Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Theater review: Challenging 'Copenhagen' deserves to be seen

Elizabeth Dimon, Christopher Oden
and Colin McPhillamy in Copenhagen.



By Hap Erstein

Theatergoers who feel they know playwright Michael Frayn from the evidence of his most successful stage work, the backstage farce Noises Off! -- or even from his thoughtful drama on the architecture of relationships, Benefactors, which Palm Beach Dramaworks produced in 2008 -- are bound to be taken aback by his most cerebral script, the 2000 Tony Award-winning best play Copenhagen.

True, they are each constructed like a puzzle, asking an audience to consider the central matter at hand from multiple perspectives, but if the two earlier plays make demands of us, and they do, Copenhagen is like a theatrical graduate course, using nuclear physics as a metaphor for an enigmatic moment in history that has intrigued and perplexed students of World War II for almost 70 years.

The good news is much of the scientific jargon that Frayn tosses about is not crucial to one’s enjoyment of the bracing Dramaworks production, directed with precision by J. Barry Lewis. Yes, there is an additional layer of meaning to be had if you happen to have been paying attention in your quantum mechanics class, but do not be deterred if you never got beyond remedial geology.

The playwright that Copenhagen most brings to mind is Tom Stoppard, who similarly challenges an audience with heady dialogue, and often leaves us scratching our heads, producing the dandruff of information overload. Still, it is hard not to admire a play that flatters theatergoers with the presumption of knowledge. Even if, for both Frayn and Stoppard, the results often engage the intellect and bypass the emotions.

Copenhagen could stand to have about a half-hour of its verbiage pruned for optimum effectiveness, but as is it makes for the sort of compelling theater of substance with which Dramaworks has forged its reputation.

Frayn puckishly sets the play in the afterlife, as Germany’s Werner Heisenberg and his Danish colleague Niels Bohr try to sort out their brief, mysterious meeting in 1941, a meeting that could well have changed the course of the war and, consequently, of the world.

These two physicists were student and teacher, protégé and mentor, surrogate son and father figure, but after their meeting -- which ended abruptly -- they would not speak to each other for eight years. Was Heisenberg after news about the Allied Forces’ efforts to build an atomic bomb? Was he looking for information that could assist Germany in building its own nuclear weapon?

Ever the gamesman, Frayn suggests three different solution to the Copenhagen riddle, dramatizing three successive “drafts” of what might have transpired, leaving it up to the audience to decide what really happened.

Present at the meeting -- though not along for the crucial, confrontational walk in the park -- is Bohr’s wife Margrethe. In the play, she is a valuable third wheel, a stand-in for the audience who challenges and corrects the two men’s recollections, while demanding they clarify their thinking and express it in layman’s language.

And sure enough, even when the conversation flies over our heads, we get the impression that the three actors at Dramaworks actually understand everything they are saying. Lewis has a trio of verbally adroit, articulate performers, who go a long way towards humanizing the talking-heads debate.

Colin McPhillamy is a low-key Bohr, struggling to keep his temper in check, as he parries the accusations of the more excitable Heisenberg (Christopher Oden). Acting as their mutual inquisitor is Elizabeth Dimon as Margrethe Bohr, who can express so much with a mere arched eyebrow.

Although the script indicates virtually no stage action, Lewis choreographs his cast with skill, as they move about Michael Amico’s faux-marble, institutional way station set like the charged particles of an atom.

One part historical mystery, one part post-graduate physics tutorial and one part human drama, Copenhagen deserves to be experienced, no matter how much you actually absorb and digest.

COPENHAGEN, Palm Beach Dramaworks, 322 Banyan Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Jan. 31. Tickets: $42-$44. Call: (561) 514-4042.

Theater review: Tommy Tune takes pleasant look back at his career

Hoofer and choreographer Tommy Tune turned 70 this year.

By Hap Erstein

Bigger, or at least taller, than life, 6-foot-6-inch Tommy Tune made a one-night stop on the Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall stage Tuesday evening with an amiable shuffle-ball-change through his career, appropriately titled Steps in Time.

The nine-time Tony Award-winning director-choreographer-performer celebrated his 50th year in show business in 2009, which was excuse enough for a loosely assembled “autobiography in song and dance.”

“Nonchalance” was the operative word for his 80-minute, intermissionless set, supported by The Manhattan Rhythm Kings, a couple of tap-happy average-sized performers dwarfed by Tune. The meaning of the term, as it applies to the rhythmic clatter of metal cleats on a stage floor, was taught to Tune by the late Charles “Honi” Coles, his co-star and fellow Tony winner for the 1983 Gershwin musical My One and Only.

Tune paid touching tribute to the veteran vaudevillian as he and the Kings demonstrated Coles’ deft synthesis of tap and softshoe.

In addition to his half a century in show biz, Tune turned 70 this year, but that was acknowledged only obliquely, as he sang I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore from Gigi. Also on the bill were a few Cy Coleman tunes from Seesaw -- the show for which Tune won his first performance Tony -- and a Gershwin medley from My One and Only.

Other song choices were less obvious and went unexplained, like the back-to-back selections of Married, from Cabaret, and Baby, Dream Your Dream, from Sweet Charity.

As he told me in a phone interview a few weeks ago, Steps in Time “uses some of the songs that I’ve done, but I just found a lot of great songs that fit my mindset at the time or that helped tell the story. Songs that I’ve never sung before.”

Fair enough. Still, many of the selections seemed awfully arbitrary, however pleasantly sung, and there was not a single mention of the three major musicals he directed but did not appear in -- Nine, Grand Hotel and The Will Rogers Follies -- let alone a song from any of them.

At 70, Tune continues to be an exceptional dancer, graceful and controlled despite his lanky stature. His height long ago dictated that he would never last long as a chorus dancer. He was simply too distinctive to fit in, so genetics ordained his destiny as a star.

Tune has never had a terrific singing voice. He’s really more of a crooner. But he knows how to caress a lyric with boyish charm, as he demonstrated on Carole King’s Up on the Roof. Why did he select the song? Presumably to give himself a reason to climb an oversized ladder, straddle it and tower over the Kravis audience even more than he already did.

Nor is he a very accomplished writer, and someone who knew how to structure this musical memoir better would have been a real asset. Nevertheless, if this is the autobiographical show of Tune’s that is available, we’ll take it, just to be in his easygoing presence.

It was even worth it simply for his lecture-demonstration of the time step and its various permutations.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Theater feature: The Hapsters, 2009 edition

Marcus Bellamy and Holly Shunkey
in Vices: A Love Story.
(Photo by Sean Lawson)



By Hap Erstein

Producers, who will accept any award, covet them. Actors, who probably do not realize they are rarely complimentary, list them in their program bios. What are they? The annual Hapster Awards, given for achievement -- usually “dubious" -- in theater during the past year.

So here are the 2009 Hapsters (Sorry, times are tough and we couldn’t afford envelopes):

Best Play about Current Events Written 104 Years Ago: Harley Granville-Barker’s 1905 The Voysey Inheritance, which predicted Ponzi schemes before Ponzi and the Bernie Madoff debacle long before the faux-investment adviser ripped off much of Palm Beach County’s wealth. No word yet on the Caldwell Theatre’s play selection from its major donors who were Madoff victims.

Best Onstage Self-Multilation: Six times a week, in Florida Stage’s The Storytelling Ability of a Boy, actress Bethany Anne Lind takes a nail gun and pneumatically pounds a nail into her hand, nailing it to a wall onstage as blood trickles from the nail hole down her arm. How does she do it? Very well.

Worst Broadway Two-Play Repertory by America’s Most Commercially Successful Playwright: You think you had a bad autumn? Think about Neil Simon, who was supposed to have two of his best scripts, Brighton Beach Memoirs and Broadway Bound in rotation in New York. But despite encouraging reviews for Memoirs, so few theatergoers showed up that it closed after a week, while Broadway Bound was scrubbed before it could complete its rehearsals.

Best High-Stepping Performance by a Pregnant Woman: Jodie Langel, who played Eva Peron in the Maltz Jupiter’s production of Evita. She coyly played for sympathy with reviewers by confiding in those who interviewed her in advance that she would be performing the strenuous role while in the family way. There is no evidence to the rumor that her baby popped out eventually singing, Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.

Burt Reynolds in Barrymore.


Gain Some: Welcome the Burt Reynolds’ Under-the-Bridge Players, a new version of the long-since defunct Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training. The new Jupiter-based company opened in December with Buddy himself taking the stage in an approximation of John Barrymore in William Luce’s play Barrymore. While there is little comparison between the two men’s acting skills, the parallels between Barrymore’s fixation on courage-inducing alcohol and Reynolds’ addiction to painkillers was unmistakable.

Lose Some: Avi Hoffman’s New Vista Theatre was headed for its most ambitious year yet in 2009. But early on, it bowed to the realities of the economy and cancelled its production of The Producers. Then bowing to the Madoff ripple effect, it canceled the world premiere of The Shop on Main Street, a serious musical that Hoffman had long workshopped. By year’s end, Hoffman looked at the company’s cash on hand -- OK, it was a brief glimpse -- and declared New Vista kaput.

Worst Swan Song Play Choice: Caldwell Theatre artistic director and co-founder Michael Hall announced his retirement in the spring, to do some traveling and some writing. He has much to be proud of in his long tenure as a pioneer of Palm Beach County theater. One of those things is not his final production, the painfully lame Agatha Christie spoof, Something’s Afoot, which he proudly, and puzzlingly, proclaimed in his program notes is one of his favorite shows of all time. Just in case his audience was already feeling nostalgic for his taste in shows?

Best Start of a New Artistic Director:
If The Hapsters were Time magazine, its Man of the Year award would go to Clive Cholerton. He burst out of the starting gate as the Caldwell’s new artistic director with the world premiere of Vices: A Love Story, a steamy dance show that proclaimed this would no longer be your father’s Caldwell. It was followed by the dramatic powerhouse, The Whipping Man, an on-point staged reading of Sunday in the Park with George and David Mamet’s take on investment cons, The Voysey Inheritance. Still to be determined, though, is whether Cholerton can bring the Caldwell’s average audience member age down below 75.

Best (we hope) Announced Moving Plans: After aborted plans to move its operations to CityPlace, an empty Boynton Beach high school, the Opera Place project and Royal Poinciana Plaza, Florida Stage announced plans to pack up and move out of Manalapan’s Plaza del Mar and into the Kravis Center’s Rinker Playhouse. The architectural drawings look good, but injecting sufficient warmth into that space will be a challenge.

At the same time, long-eager-to-move GableStage in Coral Gables announced it will be moving a few seasons off into a mixed-use complex on the site of the long-shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse. Hmm, if they re-name themselves GroveStage, as artistic director Joe Adler anticipates, they won’t have to get new monogrammed towels.

Worst Imitation of an Active Theater: The Cuillo Centre for the Arts has been collecting cobwebs for most of 2009, as its announced summer hiatus stretched for the remainder of the year. The only significant booking it had during the year was Looped, starring Valerie Harper as a foul-mouthed Tallulah Bankhead. Harper was impressive, but when the production arrives on Broadway later this season, expect the critics there to point out that there is no play there to support her.

In Memoriam: Richard Akins, executive director of the defunct Jupiter Theatre.
Barbara Gault, longtime manager of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse.
Shelly Gross, Broadway producer, co-owner of the Music Fair theater circuit, author and major donor to Palm Beach Dramaworks.

Thomas Jefferson Award (In tribute to President Kennedy’s quip that the greatest gathering of minds at the White House was when T. Jefferson dined alone): To the Kravis Center, for its A Conversation with Stephen Sondheim, one-night live interview with the brilliant composer-lyricist. Now, if we could only get him to buy some longer socks.

Best New Internet TV-Radio Chat Show: Aisle Say, launched June 8 on www.rpbradio.com, with co-hosts Hap Erstein and Bill Hirschmann, freelance theater critics for The Palm Beach Post and South Florida Sun-Sentinel, respectively, and it hasn't gone out of business in six months. (OK, this one is a little self-serving, but, hey, they’re my Hapsters.)

Best Productions of 2009

1. Vices: A Love Story (Caldwell)
2. Yankee Tavern (Florida Stage)
3. Barnum (Maltz Jupiter)
4. Jersey Boys (Broward Center)
5. A Little Night Music (Broward Stage Door)
6. Viva Bourgeois (Mad Cat Theatre Co.)
7. Sunday in the Park with George (Caldwell)
8. Speed-the-Plow (GableStage)
9. 700 Sundays (Kravis Center)
10. Third (Riverside Theatre)

Worst Productions of 2009

1. Something’s Afoot (Caldwell)
2. The Wizard of Oz (Kravis Center)
3. Bridegroom of Blowing Rock (Florida Stage)
4. Knish Alley (Broward Stage Door)
5. Legally Blonde (Kravis Center)

Monday, December 28, 2009

Music feature: Jazz world remembers pianist Higgins

Pianist Eddie Higgins (1932-2009).
Photo by Andrea Canter.




By Bill Meredith

Drummer Art Blakey (1919-1990) took many a young, future jazz star on the road for seasoning with his group The Jazz Messengers between the 1950s and the 1980s. The list included Wayne Shorter, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Keith Jarrett, Jackie McLean, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Joanne Brackeen, Benny Golson, Chuck Mangione and Cedar Walton.

It might have also included Haydn "Eddie" Higgins, but the pianist turned down Blakey's offer, deciding he didn't want to travel. Higgins was firmly established in the Chicago scene at the time, leading his own trio at the Windy City's popular London House club between the late 1950s and late 1960s. Guest stars who appeared there, and subsequently hired Higgins to record with them, included Shorter, Morgan, and Coleman Hawkins.

In declining Blakey's invitation, Higgins certainly changed the course of his own history. But the pianist still became an icon among musicians as he split time between homes in Cape Cod and South Florida after leaving Chicago (where he initially moved to study music at Northwestern University). The Massachusetts native also became a huge success overseas.

Higgins finally joined Blakey, in the greatest big band we'll never hear, when he died of lung and lymphatic cancer at Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale last Aug. 31. He was 77. He left behind a wife, jazz vocalist Meredith d'Ambrosio, two daughters and four grandchildren.

"He might've ended up living a different life if he'd gone on the road with Art," d'Ambrosio says. "But he had young children at the time, and didn't want to leave them. He chose his family. But he still became known around the world. He was what you'd call a 'rock star' in places like Korea, Japan, Italy, Scandinavia and Germany. And I think he was a star in the United States, too. Anyone who saw him on the Chicago scene realized that."

Indeed, Higgins had bookings in both Korea and Japan at the time of his death, and he was also slated to perform Dec. 9 at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts' Amaturo Theater in Fort Lauderdale with bassist Don Coffman and drummer Danny Burger. But rather than cancel that date, the rhythm section and guest pianist Dick Hyman performed "An Evening To Remember: Tribute to Eddie Higgins." A peer and friend of Higgins, the 82-year-old Hyman is known for his work on a dozen Woody Allen films, including Zelig, Stardust Memories, Hannah and Her Sisters, Radio Days and Mighty Aphrodite.

Hyman is also known for his ability to accurately mimic the styles of classic jazz pianists, as evidenced by his latest recording, the six-disc (five DVDs; one DVD) boxed set called Dick Hyman's 100 Years of Jazz Piano (Arbors). But in paying tribute to Higgins, he chose the road less obvious.

"I wish Eddie were still around, so there wasn't a need to do that show," Hyman says. "Of course, I often pay tribute to Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller and other stars, but Eddie's playing was another matter, since he was so current and contemporary. But it was easy to work with Don and Danny, since they're great players. I chose to purposely avoid things that were so closely associated with Eddie, like [W.C. Handy's] 'St. Louis Blues.' It was a tribute to him, but I didn't want it to be an imitation of him."

Rather, Hyman chose material encompassing some of the influential composers that both he and Higgins appreciated. Set one included familiar standards like Cole Porter's Easy to Love and Antonio Carlos Jobim's Wave, but also more edgy pieces like Sonny Rollins' Pent-Up House and Thelonious Monk's Well, You Needn't. Set two included Hyman's own A Letter From My Brother in Brazil, Scott Joplin variations, Waller's Ain't Misbehavin' and Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Lady. But the second act also opened with a special treat.

"Meredith came out with us," Hyman says, "and she sang the Irving Berlin tune 'I Got Lost in His Arms.' It was a very special moment for all of us."

"Everyone was so kind," d'Ambrosio says of the experience. "The Gold Coast Jazz Society, which put on the show, is also handling the 'Haydn 'Eddie' Higgins Music Scholarship Fund.'"

"I got to know Eddie and Meredith during several jazz cruises we all played on between five and 10 years ago," Hyman says. "But I certainly already knew about Eddie. He was a damn fine player, and we were both sort of swimming in the same pool in our backgrounds and styles. We both came out of Teddy Wilson and be-bop piano of the 1950s, along with bossa nova."

Higgins and d'Ambrosio married in 1988, but she too had heard about her future husband before she met him.

"He came out to see me sing after having heard me on the radio in 1987," she says. "But I certainly knew who he was before that. And like his family and friends, I ended up calling him Haydn. He didn't have a middle name, so Eddie was just a name he'd made up."

The announcement of Higgins' death brought about remembrances from many South Florida jazz performers and admirers. Miami multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan, who knew Higgins from his own days in Chicago, headed a jam session tribute to him Dec. 6 at the ArtServe Auditorium in Fort Lauderdale. Others left posts on the Internet.

"Eddie was a real gentleman," wrote bassist Don Wilner. "He and I played for years together and made a couple of recordings. He was a wonderful pianist and human being."

Vocalist Dana Paul wrote: "I had the pleasure of working with Eddie several times over the past 20 years, and every occasion was like being gifted with the opportunity of sharing wonderfully creative and crafted moments."

"He was a pianist with an original sound," d'Ambrosio says. "He would reharmonize chords and melodies; voice them differently to make them sound more interesting. And then he'd look up at you and smile. It was part of his quiet nature and subtle sense of humor. He was an elegant man, and he'll be remembered for his elegance and his hipness."

"I had the pleasure of taking piano lessons from Eddie and Meredith," wrote vocalist Pamala Stanley. "Some of my fondest memories are being at their house. Eddie would be teaching me something, and Meredith would correct us from the kitchen. We laughed our heads off. How I loved that man."

"Eddie was a very nice, sweet guy, and one of the best pianists I've ever known," Hyman says.

A fitting coda closed the Fort Lauderdale tribute show to Higgins.

"There was a second piano on the stage, with a poinsettia and a spotlight on it," Hyman says. "At the end of the concert, a recording of Eddie's performance of 'Sleigh Ride' played. It was a traditional thing he'd do every year. And as it played, lights lit up that piano, and we all played along with him. I found a second piano part, and the guys also fell into it. To me, it was the high point of the entire program. It was as though Eddie was there with us."



ESSENTIAL EDDIE ...

* Soulero (Atlantic, 1965)
* By Request (Solo Art, 1986)
* Zoot's Hymns (Sunnyside, 1994)
* Speaking of Jobim (Sunnyside, 2000)
* Relaxin' at the Lounge (Venus, 2007)

... AND ESSENTIALLY WITH OTHERS

* Lee Morgan, Expoobident (Koch, 1960)
* Wayne Shorter, Wayning Moments (Koch, 1962)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Love Is Not a Game (Sunnyside, 1991)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Shadowland (Sunnyside, 1993)
* Meredith d'Ambrosio, Beware of Spring!(Sunnyside, 1995)

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer who has written extensively on jazz for magazines such as Jazziz and Jazz Times.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book review: 'Good Without God' a well-written case for non-belief



By Bill Williams

Books by atheist authors have flooded the market in recent years, and some, such as Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, exhibit a stridently anti-religious tone.

Now comes a more nuanced and balanced book written by Greg M. Epstein (at right), the humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Good Without God critiques religious belief in a respectful way and lays out guidelines for how people can lead ethical lives without believing in a supernatural being.

An estimated 1 billion people identify themselves as atheist, agnostic or nonreligious, and 15 percent of Americans claim they are nonreligious, a subgroup that is growing faster than any religion, according to Epstein.

“Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence,” Epstein writes.

Leaders of the various religions often assert that without belief in a Supreme Being, people will descend into moral chaos, but Epstein maintains there is no evidence to support this view.

Epstein credits the world’s major religions for embracing the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, a moral standard wholeheartedly embraced by humanists, too.

The book covers well-trod territory when it faults religion for senseless sectarian killing, oppression of women and acceptance of slavery. Slavery demonstrates why ethical standards must evolve as understanding and compassion grow. No one today would argue in favor of restoring slavery in the American South, yet most religious people, including Christians, embraced the practice before the Civil War.

For Epstein, a moral life begins with recognition of the dignity of all people, which leads to compassion for those who are suffering. He cites the recent international effort of religion scholar Karen Armstrong, who is promoting a Charter for Compassion and is actively seeking input from all religions and humanists about ways to promote the Golden Rule.

Many members of religious groups have only vague notions about the meaning and nature of God. Some no longer believe in a Supreme Being who answers prayers. Others frankly identify themselves as agnostic or atheist.

Epstein cites the work of a young Detroit rabbi, Sherwin Wine, who in 1963 founded the first synagogue that explicitly rejected belief in God and later wrote Judaism Beyond God. The movement known as Humanistic Judaism has now spread around the world.

Humanists have no holy books such as the Bible or the Koran, although they do have a short manifesto that says “working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.” In other words, the path to a happy life involves helping others.

No one should expect that religion will die out, Epstein says, because it provides important connections to an individual’s unique ancestry, heritage, memory and identity.

Nonreligious people “may not need God or miracles, but we are human and we do need … some form of ritual, culture and community.”

That frank admission provides a clue as to why humanism has not attracted more followers. Humanists generally go it alone. Epstein argues that humanists should follow the example of religions by celebrating important life cycle events, such as births, marriages, deaths and holidays.

Good Without God is a thoughtful, well-written book, but I wish the author had spent less time discussing moral reasoning throughout history and more time on today’s practical ethical issues. He makes a brief pitch for greater interfaith cooperation on global warming and church-state separation, and pleads for inclusion of non-believers in interfaith gatherings.

Epstein’s discussion of Buddhism is somewhat misleading. He says that Buddhists use meditation “as an escape from worldly suffering,” whereas the opposite is more accurate. Buddhists meditate to get in touch with suffering and thereby increase their compassion.

That aside, this book is a worthwhile addition to the growing literature of atheism and agnosticism. People of faith need not feel threatened by it. Just as believers cannot prove the existence of God, neither can atheists disprove it.

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe, by Greg M. Epstein, 250 pp., Morrow; $25.99.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Weekend picks: Dec. 25-28

A scene from the Moscow Classical Ballet's The Nutcracker.

Dance: This is normally the time of year when we'd expect to see Ballet Florida's Nutcracker in Marie Hale's indelible, lovely production. Ballet Florida, sadly, is no more, but there is still a Nutcracker at the Kravis over Christmas. The Moscow Classical Ballet's version of Tchaikovsky's immortal 1892 ballet opened Christmas Eve, and continues tonight and Saturday. The company, founded in 1966 under the old USSR Ministry of Culture, has been a touring troupe for decades, and its Nutcracker has won praise for its traditional look and feel. Students from Hale's Ballet Florida successor, Dance Florida Academy, are taking part, so some of the old feeling of ballet in late December at the Kravis can go on. 7 pm tonight, 2 pm Saturday. Tickets: $20-$65. Call 832-7469 or visit www.kravis.org. -- G. Stepanich

Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin in It's Complicated.

Film: Yes, Hollywood aims its movies at teenagers, but somebody forgot to tell director-screenwriter Nancy Meyers (Something’s Gotta Give, What Women Want). She makes movies for adults, particularly women, and she has succeeded again with It’s Complicated, opening in area theaters today (Christmas Day). Meryl Streep, who is defying the odds herself by suddenly becoming a bankable star at the age of 60, plays a finally well-adjusted divorcee who learns to her chagrin that she is not yet over her since-remarried ex-husband (Alec Baldwin) and they fall into a torrid affair. Steve Martin plays the third wheel, Streep’s nice-guy architect who is also smitten with her, but doesn’t want to get involved if she is going to break his heart. It is a smart romantic comedy, which is almost a contradiction in terms these days. -- H. Erstein

Theater: Opening this weekend at GableStage in Coral Gables is a new play about backroom politics, Farragut North, about the limits of power and the costs one will endure to achieve it. Said to be based loosely on the career and political aspirations of Howard Dean, it focuses on a wunderkind press secretary whose rise is halted by the machinations of more seasoned operatives. Written by Beau Willimon, the tense drama opened last season in New York during the presidential election. GableStage artistic director Joe Adler stages the Southeastern premiere, with a cast that includes Gregg Weiner, Nick Duckart and Deborah Sherman. Continuing through Jan. 24. Call (305) 445-1119 for tickets. -- H. Erstein

Countess Therese von Brunsvik (1775-1861).

Music: Pianist Daniel Shapiro, who teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music, returns to the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton on Saturday afternoon for a concert of core works from the Austro-German repertoire. That includes the great Fantasy in C, Op. 17, in Schumann, the powerful Sonata No. 49 (in E-flat, Hob. XVI: 49) of Haydn, and a Beethoven sonata rarity: the No. 24 in F-sharp, Op. 78. This unusual, difficult work was dedicated to Therese Brunsvik, one of Beethoven's students, and a member of a family to which the composer always remained close. "Even without being sought out, the better among us bear one another in mind: this, too, is the case with you and me, worthy and admirable Therese," Beethoven wrote to her in 1811. Shapiro, an accomplished and penetrating player, takes the stage at 5 p.m. Saturday. Tickets: $20 in advance, $25 at the door. Call 929-6633 or visit www.pianolovers.org.

Composer Michael Bies.

A local composer offers a fresh collection of art songs set to texts by the great American poet William Carlos Williams in a concert Sunday afternoon at the Lighthouse Center of the Arts in Tequesta. Michael Bies, who teaches at the Jupiter Academy of Music, also is a composer with a sizeable body of work to his credit, as his Website shows. Baritone David L'Hommedieu will sing the Williams songs in its world premiere performance. Soprano Roberta Rehner also will be perform in the concert, which is dedicated to the art song and aria repertoire; music by Bernstein, Britten, Mozart, Schubert and Wolf is scheduled. The recital begins at 3 p.m. in the museum at the Lighthouse Center. Tickets: $10 adults, $5 children. Call 746-3101 or visit www.lighthousearts.org.

Phish will bring in the New Year for its South Florida phans.

Local fans of the jam band Phish have a good way to end the new year by seeing one of four shows the band is giving at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. Like the old Grateful Dead, Phish's loose, improvisational approach inspires a kind of loyalty that leads fans to become part of a huge, fervent community in which traditional forms of marketing, including radio play, are almost irrelevant. The shows from Monday through Wednesday begin at 7:30 pm, the three-set New Year's Eve show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets: $50. Visit livenation.com or ticketmaster.com. -- G. Stepanich

Film review: Day-Lewis shines in stagy, showy 'Nine'

Daniel Day-Lewis in Nine.


By Hap Erstein

Prior to its Christmas Day expansion across the country, Rob Marshall’s screen version of the Broadway musical Nine -- itself an audacious adaptation of 8½, Federico Fellini’s 1963 statement of cinematic writer’s block -- had only opened in New York and Los Angeles, where it had already received a barrage of negative reviews.

Well, do not believe those pans, which not only dismiss this very entertaining, albeit dark-toned and brooding film, but go out of their way to also retroactively slam Marshall’s debut movie, the multiple-Oscar winner, Chicago. True, Marshall again seems apologetic about interrupting the story with his musical numbers, inventing another stylized, parallel universe in which the songs live, but those songs are invariably sophisticated and sensual, with plenty of character-driven complexity.

Instead of hiding the musical’s stage roots, Marshall flaunts them, and maybe that is the source of some film critics’ problems with Nine. It opens with a theatrical overture, during which the women in fictional film director Guido Contini’s life are introduced to us as they slink onto a Cinecitta sound stage’s half-constructed sets. Two hours later, all the characters take genuine curtain calls, followed by production stills of rehearsals during the final credits.

No wonder this movie is being called stagy. I just happen to consider the term a compliment.

Like , Nine is the story of an Italian filmmaker, burdened by the proclamations of his genius. He is creatively frozen, without a single word of his latest screenplay written, even though the start of production is imminent.

Contini is at the center of Nine, with the women in his life surrounding him like satellites. They include his gradually losing-patience wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), the spirit of his late mother (Sophia Loren), his muse and frequent screen leading lady Claudia (Nicole Kidman), his feral mistress (Penelope Cruz), his costume designer/confidante (Judi Dench), a Vogue writer eager to bed Guido for an interview (Kate Hudson) and the prostitute who first introduced him to sex at the title age of 9 (Fergie, of the Black-Eyed Peas).

Five of them are Oscar winners, a few have experience with musicals, but all sing well -- ranging from passably to exceptionally -- and move with the assurance of dancers, which none of them are. In the case of Cruz, in the number A Letter From the Vatican, all she called on to do is writhe seductively, which she certainly manages if my fogged-up glasses are proof.

Still, the crux of the story is Contini, played originally on stage by Raul Julia in 1982, then Antonio Banderas in the Broadway revival 21 years later. Following along those Hispanic lines, Javier Bardem was signed to make the movie, but he begged off early on, replaced by Daniel Day-Lewis, a brilliant chameleon-like actor, but even less Italian than his predecessors and with no musicals on his resume.

It was a risky casting choice, but as soon as Day-Lewis opens his mouth and speaks with an entirely persuasive Italian accent, you will be won over. When he sings his first song as he climbs all over the skeletal set, searching for inspiration, he convinces youthat he is Guido, channeling ’s Marcello Mastroianni.

Following a press conference, where it becomes clear that Guido lacks a suitable idea for his latest movie, he escapes to a seaside spa where he hopes to find inspiration, but instead finds the luscious distraction of Carla. His resort getaway turns out to be one of the worst kept secrets, and soon the rest of his production team follows -- along with his wife -- much to his chagrin.

Those familiar with the stage musical had better be prepared for the wholesale plot changes wrought by screenwriters Michael Tolkin (The Player) and the late Anthony Minghella (The English Patient). In the show, because of a stray comment by Claudia, Contini decides to make a film version of Casanova, which naturally mirrors his own life. For the movie, that whole subplot has been dropped, though his eventual project is a reflection of his career in a different manner.

Much of the original score has been jettisoned, with composer-lyricist Maury Yeston penning two new numbers. One, called Cinema Italiano, is a frenetic salute to the New Wave sung in ‘60s retro style by Hudson, a new character and largely extraneous. The other, Take It All, is an ultimatum-cum-striptease for Cotillard, a better scene than song, at least on first hearing.

Dench’s character is also newly created, but she is woven into the action quite well, morphed from the show’s producer into a longtime colleague of Contini’s. She nevertheless gets to sing the strutting Folies-Bergere number, whether it makes much sense coming from her or not.

In his own way, Marshall has made an hommage to Fellini, inserting memory flashbacks for Guido in evocative, grainy black-and-white. Because the script goes out of its way to make Guido unlikeable, Nine will probably not gain a wide audience, but musical theater fans, Fellini groupies and anyone who wants to see another brilliant performance by Day-Lewis should put this on their holiday viewing list.

NINE. Studio: The Weinstein Company; Director: Rob Marshall; Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Nicole Kidman, Kate Hudson, Stacy Ferguson, Sophia Loren. Rated: PG-13; Opens: Today.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Film feature: Critics' group cheers 'Up in the Air,' 'Hurt Locker'

Director Kathryn Bigelow on the set of The Hurt Locker.


By Hap Erstein

See, I told you Up in the Air was the best picture of 2009, and now I have two critics’ groups -- the two that Palm Beach ArtsPaper just happens to be a voting member of -- to back me up.

Both the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA), representing reviewers in nine states in this region, and the Florida Film Critics Circle (FFCC), representing reviewers in our state, chose the Jason Reitman film about the expert frequent flier whose life traveling the country firing workers as the year’s best. Look for it to score highly when Oscar nominations are announced next month.

SEFCA was also smart enough to recognize (translation: they agreed with me) George Clooney, who stars in the film, as Best Actor and cited Reitman and Sheldon Turner for Best Adapted Screenplay. Up in the Air walked off with three awards from the group, while no other film won more than one award, an indicator of widespread quality this year.

Unlike the Florida critics’ circle, SEFCA anoints a collective 10 Best List. This year, it is:

1. Up in the Air

2. The Hurt Locker

3. Up

4. Inglourious Basterds

5. A Serious Man

6. (500) Days of Summer

7. Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push,’ by Sapphire

8. The Messenger

9. Fantastic Mr. Fox

10. District 9

I only agreed with the group on four films -- Up in the Air, A Serious Man, (500) Days of Summer and Precious. I don’t have any major quarrel with the rest of SEFCA’s picks except Inglourious Basterds, which seems to me to be inferior Tarantino, and dreadful spelling.

Kathryn Bigelow wrestled the Best Director award away from Reitman, winning for her intense Iraq War film, The Hurt Locker. Meryl Streep, who probably doesn’t have room for any more awards, was named Best Actress for Julie & Julia. Best supporting actor was Christoph Waltz, the Nazi hunter of Jews in Inglourious Basterds, and supporting actress award went to Mo’Nique, the abusive mother in Precious.

Other SEFCA awards included: Best Original Screenplay to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber for (500) Days of Summer, Best Foreign Language Film to Summer Hours (France), Best Documentary to Food, Inc. and Best Animated Feature to Up, the umpteenth win for Pixar Studios.

The Southeastern Film Critics also recognizes a film that “that best embodies the essence of the South.” This Gene Wyatt Award, named for a late SEFCA member, went this year to writer-director Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun, a drama starring Hal Holbrook as an elderly Tennessee farmer trying to reclaim his home.

The Florida Film Critics Circle, which has some membership overlap with SEFCA, agreed on several award winners. It gave its awards to Up in the Air, Clooney, Waltz, Mo’Nique and Up. FFCC gives a single award for original and adapted screenplays and this year it recognized the writers of (500) Days of Summer.

In an early ballot, it had been tied with Up in the Air. Other awards from FFCC included: Best Actress (Gabourey Sidibe, Precious), Best director (Reitman, Up in the Air), Best cinematography (Mauro Fiore, Avatar) Best Foreign Language Film (Sin Nombre), Best Documentary (The Cove) and the Breakout Award for outstanding newcomer went to Sidibe.

On occasion, the Florida Critics bestow a Golden Orange Award for an outstanding contribution to film in the state, but the group declined to issue the award this year.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

ArtsBuzz: PB County gets new dance company; FAU gets cache of rare recorded Judaica

Jerry Opdenaker (Photo from his MySpace page).


Ex-Ballet Florida workshop chief founds dance company

Palm Beach County has a new dance company, and it will make its debut in early February at the Duncan Theatre, on the Lake Worth campus of what will soon be Palm Beach State College.

O Dance was founded by and is named after Jerry Opdenaker, most recently director of the now-defunct Ballet Florida’s STEP Ahead choreographic workshop.

A former dancer with Pennsylvania Ballet, Opdenaker has joined with other South Florida dance artists to “provide a forum in which the art of making dance performances can be explored and cultivated by aspiring dance and visual artists,” according to the company’s mission statement.

Company members include German-born Spencer Gavin Hering, late of Miami’s Maximum Dance Company/Ballet Gamonet, and Miami native Andrea Dawn Shelley, also of Maximum Ballet and panelist for the young arts program of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.

The Feb. 6 program, set for 8 p.m., will be an evening of premieres by emerging choreographers, created for 15 professional dancers collaborating with visual artists. Tickets are $27 for adults and $10 for students. Call 561-868-3309 or visit www.odance.org.

Nathan Tinanoff, founder of FAU’s Judaica Sound Archives.
(Photo courtesy FAU)



Cleveland man’s estate donates Judaica records treasure trove

The family of Cleveland music collector Jack Saul has donated more than 10,000 unique Jewish records to Florida Atlantic University’s Judaica Sound Archives, the university said earlier this month.

The archives already hold one of the world’s largest collections of preserved and digitalized Judaic audio recordings. An additional 50,000 vintage 78-rpm records from Saul’s collection will be the basis of a new vintage records archive at FAU Libraries, and 500 more jazz LPs will be added to the library’s jazz collection.

“This is by far the largest single donation of Judaica recordings we’ve ever received,” said Nathan Tinanoff, founder and director of the Judaica Sound Archives, located at the Wimberley Library on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. “Jack Saul’s Judaica collection is in excellent condition and was said to be one of the finest private collections in the country.”

Saul died in May at age 86. He visited the archives in February and later told family members he wanted the Jewish-interest part of his collection to go to the FAU archive, the university said. Saul’s family donated other portions of his extensive collection to the Library of Congress and the Cleveland Orchestra.


The Green Cay Nature Preserve is west of Delray Beach.


Palm Beach Poetry Festival adds two pre-fest events

The Palm Beach Poetry Festival, which is in the middle of readying for its sixth annual gathering, said earlier this month it has added two pre-festival events at locations in western Delray Beach.

The first, called How to Haiku, is set for 10 a.m. Tuesday, Jan. 5, at the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens in Delray Beach. Participants should bring a pad, pen and light wrap, as they will stroll the Japanese-garden grounds of the museum while writing traditional Japanese haiku. There is a group rate admission fee of $11, plus tax. Poet P. Scott Cunningham will lead the session.

The second pre-festival event is scheduled for 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 12, at the Green Cay Nature Preserve on 12800 Hagen Ranch Road west of Delray Beach. The event, called the Bards of a Feather Round-Robin Poetry Reading, is open to the public free of charge. Participants are asked to bring four poems (not necessarily original ones, either) with a nature theme (human nature included).

The poetry festival, founded by poet and retired businessman Miles Coon, will take place from Jan. 18-23 at Old School Square in Delray Beach. Poets who will be on hand include Mary Cornish, Stephen Dobyns, Carolyn Forché, Marie Howe, Ilya Kaminsky, Thomas Lux, David Wojahn and Kevin Young.

Admission prices per event are $12 adults, $10 seniors and $8 students, with group rates available. Go to www.palmbeachpoetryfestival.org for more information.

-- Compiled by Skip Sheffield

Monday, December 21, 2009

Film review: Inert 'Victoria' a bloodless non-drama

Emily Blunt and Rupert Friend in The Young Victoria.


By John Thomason


Martin Scorsese clearly has enough of a soft spot for arch period pieces that he offered to gamely produce Jean-Marc Valee’s The Young Victoria. But his masterful guidance is generally absent from this inert account of the years surrounding Queen Victoria’s coronation.

Before going further, I have to admit a bias here: I view Victorian costume dramas the way a sugar-addicted 8-year-old views cold vegetables. Most of them go down as just as painfully, and the fact that they’re “good for you” is of little consolation. And it doesn’t get more Victorian than this film, which has the word “Victoria” in the title.

The Young Victoria confirms every negative conception I have toward these movies: Like many of the story’s denizens, it’s static, pale, bloodless and artificially genteel. Valee tries his darnedest to make this wax-museum tableau move – with a jump cut here and a flashy cinematographic flourish there – but this is a story that doggedly refuses to engage the viewer beyond a few scant factual revelations better rendered by a textbook. I wouldn’t advise viewing the trailer, because it spoils the only two moments of action in the film – one of which was fabricated by screenwriter Julian Fellowes to provide an ersatz climax to this non-drama.

Compare this staid and stagebound work to another recent biopic of a budding monarch, Sofia Coppola’s postmodern classic Marie Antoinette, to see how far gone it is from its own potential. Marie Antoinette reinvented the costume drama as a post-punk opera of decadence, its anachronistic soundtrack and shockingly unique casting contributing to its director’s powerful feminist manifesto.

Having seen hundreds of films since viewing Marie Antoinette nearly four years ago, there are images from Coppola’s film that have a permanent residency in my brain. A week after looking at Valee’s Victoria, it’s hard to recall more than two or three memorable snapshots.

Emily Blunt, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her role, plays the 17-year-old Victoria as an ambitious teenager shackled by her privilege: She’s so important that a guardian is still required to hold her hand up and down every palace staircase, and despite her royal pedigree, she’s lorded over by her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) and mom’s controlling companion, Conroy (Mark Strong). When King William IV (Jim Broadbent) dies, Victoria inherits the throne and soon becomes ensnared in criticism for her supposed inability to govern.

That is, we’re told numerous times that she’s run the crown into the ground, but we’re shown little evidence of it. Fellowes’ script breaks a cardinal rule of screenwriting: It tells rather than shows. Even in conveying the queen’s dedication to the United Kingdom’s poor and underprivileged, which posits her as a progressive figure in a conservative monarchy, Fellowes fails to adequately follow up on her achievements (or non-achievements, as it may have been). This is partly due to the film’s need to fill its quota as teenage-girl swoon-worthy romance, focusing most of its inspiration on the garden-variety quill-and-paper romance between Victoria and Prince Albert (Rupert Friend).

Perhaps The Young Victoria is proof that not every significant historical figure has a story worth telling. When Victoria and Albert engage in a bit of self-consciously clever, metaphor-driven logorrhea over a game of chess (“Do you ever feel like a chess piece yourself? In a game being played against your will?” she asks), the scene serves as an apt metaphor for the film itself: Its characters are lifeless chess pieces, moving along the same predestined paths.

If only the film granted us the dramatic potency of a checkmate.
John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE YOUNG VICTORIA. Distributor: Apparition Films; Director: Jean-Marc Valee; Starring: Emily Blunt, Rupert Friend, Paul Bettany, Miranda Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Thomas Kretschmann; Rating: PG-13; Opens: Friday; Venue: Regal Delray Beach 18

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Music feature: Sunday's 'Messiah' last for Masterworks founder

Jack W. Jones at the Royal Poinciana Chapel.
(Photo by Greg Stepanich)



By Greg Stepanich

This Sunday afternoon, crowds will gather in force at the Royal Poinciana Chapel on Palm Beach, as they do every holiday season, for a singalong performance of the so-called Christmas portion of George Frideric Handel's Messiah.

It will be the 32nd such performance since Jack W. Jones inaugurated the local tradition in 1978 at what is now Palm Beach Atlantic University, and it will be the last time Jones will lead his Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches in the oratorio.

Jones, 69, said it's time for someone else to take over.

"After 31 years, I thought it was time for someone else to have the opportunity and the privilege to conduct the chorus," he said. "But it's been a wonderful 31 years."

Although he will be retiring as Masterworks chief, he's not stepping down from anything else. He will continue in his full-time position as music director at the chapel, spend more time on his composing, and remain an in-demand accompanist for singers and instrumentalists.

Busy, in other words, even when he's supposed to be on break.

"This summer, the chapel gave me a three-month sabbatical for my 20 years of service, and I went to my home in North Carolina and wrote a new piano hymnbook -- hymn arrangements for the piano," Jones said. "And then I'm finishing up a book of carol arrangements for the organ. In fact, I'll be playing them in the next few Sundays for the services."

Jones is a career church musician, a man who has spent most of his life in service to music and worship in his home state of Florida, and he prefers it that way. A native of Daytona Beach, he first became interested in music while sitting on the edge of a piano bench watching his aunt play.

Before long, he was playing at First Baptist Church services himself, earning the organist's job when he was only 16. That's when he discovered his vocation.

"I had played the organ in church on Wednesday nights, and occasionally on Sundays, but the organist, after a new organ had recently been installed, retired. And I became the organist, as a junior in high school," he said. "So I think that's when I realized: This is what I want to do for a living."

That realization was also intimately tied to his Southern Baptist faith.

"It was definitely a leadership of God," he said. "I felt that He had given me this talent, and I wanted to use it for His glory."

He continued his studies at Stetson University in DeLand, and then went on to New York, where he earned his master's in sacred music at Union Theological Seminary and his doctorate at Juilliard. His teachers have included giants of American composition such as Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions, and legendary organists of the likes of Anthony Newman and Virgil Fox.

After earning his doctorate, he became director of musical activities at West Point, which had just opened a fine new concert venue in Eisenhower Hall. Jones left the military academy after three years to return to Florida, primarily for reasons non-natives can appreciate as well.

"It was a wonderful experience," he said. "But to be quite honest, being a native Floridian, I got tired of those long, gray winters."

Moving to Palm Beach County in 1976, he founded the town-and-gown Oratorio Chorus at Palm Beach Atlantic, but moved to Southern California two years later for the organist's job at the First Baptist Church in Van Nuys, which was at the time one of the largest such churches in the country. Jones wasn't happy out West, though, and remained there only a year.

"I just did not relate to Southern California," he said. "I guess I had sand in my shoes and I missed Florida, so I came back here."

Jones founded the Masterworks Chorus the year he returned, in 1979, drawing on the community interest he'd discovered at the Oratorio Chorus.

"I have always loved directing large choruses and doing major choral works. And I had taught university for a number of years and had the opportunity to work with university choirs in doing major works," said Jones, who lives in Lake Worth. "And I thought it would be a great opportunity for the community to be involved in being able to present the major choral works."

Over the years, the 70-voice chorus has performed numerous canonical works of the repertoire, and done special events such as a concert featuring Honegger's oratorio King David, which was presented along with dance and actor interpretations. And for one 13-year stretch, the chorus wrapped its seasons with pops concerts on the south lawn of the Flagler Museum.

The chorus will end its current season April 11 with the Brahms German Requiem, one of the composer's most cherished and beautiful works. The chorus has sung it before, the first time in memory of organist Fox, who died in Palm Beach in 1980 of prostate cancer.

"The second time was in memory of my dad, who had just passed away. And so this year I'm hoping it will not be in memory of anyone, particularly myself," Jones said, laughing. "But it is such a glorious work, and I thought: I want to do the Brahms Requiem one more time."

The chorus will perform the work in English rather than its original German, a choice Jones defends on communicative grounds.

"It is entitled 'A German Requiem,' and to be a purist, one should sing it in the original German," he conceded. "But I feel that the text is so meaningful -- How lovely are Thy dwellings [for example] -- there's so much encouragement and hope that one can hear in the messages from the text, that this is the reason [we] sing it in English -- to communicate that message."

The board of the Masterworks Chorus has begun evaluating possible successors for Jones, and will announce who that person is before the final concert, Jones said.

"All of the applicants are excellent musicians, and would continue the tradition I've established," he said. "I feel very good about the future of the Masterworks Chorus."

The Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches will perform Handel's Messiah beginning at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Royal Poinciana Chapel, Palm Beach. Soloists are soprano Judy Davis, mezzo soprano Dolores Ramsey, tenor Evan Farrar and bass Gordan Longhofer. A pre-performance talk is scheduled for 4:30 p.m., and those who wish to sing along will be accommodated in special pews at the side of the stage. Tickets: $20, $10 for students. Visit www.masterworkschorusofthepalmbeaches.com or call 845-9696 for more information.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Music review: Zukerman's Haydn shines with Israel Philharmonic

Amanda Forsyth and Pinchas Zukerman.


By Greg Stepanich

Two sides of the art of Pinchas Zukerman were on view Thursday night at the Kravis Center, and it was the Classical side that came out better than the Romantic, even though most of the time he was leading a big orchestra capable of all the emotive bells and whistles.

Zukerman, joined by his wife, the Canadian cellist Amanda Forsyth, is currently on tour with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, whose roots date to 1936, a dozen years before the official founding of the Jewish state. This is a Central Europe-style group, huge and powerful, and there was much to admire in the overall silkiness of the strings and the generally excellent level of performance.

But while Forsyth’s appearance with the orchestra in the second half was the occasion for a revival of some lovely, forgotten music by Max Bruch, the concert ended with a rather odd reading of the Tchaikovsky Romeo and Juliet overture, and it is to the first half that we should look for the best music of the night.

That first half was devoted to the music of Franz Joseph Haydn, beginning with the Symphony No. 83 (in G minor, The Hen). The silly title by which it has been known since its debut in 1787 truly is a distraction in this case, because left to its own argument, the symphony is a taut, tense essay reminiscent of Mozart at his most dramatic and early Beethoven at his most virile.

Today's concertgoers are accustomed to hearing Haydn symphonies with reduced authentic-instrument forces, but while there were no added instruments here, the large complement of strings gave the symphony a plush, almost epic sound. The secondary theme, grace notes and "clucking" oboe in all, came across as generously witty rather than scrappy and smirky, which was all to the good.

Pretty string playing dominated the Andante, with Zukerman and the orchestra getting much drama from the repeated stuck-in-place thirds that serve as such an important unifying device in the movement. The final two movements were enlivened by the well-played flute, horn and oboe work that added good color to the peppy proceedings, which again had an extra layer of grandeur owing to the size of the ensemble playing it.

It also was a well-conducted Haydn, and when Zukerman returned to the stage with violin in hand to solo in the Haydn C major Violin Concerto (Hob. VIIa: 1), a much earlier work, he carried over the same obvious respect and affection for the music. As a violinist, Zukerman doesn't appear to have lost any of the instrumental mastery that made him famous four decades ago; his tone is precise, round and penetrating, and his technique masterful.

In all, he and the orchestra made a fine case for this concerto, which has been overlooked too often. The brisk pace Zukerman led for the first movement helped give it rhythmic grit, nicely counterbalanced by a focus on wide dynamic contrast. The solo song that is the second movement was played with admirable purity and sweetness, while the finale had vigor and elegance. Most of all, it was a performance that provided a fine lesson in the apogee of the Classical style.

Forsyth was the soloist after the intermission in two short pieces by Bruch, a Canzone in B-flat, Op. 55, and an Adagio on Celtic Melodies, Op. 56. These are the kinds of pieces that Romantic composers cranked out in abundance as symphony orchestras became more established, and it was a pleasure to hear them, inoffensive and unproblematic though they are.

All that really was required of Forsyth for these two works was a strong lyrical line, and she provided it. Her tone was balanced and full, and her sense of cantabile sure. It would be good to hear her in more substantial fare, but this was a good piece of programming from a standpoint of variety, and one wants to applaud such things when they occur.

The concert closed with a sure-fire warhorse, the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture of Tchaikovsky. Unfortunately, this was a very weird reading of the work, one that robbed it of almost all of its forward momentum and dramatic power.

Zukerman's initial tempos were quite slow, and the orchestra was not able to play most of those slow opening chord progressions together. That got things off on the wrong foot, and instead of erasing that memory with some razzle-dazzle in the street-brawl section, Zukerman instead chose a plodding, heavy tempo that had almost no fire.

When it came time for the famous love tune that has kept this piece in the repertory, other odd choices doomed it: After the first statement of the theme, Zukerman conducted the second, violin part of it with extremely soft dynamics and a near absence of any pulse, letting the notes fade in and out like a smashed accordion breathing its last after a fatal fall from a window several stories up. This was an interpretive choice that focused on the sheer sound of the music to the detriment of its structural purpose, so that the second half of the theme appeared almost to come from another piece entirely.

From there, it was impossible to get any sort of storytelling back on track, and the final section of the work mixed ponderous tempi and love-theme strangeness to the point of anticlimax. It's good for conductors to take risks and try new things, but this is a piece of early Tchaikovsky (despite its later revisions), and its seams show. It needs a rendition that brings out its strengths -- brilliant orchestral coloring and exciting writing, indelible melodies -- rather than one that looks for some stylistic subtleties that are largely absent.

Film review: 'Up in the Air' smartest movie of the year

George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in Up in the Air.


By Hap Erstein

For once, we have to give the Golden Globe Awards credit for recognizing the smartest film in this year’s batch, Up in the Air, with a field-leading six nominations.

The only catch is they have misunderstood the movie enough to categorize it as a drama, where it is actually a very dark satire of corporate America, recession division, and the “career transition counselors” who help to downsize it.

It would be easy to mistake this smart snapshot of today’s impersonal business world for a drama, for it has none of the crude bodily fluid jokes or broad physical schtick that Hollywood executives feel more comfortable marketing. But having seen the film twice -- once with a handful of reviewers and the second time with a theater packed with civilian moviegoers -- I can assure you that there are plenty of laughs in this smirking morality tale.

Considering how the studios attempt to homogenize and simplify their movies for mass consumption, Up in the Air is the third little miracle from co-writer/director Jason Reitman, who previously gave us such nuanced, formula-defying fare as Thank You for Smoking and Juno.

He bases his screenplay (written with Sheldon Turner) on a cunning little novel by Walter Kirn, who conceived the character of carefree, frequent flier points-obsessed firer-for-hire Ryan Bingham (a supremely smug George Clooney), but it is Reitman who figured out how to humanize him and ultimately humble him.

Ryan has not only adjusted to his emotional pain-inflicting career, rationalizing that he is eliminating jobs with empathy, but he thrives on the increasingly annoying exercise of maneuvering through airport security and spending most of his life in airports and planes. Then again, home for him is a sparsely furnished, highly impersonal bachelor apartment in Omaha, headquarters city of the company that handles the workforce reductions for corporate executives who do not like to get their hands dirty.

One of Reitman’s more inspired moves is casting mostly non-actors -- in fact, actual recently downsized workers -- in these firing sessions, in which they reenact their being let go. Because of the long lead time of movies, much of this was set in motion long before the economy came crashing down on us, leaving Up in the Air with unnerving currency and poignancy.

Clearly Ryan is due for a comeuppance and it arrives in the unlikely person of recent B-school grad Natalie Keener (terrific, wound-too-tight Anna Kendrick). A child of the computer age, she proposes to save the company on travel expenses by firing through video conferencing, an even less humane way to learn that your lifeline has been severed. This, of course, would effectively ground Ryan and cut off his stream of frequent flier points. In a desperate effort to restore his clipped wings, Ryan takes Natalie on the road to show her what the firing game is all about.

Whammy number two for Ryan is meeting Alex Goran (the slinky, wily Vera Farmiga), a kindred spirit road warrior with whom he slips into a casual commitment-free affair, agreeing to hook up whenever their travel schedules mesh. Naturally, unattached and unapologetic Ryan falls hard for Alex.

In a character-rich tangent that could almost be another movie entirely, he takes Alex to his small town Wisconsin hometown for the wedding of his younger sister. This sequence has a different look and feel, goes up to the edge of sentimentality, but seduces us into rooting for the two of them to inch towards a more concrete relationship.

Reitman’s casting choices are impeccable, and the success of Up in the Air -- it has a lock on one of this year’s Best Picture Oscar slots -- should do big things for Kendrick and Farmiga’s careers. Reitman is also gradually building his own informal rep company, with vivid supporting work here from Jason Bateman (Juno), Sam Elliot (Thank You for Smoking) and J.K. Simmons (Juno).

Up in the Air is a comedy for these times, but it is also smart enough to still be worth seeing long after the cloud of this recession has lifted.

UP IN THE AIR. Studio: Paramount; Director: Jason Reitman; Starring: George Clooney, Anna Kendrick, Vera Farmiga, Jason Bateman, Sam Elliott, J.K. Simmons. Rated: R. Opens: Dec. 23; playing now in select theaters

Weekend arts picks: Dec. 18-20

Elizabeth Dimon, Christopher Oden and Colin McPhillamy, in Copenhagen.

Theater: Opening tonight is Palm Beach Dramaworks’ much-anticipated production of Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning Copenhagen, a cerebral look back at a mysterious 1941 meeting between two nuclear physicists that may have changed the course of World War II. Based on fact, but then stretched into supposition, it concerns Germany’s Werner Heisenberg, his Danish mentor Niels Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, all sifting through the past from their perches in the afterlife, trying to piece together what happened at the meeting that ended the scientist’s friendship and, perhaps, Germany’s atomic bomb program. Bring your thinking caps. Continuing through Jan. 31. Call (561) 514-4042 for tickets. – H. Erstein

A scene from La Danse.

Film: This has been a strong year for documentaries (Every Little Step, Herb & Dorothy, The Cove), but maybe the best has been saved for last. Opening today at Emerging Cinemas in Lake Worth and Mos’Art Theatre in Lake Park is La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, a look behind the scenes at the rehearsals, the staff meetings, the hand-wringing of the French monument to the choreographic art. It is captured with a knowing eye by the dean of non-fiction filmmaking, Frederick Wiseman (Titticut Follies, Hospital), who has been exploring institutions of all sorts for the past 40-some years. The film is on the long side at two-and-a-half hours, but fascinating, even if ballet is not your thing. – H. Erstein

Elayne Mordes and Kara Walker-Tomé at WhiteSpace.

(Photo by Katie Deits)

Art: Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon is the public’s last chance to see Beyond Delicate at the WhiteSpace Collection in the home and exhibition space of private collectors Elayne and Marvin Mordes. Beyond Delicate features four female artists from South Florida “who use fragile materials, a pale palette and intricate working methods in making art,” said the show’s curator, Kara-Walker Tomé, founder of the avant-garde ShowTel.

Giannina Coppiano Dwin created an image of delicate lingerie from sugar and flour; Georgeta Fondos used fire to make designs in polyester anchored to a frame (a la Italian arte povera and artistic innovator Alberto Burri); FAU professor (and former medical illustrator) Carol Prusa has mastered a silverpoint technique to exquisitely draw highly detailed, fantasy forms on plastic domes and circular shapes; and Carolyn Sickles weaved shapes from various materials to create organic 3-D wall hangings.

The WhiteSpace/Elayne and Marvin Mordes Collection is located at 2805 N. Australian Ave. in West Palm Beach. Admission is $12 on Sat., December 19 from 10 a.m. to noon. Proceeds will benefit the Community Foundation of Palm Beach and Martin counties. For more information, visit www.whitespacecollection.com or call (561) 842-4131.

Justin Lambert in front of his kiln at Live Oak Pottery.

Starting at noon on Saturday through 7 p.m., is a holiday sale and open studio at Live Oak Pottery in Jupiter. Founded by ceramic artist and art professor Justin Lambert, works by award-winning artists Ellen Bates, Brian Kovachik, Karen Kubinec, Georgia Novotny, Karla Walter, John Wells and May Wong will also be on sale. From noon to 2 p.m. there will be an Anagama kiln opening, and from 2 to 7 p.m. the artists will demonstrate such techniques as wheel throwing, handbuilding and carving.

The one-day event is free and open to the public. Live Oak Pottery is located at 17847 Brians Way in Jupiter. For more information, call (561) 676-5453, or visit www.liveoakpottery.comK. Deits

Masterworks Chorus founder Jack W. Jones.

(Photo by Greg Stepanich)

Music: The Christmas season essentially wraps this weekend with an event that’s been a staple holiday event for the past 30 years: The Masterworks Chorus of the Palm Beaches’ annual singalong Messiah. This year will be exceptional because it is the last one to be conducted by the founder of the tradition, Masterworks director Jack W. Jones, who is retiring from the post in April. Those who want to sing along with Handel's oratorio sit in special pews at the Royal Poinciana Chapel to the side of the chorus and a freelance orchestra hired for the occasion. This concert is always crowded with families in their holiday best, and it’s a sure sign of the season. The event begins at 5 p.m. Sunday at the Royal Poinciana Chapel, Palm Beach. Tickets: $20, $10 for students. Call 845-9696 or visit www.masterworkschorusofthepalmbeaches.com.

Other holiday singing events include Seraphic Fire’s version of Messiah, in which the Miami choir will be joined by its Firebird Orchestra, all under the direction of founder Patrick Dupré Quigley. The group can be heard at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Adrienne Arsht Center in downtown Miami, and at 4 p.m. Sunday at All Saints Episcopal Church in Fort Lauderdale. Tickets: $50-$75. Call 305-285-9060 or visit www.seraphicfire.org.

Conductor Mark Wigglesworth.

Also this weekend, the New World Symphony in Miami Beach invites British conductor Mark Wigglesworth and the Canadian soprano Measha Breuggergosman for a Paris-and-Vienna-themed concert that includes the Seven Early Songs of Alban Berg, Ravel’s Mother Goose suite and Darius Milhaud’s La Creation du Monde. Also in the mix: the suite Richard Strauss compiled from his 1911 opera, Der Rosenkavalier. 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Lincoln Theatre, Miami Beach. Tickets: $33-$78. Call 305-673-3331 or visit www.nws.edu. – G. Stepanich