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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Profile: Deb Girdler

From the Vault Dept.: Back in the late 1980s, the Cohoes Music Hall was under the artistic direction of Robert W. Tolan and churned out one hit show after another. A mainstay in several of those shows was Deb G. Girdler, whom I profiled in early 1989. She’s back in her native Cincinnati, where she just appeared in an acclaimed production of “Cinderella” with that city’s Ensemble Theatre; she’s also hit the big screen in the movie “Carol.”


SHE MAKES IT SOUND as if she’d leave acting in a minute and settle down in a dressmaking shop in Cincinnati, but stays on, oh, for the fun of it. She makes it sound easy. Makes it look easy, too, unless you’ve seen a few of the Heritage Artists productions this season at the Cohoes Music Hall. Deb Girdler has been in every one of them, a tour-de-force lineup of impersonations that have ranged from sultry to bratty to funny as hell.

Watching her rehearse “I Do! I Do!,” in which she’s currently starring, gives you a feel for the craft she tries to conceal. Her character is pregnant, so Girdler has her walking in bowlegged syncopation, tilted slightly. The comedy is applied with skillful care: the character is never unbelievable. The finished product, which finds the actress beautifully gowned and amusingly pillowed, draws those low, knowing chuckles from the audience that are the best testimony to comic skill.

She’s a trained singer and dancer but those abilities are only underpinnings to her most obvious attribute: in the tradition of Gertrude Lawrence and Judy Holliday, Girdler is a comedian. That’s an extra touch of theatrical skill – many can act, few can transcend it with a comic sense.

Talk to her and you realize you’re being collected, another set of mannerisms for her histrionic lexicon. At the same time she speaks charmingly, a little Kentucky resonance belying her native state. “I’m having a great time here,” she says, indicating the Cohoes Music Hall. “Being in all these shows is like a dream for me. It gives me plenty to do, which is good – I get bored so easily.” She laughs, a gesture you recognize from the stage. It’s a contagious, Joyce Grenfell-like shriek. “And I always seem to end up in these nifty old little places. I’ve worked at the Charles Theatre in Boston and Ford’s Theatre in Washington – the only new place I think I’ve appeared in was at the Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati.”

Monday, February 22, 2016

John Caldwell: In Memoriam

Now we're forced to bid good-bye to John Caldwell. I described my brief creative association with him in this post. Below is another of the sketches he made for a never-to-be-used campaign for the short-sighted Schenectady Symphony, nicely illustrating an ad for a concert that included Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf."

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Had the Jitters

From the Food Vault Dept.: Sometimes it didn’t matter how much I raved about a place. Jitters CafĂ© held forth for a few glorious years, serving as a reliable dinner spot when traveling to Saratoga Springs and back – and then it was gone. But here’s what  I about it wrote five years ago.


“I KNOW THIS BUSINESS is supposed to be about turning tables and making money,” says Gina Prince, “but I don’t care if someone comes in here and just buys a cup of coffee and sits for four hours reading or using a computer. We want to be a friendly place.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The place in question is tucked into a strip mall on Geyser Rd., on the western edge of Ballston Spa. Follow the road a few miles east and it puts you at one of the entrances to the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. Which is how we found the place: it sits along the back way to SPAC from my house.

With Saratoga’s dining options in something of an uproar this time of year, it’s a relief to find a place that’s both accommodating and inexpensive, offering an array of light-fare dishes that suit the summer weather well.

Not that I’d label the item I chose, a chicken quesadilla ($10) as especially light, but it became mine by default after my wife changed her mind while in the midst of ordering, opting instead for a portobello wrap ($8). There’s a protocol to dining out with me, one I thought was long established in my own family, for crying out loud. Everybody gets something different. We try to cover as varied a panoply of items as possible. And you don’t change you order.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Have Song, Will Travel

“BEYOND THE BLUE HORIZON” often is sung (when it gets sung at all) as the telling of a dream, in an “Over the Rainbow” approach. When Molly Ryan sings it, as the second track of her new recording “Let’s Fly Away,” it’s with the determination of one who has the tickets in hand and is raring to go.

Travel is the theme of this collection of fourteen songs, recorded with an outstanding group of instrumentalists. It’s bookended by a pair of “wander” numbers, beginning with Bud Flanagan’s “Wanderer,” better known in England in the 1930s, but as shrewd a stage-setting song as could have been selected. “Leave me alone, let me wander,” Ryan sings, but her claim to be a roving vagabond is colored with the possibility that she wouldn’t mind some company.

That’s due in part to her self-assured, jazz-inflected style, and in part to the chorus that precedes her entry, with tight brass phrases and decorative response by Mark Shane’s piano. These players swing, and that offers its own irresistible invitation to follow.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

The Censorship of Thought

Guest Blogger Dept.: Novelist Robert Keable wrote Simon Called Peter in 1921, telling the story of a priest’s dalliance with a nurse during the First World War. It signalled his rebellion against the Church of England – he’d been a priest – and a shift to the kind of enlightenment that prompted an  invitation to contribute to the collection Nonsenseorship, sections of which have appeared here during the past few years.


Robert Keable Urging the Automaton
Called Citizen to Turn on His Oppressor

Illustration by Ralph Barton
I KNEW A MAN, about a year ago, who published a novel upon which the critics fell with such fury this side of the water at least, that whether in the body or out of the body, such was ultimately his state of bewilderment, he could not tell, and if I am asked to discuss “Prohibitions, Inhibitions and Illegalities” it is natural that the incident should be foremost in my mind. True, it is becoming increasingly the fashion for a parson to preach a sermon without announcing text, but modern preaching, like brief bright brotherly breezy modern services, does not seem to cut much ice. Therefore we will hark back to the manner of our forefathers and take the incident for a text. It affords an admirable example of nonsenseorship.

As is always done in approved sermons (but humbly entreating your forbearance, which is less common) let us consider the context, let us review the circumstances of the case in point. Our author left the lonely heart of Africa for the theatre of war in France. He left a solitude, a freedom, a beauty, of which he had become enamoured, for that assemblage of all sorts of all nations, in a cock--pit of din and fury, known as the Western Front. He expected this, that, and the other; mainly he found the other, that, and this. Being desirous of serving the God of things as they are, he pondered, he observed, and, his heart burning within him, he wrote. He had no opportunity of writing in France, so he wrote on his return, away up in the Drakensberg mountains, alone, with the clean veld wind blowing about him and the nearest town an hour's ride away, and that but three houses when he reached it. He had seen vivid things and it chanced he was able to write vividly. There were twenty chapters in his novel and he wrote them in twenty days.

Monday, February 08, 2016

Wicked Good Time

From the Theatrical Vault Dept.: Sifting through the ashes of the late Metroland magazine, I’m finding some pieces I wrote recently enough to leave me thinking I’ve posted them here – and discovering I haven’t. Here’s a review of the show Wicked, which played at Proctors in Schenectady during its second national tour.


NOTHING FIRES THE ENERGIES of your typical American lowbrow more surely than a figure of Evil, preferably in an austerely Manichean context. Faux-conservative windbaggery thrives on thumbnail vilification, and sculpts a steady stream of no-good-niks to hate. Tagging them, of course, with the label “liberal,” which is code for “smarter than I’ll ever hope to be.”

Carrie Manolakos as Elphaba
The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch is an archetype of evil, eager to kill in pursuit of footwear, thus assuring herself a permanent place in populist entertainment.

Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked ingeniously imagined a backstory for this babe, taking her far from the colorful but black-and-white characterization we know so well from the movie, and it’s fitting that this story should get a Broadway recrafting as well. I’m sure a new movie will follow.

What’s most impressive, however, is the great popularity of this piece. It’s been a Broadway sellout since it opened six years ago, and has spawned two national tours, one of which is spending a few weeks at Proctor’s Theatre. True, the theater audience tends to be a rarefied bunch, but it’s heartening to see that a live show can achieve blockbuster status in that context.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

In Memoriam: Dan Nilsson

Bad News Dept.: It was a terrible shock to learn of the death of Dan Nilsson (no relation), chef-owner of Hudson’s DA|BA. A meticulous craftsman, he raised the dining bar for that city and for the greater area. I have no idea of what the restaurant is planning for its future, and no wish to call to find out. But here’s the review I wrote for Metroland in 2012.


WHEN IT COMES TO RESTAURANTS, the most fascinating few blocks of arrayed eateries is in Hudson, where a steady boom in arts and antiques also has delivered no lack of dining choices. DABA opened six years ago in a building that has served the city at least as far back as the 1940s, when it sported a faux log cabin look, spent some time as a pizza joint, and most recently was the Paramount Grill.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Now it’s a welcoming, unfussy eatery with two comfortable dining areas separated by a two-sided bar, with walls of muted earth tones and improbably elegant butcher paper laid over linen-topped tables.

To identify it as a Swedish restaurant acknowledges that it serves an astonishingly wonderful preparation of Swedish meatballs ($22), that you’ll find such characteristic items as herring and lingonberries and that the chef is surnamed Nilsson, a moniker shared only by an illustrious few.

But DABA’s Swedishness is only a jumping-off point. Chef-owner Daniel Nilsson has fashioned a dining environment that welcomes you into a meal experience where harmony and balance inform each plate.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Seriously Music

THE VIOLIN ENTERS in measure five of Brahms’s Sonata No. 2, and it’s a tentative moment, echoing the piano’s just-sounded trip from F# down to C#, but making a more reluctant descent of it by adding the intervening E and D. It’s marked “piano,” with an immediate decrescendo hairpin. But it’s tricky to be quiet there.

Stefan Jackiw
Stefan Jackiw’s entrance was all the quieter because he started that F# somewhere in the pianississimo range – could he even hear it himself? – and let it bloom into a haunting echo.

It happens again a few bars later, but this time the violin is more tonally assertive, echoing the piano’s interval of E to B, but finishing on A, the tonic. It’s subtle, but this is Brahms in his autumnal mode, creating drama in quiet ways. And, to their credit, Jackiw and pianist Anna Polonsky didn’t try to impose unnecessary drama. They followed the work’s mood shifts, bringing out its joyful rhythmic variety, letting the sunlight peep through in the movement’s development section.

Jackiw has a gorgeous tone and tremendous control. His shifts, for example, can be soundless if he so desires. “It’s the violin,” a woman behind me ridiculously declared at intermission. “That’s what makes him sound good.” No, an accomplished fiddler can make the humblest of instruments sound superb. And it takes nerves of iron, as well, as Jackiw demonstrated when a cell phone went off in the audience during the second movement and its owner struggled to figure out how to silence the thing. (When you give your grandparents cell phones, please teach them this important skill.)

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

House of Mike

From the Restaurant Vault Dept.: I recently had lunch at Chez Mike in East Greenbush, the first time I’ve been back in a long while, and the place was a good as I remembered – certainly as good as it was when I first visited, and wrote about it, in 2009.


“IT’S THE STRANGEST THING,” says Mike Cohen. “Somebody showed me a blog entry that said how nice my restaurant is and how good the food is – but the writer promised to return only if I move out of the strip mall I’m in.”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
The Long Island-born chef-owner of Chez Mike notes that there seem to be few objections to big-city restaurants occupying strip mall-like spaces, so why this peculiar prejudice?

I’m inclined to blame it on the many mediocre eateries that strip malls attract, often joints where the bar dominates the room and the grilled chicken was burner-striped by Sysco. But as Cohen’s restaurant name suggests, this is far from the case at his eatery.

Formerly chef at Lippera’s Chatham House, Cohen decided to open his own place “while I’m still young and have the energy to do this. My wife and I live in East Greenbush, and when we looked at what else is here, we realized that there’d be a place here for the kind of restaurant I wanted to run.”

Chez Mike opened in June 2008, in the Hannaford Plaza on Columbia Turnpike, the restaurant so-named “to combine a sense of the French heritage of the cooking I do with something more tongue-in-cheek and accessible,” says Mike. He and Michele both are Culinary Institute graduates, and his resume also includes a stint at Manhattan’s renowned Four Seasons.