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Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Hard-Working Bard

WITH ALL DUE RESPECT to the late James Brown, I believe that the hardest-working man in show business is Bridge Street Theatre’s Steven Patterson. He co-founded the theater; he handles publicity and building repairs. Sometimes he takes tickets or sells concessions, or possibly both. Other times he’s onstage, taking on a remarkable range of roles, from ensemble comedy to solo drama, from contemporary classics to whatever you call Eugene O’Neill.

Jack Rento as Julian, Em Whitworth as
Rosemary, Andrew Gorhring as
Henry, and Steven Patterson as
William Shakespeare.
In the case of “Rude Mechanics,” world-premiering on the Bridge Street stage, he essays that dizzying range in one show, playing three roles ranging from the frantic to the ethereal, with (literal) Shakespeare in-between. And he’s playing these in the company of three other actors who help spin a dizzying web of confusion and intrigue backstage of a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that’s about to be performed before King James I and some royal visitors from Spain. It’s 1612. Cast members are succumbing to the plague infecting London.

That’s why Julian Crosse will be going on as Francis Flute, who plays the female role of Thisbe in the play-within-this-play. Julian is nervous, excited, terrified – a panoply of emotions that give Jack Rento, making his Bridge Street debut, a hilarious set of instant transformations.

Friday, April 21, 2023

The Big, Fat Lummox

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome back Booth Tarkington, whose 1916 novel Seventeen was, like most of the author’s books at the time, a best-seller. It’s fair to day that it hasn’t aged well; in fact, one wag observed that, if it were to seem relevant today, it should be retitled “Thirteen.” It offers the lovelorn William Sylvanus Baxter, pining with infatuation for the baby-talking Lola Pratt, a summer visitor to William’s midwestern town. The boy is about to join a number of his friends, all vying for Lola’s attention, on a picnic excursion.

                                                                                          

IN THE MORNING SUNSHINE, Mrs. Baxter stood at the top of the steps of the front porch, addressing her son, who listened impatiently and edged himself a little nearer the gate every time he shifted his weight from one foot to the other.

“Willie,” she said, “you must really pay some attention to the laws of health, or you’ll never live to be an old man.”

“I don’t want to live to be an old man,” said William, earnestly. “I’d rather do what I please now and die a little sooner.”

“You talk very foolishly,” his mother returned. “Either come back and put on some heavier THINGS or take your overcoat.”

“My overcoat!” William groaned. “They’d think I was a lunatic, carrying an overcoat in August!”

“Not to a picnic,” she said.

“Mother, it isn’t a picnic, I’ve told you a hunderd times! You think it’s one those ole-fashion things YOU used to go to—sit on the damp ground and eat sardines with ants all over ‘em? This isn’t anything like that; we just go out on the trolley to this farm-house and have noon dinner, and dance all afternoon, and have supper, and then come home on the trolley. I guess we’d hardly of got up anything as out o’ date as a picnic in honor of Miss PRATT!”

Mrs. Baxter seemed unimpressed.

Friday, April 14, 2023

Fair Seedtime Had My Soul

 ADAM ALEXANDER, whose curiosity prompted travel all over the world collecting endangered vegetable seeds to grow and share, writes that

“Crammed into two fridges in the garage behind my study are jars and boxes filled with envelopes containing – at the time of writing – 499 varieties of vegetable seeds, sadly most no longer commercially available.” Adam Alexander grows some 70 varieties a year for food and seed-saving, something he started doing in the 1970s, although back then it was only about producing vegetables.

The seed-saving part of his book The Seed Detective starts in 1988, with a pepper. The author discovered it in the Ukrainian city of Donetsk; more specifically, in a farmers’ market stall, grown by a granny too poor to buy seeds and thus in the habit of saving them.

He doesn’t identify the woman except as a generic type, but notes that he “would always seek out this individual when scouring food markets around the world.” He’s extolling a generic grower, of course, but a grower of very specific produce: Vegetables that sprout from seeds uncorrupted by the chemical processes that have allowed Big Ag to copyright what once was a gift from Nature.

The “tennis-ball-sized sweet pepper with a fiery heart” kicked off Alexander’s search for other heritage and heirloom seeds around the world, many of which he than grows in his garden in eastern Wales. It’s a proving ground for his research as well, as he studies these vegetables to discover exactly what the word “heritage” means in relation to each.

Friday, April 07, 2023

Breaking the Curse

From the Food Vault Dept.: It delights me to discover that a restaurant I enjoyed visiting decades ago continues to thrive. Here’s one of them, in another twenty-year lookback. Although I dined at Lanie’s a couple of times after writing this review, I haven’t been back in a long while. A glance at the restaurant’s website confirms that the menu has changed and prices, you won’t be surprised to learn, have increased. So don’t be lulled by what’s listed below – those prices are mementoes of a fabled past.

                                                                                  
        

“THERE WAS A LOT OF TALK about how this spot had a curse,” says Lanie Lansing, “but I think the success of a restaurant really depends on what the people around it want. You can’t open a doughnut shop in an area that doesn’t eat doughnuts.”

This spot in Loudonville’s Kimberly Square hosted The Bistro most recently; before that, Olivia’s, Smoothy’s and Desperado’s, among others. Lanie’s vision, and it’s been quite a success during the restaurant’s nearly two years of operation, has been to offer a family-friendly menu that also features some fancy stuff, in a space that’s as suited for after-work relaxing as it is for full-scale dining.

But the emphasis is on casual. No white linen here, and you’re as likely to spot a pizza on a table as you are a complicated seafood dish. Lansing opened her restaurant with a well-focused vision, a vision that evolved during her many years in the business, which included 16 years as a bartender. “I worked at Ralph’s Tavern, J.T. Maxie’s, Thirsty’s, the Barnsider and many other places. But I always wanted to have my own restaurant. I love to cook. My whole family cooks. When we decided to go into this place, my husband gave up his contracting business to help me.”

Friday, March 31, 2023

In the Neighborhood

From the Food Vault Dept.: We look back twenty years to a Schenectady neighborhood (and a bit beyond) where the city’s Italian heritage was culinarily honored. But there have been changes since I wrote this piece. Garofalo’s closed in 2018, when an internecine family dispute led to its demise. La Gioia Deli closed in June 2022, but a niece of the founders reopened it four months later, so it’s still there to keep you stocked in Italian specialty items. Saddest of all, Cappiello closed its retail store in 2022, after 101 years in business. Perreca’s thrives, however, and Maria Papa not only opened a restaurant next door but also took over management of nearby Cornell’s, a restaurant at 39 North Jay Street.

                                                                                                

SCHENECTADY HAS AN AMBITIOUS REVITALIZATION PROJECT on tap that seeks to throw money at various parts of the city to see if magic beanstalks grow. Like the Jay Street pedestrian mall, Center City and the moat around Proctor’s, it probably looks good on paper. But no amount of fancy construction has created a downtown that can sustain a fine-dining restaurant. That’s because there are no people to support it.

A fresh Perreca's loaf emerges
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Schenectady’s strength has long been its neighborhoods and sense of family, cultivated when the city was a one-company town, now eroded into tiny pockets of such cohesion. One such pocket is the North Jay Street area, now targeted to become the city’s Little Italy.

In truth, it’s been that for a while, although shifting population centers have depleted the neighborhood. The Sons of Italy is headquartered nearby, but what really give life to the area are the markets.

Begin at a small storefront at 33 North Jay St., easy to recognize by the many bread loaves in the window. Inside, if you visit early enough in the day, you’ll be drenched in the yeasty aroma of the emerging batch. Breadmaking technology hasn’t changed much over the past centuries, and part of Perreca’s success is its simplicity: a couple of ingredients, hand-formed loaves and a trip through the coal-fired oven.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Iberian Melodies

From the Concert Vault Dept.: 81-year-old Jordi Savall is still going strong, still exploring corners of the musical world typically neglected by the classical, folk, traditional, jazz – you name it – worlds. He ties together ancient musical trends in an attempt to remind us that peace and harmony are the default pursuits of the human race. He should have won a Nobel Peace Prize decades ago. Here’s my 2007 review of an appearance he and his ensemble made at Tanglewood.

                                                                                    
     

THE FLORENCE GOULD AUDITORIUM is a lovely, lively venue in handsome Seiji Ozawa Hall, itself overlooking one of Tanglewood’s lush lawns. Folks in the very full house were obviously pleased with the performance, but this wasn’t really the place for the program presented by Jordi Savall’s H├ęsperion XXI.

Jordi Savall and members of H├ęsperion XXI
“The Sephardic Diaspora” gave us a rich series of songs, both instrumental and vocal, from one of the richest musical melting pots of antiquity – 15th-century Iberia. The songs are plaintive, sometimes sarcastic, always deeply affecting, characterized by a melisma-rich minor-key modality.

Which is why this concert should have been given in a blues club. And when percussionist David Mayoral got two or three drums going, his fingers a blur over the different-sized skins as in “Nastaran,” a song from Sofia, we’d clearly settled into a boozy, late-night groove.

Friday, March 17, 2023

In a Terrific Jam

NINE CONCERTS; 31 jazz legends; 86 different songs; twelve hours of music on ten CDs. The statistics are staggering. These are the long-neglected 1950s Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts that Norman Granz presented, by then following a well-worn formula that had served him since 1944. That’s when he conceived the idea of putting his favorite jazz musicians on stage in a jam-session setting, which proved successful both in concert and on record.

As John McDonough’s exhaustive liner notes point out, the initial six years were documented in a 10-CD set issued in 1998 by Verve (a label Granz founded). It’s out of print, but a decent copy won’t bankrupt you. Once a Mosaic set goes out of print, however, the price tends to skyrocket, so if you have neither, I’d start with this one. True, you won’t have Billie Holiday or Charlie Parker or even Charlie Ventura, but ‘40s JATP veterans Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Shavers,  Bill Harris, Illinois Jacquet, Flip Phillips, Hank Jones, Ray Brown, and Jo Jones are all here. And Oscar Peterson, who was just dipping his toe in the JATP water in 1949, plays his butt off on most of the sessions in this Mosaic set.

The recordings are drawn from nine concerts given at venues ranging from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl. As the box-set title reminds us, these are “Classic,” not “Complete,” a distinction that gives Mosaic latitude to cherry-pick the best of a bunch. And ownership issues prevented including all or part of some of the 1950s JATP concerts. Granz originally issued much of this material on labels he created but ultimately sold, and those sales seem to have gone every which way.