lyrical passages. A miasma of dissonant tone clusters slowed to a contemplative hum; then the piece built back up to a reprise of the opening gallop before lapsing back for an unexpectedly somber ending. Really good stuff.

As for the familiar pieces: Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" become one of the 20th century's greatest hits for good reason—its dark, wrenching beauty—but by the same token it tends to be overplayed. Sybarite5 made a good case for its continued inclusion in the concert repertoire, turning off the microphones and playing a rich, thoughtful rendition built around cellist Laura Metcalf's sensitive, melodic touch. Continuing to survey the last century's greatest hits from various genres, they ventured a dense, energetic and finally delightful arrangement of Dave Brubeck's equally overplayed "Blue Rondo a la Turk," and a multi-layered version of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven."

The harmonically complex, suite-like "Stairway" lends itself well to the "classical" treatment, but not all rock is equal. Zeppelin's riff-based "Heartbreaker" seemed gimmicky by contrast, despite Whitney's vivacious reproduction of Jimmy Page's famous out-of-time solo.

The group has also devoted a good deal of energy to its Radiohead project. Last night they played three selections by the experimental rockers, arranged smartly by Paul Sanho Kim. Some of this music, though, is too repetitious and self-consciously cerebral to really succeed at this level; dependent as they are on atmosphere, Radiohead's songs are difficult to make effective out of context. "Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box" was fun, though, with the musicians evoking the rhythms of the original through tapping on strings with spoons and other unorthodox techniques.

Sami Merdinian, the group's other violinist, hails from Argentina, and appropriately enough he led them in two crowd-pleasing Ástor Piazzolla tangos, one slow and one sprightly. Both swung heartily and showcased the ensemble's rich tones and impressively synchronized playing.

If you're looking for a worthy successor to the Kronos Quartet as a small string ensemble pushing the envelope of concert music, count this exciting gang of five as one excellent candidate.


Originally published as “Sybarite5 at Galapagos Art Space, Brooklyn NY” on Blogcritics.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker

Thursday, July 29th, 2010

Anaïs Mitchell, Hadestown: A Folk Opera

There's a good measure of well-made, melodic creep-folk on this concept album, and the alternately sprightly and moody production by Todd Sickafoose shows it to advantage. But the concept is stretched too thin; there's not enough here to justify the production's length of nearly an hour (at least not on disc; it's based on a live show which no doubt benefitted from visuals).

With the sturdy help of guests like Ani DiFranco, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, and the fiesty Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem (along with the painfully tired-sounding Greg Brown, who is less effective), Mitchell winds her way through a retelling of the Orpheus myth, and the album is worth getting hold of for its best numbers, which are very good indeed, like "Wedding Song," "Way Down Hadestown," the irresistible "When the Chips Are Down," and the intense "Why We Build the Wall," in which Brown's weathered voice is nicely balanced by glowing group response vocals.

Kate Tucker, White Horses

Kate Tucker's airy vocals drift on warm beds of arpeggiated guitars and gently throbbing organ, all with plenty of reverb. With a touch of the prettified honesty of Sara McLachlan, a measure of the insistent glitter of Blondie, a tiny touch of twang, and a backbone of plainspoken, often drony mid-tempo songs, this is a nice disc for a hazy summer evening. There's nothing original here, but it has what's more important: a soulful sincerity that melds just right with its pensive sound.

Mark Bates, Down the Narrow

Call it Americana for lack of a better word; what Mark Bates makes is slow-rolling, emotional, but light-footed roots music a la The Band. The spare, tight arrangements keep the focus where it belongs: on Bates' gripping songs, from the easy piano-pop of "Clean Through" and the jaunty Dixieland shuffle of "Death Sucks" to the ghostly sigh of "Go On" and the weary cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes."

The keening minor-key wail of "Forbidden Love" contrasts with the funny blues of "Daisy": "We got a son, his name is Neville / He's got red hair, looks like the Devil / He's rotten to the core, how can you blame him / His mother's a whore." (Trust me, it's funny, not bitter.) The intense "Forbidden Love" and the aching "A Drunkard's Holiday" are two more highlights.

The humorous situations of some of the songs, like "Daisy," perk up the slow overall pace. I highly recommend this disc for those who appreciate good songs and don't need to be hit over the head with loud hammers and frantic tempos.

Butch Walker & the Black Widows, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart

Hearing a few tracks off this disc is what got me to go to Butch Walker's recent show at Webster Hall. (Well, to be honest, so did his straight-up, excellent cover of Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me," which is not included, but which you can hear here.) Now, listening the whole disc, I am not disappointed. Walker has assimilated just about every kind of rock, pop, and roots music into his repertoire of original, accessible, perfectly constructed tunes. The album is a joyous celebration of music—the craft of making it, and the somatic, emotional, and cultural connections that come of doing it really well.


Originally published as “Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Mitchell, Tucker, Bates, Walker” on Blogcritics.

Theater Review: Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman

Wednesday, July 28th, 2010

Excuse me, but…Sarah Jane Everman? Not Kristin Chenoweth? That's right, the understudy was filling in for the star at the performance I saw. Chenoweth didn't receive the greatest reviews for this production, and now, having seen the show, I can understand why: the role of Fran Kubelik simply isn't the kind of dazzling one that best plays to her "LOOK-AT-ME!!!" strengths. But this thoroughly enjoyable revival doesn't need her.

The sweet-voiced and comically gifted Everman filled in quite ably. But really the show belongs to its main character, Chuck, played with elastic vivacity by the brilliant Sean Hayes, who though best known for TV's Will and Grace turns out to have boundless stage energy and a very nice singing voice to boot. And a big chunk of the second act is blown up to bursting by the hilarious Katie Finneran as Marge MacDougall, the inebriated sexpot Chuck meets in a bar after things have really spiraled down for him.

With Burt Bacharach's spirited, lightly eccentric music, lyrics by Hal David, and Neil Simon's smart book, the show is based on the 1960 film The Apartment. Chuck, a hapless but vaguely ambitious accountant, climbs the corporate ladder by allowing the married, middle-aged executives at his company to use his bachelor pad for illicit trysts. He's good-hearted but severely flawed, which is what gives the show much of its bite. The production manages to be both supremely cynical and humorously high-stepping, with a happy ending that only slightly relieves the story's sour attitude towards love and especially marriage.

The show was first staged over 40 years ago, and director-choreographer Rob Ashford has left many anachronisms intact: "Good thing I have 'hospitalization,'" says Chuck's neighbor, the old GP Dr. Dreyfuss (played with easy charm by veteran Dick Latessa). But it resonates almost as much with the recent, dystopian Adding Machine as with the Go-Go Era's glittery sheen. Without any great depth of emotion, the story mostly keeps us at arm's length, but the production compensates with witty dialogue, engaging music, fabulous choreography, and magnificent production values. I haven't seen such impressive moving sets since my last visit to the Metropolitan Opera: a huge, Christmas-decorated spiral staircase appears seemingly out of nowhere; a fully stocked bar, an elevator, Chuck's cozy apartment, various offices, all rotate smoothly in and out. Hayes' funny business with a piece of too-modern-for-its-own-good furniture and the opening number's office-chair dance extravaganza are just a couple of the show's physical highlights.

Because the part of Fran is relatively small, a couple of numbers were added for the revival to give Chenoweth more spotlight time, including the Bacharach-David hit "I Say a Little Prayer." Though sweetly staged, it feels shoehorned in. "A House is Not a Home" works better, reflecting the psychic homelessness that afflicts both Chuck and Fran. (Fans of TV's Glee heard Chenoweth dueting the song with Matthew Morrison a couple of weeks ago.)

But what you'll probably exit singing is "I'll Never Fall in Love Again," which was part of the original score. Prior to seeing the show I could have easily done without ever hearing that song again, it was so overplayed during my childhood. But it's a fitting, tuneful sum-up of this big, rather acidic show. With or without Kristin Chenoweth, Promises, Promises at the Broadway Theatre is a winner.


Originally published as “Theater Review (NYC): Promises, Promises with Sean Hayes and Sarah Jane Everman” on Blogcritics.