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Friday, December 29, 2017


Here's a peek -- shot during a very casual rehearsal -- at what'll be on tap when Malcolm Kogut and I bring our cabaret show to Steamer No. 10 Theatre (500 Western Ave., Albany, NY) at 7 PM on New Year's Eve.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Good Sports

From the Food Vault Dept.: It’s nice to report that Maggie’s Café and Sports Grill is still going strong. It’s not a place I’d visit regularly – I have trouble when so many TV screens surround me – but I paid a pleasant visit a decade ago, as the report below attests.


AS THE COWBOYS AND THE PACKERS TOOK to the field, a roar went up from the throng. “I can’t believe how many people are here tonight,” said Maggie Smith, whose eponymous café recently reopened, after a ten-month hiatus, as a sports pub. “This is my busiest night in a long time!”

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Formerly an Italian restaurant, Maggie’s suffered a fire last November – “Just as I was about to do all my Christmas parties,” she laments – and had to undergo extensive renovations. During this period, she decided to change the style of the place.

“People don’t want to pay too much for food,” she reasons. “Not with gas prices and other expenses being what they are.” And so she changed the layout, the look, the menu. All pretense of fanciness was dropped, pub fare moved to the fore, and TVs went in. Lots of them. Eighteen jumbo-sized high-definition screens, surrounding you with a numbing area of visuals and sound, typically tuned to any number of simultaneous sporting events.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Staying on Your Toes

From the Vault Dept.: This year, the Albany Berkshire Ballet gave its 43rd annual tour of “The Nutcracker,” which played at The Egg in Albany on Dec. 9 and had performances as far afield as Pittsfield and Springfield, Mass., and Burlington, Vermont. Here’s my review of what came to Proctors in Schenectady 30 years ago.


ISN'T IT ASTONISHING how far-fetched a plot can be and still convey a spirit of Christmas? “The Nutcracker” is downright absurd, wandering as it does through fantasy into sci-fi, going from simple anthropomorphism into a snowbound ethnic pageant.

A more recent "Nutcracker" photo
from Albany Berkshire Ballet
Yet there’s magic in the ballet yet, as was evidenced by the Berkshire Ballet’s production yesterday afternoon (and evening) at Proctor’s Theatre. Princes and queens, fairies and angels and a swarm of children took to the stage to present the tale of the little girl who saves her Christmas nutcracker from destruction by a horde of angry mice – and is rewarded by a trip to the Kingdom of Sweets.

Ashley White danced the part of young Clara for the matinee with laudable grace; she played the part of the holiday-happy kid with no affectation, and did the most difficult part – watching the Act Two progression of fancy dances – with perfect aplomb.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Magic Baton

ARTURO TOSCANINI WAS BORN IN 1867, and this sesquicentennial year has been marked by events that include a significant new biography by Harvey Sachs, a number of reissues of Toscanini recordings, and a tribute by conductor Steven Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble/New York.

Given Toscanini’s significant reputation on the podium – and its recorded evidence – this was a rather brazen action. Richman has his own praiseworthy recording legacy, with repertory ranging from Gershwin and Grofé to Stravinsky and Copland; “Toscanini 150th Anniversary” (Bridge Records) features some of Toscanini’s less-frequently programmed works, all of them in the pops-concert realm.

The point of it is not to re-create Toscanini performances, and there really is no need to compare. Richman and the Harmonie Ensemble do excellent work here. And the game of comparison is throttled from the start, because the disc starts off with Verdi’s “Aida” overture, which isn’t what you typically hear in front of that opera. As Sachs’s liner notes point out, Verdi discarded this overture in favor of the originally written prelude that endures as the opening, but Toscanini was able to recreate this unpublished work from memory for a single performance – 14 years after a study session of a score lent by Verdi’s heirs. Not surprisingly, it’s a stirring work, and I can’t help but think of Toscanini as I hear the forceful attacks and exciting dynamic contrasts Richman achieves. So much for not comparing!

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Stompin’ at the Savoy

From the Recent Past Dept.: Here’s a recent look at the current occupant of a key Lark Street space that helps give Albany what little reputation for hipness it might enjoy.


IT WAS A TRIP BACK IN TIME, but with more of a hipster look. My wife and I visited the year-old Savoy Taproom on Albany’s Lark Street one weeknight last week, for which we parked in the nearby park and strolled the neighborhood where our decades-ago courtship took place. And once again we threaded our way past the busy bar to the dining-room entryway, where we were seated at one of the dozen tables that ring the small room.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
It’s the old Justin’s all over again. Yet it isn’t. As co-owner Jason Pierce explained, one of his goals “was to create an atmosphere in which people of all ages and from all walks of life could come in and enjoy a drink and conversation and music and have a plain old good time.”

He partnered with Lark Street Business Improvement District chairman Dan Atkins to open the place. Atkins has been in the restaurant business all his life: “I used to be general manager of the Brown Derby, and I’ve been in kitchens since I was nine.” He echoes Pierce’s thought, saying, “You can come in in work boots or in your suit – there’s something for everybody. We get a nice, diverse crowd, and brunch has done well – we get a lot of families. We had to buy highchairs, which is something we’d never thought of, but we were happy to do that.”

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Sing Hallelujah!

Where Was I Again? Dept.: Not far from this piece in my files was another holiday event I took in three decades ago. And how much less misanthropic I sound here than in this recently written screed!


WE GET SO ACCUSTOMED to Proctor’s Theatre as the sort of area uncle of show business, introducing us to talented friends, that it’s a surprise to be reminded of the theater’s own production ability.

Allen Mills
A few times a year, almost shyly, the theater sponsors its own show, but its Christmas bash tops them all. And this year, the fourth such, it topped anything that has come before. We could get used to this sort of thing.

“The Christmas Show” – they dropped the “Old-Fashioned” from the name this year – brings together a roster of local talent that covers most of the entertainment bases. There’s the Mighty Wurlitzer, of course, under the deft hands of Allen Mills; but add to that a couple of choruses, dancers galore, and scenery and effects aplenty.

Under the direction of Maria Bryce, this edition of what ought to be an annual event at least until the second coming took the best of what we saw a year ago and improved it. Making full use of the stage certainly helps. As if to flex their muscles right at the start, the crew gave us a village street complete with the Mohawk Valley Chorus, overcoated and scarved, singing “White Christmas” under a snowfall.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Winter Lights

IT’S BRUTALLY COLD TODAY, with a wind that crisps the edges of the cold air and chases it up your trousers. I’m in a coffeeshop – a food co-op, actually – working in the pleasant coffee-consumption area even as my ankles grow numb. The front doors are whistling. When customers enter, they’re hunched and red-faced, gripping their collars. A light snowfall blows at a forty-five degree angle.

Such weather works alongside the commercial pressures of holiday ads and music to never let us forget that Christmas approaches. There may have been a time when this holiday offered a pleasant distraction from the weather’s changes; now it seems to be an additional burden.

I recently acquired a $20 laser gadget that shines a merry dance of green and red pinpoint lights against whatever you wish to thus illuminate. Having long wished to drape Christmas lights over a large pine tree that adjoins my house, but lacking the resources to bring in a cherry-picker to facilitate the task, I aimed the gadget at the tree and was rewarded with a light show somewhat approaching the result I desired. It delights my wife. Can’t ask for more.

Friday, December 08, 2017

Mankind Was My Business

Where Was I? Dept.: Looking back thirty years, I was reviewing my butt off. Here’s one example, one of the many productions of this piece I’ve seen, which doesn’t count the productions I’ve been in, including several teen years playing Marley’s Ghost, lifting my characterization wholesale from Michael Hordern. Matt Kamprath made a career out of playing Scrooge – the accompanying photo is very recent.


THE NEBRASKA THEATRE CARAVAN’S highly literate version of “A Christmas Carol” filled the house at Proctor’s Theatre Thursday night as the saga of stingy Scrooge was given a Currier & Ives look and a top-notch performance.

Matt Kamprath as Scrooge and Sarah Kloster as the
Ghost of Christmas Past | Photo by Christian Robertson
Charles Jones’s adaptation made generous use of the Dickens original as we moved from street to countinghouse to bedchamber; the familiar lines of the opening narrative were given to some of the merchants of the town even as they set a holiday mood with traditional songs of the season, songs like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Wassail.”

The few pieces of set turned or were flown to create scene after scene; combined with authentically detailed costumes and an imaginative lighting design, there was a film-like feel to the flow of action, very appropriate to this dreamlike story.

Matt Kamprath played Scrooge with a good portion of wit sprinkled over the nastiness, enough to make us believe that the man truly was redeemable. Short of stature, with a nasal Lionel Barrymore voice, he pranced around in nightshirt and cap with the energy of a dozen Gilbert & Sullivan patter song men.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Cursive Curse

IT WAS A BIRTHDAY GREETING for my wife, many years ago. A gift, lavishly wrapped (for me, the introduction of scotch tape into the wrapping process makes it lavish), with a handwritten letter detailing my adoration. “I love the present!” she cried, tearing the paper off the whatever-it-was. “And a letter!” She peered hopefully at the page, then lowered it. “But I can’t read it.”

The author with his Smith-Corona, c. 1975
Not many can make sense of my scrawl, which isn’t surprising: I never learned to write. In other respects, I was a precocious little bastard, a fluent enough reader by kindergarten that I was invited to read to the other kids at the end of the day while the teacher cleaned up. In first grade, when we were split into learning-to-read groups, I was given one of them to instruct. Needless to say, my classmates despised me.

We are speaking of a time in the dim, pre-computer past, when a number-two pencil was a needed companion and the taking of classroom notes required not only a written approximation of the teacher’s talk but also a sequence of margin-busting doodles, visiting ever-greater horrors upon the cruelly rendered teacher as that talk droned on and on.

During the opening weeks of second grade, it was decided to skip me to third. Friendless as I was, I hoped for a fresh chance with these fresh faces – but I was an interloper. In the long run, I was ruined both socially and academically, and it started with penmanship.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Yates of Heaven

From the Food Vault Dept.: Thirty years ago I decided to pack it in as a restaurant reviewer. I’d done it for two years and the grind had worn me down. I took a two-year respite and was begged to resume – which I would do for another quarter-century. That’s a lot of pasta. Here’s my penultimate piece before that break, visiting an eatery that won a great reputation, closed after a couple of years, re-opened briefly as The Pasta Factory, and then gave way to an intermittent succession of bars, more suited to the neighborhood. As sometimes happened in my reviews, I tried a different approach, the intended whimsy of which now seems to me pretentious.


COME ALONG AND BE MY DATE for dinner: we’re going to Yates Street in Albany, a restaurant that has as its name its own address, and I’d like you to take a look at what makes this place so special.

Its location, on an out-of-the-way but attractive street, reminds you of the little gems of restaurants tucked away on the side streets of New York, London, Montreal. But it isn’t on a street of restaurants: there’s a laundromat nearby, and the inevitable Price Chopper.

Inside you’ll see first of all the old, long bar, a big mahogany affair installed around the turn of the century by a local brewery. Beyond it, the dining room, its walls lined with dark wainscotting that meets, halfway up, the cream-colored tin that also covers the ceiling.

There’s the look of an old saloon about it: appropriate to a place that once served the men who ruled Albany. About four years ago the building was bought by partners Linda Leyden-Bernal and Ken Linden, who turned it into a top-notch restaurant – something Albany always canuse – that, despite favorable reviews from as far away as Manhattan, still could attract a few more clients.