Freddy’s Still Rules

One of the negatives of moving from Brooklyn to Manhattan is the serious reduction in opportunities to hang out at Freddy’s, the best bar in the known universe. That was remedied the other night courtesy of my gig with the Kings County Blues Band at which an awesome time was had by all. Starting the musical festivities were The Walkers, pictured below, with a set of story songs that were also performance art pieces, with titles like “The Mayor’s Boyfriend” and “The Devil is a Man.” This is the kind of group you have to experience; simple hearing would not do the trick. It was only their second gig ever. Hope they have more.


Now here’s us – well, two of us anyway, Laura Stein and myself – with the KCBB. Below the photo is an MP3 from the show, of me singing Johnny Taylor’s “Last Two Dollars.” I can’t do it like JT, of course, or like my old bandmate Michael Brewster from whom I learned the song, but I think it’s not too bad for a Jewish kid from Long Island. Anyway, let no one say The Bagel and the Rat is not a hip, multimedia blog.


Oh, and of course: long live Freddy’s, and down with Bruce Ratner and Atlantic Yards.

First photo by me, second photo by Elisa Peimer.

Theater Review (NYC): The Klezmer Nutcracker

The Klezmer Nutcracker is an amusing play for children that mixes chanukah traditions and Jewish music with klezmerized themes from Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite. The story, by Ellen Kushner (host of Public Radio's "Sound and Spirit" program) and based on her children's book The Golden Dreydl, won't win any awards for originality, but its winning characters and enthusiastic cast held the kids' attention at the performance I saw.

Bored young Sara (the spunky Danielle Strauss), down with a case of pubescent existential angst, is given, not an enchanted nutcracker, but a magical Golden Dreydl that becomes the Dreydl Princess (the graceful Melana L. Lloyd). This ballerina-like waif takes Sara to a magical kingdom ruled by her parents, Solomon and Sheba – not the biblical or historical characters, but a benevolent sort of Father and Mother Time who oversee a fairyland of Fools, talking animals, and demons who are more funny than scary.

When the demons snatch the Princess, the Tree of Life is threatened, and with it all of Creation… or something. The plot flops around a bit, with story points merely stated, and references and themes flying by at breakneck speed – rather like the Fool, who guides Sara through the enchanted land attempting to rescue the Princess. Dan J. Gordon plays the Fool with a big, loose-jointed nod to Ray Bolger's Scarecrow, and indeed kids may notice strong parallels to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps even more than to the original Nutcracker ballet.

This isn't a ballet, and parents of budding ballerinas should probably mention that fact ahead of time so kids' expectations aren't set unfairly. Nor is it a musical – it's a play with music. Chanukah songs are sung, and there's some boisterous choreography by Dax Valdes, set to recorded music that uses Tchaikovsky's themes transmogrified very cleverly by David Harris and Michael McLaughlin for the fabulous Shirim Klezmer Orchestra.

Most inventive of all is a wonderful Peacock scene, where the talking, preening bird is played by one actress (the amusingly brash Lindsey Levine) while a group of actor-dancers plays her feathers, all making one organism. This sort of thing is the true magic of the theater, the reason to take kids out to a show rather than plop them in front of a DVD.

The Klezmer Nutcracker runs Saturdays and Sundays at 11 AM and 1 PM through Jan. 3, 2009 at the Vital Theatr, 2162 Broadway (at 76th St.), 4th Floor, New York. Call 212-579-0528.

Opera Review (NYC): Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas by The Dido Project at the Samsung Experience

Henry Purcell's 1689 Dido and Aeneas was one of the earliest English operas and is considered one of the composer's masterworks. It runs only an hour but is a true opera. Though the story, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, is a tragedy, Thursday night's performance at the Samsung Experience in the Time Warner Center was a joy, and one of an unusual sort.

The Dido Project comprises a group of singers and the Sybarite Chamber Players under the sparkling direction of Pat Diamond. They've transposed Purcell's Baroque opera about the Queen of Carthage and the hero Aeneas, with its libretto by the Irish poet and playwright Nahum Tate, to the modern boardroom. This Dido is the CEO of a major corporation, while Aeneas, rather than literally shipwrecked on the shores of Carthage, is a tycoon on the verge of economic collapse and in need of a business partner to merge with.

A bit surprisingly, the tale lends itself quite well to the updated setting. One reason is the story's resonance with the modern-day capitalist themes of independence and overwork, particularly for women. This opera is, and always has been, all about women. Indeed, its only major male role is Aeneas himself.

Another factor was the physical setting and the use of technology (I use the past tense because this was a one-time performance, though the group has plans for further events). Many modern theatrical productions use video to enhance or comment on the live action, but usually the screens or projections are fitted after the fact into a space designed mainly for live performance. The Samsung Experience at the Time Warner Center, on the other hand, is a showroom for the company's technology, particularly its screens and other video kit – a "10,000-square-foot interactive emporium of virtual reality experiences and technology."

You are surrounded by video. You walk through video to get to the performance space. You pass computers with interactive displays. Bright lighting and shiny equipment give a science-fictiony sheen to the whole environment. Everything is by Samsung, of course, including the two large screens that framed the stage displaying CNN-like "news" and commentary on the story we were witnessing. The backdrop too consisted of a large multi-panel screen, showing an image of the globe, slowly changing color like a Christmas display, reinforcing the sense that we're in a universe of nonstop worldwide news and action.

The video commentary, complete with a news crawl, was clever and funny and helped to both carry and clarify the story (I liked the novel use of the Windows "blue screen of death"). Its only disadvantage was that it replaced what in some opera performances would have been a display of supertitles. Even in an English-language opera like this one, the words can at times be hard to understand, given the strong vibrato of the female voices and the sometimes unexpected (to modern ears) phrasing of a 17th century libretto.

Still, though the audience may have missed some lines, the singers, with their top-notch voices and fine acting, made the essentials quite clear. And it is a story of essentials.

Dido loves Aeneas, but is reluctant to declare it until her sister (here an executive assistant) Belinda prods her. But three witches who hate Dido and want to ruin her life trick Aeneas into leaving town to fulfill his destiny of founding Rome (here, he is starting a new business venture without Dido). He changes his mind, but too late – Dido's heart has been irreparably broken and, more to the point, her pride fatally wounded: "To your promis'd empire fly/And let forsaken Dido die."

Blythe Gaissert conveyed Dido's sadness ("Peace and I are strangers grown") and precipitous fall with solemn, queenly magnetism. Her voice is strong, supple, almost buttery, and in the famous death scene, which was effectively video-assisted, she was moving and a little funny at the same time. Elena O'Connor as Belinda seemed slightly tentative of voice at first but quickly claimed the full measure of the role, singing beautifully while at the same time clowning divinely.

Alex Loustion was winning as the Second Woman, a more important role than its generic name makes it sound; she did a beautiful job with the lovely aria "Oft she visits this lone mountain." David Adam Moore brought a smooth, strong baritone, impeccable diction, and excellent acting skills to the relatively thankless role of Aeneas (this is a play about women, remember). Sarah Heltzel and Annie Pennies made fine witches, and Jessica Medoff-Bunchman was perfectly spectacular as the Sorceress (the head witch) – if she doesn't have a fan club, someone should start one.

The small Sybarite Chamber Players orchestra played with heart, precision, and even at certain moments a smoky intensity. Purcell's wonderful music lost nothing in the translation of the action to a setting of cutting-edge technology. Along with the musicians themselves, conducted by William Hobbs from the harpsichord, Daryl Bornstein's sound design must get some credit for this.

No more performances of Dido and Aeneas are immediately scheduled; I'm sure they'll be posted at the Dido Project's website when they are. As for the Samsung Experience, you can check it out any time you're in New York – it's right in the upscale mall at Columbus Circle known as the Time Warner Center.  A visit to a bright, shiny, holiday-dressed mall in the heart of the greatest city in the world is surprisingly cheering in these tough times. The next live event in the space is an appearance by comedian Mike Birbiglia on Dec. 10 from 4-6 PM.