28 October 2010

And "they" say the media doesn't influence people....

The most interesting thing I learned at the Yale Music Library today was unrelated to what I was researching.

HERE IT IS: did you know that, according to a 1969 Rolling Stone Magazine item, prior to the release of the classic 1967 Bobbi Gentry song "Ode to Billie Joe," few, if any, people had ever tried committing suicide by jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge (mostly because it's not that high and would be fairly difficult to hurt oneself by the leap). 

After the song became popular, however, so many folks started jumping that they had to institute a fine to leapers.  As Rolling Stone put it: "If you are unlucky enough not to die, you have to pay $100."

07 October 2010

If wishes were horses...

It was the Spring of 1978, in my freshman year at Xavier University, in the required composition II/intro to lit course that I first encountered Equus by Peter Shaffer.

My having just read Oedipus the King for the same class, as well as being in the second semester of elementary (classical) Greek at a Jesuit university, amounted to pretty much of a perfect storm for being overwhelmed/attracted to/seduced by this contemporary tragedy with a classical feel and, more importantly, a classical impact.  A psychiatrist, as he tries to uncover the reason for a teen's unspeakable act of blinding six horses, uncovers just as much about himself and the high cost of normalcy.  Equus is what I remember to be the first piece of literature that, once I started it, I couldn't put it down.

I'm pretty sure that, somewhere along the way, I must have seen the Sidney Lumet film with Richard Burton and Colin Firth, but my first chance to see a staging of Equus came last night at Playhouse on Park in West Hartford.  I had to leave watching the historic no-hitter that the Philadelphia Phillies' Roy Halladay was in the process of throwing against my Cincinnati Reds in the playoffs, but, I have to admit, it was well worth it

(Quick aside: I cannot believe, as I discovered during my drive to the theatre, that the local ESPN Radio affiliate -- AM 1410 -- was NOT airing the Cincinnati/Philadelphia game, choosing instead to air its usual local sports talk show!  Oy.)

With an excellent cast, led by powerful performances by Alan Rust (Dr. Martin Dysart) and Hartt School student Mark Ford (Alan Strang), and under the strong direction of Robert H. Davis, the script that grabbed me so long ago has finally fulfilled its promise for me in this first-rate production. 

Everything clicks here: the caring judge (Nora Chester) who convinces Dysart to take on the patient, the tentative-turned-trusting relationship between doctor and patient,  the conflicted and in-conflict parents (Terry Layman and Denise Walker), the girl who never quite gets Alan -- in any way (played with a knowing innocence by another Hartt student Jill Mason), the original score/sound designed composed by yet another Hartt student Noah Kaufman, and, not insignificantly, the nuanced performances of the horses (especially Hartt student Charles South as Nugget).  There's simply not a false note struck here in the 2 1/2 hours. 

The play never pulls its punches, and neither does this production, keeping faithful to the playwright's vision with the Greek-inspired horse masks and cothurni hooves (and, yes, the nudity).  Appropriately, the Playhouse recommends this only for those 16 and older.

A beautifully written play, elegantly staged, with honest performances: it's why one goes to see live theatre. 

Equus runs through the 17th of October at Playhouse on Park.


04 October 2010

My title may be obvious, but "HOW TO" Succeeds!

The last production of the 2010 season at the Goodspeed Opera House, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, does exactly what the Goodspeed does better than almost anybody: take a wonderfully smart (the book won the 1962 Pulitzer) and eminently singable musical, and with a great cast, sharp choreography, and clever staging, bring its audience to a different place (albeit not too distant from our own).

Ambition, envy, greed, lust, vanity, stupidity, and (although it's not a "mortal sin") mediocrity run rampant through World Wide Wickets, Inc., and the audience is more than pleased to be along for the ride as J. Pierrepont Finch starts at the bottom and "works" his way to the executive suite. 

The 1961 musical may be dated in some ways (although what's still that earning gap between men and women?), the songs by Frank Loesser are as witty and tuneful as ever: the title song, "Brotherhood of Man," "Happy to Keep to His Dinner Warm," "Paris Original," "A Secretary is Not a Toy," "Been a Long Day," "Grand Old Ivy" (perhaps the best fight song of a  non-existent university ever), and, of course, "I Believe in You" (undeniably the best love song ever sung by a character to himself!).

The cast, led by Brian Sears (Finch), Natalie Bradshaw (Pilkington), Ronn Carroll (Biggley), Nicolette Hart (LaRue), and Tom Deckman (Frump), is top notch -- especially Mr. Deckman's Frump whose performance should be studied by every serious acting student.  If ever a performer took the concept that "all acting is reacting," it is Mr. Deckman, who, even in the midst of the rousing choreography and ensemble singing of the climactic "Brotherhood," continued to convey all the envy and bewilderment that the boss's nephew must have been feeling as his plans come crashing down upon him.  (The Goodspeed always has many wonderful performances in each of its shows, including this one, but this season-ticket-holder  is hard-pressed to think of a single one better than Mr. Deckman's here.)

Greg Ganakas's direction, Michael O'Flaherty's musical direction (including kazoos at one point), and Kelli Barclay's choreography all sparkle, and to this reviewer there were no missteps.  (Well, okay, one small one...did Mr. Sears's speaking voice have to sound so much like Matthew Broderick's?)

The show runs through November 28th.  Get there before it closes.    

03 October 2010

So, I've been meaning to write something more thoughtful about Josh Hilberman's...

...tap show, Heeling Powers: Rhythms of the Left Brain, that played at Playhouse on Park on 25 Saturday 2010, so here goes.

The show featured Mr. Hilberman and his remarkable accompanist Paul Arslanian, with additional support from a trio of tappers "Schwab's Mob" (Melissa Bias, Kathryn Holtzclaw, and Jennifer Williams), and their leader, Lynn Schwab, and was a true tour de force.

In the talk back that followed the performance, Mr. Hilberman referred to the show as a retrospective or a greatest hits package, and indeed the show highlighted many different styles (from the loose tap approach of Brenda Bufalino to tapping while playing the ukelele to his tapping in women's high-heeled shoes ! -- not to mention the witty talk in between numbers, which allowed him to catch a breath and change his shoes). 

The nine tap numbers featured choreography by Paul Draper/Dean Diggins, the aforementioned Ms. Bufalino, James "Buster" Brown, and Leon Collins, as well as Hilberman himself.   In addition, two of the numbers, "On the Street Where You Live" and  "Charade" were true jazz improvisations with Hilberman and Arslanian riffing off one another in call-and-response duets.  Another improvistation, with Ms. Schwab this time, on "Cappella Josh" (the basic routine of which, we understand, is HUGE in Barcelona) was equally deft in its interplay between dancers.

The show also highlighted not just different tap techniques but the vast range of feeling that tap dancing can cover -- a fact that many who think of tap only in connection with Shirley Temple tend to overlook.  While it can be brassy and frenetic, tap, as Mr. Hilberman desmonstrated impressively, can be subdued and  -- in the case of his performances of "Laura" and "Charade" -- quite moving, as well.

The tapping tyro in me paid especial attention to Mr. Hilberman's ability to slam down his toes and heels with a conviction that I can only hope one day to approximate (as opposed to my too-often dropping them for a less compelling sound). 

"Bend those knees; keep those feet loose; commit!", I hear my tap teacher saying.

The talk back was instructive (even if he couldn't really explain his show's title), but many of us in the audience did learn that tap took a hit not just with the demise of Hollywood musicals but, more significantly, when the cabaret tax was instituted and took tap shows out of the clubs in NYC.  In general,   however, the talk back was a chance for both him and Mr. Arslanian to talk clearly and compellingly about an art form to which they both have committed their lives -- a commitment for which I cannot but thank them heartily.

The show at Playhouse on Park was one night only, but, if Mr. Hilberman comes to your neck of the woods, sieze the opportunity!