Posts Tagged ‘review’

Music Review: David Olney – Dutchman’s Curve

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

David Olney's been knocking around since the '70s; the difference is that now there's a comfortable label to apply to his alternately scrappy and lyrical sound. "Americana" was invented for this kind of stuff. His wizened baritone can rock ("Train Wreck") and soothe ("Red Tail Hawk"): "Where my legs go/I will follow/Where the wind blows/I don't care/As long as I know/That you love me/Wherever I go/You'll be there." Simple tiles like this build colorful mosaics of hard-earned knowledge transformed into art that's solemn, celebratory, and sometime playful too, as in the '50s-rock-style "Little Sparrow," about—unexpectedly—Edith Piaf.

Olney sounds tired in some of the songs, his voice pulling away; one wonders if it's done on purpose to draw the listener in. The laid-back sound certainly pays off in "I've Got a Lot On My Mind," where a besotted "lazy so-and-so" explodes into an exuberant scat—all he can produce in light of the "beauty and the power and the danger" of his inamorata.

By contrast, in the gently rolling "Mister Vermeer," contemplating an image of "Girl with a Pearl Earring" inspires the singer to verbalize: "I could rule the world/If that look were meant for me." He talks the verses, Townes Van Zandt-style, as if no melody could match the beauty of the painted image, as perhaps none can. Together with the sweetest song about an armed train robbery that's probably ever been conceived, "Covington Girl," it forms the warm nucleus of this 13-song disc.

Highlights of the second half include the bluesy grumble "Way Down Deep," with its braying horns and melodic echo of the Beatles' "Helter Skelter"; Olney's droopy, roughened take on the Flamingos' undying "I Only Have Eyes for You"; and the homey, comely love song that closes the CD. But pretty much every track here has its charms. Olney and his main co-writer, John Hadley, have felt-tipped a subtle new entry into the Great American/Americana Songbook.

Opera Review: Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas at the Met

Monday, April 5th, 2010

I learned quite a bit from seeing Hamlet, by French composer Ambroise Thomas.

The Met hadn't staged this opera for 113 years. Critics in the English-speaking world apparently hadn't been able to deal with the fact that it wasn't Shakespeare's play. With less death, a drinking song, and originally a "happy ending"—and a revised one that feels like Romeo and Juliet superimposed onto Hamlet—it certainly isn't.

What it is: a fine example of 19th century Parisian grand opera, with much beautiful music. In scene after scene, lovely lyrical arabesques lead into macabre and dramatic passages, all here brightly rendered by the impeccable Met orchestra under the swiftly paced direction of Louis Langrée. The Hamlet story, much of the essence of which is retained, turns out to be excellent material for this sort of music, which while it may not be absolutely the most divine opera music ever written, has many virtues that are showcased extremely well in this production.

The slinky clarinet (or what I thought was a clarinet) solo accompanying the first part of the "Murder of Gonzago" scene, which sounded remarkably like a saxophone, turned out to be—a saxophone! Apparently Thomas felt the newly invented instrument was perfect for the leering pantomime with which Hamlet endeavors to catch the conscience of the king. The play-within-a-play scene was the climax of the production—funny and spectacular.

Simon Keenlyside, in the title role, lived up to his hype. The charismatic British baritone slips into Hamlet like he's played the role all his life. Slumping, drinking, raging, he positively seethes with the moral paralysis at the center of the story, his voice fluting between passion and control. In the Hamlet-Gertrude scene he addresses his mother repeatedly, bitingly, as "Madame," then softly and sadly as "ma mère"—just one example of the way Thomas's music effectively conveys the characters' psychology; and with a singer whose acting skills match the high standards of his singing, the creators' skills are effectively highlighted—both Thomas's music and the affecting libretto, by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, who were also responsible for the books of much better known operas like Gounod's Faust and Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann.

However, Marlis Petersen as Ophélie nearly stole the show, first in her early love scene with Hamlet and especially in her long, showstopping solo mad scene, which is so over-the-top I started to laugh even while appreciating her liquid tone and wonderful passagework. I'd heard about her last-minute casting, replacing the ill Natalie Dessay with only three days to prepare, but you'd never guess Ms. Petersen hadn't been on tour with the show all along (it originated in Switzerland, at the Grand Théâtre de Gèneve). She was absolutely delightful.

The intense Jennifer Larmore's grave, dark tones suited the role of Gertrude well, and tenor Toby Spence did a nice job as Laërte. In fact the entire cast was strong, right down to the gravediggers.

Hamlet runs for two more performances, April 5 and April 9, at the Metropolitan Opera.

Photo of Marlis Petersen by Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera.

Theater Review: Alice in Slasherland

Saturday, April 3rd, 2010

The latest horror-geek gorefest spoof from playwright Qui Nguyen, director Robert Ross Parker, and the Vampire Cowboys company is more tightly plotted than their spectacular but somewhat scattershot Soul Samurai was, and has shorter fight scenes. These are both good things. Otherwise, it's the same sort of hilarious romp through the Fangoria/slasher/Buffy wing of pop culture, bursting at the seams with nervy whimsy and nutty abandon.

This time out, a creature who looks and moves like the nightmare from The Ring appears in an archetypical American town, presaging havoc. Aside from the interloper's name, which is Alice, and her arrival from another world, nothing about this tale resembles Alice in Wonderland; in case we're looking for parallels, our high school heroes helpfully inform us not to bother. But does this monstrous yet curiously sympathetic and kinda sexy Alice (Amy Kim Waschke) actually have a heart of gold, or just melted lead? A touch of Buffy-back-from-the-grave confusion moderates her menace; so does her clingy attachment to the nonplussed Lewis.

As hellish minions murder their way through the townsfolk, Alice and a sassy teddy-bear demon (a puppet brilliantly operated and voiced by Sheldon Best) help shy, intellectual Lewis (Carlo Alban) and his unrequited love, cheerleader Margaret (Bonnie Sherman) stay one step ahead of the marauding beasties. But the absurd plot isn't at all the point. The clever videos and the spot-on use of pop music (from Bonnie Tyler to Lordi) are key, but what makes this production a knockout is a one-two-three punch: the skilled and scarily energetic cast; the stylized, silly gore; and Nguyen's hilarious and pointed dialogue.

Edgar: You're mom's hot…I think she wants me.
Margaret: You're a stuffed animal.
Edgar: Yo, that's racist.
Margaret: That's not racist.
Edgar: You're suggesting that your mom wouldn't date me because of something as small as my genetic makeup.

Besides the abovementioned actors, Andrea Marie Smith and Tom Myers each steal the show at various points in various roles. But there's no point detailing the great moments. Just catch this flashy, good-natured send-up of everything geeky and gory and youthful and fun. Visit the HERE Arts Center website for tickets.

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.

Music Review: Indie Round-Up – Delta Moon, Backyard Tire Fire, Patty Cronheim

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

Delta Moon, Hellbound Train

"You'll never get to heaven on a hellbound train," singer Tom Gray croaks in this CD's opening number, whose rather obvious message blossoms into a pungent cautionary tale. Delta Moon churns out a thick blend of Chicago slide-guitar blues and Southern soul-rock, and Mark Johnson plays a mean slide guitar, but it's the pair's focused songwriting that makes this disc a keeper. "Are you lonely for me, babe, like I'm lonely for you?" sighs the character in "Lonely" – "I hold onto something, a drink or a girl / 'Cause I feel like I'm falling off the edge of the world."

The music is as emotional as it is economical and tough, with time-worn themes – stories about jailbirds, drifters, and dashed hopes – couched in powerful and sometimes poetic imagery. At the same time it's possible to enjoy this music with your reptile brain, which, if it's anything like mine, will dig the slouching beats and growling guitars.

The band nods to rootsy blues with a reverent acoustic cover of Fred McDowell's classic "You Got To Move," while "Stuck in Carolina" gets stuck in its jerky one-chord groove for a full five minutes and works just fine, thanks in part to a nifty sax solo by guest Kenyon Carter. "Ain't No Train" is another chunky lo-fi jam, compacted into three and a half growling minutes, with the guitar evoking soul-music horn riffs, and "Ghost in My Guitar" is that rarity, a song about playing music which – mostly because of its a haunting chorus – doesn't make you want to skip to the next track to find something less self-indulgent or self-referential. Humility found in surprising places – like in that song's message about the mysteries of inspiration – is one of the strains in Delta Moon's music that lofts it above and beyond the basic blues.

Backyard Tire Fire, Good To Be

It's all about the irony, folks. But wait – I mean that in a good way. From the title of the opening rocker, "Road Song # 39," you might get a whiff of it, but just listening to the track you'd probably expect a collection of Southern rock. But no. Indeed, no. "Ready Or Not," with its insistent beat, octave-doubled vocals, and synthesizers actually calls to mind the unfairly maligned Steve Miller Band of the '70s, and things get quirkier from there, self-aware but generous to the listener, as opposed to self-absorbed. "Learning to Swim" smells like geek spirit, and "Brandy" – well, I'll just call it marimba pop and leave it at that. "Estelle" layers the band's off-kilter observations on top of underlying verse changes that echo the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." And this disc doesn't. The songs lie at a happy confluence of riffy rock-and-roll and what-was-that?

Patty Cronheim, Days Like These

Lots of folks sing jazz. Lots of singers write songs. But not lots of jazz singers write songs. Most singers, from the best of the best to the pedestrian and mediocre, content themselves with interpreting standards and "jazzifying" the occasional pop tune. Patty Cronheim takes a different route on her new disc, writing the majority of the material and in the process creating the sorts of songs that sound like "standards" that somehow slipped under the radar for the past 60 or 70 years.

With able help from a group of wonderful musicians, and the arranging skills of her pianist Aaron Weiman and others, she's put together a very satisfying set with a timeless sound. Ms. Cronheim isn't a spectacularly adventurous singer, but she has a very warm, expressive voice, a nice melodic sense, and a distinct rhythmic feel.

In two of her covers she and her collaborators get a little more playful: the gently funky "Summertime," and the strange and oddly satisfying "Superstition" with its chattery horns. On the original tunes she covers the basics from the jazz playbook – straight jazz and bebop, Latin jazz beats, blues, a 4/4 ballad and one in 6/8 time, a bit of funk – you can play the game of "what was she thinking of when she wrote this ("Christmas Time Is Here?" "'Round Midnight?" Am I way off base?) And a couple of the songs towards the end of the disc feel less inspired than the best compositions. But with melodies and lyrics that fit her cozy voice like a blanket (or vice versa), a thoroughly developed and artfully deployed jazz vocabulary, and only one track with any scatting, Patty Cronheim has delivered a winner that's earned a place on my jazz shelf.

Theater Review: Forgotten by Pat Kinevane at the Irish Arts Center

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

Every now and then you see something truly unique, and Pat Kinevane's one-man show Forgotten qualifies. A blend of Irish character studies and Japanese Kabuki theater, it is a superb showcase for this exceptionally warm and generous performer. Under the firm direction of Jim Culleton, he casts an effective spell, mingling the sadness of growing old without due respect (all four characters are over 80) with joyful recollections of youth and moments of high grief.

Some segments work better than others; for one thing, the female characters come across more richly than the male. And in spite of a helpful glossary in the program, some of the references to Irish culture and language will elude typical American audiences. Too, the beauty of the Kabuki movements Mr. Kinevane uses to transition between scenes doesn't seem quite enough to explain their existence. But on the whole, this disjunction didn't bother me; the happy temptation is to always give this work the benefit of the doubt, swept up as one is in its imaginative evocations of the lives of these aged survivors.

The insistent music (by Brian Byrne) and sensitive lighting function almost as characters in themselves. So does Mr. Kinevane's heaving, shiny, nearly naked body, painted in black Japanese figures. So does his face, gradually painted into a white mask by one of the characters, the make-up obsessed Eucharia, once scullery-maid to the other female character, Dora. But the real star of the show, besides Mr. Kinevane himself, is his language; he both captures and heightens the thrum and sigh of these folks' speech, from gruff Flor to mild Dora. All live now in separate nursing homes.

Flor sees visions: "Holy Mary is under me bed. She is, under. I saw her last Monday, over there in a long white coat and a blue band on her neck. Snowey skin, and a head of the darkest hair. She was crying like a girl and kept saying she was lonely." Later, Dora recalls the preamble to her youthful affair with man married to a woman perfectly named Petra: "…he positively altered the hue of the spaces about him. Absorbed everything. A piece of chess. Soot hair. Hands unspoiled. Face, flawless. But she teased him down the path of middle age and emptiness. Expertly."

More than a play, it's poetry, and it's an immersive experience. That's no mean trick for one performer to pull off. Forgotten runs through March 7 at the Irish Arts Center in New York, and then returns to Ireland, with further international dates to be announced. For tickets please visit Smarttix or call 212-868-4444.

Theater Review: Charles L. Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Naked Goddess France in a tub, three silent Graces, and a stately tango usher us into the romantic arena of Charles Mee's Paris. To use two appropriately French-derived words, Fêtes de la Nuit is a collage of vignettes on the theme of love, but it's more visceral, and rewarding, than the typical movie of intertwined stories like Valentine's Day.

We'll call it a play for want of a better word, but it's more of a theatrical celebration, scene after scene of a richly observed and finely sketched world where romantic love is subject number one, with sex, art, and the character of a great city clustering close behind. A woman waits in a café for the love of her life; she hasn't met him yet but is saving a seat for as long as it takes. A roué leads a rapt group on a tour of the gardens of Paris and other important places in the history of his colorful love life. An art class, a fashion show, a lecture on the history of coffee – these are just a few of the show's elements, but the less stagy moments are just as affecting. Three people on a park bench grope each other sensuously until the middle one slips away, satisfied she's brought the other two together. A spurned lover tried to re-seduce her ex. A lonely man dances with his coat. Almost magically, these characters whom we only glimpse come brightly alive, exuding sorrow, angst, joy in turn. 

The large ensemble cast includes singers, dancers, and deaf actors, and is virtually without a weak link. Kim Weild's intimate yet expressive staging moves us effortlessly from café to park to catwalk to dreamscape. Of special note is the smoky score and sound design, by Brian H. Scott, but all the technical elements measure up to the high quality of the performances. With no intermission, the show goes on a touch too long. I wouldn't want to be the one to have to choose what to cut, though.

I highly recommended this show for anyone with an appreciation for life's pleasures. Only small children and people who don't like nudity on stage should stay away. It's a perfect valentine for yourself, your lover, your friends. Fêtes de la Nuit runs through Feb. 27 at the Ohio Theatre. Tickets at Brown Paper Tickets.

Photos by Jill Usdan. 1. (L-R): Catherine dies of love: Jessica Green (Catherine) and Khris Lewin (Roland). 2. (L-R): Lartigue (Babis Gousias) leads the merriment.

Theater Review: Clybourne Park

Tuesday, February 9th, 2010

Note: See the end of this review for a discount code for tickets to Clybourne Park.

At nearly 40, Playwrights Horizons is such an established part of New York's not-for-profit Off-Broadway pantheon that it's easy to take it for granted and forget that it has a special mission, as indicated in its very name: to foster and develop excellent new plays and playwrights. The current production of Bruce Norris's poetically written and smartly plotted Clybourne Park bodes well for the new decade – for Playwrights Horizons, at least, if not for the chances of fundamental change in race relations in America.

Two clever ideas root the play. First, Mr. Norris looks back half a century to Lorraine Hansberry's iconic A Raisin in the Sun, about an upwardly mobile black family – and depicts the other side. A white family in a lily-white, primly racist middle class neighborhood have sold their house to a black family, eliciting resistance, first euphemistic and then raw, from the community embodied by the deliciously sleazy Karl (the effective Jeremy Shamos, seen recently as the cautious priest in Creature).

Badly damaged by the death of their war-veteran son, angry and repressed Russ (Frank Wood, who won a Tony for Side Man) and Bev (the superb Christina Kirk, who did fine work in the excellent Telethon last year) are packing up and leaving the neighborhood behind, along with, they hope, their sorrows. Bev is a quintessential 1959 period piece, a liberal-minded woman who believes intellectually in the equality of the races and takes pride in her "friendship" with her black housekeeper Francine (the quietly explosive Crystal A. Dickinson), but still talks down to Francine and her husband Albert (the smoldering Damon Gupton) without being aware of it.

The play's second original conceit is setting the second act 50 years later, in the present time, with the same actors playing different roles. Now they are a batch of youngish people haggling over what initially seem like trivial details of the design of a new house. The couple who want to tear down and rebuild are white, the couple who object are black, and the ties to the story of 50 years earlier slowly materialize as this much faster paced, funnier, but ultimately equally powerful second half progresses. By the time a contractor (played by an utterly transmogrified Mr. Wood) digs up the old trunk Russ had buried in the yard and plops the baggage of the ages literally on center stage, we've seen just how the ugliness of America's never-ending racial "conversation" has transformed over the decades – transformed, but hardly died down. Aided by Pam MacKinnon's commendably transparent direction and fine performances all around, Mr. Norris has dramatized his perceptive view of these changes (and lack thereof) with wit, skill, and heart.

It would seem a little dull of me not to put Clybourne Park in a bit of contemporary perspective, given that I've recently covered two other major plays on the subject of race. David Mamet's Race is minor Mamet, effective as far as it goes, and with some very worthwhile performances; yet after chewing over its provocations, one comes away feeling that one hasn't heard anything much really new. More satisfying all-around is The Good Negro, which I saw this winter in a very good Boston production. That play, however, is constructed (and was directed) in a consciously artful manner. Clybourne Park never feels self-conscious; it deals with larger-than-life issues with compelling life-sized characters and naturalistic dialogue – the hardest kind to write.  It's a marvelous accomplishment.

Clybourne Park runs at Playwrights Horizons through March 7. See below for a discount code.

Photos by Joan Marcus. 1) L to R: Damon Gupton, Crystal A. Dickinson, Annie Parisse, Jeremy Shamos. 2) L to R: Christina Kirk, Frank Wood.


Blogcritics reader discount: Use code "CPGR"
Limit 4 tickets per order. Subject to availability.

Order by February 21 with code CPGR and tickets are only:
$40 (reg. $65) for all performances Jan 29-Feb 14
$50 (reg. $65) for all performances Feb 16-March 7
Order online at www.playwrightshorizons.org. Use code CPGR.
Or:
Call Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily)
Or:
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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.

Opera Review: The Barber of Seville at the Bleecker Street Opera

Monday, December 28th, 2009

New York music fans loudly lamented the passing of the long-running Amato Opera earlier this year. Despite a reputation for uneven quality, the little family-run "opera house that could" had been an East Village institution since 1948, presenting stripped-down productions of operatic standards and charging low ticket prices while giving rising singers an opportunity to hone their craft.

Amato veterans have wasted no time rising from the ashes. Not one but two companies have emerged to wear the Amato's mantle. One, the Bleecker Street Opera, has found a home at the relatively spacious downstairs theater at 45 Bleecker Street, and I attended the second performance of its second production, Rossini's Barber of Seville, last night. The staff seemed unprepared for the full house. Everything was a little disorganized, and the show started late. The Rosina (Malena Dayen) was recovering from bronchitis. The Bartolo was a last-minute substitute who needed line cues from conductor/music director David Rosenmeyer. Mr. Rosenmeyer himself had been a late addition to the team after the unexpected departure of Paul Haas. And with all that, what did we get? Not technical perfection, it's true, but a thoroughly enjoyable and in some respects exceptional production, thanks to the cast of superb singers, the hardworking Mr. Rosenmeyer and his mini-orchestra, and a talented production team led by stage director Teresa K. Pond.

William Browning was a simply glorious Figaro, with a suave and powerful baritone, a solid yet agile stage presence, and a constant twinkle in his eye; his tremendous, antic "Largo al factotum" set a high bar. Anthony Daino brought a droll, Depardieu-esque assurance to Count Almaviva, with a sweet, sunny tenor. And Ms. Dayen, who like Mr. Rosenmeyer hails from Argentina, imbued Rosina with a fluid, coquettish energy, making her more than an equal to the scheming but good-hearted Count and the brash barber. No delicate flower was this Rosina, and I could detect little if any evidence of any lingering illness in Ms. Dayen's wonderful singing; if anything she seemed to strengthen as the evening wore on.

In a larger setting, the quality of acting in an opera like this – while important – can take a back seat. Not so in an intimate space, but the acting in this production was exceptional, as was the singers' diction. Whatever few words of Italian you may know – even if they don't go beyond "presto" and "piano" and "stanza" – you'll hear every one of them clearly.

The orchestra, though only about fifteen pieces, is a considerable step up from the tiny combos that accompanied Amato productions, and the musicians acquitted themselves very well, playing with verve and skill; the winds sparkled, and even the strings sounded generally in tune despite being so few in number.

Best of all, with a small house like this, there are virtually no bad seats, and everyone gets to feel up close and personal. It's quite different from somewhere like the Met, where everything is so fancy and grand. This is gritty opera, just the basics, but what crowd-pleasing basics they are.

The Barber of Seville plays Saturdays at 3 PM and Sundays at 7 PM through January 17. Click here for ticket information or call Telecharge at 212-239-6200.

Dance Review: Snow White by Company XIV

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

Company XIV's latest dance dazzler may be aimed at kids, but it's a captivating show for all ages.

Taking the tale of Snow White straight from the Brothers Grimm, and borrowing a few costuming themes from Disney's classic animated version of the popular but creepy fairy tale, choreographer Austin McCormick and his multi-talented group conjure an extravagant feast for the eye and ear.

At the performance I attended, a large number of children, some quite small, remained rapt for over an hour. As it was hard to look away from the cavalcade of gorgeous dances, costumes, sets and props, I had to remind myself to glance over at the kids every few minutes to gauge their reactions.

Here, as in the troupe's adult-themed shows, McCormick uses baroque dance, ballet, and modern dance variously as the spirit calls.  A rather straightforward ballet defines Snow White herself at the start. An elegant baroque dance captivates (literally) our lovely but obtuse heroine a bit later, as the disguised Wicked Queen gussies poor Snow up in a fancy white wig bearing the lethal comb. Jerky modernistic movements jack up the monstrous creatures representing the third and final temptation of Snow White: the poisoned apple. Shadow puppets play the Dwarves to humorous effect.

Company XIV always casts a wide net to find lively and appropriate music. Here the recorded selections range from Carnival of the Animals to "Rumania Rumania," and from Tchaikovsky to Ella Fitzgerald. Making this show extra special is the presence of a baroque opera trio knows as Charites, consisting of three women who sing live numbers and play the sweetly musical Mirror, a screened entity that must be seen and heard to be appreciated.

My only complaint: the recorded music was a little too loud during the first couple of numbers, drowning out the narration. Either my ears or the sound engineer adjusted after a short while and all was well for the remainder.

It's been a great privilege to be able to experience the arc of all three recent Company XIV productions.  Le Serpent Rouge and The Judgment of Paris are in revival through mid-January, alternating performances with Snow White. Indulge yourself and see them all, or if you're taking the kids, experience this Snow White – it's a fairy story to remember.

Presented by Company XIV at 303 Bond St., Brooklyn, N.Y. Dec. 12–Jan. 17. Sat. and Sun., 3 p.m. (No performance Sun., Dec. 13, and Sat., Dec. 26.) (212) 868-4444 or www.smarttix.com. More information at the Company XIV website.

Photo by Daniel Perez.

Theater Review: Fault Lines by Rebecca Louise Miller

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

It's nice, for a change, to go to a cramped little New York City theater and see a play that's not about cramped little twenty-somethings living in a cramped little New York City apartment. Not that our grungy behemoth of a hive-town isn't a cauldron of fuel for creativity – it sure as hell is. But, loath as we can be to admit it, there's life outside the city, a lot of it. And that life can be very similar to our own – indeed recognizably human in surprisingly many ways!

Fault Lines, inspired by the true story of the Polly Klaas kidnapping, takes us to the Northern California home of Bethany, a 32-year-old mother of twins receiving a visit from two childhood friends. Though nervous and hyper, chatty Bethany is also a distinctly West Coast type: new-agey without being self-consciously fashionable about it. Over a compact and fast-paced hour, what seems at first an innocent get-together of old girlfriends is revealed, bit by bit, to be something far more significant. As girls, the three – along with a now-absent fourth – shared a trauma that has bonded them for life.

Homey Bethany, played with acute sensitivity by the excellent Jenna Doolittle, is joined first by bitter, angry Kat (Anaïs Alexandra, who is a skilled actress but could stand to tone her performance down a tad to suit the tiny size of the theater). Then Jessica (the playwright Rebecca Louise Miller) arrives, a jet-setting activist the course of whose life and work has been set by the nationally famous crime the girls witnessed twenty years earlier. She's tailed by a dogged but sensitive TV reporter (Tobin Ludwig) seeking interviews with the women.

Layers of story lurking beneath the obvious methodically come to light: Jessica's political activism has had an unwanted effect on Kat's family; Bethany, in a kind of religious fervor, has been seeing ghosts and consorting with the enemy. It all cascades towards a satisfying, thought-provoking finish.

The pleasures of this production are several. The enjoyable performances and David Epstein's moody, appropriately ambient direction solidly support Ms. Miller's skillful storytelling and realistic, witty, and pointed dialog. The set, sound, and lighting create suitably sombre moods, though the vivid personalities of the characters and the sparkling dialogue never let the seriousness of the story sink to the maudlin.

Fault Lines runs through Dec. 19 at the Dorothy Strelsin Theatre in the Abingdon Theatre Complex (312 West 36 St.). Tickets are $20 and can be reserved by calling TheaterMania at 212-352-3101 or online.

Theater Review: Race by David Mamet

Monday, December 14th, 2009

The proximity of the recent Oleanna revival just two blocks away makes David Mamet's new play feel just a smidgen formulaic. In both, an angry young woman betrays her mentor because of a grievance for which he is culpable only in an abstract, class-informed way. The thing is, Mamet is so good at provocative audience-baiting dialogue, and Race's major characters so acutely finessed by his cast (he also directed), that it doesn't much matter that we've pretty much heard this story before.

Susan, a pretty young black law associate, spends a chunk of the first act hovering silently over the action as the two partners at her firm, white Jack and black Hank, discuss whether to take a racially charged case that another law firm has just given up on. Charles Strickland, a well-known, wealthy burgher, stands accused of raping a young black woman. He claims the sex was consensual and eventually convinces Jack and Hank of his innocence, but otherwise he's the client from hell, poetically guilt-wracked over societal and psychological injustices.

 


Richard Thomas is excellent in the role, though I found myself wishing he had a bit more to do. The main action is in the play of ideas, where James Spader's Jack and David Alan Grier's Hank own the show. These two intellectual heavyweights on the cynical circuit thrust and parry using Susan (a slightly wooden Kerry Washington) as their shiny sabre. Perhaps not surprisingly, given the playwright's famous contrariness, it's Jack, the white partner, who eventually displays the soft underbelly, trusting where he shouldn't have.

On the other hand, it's hard to blame Jack for not knowing he's in a David Mamet play. Hank, for his part, is a little more clear-headed; both black characters, in fact, have a more complete sense of the human predilection for playing every card in one's hand, however charged with danger it may be, and however deep-rooted Jack's own lawyerly cynicism seems at first.

It's nice to know we don't live in Mamet's world. Prejudice and even hate may indeed, as the play suggests, remain endemic in our culture, even in each one of us. But these ills do not entirely define us. Showing compassion, whether guardedly like Jack or openly, doesn't always bring punishment on the sympathizer.

The superb Spader's character gets the fullest development (and many of the best lines) but Grier's Hank is a small, hard marvel, thoughtful yet morally weightless.

I wonder what Thomas, who in my experience seems incapable of turning in a poor performance, might have done with the larger role of Jack. But Spader, whose entire career has till now essentially been on the screen, displays such stageworthy solidity that one imagines he could have been treading the boards for the past 20 years instead. Projecting for a live crowd does take away his trademark basso, but there's plenty of depth in the rough grey matter of Mamet's ever-treacherous landscapes to satisfy most eggheads.