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Thursday, December 01, 2016

Dancing out of the Dark

Girding Our Loins Dept.: The national tour of “Dirty Dancing” landed at Proctors in Schenectady shortly after the election. The timing offered an unexpected insight into the show, as my review reveals.


WHEN THE MOVIE “Dirty Dancing” premiered in 1987, it was looking back a quarter-century to a more agitated era. Civil rights demonstrations were bringing out firehoses in the South; the birth control pill invited sexual liberation, but abortion was still illegal. We’d struggled, we’d fought, we’d won, and the ambitious uncertainty of teenaged Frances Houseman, known as “Baby,” seemed quaint.

Christopher Tierney and Jennifer Mealani Jones
Photo by Matthew Murphy
In moving the movie from screen to stage, the filmic structure has been maintained, complete with video dissolves as it rushes from scene to scene with a near-constant musical accompaniment. It serves the sappy coming-of-age story well, but just after the Broadway tour arrived in Schenectady last week, everything changed. The key song of the piece no longer is “The Time of My Life.” It’s “We Shall Overcome,” poignantly rendered by Chante Carmel in a scene that plays out like a picnic that Pete Seeger is about to attend.

We’re picnicking at Kellerman’s, a Catskills resort, where the waiters and counselors are there to instruct and serve in whatever ways will please the guests – up to a point, as affirmed by hard-assed owner Max (a commanding Gary Lynch).

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Country Bistro

THIS YEAR'S THANKSGIVING theme was French Country Bistro, an excuse for making as many casseroles as possible, thus sparing me a lot of a-la-minute work. This was partly inspired by the research I've been doing on cast-iron cookware (article to come), research that won me over to the joy of make-ahead slow-cooking.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

The Great Pumpkin

From the Culinary Vault Dept.: What with Thanksgiving looming, let’s skip dinner and move right into dessert – or make dinner a little more interesting with a look at the old-fashioned uses of that favorite fall gourd, the pumpkin, as I noted in a Metroland piece a dozen years ago.


IT’S NOT EXACTLY ON THE ORDER of Hallowe’en pumpkin smashing, but the noble gourd rated a mention in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor as those titular wives plotted to humiliate the fat, randy Falstaff.  “Go to, then,” says Mrs. Ford, as her friends help her set up an assignation. “We’ll use this unwholesome humidity, this gross watery pumpion; we’ll teach him to know turtles from jays.”

The Greeks called it a “pepon,” or large melon; this got Gallicized into “pompon” before Shakespeare got hold of it. Early American settlers changed the second syllable to “-kin,” itself a version of the German “-chen,” and still used as in instrument of maternal torture in such formations as “my little lamb-i-kin.”

For all that European travel, the pumpkin itself seems to have originated in Central America; certainly the recipes that have endured are known to have crisscrossed the American continents for several thousand years. Now it’s grown in every continent except Antarctica.

Friday, November 18, 2016

On a Folksong Kick

From the Vault Dept.: Singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim Gaudet has been a folk scene fixture for enough decades to earn every accolade available. When I saw him in 1990, he’d already spent a few years building a catalogue of original songs to replace the covers he started out with. These days he works in the company of the Railroad Boys (bassist/vocalist Bob Ristau and mandolinist/guitarist Sten Isachsen), with a bluegrassier sound, but the same gentle wit and bashful presence. The long-gone Peggy’s, however, abandoned its coffeehouse fairly quickly.


TO EFFECTIVELY REVIVE the coffeehouse spirit of 30 years ago means emphasizing stuff that’s bad for you. Coffee, for one thing, although it has its apologists (I’m one). Smoking – remember when such a club wore a pale blue haze? But it also can be done in song. Good thing we have singer-songwriters able to keep us aware of such hazards, and much more.

Jim Gaudet
Peggy’s Restaurant took a trip back in spirit, and, it’s hoped, forward in time with its first program in a Coffeehouse Revival series Thursday night. Local artist Jim Gaudet played and sang a concert comprising his own material (for the most part), an easygoing blend of sentiment and humor.

First the hall: the bar area/dining room that overlooks the Canal Square courtyard already has something of a coffeehouse look to it. One wall is brick, there are paddle fans in the ceiling, the chairs are kind of rickety.

It’s not as acoustically benevolent, however. The room is reverberant – glass-topped tables, tile on the floor – and last night’s patrons weren’t all used to the idea of paying attention to a troubadour.

Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Savor Schoharie Valley

THERE’S NO GOOD TIME for a flood, but late August has to be the worst for a farming community. The Schoharie Creek ran up over its banks when Hurricane Irene hit during that time of year in 2011, punishing the area in and around the town of Schoharie with a disaster that killed livestock, ruined crops, and left homes and business under water. Along with governmental assistance came help from the community, and one group, calling itself Schoharie Recovery, plunged into the thick of the disaster with food for the displaced residents. It was a successful enough program to suggest that there was cause to continue even after the damage had been cleared, and Schoharie Area Long Term (SALT) Development was formed.

Dining at the home of Emily Davis and
Mike Warner. Photo by B. A. Nilsson
“Five years later, we’re still looking for new ways to move forward,” said Emily Davis, one of the dinner hosts. “The valley has always been oriented towards food. We have the Carrot Barn the Apple Barrel Country Store, and so many individual farmers.” With that in mind, SALT held its third annual Savor Schoharie Valley festival on Saturday, October 22, a blustery evening laced with rain that reminded us of the area’s seasonal volatility.

The festival is a fund-raiser that introduces people both to the county’s food and to its hospitality, and Davis was one of the hosts for the event, although it began and ended at Schoharie’s Lasell Hall. This is an imposing 18th-century tavern in the village center, a building now owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution who, several decades ago, established the town’s first library here, and who more recently restored the lower-level of the house from the damage it sustained in the flood.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Prometheus Rebound

TWO THINGS ARE HAPPENING on the stage of Catskill’s Bridge Street Theatre this weekend: Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” gets stripped to its dramatic, philosophical essence, and Steven Patterson gives the performance of a lifetime as he deftly portrays the many characters through whom we’re told this tale.

Steven Patterson as the Monster
Photo by John Sowle
Patterson took on this tour-de-force a decade ago at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, whose artistic director, Jim Helsinger, fashioned the script. And the piece is an appropriate choice for the young Bridge Street Theatre, which seeks fare that’s off the beaten path, especially if there’s some moral complexity involved. We saw Patterson’s versatility in last summer’s “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” another one-man show, but “Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus” pushes his characterizations to even more challenging (and successful) extremes.

The action plays out on a simple-seeming set of rough wood platforms and ramps that serve as shipboard, classroom, laboratory, dwelling, and even the mountains of Switzerland. An upstage curtain takes on a variety of colors and textures to accentuate the scenes, all of it the work of the theater’s Managing Director, John Sowle, who also directed. The superb sound design, by Carmen Borgia, set up atmospheric beds when appropriate, giving the sound of a ship creaking through ice or the birdsong of a meadow, and punctuated the action with appropriate effects.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Young at Heart

BY THE TIME LESTER YOUNG hit the studio in 1936 to make his first recordings, the 27-year-old already had developed a significantly original sound – no easy feat in an era when many original tenor saxophone voices were busily redefining jazz’s boundaries. Coleman Hawkins was a few years away from revealing his more mellow side, while artists like Ben Webster, Barney Bigard, the short-lived Chu Berry, and audacious Bud Freeman were emerging from the pack.

But Young was more different still, his rhythmic intensity dancing behind harmonically inventive solos rendered in a creamy voice. And he was helped, on this session, by a rhythm section so tight that they played as one person. The triumvirate of Count Basie, Jo Jones, and Walter Page packed a syncopated wallop in every bar they played even as their music seemed to stare at you through sleepy, half-lidded eyes.

“The first thing that you have to keep in mind as you listen to these four selections is that nothing like them had ever been heard before,” writes Loren Schoenberg, a jazz historian who also wields a mean tenor sax. “And in the young Lester Young there can be heard the reinvention of the tenor saxophone as well as the first recorded examples of a new vocabulary for jazz.”