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Monday, September 19, 2016

Eyeing the Storm

IT’S EASY, THESE DAYS, to investigate the evolution of motion pictures, but live theater is an experience of the moment and wears its history only insofar as a contemporary play accumulates trends of the past. But those trends tend to get thrown off as theater evolves and a presentational acting style turns naturalistic and then more naturalistic still.

From left, Brett Owan, Alexandra Doggette, Elisabeth Henry,
Kane Prestenback, and David Smilow. Photo by John Sowle
By the time George M. Cohan wrote “The Tavern” in 1920, Eugene O’Neill was winning the Pulitzer Prize for “Beyond the Horizon” and Broadway was about to get his “Anna Christie,” while Shaw’s “Heartbreak House” was playing down the street. In the wings were such playwrights as Maxwell Anderson and Sidney Howard and that innovative juggernaut, The Theatre Guild, all poised to change the face of Broadway entertainment – but this also was the year of “Frivolities of 1920" and a revival of “Floradora.”

“The Tavern” opened in the midst of all this as a both a tribute to and satire of the simplistic melodrama that O’Neill et. al. sought to supersede. This kind of story must have bubbled in Cohan’s very bones, given his by-then very long theatrical career, both as a writer and performer. He grew up touring in vaudeville and minstrel shows, and, with a long line of successes behind him, became fascinated with a script deemed so lousy by another producer that he sent it to Cohan just to share a laugh.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Gypsy for Me

From the Classical Vault Dept.: Among of the highlights of my busy reviewing schedule thirty years ago were the trips into New York’s Washington County to a converted dairy barn where the chamber group L’Ensemble performed. This also dates back to when I typed my review into a terminal in the office of the Schenectady Gazette, and thus have no computer file in my archives. I assembled booklets of clips from that era, and have enjoyed going through my thirty-years-ago cultural history.


THE FIRST SURPRISE FLUSHES OF FALL provided an atmospheric setting Saturday night for L’Ensemble’s “A Gypsy Summer” at the group’s not-too-modified barn-cum-concert hall in Cambridge, NY.

The spirit of the Hungarian fiddler was effectively captured in performances of mainstream classical chamber music with characteristic gypsy elements.

The idea for this program came to artistic director Ida Faiella last New Year’s Eve at a café in Budapest, she explained in her introduction; as a performer in the first half of the Cambridge concert, she sang Brahms’s “Ziegeunerlieder” with a vivacious understanding of the evocative poems.

Brahms spent some time performing with a violinist who shared with him the characteristic sounds and stylings of the gypsy’s music, so that the composer could inform even original melodies with an appropriately exotic flavor.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Vaudeville Revisited

From the Vault Dept.: The New Vaudeville still struggles to find a mainstream toehold, and I suspect it never will. Which, while it may help preserve its weird, antic nature, renders it hard to find outside of the biggest cities. Here’s a 30-year-old look I took at one such event, brought from Washington County into Schenectady’s Proctor’s Theatre.


SOMETHING WONDERFUL HAPPENED at Proctor’s Theatre Saturday night, although it left much of the audience wondering exactly what it was that had happened. It was funny, it was tricky, it sang, it danced, it disappeared.

It was the New Vaudeville Show from Hubbard Hall, originating just upstate in Cambridge, Washington County.

Now, it wasn’t vaudeville with potted palms and signboards, and there wasn’t a dog act anywhere near it. In fact, it was a collection of five acts with a cooperative attitude. Let’s look at them one by one.

George Wilson is a fiddler who looks the part: bearded, grey, red suspenders. He gave us a medley of contagiously fun rhythmic material that made you want to get up and dance, which is exactly what clogger Ira Bernstein did throughout the show. Joining Wilson for tapping or clogging, Bernstein started off in jeans and ended up in a modified tux, and in the course of things gave us the exuberance of Ray Bolger and the elegance of Astaire – with some down-home heel-kickin’ thrown in.

The Wright Bros. aren’t consanguineous brothers, as they explain in a comic song, and yet it seems as if they must be related. They must be. You get the feeling that this must be what the five Marx Brothers were like, but with a dash of Three Stooges thrown in. They juggle, they dance, they sing (with dreadfully funny results), they tear up the stage.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Gettin’ the ‘Cue

THERE’S NOT A BIG BARBECUE PRESENCE in Provincetown, Mass. Stroll down busy Commercial Street and you’ll be exhorted to try burgers and pizza and, of course, seafood. So my wife and daughter and I were delighted to learn of a fairly new place with a wonderfully impressive moniker.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The first surprise at Two Southern Sissies is that the barbecue on offer, which includes pulled pork and beef brisket, isn’t smoked. The second is that it’s nevertheless delicious. Not that it should be any surprise: although he was raised in upstate New York, co-owner Keith Lewis claims a Virginia heritage that goes back far enough to number explorer Meriwether Lewis among his forebears. “My father was the first in the family to stray farther than fifty miles from home,” Keith explains.

Thus, his recipes are taken from a long family tradition, but adapted to be more healthful than might otherwise have been the case. Hence the smoke-free slow-cooking, not to mention ingredients that come from grass-fed, humanely raised critters and, when possible, local farms.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Progretto’s Progress

MARTHA ARGERICH’S LUGANO FESTIVAL (Progretto Martha Argerich) is in its 15th year, with a just-completed schedule of events that bodes to be its last. Switzerland’s BSI bank has dropped funding – a move said to be unrelated to the bank’s indictment for criminal activity – and there’s no native sponsor who can replace the amount.

Which means that the three-CD set “Live from Lugano 2015" may be the penultimate such edition, and that’s a shame. The festival has spawned 13 three-CD sets, a four-CD set of concertos, and a handful of single CDs, and they’re all treasures. The Argerich imprimatur guarantees good performances, even when she herself isn’t participating. And the festival has always brought together old friends and fresh talent, the latter including such now-stars as the Capuçon brothers and pianist Gabriela Montero.

In other words, you can trust the performances, even if you’ve never heard of the players. Better still, you can trust the repertory, which always is shrewdly programmed to mix the unfamiliar with the warhorses. Typically there’s a big, familiar lead-off piece, although the recently issued 2015 edition pulls a small switcheroo by giving us Brahms’s Horn Trio, Op. 40, in the viola version.

Friday, August 26, 2016

The Bard on Board

From the Concert Vault Dept.: I’m listening to some recent releases by Jordi Savall and will write about them in this space in the coming days; meantime, here’s a revisit to a Tanglewood concert of his I wrote about in 2009, which featured the excellent assistance of F. Murray Abraham.


ASIDE FROM THE MUSIC OF THE WORDS THEMSELVES, Shakespeare’s plays were bathed in a context of music – songs within the scripts, music summoned by various scenes, and a general sense that there were tunes being suggested even when not specifically mentioned.

F. Murray Abraham with Le Concert des Nations
Photo by Hilary Scott
And there’s been a huge industry during and since Shakespeare’s time of providing song settings, instrumental underscoring, overtures, ballets, operas, and more. Robert Johnson is the only composer known to have set songs in the first productions of Shakespeare’s plays, although his instrumental pieces aren’t as easy to place. It is reckoned that he contributed to “The Winter’s Tale,” so last week’s Tanglewood concert by Jordi Savall and his period-instruments group Le Concert des Nations commenced with lines from that play.

Thanks to F. Murray Abraham’s conversational but rhythmic approach to the texts, we also were treated to the musical nature of Shakespeare’s words.

This was no random pairing of actor and ensemble; Abraham and Savall joined forces late last year to present words and music from and inspired by “Don Quixote.” Uniting again for Shakespeare was therefore a natural extension.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Nightmare on Main Street

From the Seller’s Cellar Dept.: Pennsylvania approved the sale of wine in grocery stores two months ago, prompting some talk of New York looking again at doing the same. It hasn’t been on Gov. Cuomo’s agenda, and the disadvantages of such a policy haven’t changed since I penned this piece in 2009.


AMONG THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF BUDGET’S many breathless proposals to save, grab or re-claim money, the one of most concern to this column is a proposal to allow wine sales in grocery stores. It’s pitched to accrue something like $150 million over the next three years ($105 million the first year; far less thereafter), most of it coming from the licensing fees the supermarkets would pay.

Whether all 19,000 grocery and convenience stores across the state actually would pony up is but one of many variables projected into this proposal. But the Business Council of NY State has eagerly signed off on the issue, promising that it “will create new markets for upstate and Long Island wineries and convenience for consumers,” according to council president Kenneth Adams. “In addition, the proposal will generate new revenue for the cash-strapped state.” It’s a point of view no doubt shared by two of council’s board members with a large stake in the issue: Paul S. Speranza, Jr., General Counsel and Secretary to Wegmans, and Neil Golub, CEO of Price Chopper.

A fascinatingly patriotic drumbeat sounds under the pro-grocery-store rhetoric, suggesting that New York’s wineries will find a wonderland of new sales outlets in these supermarkets – and that New York’s customers will leave those supermarkets with piles of the state’s product in their carts.