Saturday, May 30, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Alexander Platt, director of the Boca Symphonia

Alexander Platt conducts violinist Vadim Gluzman
and the Boca Symphonia in the
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in December 2008.
(Photo courtesy Boca Symphonia)

The Boca Raton Symphonia is, along with the Master Chorale of South Florida and the Delray String Quartet, one of the few area cultural institutions to have emerged and thrived from the demise of the Florida Philharmonic in May 2003.

Since October 2007, the Boca Symphonia has been led by Alexander Platt, 43, a New York-born musician now resident in Chicago who, in the manner of most conductors today, has other directing jobs. He leads two other orchestras (the Marion Philharmonic of Indiana and the Waukesha Symphony of Wisconsin), serves as resident conductor of the Chicago Opera Theater, and runs the Maverick Concerts chamber music series each summer in Woodstock, N.Y.

His leadership of the Boca Symphonia has been distinctive for its fresh, challenging programming. In the season just ended, the Boca group performed music by two contemporary American composers – Libby Larsen and Jonathan Leshnoff – as well as rarely heard works by Benjamin Britten (the Suite on English Folk Tunes, Op. 90) and Antonin Dvorak (the Symphony No. 5 in F, Op. 76).

The upcoming season promises the same kind of inventiveness, as Platt has scheduled works by four American composers – Aaron Jay Kernis (Air for Violin) and Ned Rorem (Violin Concerto), as well as Aaron Copland (Music for the Theatre) and Samuel Barber (the Capricorn Concerto) – and European rarities including the First Symphony of a teenage Franz Schubert (in D, D. 82), and the Second Symphony of Felix Mendelssohn (in B-flat, Op. 52, Lobgesang).

That Mendelssohn symphony has a big choral finale, but Platt will replace it with a rarely heard Mendelssohn overture, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which Platt says will flow seamlessly out of the third movement of the Second, creating a new all-instrumental Mendelssohn symphony.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper’s Greg Stepanich talked with Platt on May 13 from the conductor’s home in Chicago. Here are excerpts from that conversation:

Stepanich: The programs for the Boca Symphonia have been distinguished by some rarely heard music and some contemporary music in what you have referred to as the “house style” for the orchestra. It’s something you feel strongly about, and I was wondering whether you could walk me through why you think it’s so important.

Platt: I think in the crises that all these orchestras, not only in Florida but all over the country, have been facing, I think it’s more important than ever to do concerts that really matter, to create a concert that is a work of art in itself. And half the reason I stay in this business is for the joy of putting together for an audience a great combination of works that somehow speak more powerfully together than they even do on their own.

Stepanich: How have audiences reacted to this approach, especially in Boca?

Platt: I think we’re slowly but surely building up a solid audience that recognizes the quality of the programming and responds in kind. That program we did around works like the Dvorak Fifth Symphony or the Tchaikovsky First Orchestral Suite, where we did these great 19th-century works that had basically been forgotten, along with these great works of more recent vintage, such as the Libby Larsen songs [Sonnets from the Portuguese], or that wonderful Benjamin Britten Suite on English Folk Tunes – I’m still so, so proud of how perfectly the orchestra played that piece – that really is what inspires me to stay on the site, in Boca, in South Florida, and keep this orchestra going.

Stepanich: How do you choose programs for the orchestra? I noticed you did [Britten’s opera] Owen Wingrave at Cambridge, and the Chicago Opera Theatre is doing it next week….

Platt: The preview is tomorrow [May 14], actually. I’m doing the penultimate of my Tragedy of Carmen [an adaptation by Marius Constant of Bizet’s opera] tonight and Friday. And tomorrow we’ll do the preview of Owen Wingrave, where I’ll be there very enthusiastically, but as a spectator. Steuart Bedford’s conducting it.

Stepanich: When you were doing Wingrave, did you say, ‘I’ve got to find some good Britten to do with an orchestra some day?’ Is that the kind of thing that leads you to the kinds of programs you do?

Platt: Yeah, all these passions had their crucible in my teenage years. Like a lot of musicians, a lot of creative people, I had a somewhat lonely childhood. I was drawn to the obscure, drawn to the forgotten masters, drawn to the works that had been overlooked.

I guess you can say when I was in college, when I did Wingrave, which I think is a work of real greatness, I was instinctively attracted to it because it had been neglected.

Stepanich: When you got to do the major pieces, was your faith in the quirky ones justified?

Platt: You know what? I think I can say nine times out of 10 my faith is justified. I’m only human and sometimes I get it wrong, but most of the time I get it right.

I’ll give you an example: This Dvorak Fifth Symphony that we did so beautifully together in Boca, where, to my astonishment, at the beginning of the first rehearsal, I blithely asked: “How many of us have ever played this piece before?”

Assuming that, say, half of the orchestra had played it because it’s always been on the fringes of the repertoire, you know; I remember a couple years ago hearing the New York Philharmonic play it with Riccardo Muti.

And to my astonishment, not a single hand went up. And that was how my sort of lonely fight for this piece was so vindicated in that performance.

I remember years ago, on the other side of the coin, in Racine [Wisconsin], I did the Dvorak First Symphony. And let’s just say I sorely realized why that piece is never performed. It’s the only one of the nine symphonies Dvorak never got to revise.

It’s that famous story of how he wrote out the manuscript and sent it off to Vienna for some competition and never heard back, and the score surfaced in the 1920s in some antique shop in Prague. Crazy. I’d like to go back to it, but I’d have to completely reorchestrate it, because it just has a lot of problems.

But I’m very proud to say that nine times out of 10, I’m right.

Stepanich: That reminds me of the work you did restoring the Erwin Stein [chamber orchestra] version of Mahler’s Fourth. Is doing that work preferable to conducting?

Platt: Oh, no, it’s not preferable. I just think it’s important for conductors to have some other vocation in their lives as musicians.

Because there are a lot of conductors who, as you know, also are great pianists, there are a lot of conductors who are great violinists. I think for me, since I’m neither of those things, doing arranging and orchestrating, creating new visions of great works, allows kind of a sideline that brings me back to earth, that brings me and keeps me inside of the music.

And then running a chamber music festival in the summertime [the Maverick Concerts] also just allows me to be the maestro while not being the fellow in the hot seat. And it also allows me to experience music in a different kind of way.

I think conductors for their own benefit need something like that to keep them human. I worry about conductors who just conduct. I worry about those people. I think the evidence is telling, without naming names.

This is just a vital sideline for me, and as you know I still have a great vision of bringing to Boca this other chamber orchestra arrangement I did, which is David Del Tredici’s Final Alice, which I’m still in the process of revising. I think the Mahler Fourth was a tea party compared to this. It’s even more vast a project.

Stepanich: I had to sing that [in the chorus] when I was a composition student at Boston University in the early ‘80s. That piece was such a big deal at the time.

Platt: It was such a big deal, and I grew up with that recording made by the Chicago Symphony with Georg Solti. And then it just kind of dropped out of sight, and I think the main reason being that it’s so incredibly expensive to perform. He basically has written for an orchestra of about 123 people, and I’ve reduced it for an orchestra of about 23 people. And it’s still massively difficult, but it really, really does work. It really, really, really works.

Stepanich: This is something that Del Tredici sanctioned?

Platt: Oh, yeah, he completely sanctioned it. It’s been an amazing experience working with him and making it happen, and revising it. He is really one of the supreme musicians in America. He’s like a kind of Richard Strauss. To watch him work has been an amazing experience.

Stepanich: You’ve worked with a lot of smaller orchestras, Waukesha, Racine…

Platt: Yes, in fact, last night I was rehearsing the Rachmaninov Second Symphony in Waukesha.

Stepanich: The long version?

Platt: Oh, yeah, the long version. I make one little cut in the finale, but I’m not saying where.

Stepanich: We’ll see if anyone notices.

Platt: Alexander Platt, prince of the blue pencil.

Stepanich: Since you’ve worked with all those regional orchestras, that raises questions about the future of orchestras in general. Some say big orchestras won’t make it, but if we do smaller orchestras we’re in better shape. Are you a partisan of either side in that debate?

No, I’m actually totally non-ideological about that. I think in some communities, like Boca, I feel this really is perfect, the Symphonia is the perfect-sized orchestra. And you’ve got such a depth of talent in the string section, as we have proved this past season.

And I’m so grateful that you’ve recognized this, because there are works, carefully chosen by the principal conductor, that are big works that can be played by a lean orchestra.

Other communities – you know, I’m rehearsing this Rachmaninov Second with a very large orchestra in Waukesha. I know this is an orchestra that few people have heard of, but it’s a very serious orchestra, and has always been, for 62 years.

And this Rachmaninov Second, given the hall that we have, given what that community wants to hear, this is the perfect kind of music for that community.

So I’m totally non-ideological about this. I can conduct orchestras of 15 or 150. It all depends on what works in the situation.

'At the end of the day, I'm definitely
a man of the 19th century.'

Stepanich: Let’s go back a little. What is your major instrument?

Platt: I’m a viola player. I was a viola player.

Stepanich: You don’t play much anymore?

Platt: No, I don’t take that thing out of the case.

Stepanich: How did you get excited about music in the first place?

Platt: I grew up in a community where my parents were not both musical, but we had a great public school arts program. And it actually was the viola that took me into music, because I was a very bored and not-at-all-accomplished violinist.

Back in those days – it really isn’t true anymore, now we know that viola sections of the major orchestras are just like, monsters, they’re amazing – but back when I was a kid, nobody wanted to play viola. It was the ugly duckling of the string section.

And I guess this says something about my personality, but I said, “I’d like to play viola.” I was fascinated by this instrument for which there were almost no concertos, this ungainly, large version of a violin. And I said, “OK, I’ll do that,” and from the moment I started playing I got hooked.

I loved being the middle voice in the orchestra, because you had to listen to everything around you. I think there’s a reason why a lot of the great conductors were viola players, like Pierre Monteux and Carlo Maria Giulini, many great conductors.

And that really got me interested. This ties into something that’s become my credo: Love of the neglected, the inner voice, the obscure. There’s something about that that keeps me going.

Stepanich: The vital but unrecognized.

Platt: Yeah. So then when I approach a work like last night, the Rachmaninov Second Symphony, it feels so fresh. I’m not at all jaded about this. I can just look at the majesty of this piece like a kid.

Stepanich: You must have been a rather good violist, to get into the Tanglewood program.

Platt: Let’s just say I got in not by talent but by hard work.

Stepanich: So when did you decide to pursue conducting?

Platt: It was actually at Tanglewood. I can tell you exactly when it happened, because I had a summer as a teenage viola player, and curiously [I sat principal in the orchestra], even though it was quite obvious that I was not the best player – I was not the worst, but I wasn’t the best; I was somewhere in the middle of a rather large viola section.

And at the end of the summer we all had to present a work in recital. I played the Darius Milhaud Viola Sonata incredibly poorly. And I had to play it for the jury, for the professors, one of whom was Victor Yampolsky, who is a major conductor and pedagogue, and a professor at Northwestern here in Chicago.

And it was just terrible. It was horrible. And at the end of it I was out on the lawn, that beautiful lawn at Tanglewood, and I saw him. And I said, “Professor Yampolsky, maestro, I have to ask you. I’m clearly not the best player in the viola section. Why did you seat me as principal for most of the summer?”

And his answer, which came back instantly, and which just stunned me, was: “Well, you obviously weren’t the best player, but you were the best leader. So that’s why we put you there.” And a little light went on inside, and I think that was the moment I realized that maybe being a conductor was the best way that I could be in music.

Stepanich: When did you pick up the baton for the first time?

Platt: It was in high school. In my last year of high school, I conducted my high school choir, and from then on I was hooked. I began at Yale, and in the grand Ivy League tradition, I just put out my own shingle and formed my own orchestra.

When other guys were out drinking with their frat-boy fellows, I was up all night begging musicians to play in some ad hoc orchestra where I was doing the Mozart Requiem or something. I had an amazing four years. We did what I try to do in Boca: We put great events together.

We did things like liturgical performances of the Mozart Requiem, the Faure Requiem, on All Souls’ Day. We did Walton’s Façade with people from the American Repertory Theatre. We did all these crazy things, and often to really, really large audiences.

I’ll never forget doing Battell Chapel, the university chapel at Yale, the Mozart Requiem on All Souls’ Day, and the proceeds were going to go to AIDS Project New Haven, and there was all this – you could feel the controversy in the air. But it was packed. You could really feel the energy, that idea of music being dangerous.

Stepanich: That sounds very Ivy League. It’s always got to be something big.

Platt: But then I turned around and did my first opera, which was Benjamin Britten’s [chamber opera] Rape of Lucretia, which also still had kind of a capacity to shock in the early 1980s.

Stepanich: Then you went off to England, and you got interested in 19th-century music. Was that the kind of music you felt the most affinity for?

Platt: It’s interesting: I have this great interest in a modernist composer like Britten, but at the end of the day I’m definitely a man of the 19th century.

And that was a time, remember, in the 1980s, when in academia the 19th century was seen as fusty, and sentimental, and totally unfashionable. And I think now in this splintered and volatile age in which we live, I think people are finally going back to look at the 19th century as actually a great, great era.

Of course, there were a lot of horrible things that happened, but when you look at the history of the European imperial powers, there is actually a lot of what they did that made a lot of sense. I know this is horribly idealistic, but I’m very attracted to the Habsburg Empire as really the founders of multiculturalism. They really were.

It’s not for nothing that my favorite novel is probably Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. It’s just this paean to all the glory that was gone in the Habsburg Empire, which eventually obviously creaked under its own weight, but this idea that as long as you followed a certain tradition and allegiance, you really could basically be anything that you wanted. And this idea of this diverse group of people under one crown: I think there’s a lot in this day in which we live, I think there’s a lot to commend the 19th century.

So I’ve always been kind of attracted to that. I think that’s when I began to delve into that world, because I was doing other modernist things or I was doing Mozart Requiems and things like that.

Stepanich: Is there any composer from the 19th century you thought was shamefully overlooked?

Platt: I’ve always been a huge fan of Dvorak. Mendelssohn I’m very attracted to, and I think Mendelssohn has finally come into his own. I think we’re finally getting to the point where we can say that Mendlessohn is not underrated.

I mean, there are works of his that are still underrated and unplayed, and as you know I’m doing this symphonic portion of the Second Symphony, the Lobgesang, which is going to be a concoction of my making, and I’m totally confident is going to work like hand in glove.

But of all of them I think Dvorak is the most neglected. I remember being at Tanglewood and hearing the great Joseph Silverstein, the longtime concertmaster of the Boston Symphony, say something that would be unthinkable today. I’ll never forget him telling the conducting class: “We all know that Mendelssohn is the greater orchestrator, but Schumann is the greater composer.” That’s a totally ridiculous thing to say, which you couldn’t say now, because in the last 20 years, we have delved more finely, we have truly delved more deeply into the world of these two great composers, and have realized they are truly great composers and great orchestrators in their own way.

Similarly, to this day, I think when we think of Dvorak, we think, “Well, he’s not as great as Brahms, but they were buddies, and isn’t that nice? They were kind of like Haydn and Mozart.” But Dvorak is an absolute towering genius, it’s just that his kind of genius is totally different from that of Brahms. Dvorak could have never written the Brahms Fourth Symphony; Brahms could have never written the New World [Symphony].

And there’s a reason why we hear that piece all the time. Because the New World Symphony is like a Brahms Fourth: it’s perfect. It’s a perfect piece. It’s like Beethoven. There’s not one note that’s extraneous. And Brahms could have never written that piece. They’re equally, profoundly great, but in profoundly different ways.

Again, I love the idea of a culture in which a Brahms, a totally German Viennese, and Dvorak, a butcher’s son from Bohemia who could then become the musical monarch of Prague, could all exist in one apostolic empire.

Stepanich: And he was a viola player, too.

Platt: (laughs) And he, like me, was a hapless viola player. The unsung hero.

Stepanich: And Brahms could never have written the Dvorak Cello Concerto, either.

Platt: No, and he could have never written the unbelievable late Dvorak string quartets. Let’s be honest. I mean, I love the Brahms quartets, but Dvorak’s string quartets are superior.

The Boca Symphonia, conducted by Alexander Platt.

Stepanich: I wanted to ask about working down in Boca, how you came to work here, and what makes it different than your other jobs.

Platt: It’s totally different than any other job I have because the weather’s great. (laughs) When I go down there, the moment I’m getting into my rental car, I feel like a new man. It’s just the feel of the air, the sunlight: It’s something I really need for myself.

You know, this job just happened by pure luck and timing. I was one of several people who came down to conduct in the early days, one of several rotating guest conductors. And I was invited to do the Festival of the Arts Boca. At the 11th hour, [flutist] James Galway decided he couldn’t play and conduct at the same time, and so they brought me in at 48 hours’ notice to conduct that program with him.

And that was such an electric experience -- that culminated in that magical Mendelssohn Italian Symphony that we did together -- that the die was cast. And they created a kind of post for me.

It’s really been a blessing in my life, and I think my wonderful board of directors agree that I bring something also unique to them. It’s been great all around.

Stepanich: These programs you do have your own personal stamp on them, so how do you consult with your board on what’s going to be on the programs?

We have an artistic advisory committee, very devoted people who work on these. And a couple of these programs – I won’t go into details – a couple of these programs in the brochure that I’m doing still could be tweaked a little. Watch this page; I’ll get back to you on this.

Even the one I’m not conducting, the one that the very talented Scott Yoo is going to conduct [March 21, 2010], that’s a program I put together with my committee that I’m just very proud of. I mean, look at that: you see Copland, Mendelssohn and Rodrigo, three composers from three totally different worlds.

But then – and I’m glad you asked me, because I think this is very, very important – think of those three composers from three totally different worlds, and yet what unites those three works: Music and theater and magic, and music of the night, the slow movement of the Rodrigo [Concierto de Aranjuez], much of Copland [Music for the Theatre], the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream. Think of how, on a more subtle, much deeper level, those three totally disparate works just go together so beautifully.

That program was a joy to put together, and I’m deeply envious that I’m not going to conduct it, but I’m sure Scott Yoo will do a lovely job.

Stepanich: They all have that sort of magic feel….

Platt: Right, and programs like that just don’t come together. You have to have a certain background culturally to have the mental equipment to do that. It’s not like saying, Let’s do a Mozart overture, a Beethoven concerto and a symphony by Brahms. Anyone can do that.

Stepanich: Which begs the question: How do you go about creating such a program? What kind of things are paramount for you?

It really is like a chef in the kitchen putting together a great meal with the ingredients he has. We, as a committee, we talk about soloists we’d like to bring in in the coming season, major works we’d like to bring to our public and then we set about putting these things together into beautiful programs, and I do very sincerely work with this committee, and it’s understood I have the final say, but that doesn’t mean I don’t work with them.

At the end of the day, somebody has to be the boss, like any part of life. But these programs really are better -- and I’m not just saying this to be politically correct – at the end of the day, I have to have the final say. That’s just how it has to be, and any conductor would say that. But with equal sincerity I would tell you that these programs would not be as good as they are if it hadn’t gone through the process of consulting with the committee.

Because you really do learn from other people’s ideas and feelings. I know that sounds like I’m a Lutheran pastor or something, but it’s really true. This is where it really is true that, as Daniel Barenboim says, music really can be the school for life. It is this laboratory where people really can work together.

Stepanich: Let’s take a look at that last program. The Copland [Music for the Theatre] is not often done….

Platt: I can’t think of a piece that captures the spirit, the real, real, real inner spirit of New York in the 1920s, [better] than this piece. It is the equal of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. But because it’s a little thornier, we don’t hear it as often.

Stepanich: Because it would be the end of the season, were you trying to do something ….

Platt: Something celebratory. I wanted to do the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I also thought: music and theater, I thought, gosh, Copland’s Music for the Theatre, I’ve always wanted to do that piece. And it’s also got these amazing trumpet solos, it’s a great showcase for our principal trumpet and director of artistic operations, the wonderful, the indispensable, Jeff Kaye.

Stepanich: You’ve got a lot of different gigs and you’re wearing a lot of hats. That has to be difficult to juggle. How do you manage all that? Do you use, I don’t know, a whiteboard or some technical application?

Platt: No, I’m the last Luddite of my generation. I mean, at 43 I still have a morocco leather pocket calendar. I don’t have an iPod. I guess I’m just sort of a 19th-century eccentric who’s just making his way in this post-modern world. I’m totally non-technological. As my friends know, it’s totally pathetic. Or, depending on your viewpoint, it’s a breath of fresh air. I think the world needs a few people who still write in longhand.

Stepanich: Personally, I think we’re going to get to a point very soon where we’re going to get a whole lot of Luddites and refuseniks, because there’s so much technological push … there’s going to be a lot of opting out, I think.

Platt: I kind of realized, maybe ahead of a lot of other people, that basically a lot of this high technology – especially in communications, I mean, e-mail is great, it’s fantastic, it’s a great way to communicate at any hour of the day or night. It combines the best, and I should also say sometimes the worst, attributes of a letter and a telephone call. But it’s a great way to communicate, and that’s terrific.

But I think the problem, what people are realizing with a lot of this high technology, is: A, it has a way of sucking up all your money, and B, it really doesn’t make your life any better. I mean, how much do you need a cellphone to do?

Stepanich: With something like an iPhone, you’re never going to use 80 percent of the power that thing has.

Platt: There are a lot of people out there who think it really changes their lives. There’s a part of me that admires those people and envies their technical facility, and then there’s a part of me that feels a true – and I don’t mind saying this for a recording – a true revulsion, because I want a Dvorak symphony to change your life.

Stepanich: How many different jobs do you have? I know you’re doing the Marion [Ind.] Philharmonic…

Platt: I just got back from there, actually. And Waukesha, Wisconsin, and Chicago Opera Theatre, and then Boca, and then the Maverick …. I’m also getting more involved with the Chicago College of the Performing Arts. So yeah, I’m a very busy man.

Stepanich: Does all that work leave any time for any sort of personal life?

Platt: Yeah, on a very limited basis. I have a very devoted group of friends in Chicago and New York, and I see them when I can see them. That’s my life.

Stepanich: The last question is about the purported death of classical music. But it seems to me that it’s mostly critics that are saying that.

Platt: They’ve been saying that for about 30 years now. And isn’t it amazing how the vast majority of all these orchestras still exist, and they’re still playing for very large and enthusiastic audiences.

Stepanich: And why do you think that is?

Platt: Because it is. I’m to the point where I’m so tired of navel-gazing about this. I’m tired of navel-gazing, I’m tired of political correctness. All I’m interested in is bringing great concerts to audiences, and communicating to them musically and verbally about why this music still needs to be part of our lives.

You know, I’m like an itinerant pastor, that’s what I do.

'It's really been a blessing in my life'
to work in Boca, Platt says.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Arts feature: Entertainers warm to concerts held in people's homes

Singer-songwriter Rod MacDonald.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Bill Meredith

Like most non-essentials, live music is suffering through an economic-imposed crisis. But as nightclubs close, a quieter live music scene is surging under the radar.

House concerts are by no means new, but they're offering performers --particularly acoustic singer/songwriters -- more additions and alternatives to their club and festival schedules than ever before.

"I do them all the time now, both in America and overseas," says Delray Beach-based vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Rod MacDonald. "They're very quiet, and usually unamplified. It's very natural. Everybody's listening, as opposed to a bar, where there's a built-in level of noise that makes it hard to catch musical subtleties."

MacDonald was one of the leading singer/songwriters of the 1980s Greenwich Village folk scene. He teaches songwriting courses in South Florida at Florida Atlantic University, and music workshops around the country, and recently released his 10th CD, After the War (Blue Flute). Most his house concerts are solo, and many occur in South Florida, although not during the hot summer months.

"There are about four house concert series in Broward County alone," MacDonald says, "but most of those are outdoors, so they don't do much in the summer. The biggest of those, the Shack in the Back series, is definitely quiet then." Run by another popular South Florida singer/songwriter, Ellen Bukstel, that Fort Lauderdale-based series is busiest from October through April.

But as Fran Snyder, creator of – an international house concert referral service -- points out, the seasonal nature of house concerts varies.

"In places like Montana, it's the exact opposite of South Florida," he says. "There's tons going on there in the summer."

Singer-songwriter Fran Snyder,
founder of Concerts in Your Home.

Snyder was a touring singer-songwriter in Pompano Beach before moving to Georgia in 2001, when his wife accepted a regional position within the Hill's Pet Nutrition corporation. Pam Snyder is often required to relocate, so the couple has since moved to Texas and Kansas.

Now based in Lawrence, Kan., Snyder started CIYH in 2006. An Internet search of "house concerts" yields several series, but Snyder's more comprehensive organization also ranks high. For a $48 annual fee, it connects 700 performers (including himself and MacDonald) to 400 different national house concert hosts.

"It's my experience that folks who really love to listen intently, who are moved by a song's lyrics, are some of the world's kindest, most caring people," says Susan Sweeney, who hosts CIYH shows in Wellington through her Equestrian Concerts series.

"These people are happy even before they arrive, knowing they are a patron of the arts, literally helping to support a musician. One can arrive alone, yet not feel alone, and usually one leaves having made new friends."

Some of those hosts are listed on the CIYH site; some are not, joining mainly to peruse artists. The Florida link lists 17 different venues, but only Southeastern Florida presenters Equestrian Concerts, The Outpost and The Hub in Miami, and Bournel House Concerts in Coral Springs.

"It's free for hosts to join, but some of them have been doing this for 10 years and don't need my help," Snyder says.

"Many presenters say they gets tons of submissions from artists without even being listed," MacDonald says.

Some of those artists play house concerts despite having rather high profiles. Guitarist Jennifer Baten has toured the world with both Michael Jackson and Jeff Beck; singer/songwriter Craig Bickhardt has written nine Top 10 country hits. But both also seek the intimacy of CIYH bookings.

"I think some of the best gigs in the country are house concerts," MacDonald says. "Most have potluck dinners before the concert, and the food's usually really good. And many are parts of seasonal series, so they develop regulars and it turns into a social event. You don't necessarily need to draw the crowd, but you meet new people.

"Plus, they're sometimes staged in places where there's no possibility of a club. I often play in really small towns that can't sustain a club. So house concerts allow those people to have live music without having to travel an hour to hear it, and it gives them a stronger sense of community."

MacDonald has upcoming house concerts June 6 in Sharon, Mass., and June 28 in Tampa.

"House concerts generally pay as well or better than club gigs," he says. "As an artist, you get all the money. The organizers don't tend to keep any of it, because they don't want to deal with the taxes. It's a win-win situation."

Snyder hosts concerts at his home in Kansas, and plays several house concerts annually.

"I hardly tour anymore unless house concerts are involved," he says. "That's how much I like them, and how much more productive they are than other shows."

Or as Snyder writes on the CIYH site: "We believe the value of music is best measured by memories -- not alcohol sales."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer in South Florida who has written extensively for Jazziz and Jazz Times magazines.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Weekend arts picks: May 29-31

A landscape by Alfred Hair of the Florida Highwaymen.

Ongoing now at the Spady Cultural Heritage Museum in Delray Beach is an exhibit of paintings by two of the Florida Highwaymen, the African-American landscape artists who sold their visions of the state from the trunks of their cars in the 1950s and 1960s. The paintings by Alfred Hair and Harold Newton come from the private collection of Scott Schlesinger, a Fort Lauderdale-based attorney and collector of Florida art.

Next month, documentary photographer Gary Monroe (left), who spent eight years researching the work of the Highwaymen and writing several books on the subject, will give a one-hour illustrated lecture about his latest book, The Highwaymen: Florida's African-American Landscape Painters. The lecture is set for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 17, at the Delray Beach Library. A $5 donation is being asked, and space is limited, so interested people are advised to reserve space now by calling 279-8883 or visiting

The Highwaymen, whose work was rediscovered in the 1990s, were a group of about 26 African-American painters from the Fort Pierce area who were either self-taught or mentored by Alfred Hair. Their colorful paintings show Florida’s natural landscapes with dramatic clouds and windswept palms. Using palette-knife techniques and large brushes, they quickly created works with permanent appeal. They sold their paintings along the roads from Jacksonville to Miami, for which they were later given the name Highwaymen.

A landscape by Harold Newton.

The Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, 170 N.W. 5th Ave. in Delray Beach, is open Monday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. regular admission is $5, seniors pay $3, and members and students are admitted free of charge. -- K. Deits

Closings: It's the last weekend to see the Andrew Stevovich/Cleve Gray exhibit at the Boca Raton Museum of Art. Reviewer Jenifer A. Vogt said here of the dual show: "Where Gray’s paintings are rash and moving, Stevovich’s evince a high degree of polish and quietude. Gray achieves his compositions with putty-like acrylics on canvas that add depth and bring out the brushstrokes. Stevovich’s finely detailed works are executed with oil on linen – giving him the ability to control fine details, create a flat surface, and convey a luminosity in his character’s faces that is reminiscent of early Italian masters such as Giotto."

Miccosukee leader Billy Bowlegs, photographed
in New York in 1852.

Also closing this weekend is The Art of the Seminole and Miccosukee Indians, a show by ethnohistorian Patsy West featuring woodwork, basketmaking and 20th-century photographs from West's extensive photograph collection. The show can be seen at the Mary Alice Fortin Children's Art Gallery on the campus of the Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. Admission is free; hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday. For more information, call 655-7226.

Comedy: If you've caught Jimmy Fallon's new late-night chatfest on NBC, you've heard him mention he'll be here Saturday at the Palm Beach Improv in CityPlace. The jury's still out on whether his show is really any good or not, but the former Saturday Night Live cast member exhibits an ingratiating kind of friendly, boyish charm on the show that helps him get over the rough spots. Shows are at 7 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Saturday; tickets are $39.78. Call 833-1812 or visit

Dance: The very last show at the Demetrius Klein Dance Company performance space on Lake Avenue in Lake Worth bows this weekend with two nights of dance featuring three new works by former Klein student Andrea Ollarvide (right). She says it's a tribute to the Klein company, and includes Assignments (a solo by Ollarvide, done in silence), Man Is Baby (solo by Clarence Brooks; music by Antony and the Johnsons) and 811 Lake Ave., Lake Worth FL 33460 (group piece danced by Kori Epps, Amber Hartman, Stephanie McCluney, Ollarvide and Katelin Schnorr; music by The Jesus Lizard). 8 pm Saturday and Sunday. Tickets: $10.

Theater feature: Actor McConnell moves into director's chair

Actor/director Gordon McConnell.

By Hap Erstein

Carbonell Award-winning actor Gordon McConnell of Lake Worth likes a juicy role to sink his teeth into, but -- as the cliché goes -- “what he really wants to do is direct.”

“I’m trying to branch out a little bit,” he says by cellphone, on his way to Miami for rehearsals of this year’s Summer Shorts. “I love theater, but I’d like to direct for the theater rather than act in it.”

McConnell has appeared with most of the major stage companies in South Florida and was nominated twice this year for performances at Manalapan’s Florida Stage and Coral Gables’ GableStage. Yet he has never been involved with Summer Shorts, City Theatre’s annual celebration of short one-act plays, which has employed most of the region’s major players over the past 14 years.

Why has he never joined the ensemble before? “I admire these guys that do it, but I’m too old to memorize more than one play,” he says with a sardonic laugh. “I used to do plays in repertory when I was younger, at Mirror Rep with Geraldine Page and F. Murray Abraham. But we did one play a day. This is doing 10 or 20. "

In fact, Summer Shorts 2009 consists of 16 plays, divided into two programs, but a bit differently from past years. There is Signature Shorts, the prime-time, general audience-accessible playlets, and then there is Undershorts, a distinctly more adult menu of R-rated scripts for those with more adult tastes.

Just as City Theatre needs a group of versatile actors, it also needs a handful or two of directors who can think on their feet. McConnell contacted the company, advised them of his availability and interest, and was hired to direct two plays, one in each program.

“One of the things that attracted me about directing is it take less time,” he explains. “What I couldn’t do as a stage actor was pursue any kind of film career. When your agent calls you up and says, ‘Be in Miami in an hour and a half,’ they don’t want to hear, ‘I’m sorry, I’m in rehearsal.’ Soon they stop calling you.”

Because the Summer Shorts plays all rehearse simultaneously, the rehearsal schedule is a logistical nightmare. As a result, McConnell was simply assigned two plays and given casts for them.

From left: John Manzelli, David Hemphill
and Stephen Trovillion in Jettison.
(Photo by George Schiavone)

One is called Jettison, by Brendan Andolsek Bradley. “It’s three guys adrift in a lifeboat,” says McConnell. Playing them will be Stephen Trovillion, John Manzelli and David Hemphill. “You don’t really learn too much about how they got there or what happened on the boat they were on."

What we do learn is that one of the three has smuggled a little rabbit aboard. “And they’re starving, so we have a conflict there about eating the rabbit or not eating the rabbit.”

Fortunately, McConnell has decided to use a hand puppet, rather than a real rabbit. If that sounds comic, the director agrees, “yeah, well, it borders on the ridiculous.” Still, he adds, “I’ve been told that it’s not funny enough. And my response is, ‘I didn’t write it.’ "

McConnell’s Undershorts play is Pass the Salt, Please, by Jeffrey Ircink, a two-character, mature-language comedy with Trovillion and Elena Garcia. He describes it as the story of “a bored couple having dinner, and the language gets very raw.”

McConnell says he is enjoying the rehearsal process of Summer Shorts, which requires “a creativity that you have to come up with almost instantaneously, without major changes as you go along.” After all, the amount of rehearsal is extremely limited. “We get about, all told, I would say less than 19 hours a play.”

Still, he would like to make Summer Shorts an annual habit. “It’s just to get my name out there as a director,” McConnell says. “If the theaters down here don’t know your work, it’s hard to break in."

And no matter how well his direction is received, McConnell is already committed to appearing onstage twice next season at Florida Stage. He is featured in the Manalapan company’s season opener, Two Jews Walk Into a War . . . , by Seth Rozin (Oct. 21- Nov. 29), a two-hander in which he will play opposite Avi Hoffman, another Summer Shorts director. And then in late January, 2010, he will show up in Israel Horovitz’s Sins of the Mother.

Yes, McConnell wants to be seen as a director, but, as he puts it with a vocal shrug, “I mean, I’m not going to say 'no’ to a good role.”

SUMMER SHORTS 2009, Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; opens tonight, runs through Sunday, June 21. (305) 949-6722, Tickets: $42. Continues at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave., Ft. Lauderdale, Thursday, June 25 through Sunday, June 28, (954) 462-0222. Tickets: $40.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Film review: 'Gigantic' a sometimes amusing essay in indie quirk

Zooey Deschanel as Happy in Gigantic.

By John Thomason

The minute we hear that Zooey Deschanel’s character in Gigantic is introduced with the name Happy (short for Harriet), our collective bell goes off.

Conditioned by too many quirky independent comedies, the irony of her secretly miserable life has already cemented in our craniums so thoroughly that it can almost no longer apply as irony (Remember the cruelly named Joy Jordan, Jane Adams’ wretched character in Happiness?). Now, if she was named Happy and lived her life like Sally Hawkins’ eternally optimistic Poppy in Happy-Go-Lucky, that would be something subversive.

Gigantic is a curiously funny/hacky slice of dysfunctional life that wears its quirk-com origins on its sleeve. Paul Dano stars as Brian Weathersby, an amiable mattress salesman who operates out of an austere warehouse and is obsessed with adopting a Chinese baby (quirky!). When a wealthy gasbag (John Goodman) with the look and demeanor of a manatoid mobster in Mark Mothersbaugh glasses (quirkier!) agrees to buy a $45,000 mattress, he sends his daughter Happy to pick up the bed the next day.

She promptly falls asleep on the bed, and in her second meeting with Brian, in the office of her father’s chiropractor, she asks if he has any interest in having sex with her in her dad’s oversized van (quirkiest!). And so it goes – an offbeat romance develops amid Brian’s Chinese babyfever and his clueless father’s (Ed Asner) 80th birthday party.

For first-time indie filmmakers such as Gigantic’s Matt Aselton, quirkiness is an almost essential ingredient in securing a distribution deal. It started when Jim Jarmusch shot Stranger Than Paradise for about $18 and a pack of smokes in 1984 and has survived – even thrived – in the indie world ever since. Recent results range from the distinctly sublime (Me and You and Everyone We Know, Garden State) to the groaningly routine (Little Miss Sunshine) to the Hallmark-gone-arthouse sappy (Waitress) to the patently pretentious (The Darjeeling…yawn…Limited).

What all of these movies share are characters that say and do the darndest things and often seem to be operating on different tracks, even on opposing psychological states. This miscommunication is most endemic within the family, where it’s exploited for comedic gain -- hyper-real projections of real-life familial squabbles that allow us to sit back and laugh, comfortable that at least our relationships aren’t that bad.

Gigantic fits the subgenre’s requirements to a tee. Take, for example, the obligatory Awkward Dinner Scene, in which Happy’s father introduces Brian as “the man who’s sleeping with my daughter,” and Happy fires back with an equally disparaging remark about good ol’ pop.

At least there’s one interaction in the film that’s initially arresting. Brian is assaulted by a grizzled mountain man bearing a club, who beats the young man to a pulp until Brian tells him to stop. Even this intriguing subplot – the man appears periodically, each time with a different weapon – results in a plot twists constituting its own clichéd trope.

The best that can be said in Gigantic’s favor is that Aselton is a gifted humorist, even if the jokes are so proscribed that they hardly have an air of organic spontaneity. He has a keen eye for casting, giving the movie’s weathered lions – Goodman and Asner – the meatiest comic lines. Goodman in particular has rarely been this compelling to watch, obviously enjoying every minute of it.

Whether you share this enjoyment for the movie as a whole depends on your tolerance for excessive quirk and the deepness of your indie-film library – the more Igby Goes Downs you’ve seen, the less likely you are to fall under Gigantic’s tried-and-true formula of randomness.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

GIGANTIC. Studio: First Independent Pictures; Director: Matt Aselton; Cast: Paul Dano, Zooey Deschanel, Ed Asner and John Goodman; Release date: Friday; Venue: Lake Worth Playhouse

ArtsPaper Books: Cahill advocates passionately for Death Row 'saint'

By Bill Williams

Dominique Green was 18 when Houston police arrested him in connection with a fatal shooting during a robbery. A jury that included no blacks convicted Green, an African-American, of capital murder. The court then sentenced him to death.

Thomas Cahill, author of the best-seller How the Irish Saved Civilization, sees Green’s “monstrously unfair” trial as evidence that capital punishment should be abolished.

Green grew up in an alcoholic household, in which his mentally ill mother punished him by holding his hand over the flame on a stove. At age 11 he was raped by a priest, and later by a staff member in a juvenile detention facility. He became a drug dealer to support himself and his brothers.

On the fateful night of his arrest, Green allegedly was with three other youths who confronted a man in front of a convenience store. When the man pulled a knife, one of the youths shot and killed him. Under Texas law, everyone involved in such a crime can be charged with capital murder.

However, only Green, the youngest of the four, was so charged. Two others, also black, received lesser charges and sentences. The only white youth in the group was set free.

Prosecutors offered Green a 30-year sentence if he would plead guilty, but he refused. No independent eyewitnesses put Green at the scene, and no scientific evidence linked him to the crime. Testimony against him came from his co-conspirators, who had every reason to shift the blame.

Cahill argues that Green never had a chance of getting a fair trial. He was represented by “exceedingly bumbling and naïve” lawyers who called Green’s mother as a witness, even while knowing she had been hospitalized for mental illness. She testified that her son should get the maximum sentence, which effectively sealed his fate.

Green’s case drew international attention. After meeting with Green, Desmond Tutu told reporters that it would be “one of the greatest tragedies if someone like Dominique were executed.”

During the decade that Green lived on Death Row, Texas executed more than 250 inmates. Green began wearing a long rosary around his neck, adding a bead each time the state ended the life of another inmate.

The widow of the victim said she forgave Green and pleaded with the state “to give him another chance at life.”

Green appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court rejected his petition. He was executed by lethal injection on Oct. 26, 2004.

Parts of the book, including the title, read like a hagiography. When the author met Green for the first time, he came away thinking Green could have been a Supreme Court chief justice or U.N. secretary general, which seems a bit of a stretch. Cahill says he used “saint” in the title to indicate he believes Green is with God.

He contends that Green underwent a conversion in prison, becoming an effective writer, advocate and spiritual mentor for other prisoners, but such transformations are not unusual among inmates, some of whom undergo remarkable changes.

People often ask the author if Green committed the crime. “I don’t think so,” he responds, while adding that he cannot “provide a definitive answer.” Green refused to say who fired the fatal shot, explaining that he would not become “a snitch.” He pleaded with his lawyers to try to locate the tape from a store surveillance camera that he claimed could have proved his innocence.

No one knows for sure how many innocent people are executed. Cahill includes an estimate of one in eight, without giving any evidence to support such an absurdly high figure.

The author is on stronger ground when he argues that the death penalty most often targets the poor and African-Americans.

The young men who took part in the robbery that led to Green’s conviction and execution likely know exactly what happened, but they are not talking. Cahill argues persuasively that police, prosecutors and the courts bungled this case from beginning to end.

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.

A SAINT ON DEATH ROW: The Story of Dominique Green, by Thomas Cahill, Doubleday, 144 pp., $18.95.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ArtsBuzz: National Poetry Slam coming to West Palm in August

SlamCharlotte, last year's winner of the National Poetry Slam.
(Photo by Katya Szabados)

WEST PALM BEACH -- The National Poetry Slam, which since 1990 has seen writers hurling hexameters at each other in closely followed contests, will be held this year in West Palm Beach beginning in the first week of August.

The slam is set for Aug. 4-8, and will pit roughly 80 teams of three to five poets from across the country against each other in preliminary, semifinal and final competitions. The daily contests will be at venues on or around Clematis Street, and the finals will be held at the Palm Beach County Convention Center, organizers said.

In a letter on the National Poetry Slam Website, Steve Marsh, the slam's executive director, writes that the West Palm Beach event will mark the first time that Poetry Slam Inc., the non-profit that runs the performance-art bouts, will be responsible for all the event details.

"This is a new business model for PSi," Marsh writes. "But it is one that gives PSi full control over the event and full responsibility for its success or failure."

The first National Poetry Slam was held in San Francisco in 1990 and was the outgrowth of an event that had been held since 1986 in Chicago. Last year's competition was held in Madison, Wis., and featured 76 teams.

Teams are assembled in participating cities through individual competitions, such as Delray Beach's Poets Anonymous. Team members write group poems, often including choreography, as well as craft individual poems.

Although the competitions themselves are reserved to pre-registered teams, some of the slam's happenings are open to public participation. These include poetry workshops and contests such as Head-to-Head Haiku.

The National Poetry Slam has received extensive national and international media coverage each year, and has been the subject of documentary films, including Slam Nation (1998), directed by Paul Devlin.

The arrival of the slam in West Palm Beach marks the second major event this year in Palm Beach County to focus on poetry. The Palm Beach Poetry Festival, organized by Miles Coon, hosted its fifth annual festival this past January in Delray Beach.

Ticket prices for the National Poetry Slam range from $3 for daily events and $5 for late-night events to $7 for preliminary competitions, $10 for group piece finals, and $20 for the finals. A pass for all events costs $75. For more information, visit the official Website.

Monday, May 25, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival set for 18th summer

The Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival logo.

By Greg Stepanich

There is some debate, even now, among the founders of the Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival as to just what the three of them had in mind when they decided to get together and play music one day back in the faraway summer of 1992.

Michael Ellert, a bassoonist, said he thought it was just orchestral players meeting to kill some time in the months before season brought their livelihoods back. But Ellert says clarinetist Michael Forte insists that he was hoping to put on a concert, and when Forte was offered what is now called Stage West at Palm Beach Community College for free to host it, Ellert, Forte and flutist Karen Dixon went ahead, even though they didn't quite know what to expect when they got on stage that first time.

"We were standing backstage waiting to go on, and I looked at Michael and I said, 'You think anybody's out there?'" Ellert said. "We walked out on stage and there were 100 people there, in this little theater that seats only 125. And the three of us kind of looked at each other across the stage as we were sitting down, saying, 'How did this happen?' "

Whatever their original intention, Ellert, Forte and Dixon (at right) did end up putting on a show, and for nearly 20 years their annual chamber music series has been one of the only summer classical music events available locally during the hot months of July and August.

"It's bigger than we ever imagined it would be," Ellert said last week.

The four-program, 12-concert series begins July 10 and concludes four weekends later on Aug. 2. Each program is given three times, once each at different venues in the central, north and south parts of the county, on Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. This 18th annual festival boasts 23 musicians and features its usual mix of discoveries and canonical fare, with the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, the Dvorak Serenade for Winds, and the Beethoven Septet perhaps the most well-known pieces on the programs.

But the real joy of this durable series has been the rarities it has brought to eager ears, and this summer that includes works by Florent Schmitt, Alfredo Casella, and Joseph Rheinberger, as well as a piece for three bassoons by the French composer Eugene Bozza (1905-1991). There also are major works by Mendelssohn (the String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87) and Stravinsky (his Octet), as well as shorter works by Beethoven, Ravel and Saint-Saens.

"(Our audiences) really like the programming. One of the things I hear more than anything is: 'I've never heard of this composer. How come I've never heard of this composer? This is great music,' " Ellert said.

The festival has also built up an impressive catalog of recordings on the Boca Raton-based Klavier label, which specializes in music for winds and brass. The label's artistic director is composer Clark McAlister, whose work has been featured on festival concerts. The group's sixth disc is due out this summer.

This version of the festival will not include chamber music with piano; the festival's staff pianist, Lynn University's Lisa Leonard, is concentrating on her duties as a new mother this summer, though her husband, trumpeter Marc Reese, will be part of the series.

The series always features guest artists, many of whom return year after year. Fourteen guest musicians, several of them members of the Naples Philharmonic Orchestra, are on the roster this time around, adding to the festival's permanent membership of 10 people.

"People are really excited about playing," Ellert said. "The core group of musicians has remained the same for years."

Although the current economic downturn has been brutal on arts organizations, so far the festival, which operates at a modest deficit each year, hasn't felt much of a pinch.

"We won't know until we see what the ticket sales are. Last year we had the best summer ever for ticket sales," he said, adding that the group's two biggest donors already have given $5,000 each for this summer's concerts. Ellert credits the positive response in grim fiscal times to the idea that people are sticking close to home.

"I think the economy has helped us in the sense that people are doing this 'staycation' thing," he said. "They're not going away."

Ellert said one of the most satisfying things about the festival is that it originated with working musicians, even though they have to wear administrative hats as well.

"It's hard when you're doing both roles, but I wouldn't give it up for anything," he said. "Because one of the things that makes the festival what it is, is that musicians are running it. Not somebody with money telling us we have to play this piece, or we can't do this, or we have to do this.

"It's all us, for us, and for the audience."

Here is the schedule for this year's Palm Beach Chamber Music Festival:

Concert I (July 10-12)

Beethoven: Serenade in D for flute, violin and viola, Op. 25
Bohuslav Martinu: Serenade for two clarinets, violin, viola and cello, H. 334
Eugene Bozza: Divertissements for three bassoons
Dvorak: Serenade for winds in D minor, Op. 44

Concert II (July 17-19)

Joseph Rheinberger: Octet in E-flat major, Op. 132
Florent Schmitt: Suite en rocaille, for flute, violin, viola, cello and harp, Op. 84
Beethoven: Septet in E-flat, Op. 20

Concert III (July 24-26)

Ravel: Sonatine en Trio (arr. Salzedo), for flute, cello and harp
Stravinsky: Octet
Brahms: Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op. 115

Concert IV (July 31-Aug. 2)

Saint-Saens: Fantaisie in A major for violin and harp, Op. 124
Alfredo Casella: Serenata for clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, violin and cello
Mendelssohn: String Quintet in B-flat, Op. 87


Fridays, 8 pm: Helen K. Persson Recital Hall, Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach
Saturdays, 8 pm: Eissey Campus Theatre, Palm Beach Community College, Palm Beach Gardens
Sundays, 2 pm: Crest Theatre, Old School Square, Delray Beach

Tickets: $21 apiece, $72 for the series of four. For more information, call 1-800-330-6874 or visit

Sunday, May 24, 2009

ArtsBuzz: The Broadway season, considered

George Akram and Karen Olivo in West Side Story.

By Hap Erstein

Despite the bad economy, which meant that several anticipated shows never got capitalized and were grounded, Broadway had a pretty solid season.

Total box office was up, helped by spiraling ticket prices ($136.50 for the orchestra at Billy Elliot.) Stars headed to the stage, including Jane Fonda, Angela Lansbury, Katie Holmes, Susan Sarandon, Joan Allen and Kristin Scott-Thomas, and that’s just the women. And while plenty of sub-par shows folded quickly, there was definite quality among the survivors.

Here is a critical look at the season:


* Billy Elliot: The Broadway season’s big hit musical, a London transfer adapted from the 2000 movie, all rests on the tiny shoulders of the lad playing the title role of the coal miner’s son who prefers ballet to boxing. Make that lads, for the part of Billy Elliot is shared by four high proficient dancing dynamos who rotate in the role.

I happened to see David Alvarez, a Cuban-American 15-year-old who is remarkably adept at tap, hip-hop, modern dance and ballet, as required by Peter Darling’s choreography. While dance has been de-emphasized in musicals lately, Billy Elliot celebrates it and uses it as the driving force of the storyline.

As in the film, which screenwriter Lee Hall expands and deepens, Billy’s father is among the striking miners eking out a life in the face of Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to break the union. It is a dead-end existence that Billy might be able to escape through dance, a world completely alien to his father (a gruff, but eventually sympathetic Greg Jbara). Hall’s script does not shortchange the economic conflict, while improving on the film with a more realistic ending that still provides plenty of emotional uplift.

Elton John‘s score is alternately dramatic and lighthearted, easily his most theatrical songs yet. Among the highlights are Electricity, Billy’s description of what it feels like when he dances; Dear Billy, a lump-in-the-throat letter from the boy’s dead mother and the rollicking Expressing Yourself, about the value of being different, sung by a young friend of Billy’s who happens to like dressing in women’s clothes.

Billy Elliot is a bit manipulative, but thanks to deft direction by Stephen Daldry, audiences should be rooting for Billy to succeed at realizing his dreams for a long time to come. It goes into the Tony Awards with 15 nominations, and if it fails to win for best musical there should be a federal investigation. (Imperial Theatre, $41.50 - $136.50, (800) 432-7250)

* 9 to 5: As the creators of Legally Blonde can attest, your show does not need to be very good so long as it pleases its target audience. That sums up the stage musical of the 1980 film comedy, 9 to 5, a revenge tale of three female office workers done wrong by their male chauvinist boss. If that plot summary sounds like it would prompt a few country-western songs, you have the picture, for the score is by Dolly Parton, film co-star and composer of its title tune, who puts her twangy sound in all three women’s mouths, even if only one of the characters is the least bit countrified.

Fresh from TV’s The West Wing, Allison Janney is the biggest name in the cast, playing Violet Newstead, hyper-efficient but passed over for promotions (a/k/a the movie’s Lily Tomlin role). Game enough to make her musical debut without actually much singing or dancing talent, Janney is well showcased in a number called One of the Boys, surrounded by a male chorus that does the heavy lifting, bringing to mind Lauren Bacall’s star turn in Woman of the Year.

Better cast are Megan Hilty as big-haired, big-chested Doralee Rhodes (yup, the Parton part), who gets a well-tailored intro in Backwoods Barbie, and Wicked veteran Stephanie J. Block as Judy Bernly (Jane Fonda), the naïve newcomer who belts an 11 o’clock number of defiance, Get Out and Stay Out.

In Patricia Resnick’s script based on her own screenplay, the trio teams up to kidnap and truss up the boss (an aptly smarmy Marc Kudisch), then prove that they can run the office better than he can. It is a slim plot that does not diverge much from the movie, which should not bother those women looking for a bonding girls-night-out (pardon the expression).

Wicked director Joe Mantello has a better handle on musical staging this time around, relying on slick animated visuals by Peter Nigrini and kinetic sets that are as choreographed as Andy Blankenbuehler’s dances. The whole package is professionally assembled, just not the least bit inspired. (Marquis Theatre, $66.50 - $126.50, (800) 432-7250)

* Next to Normal: The musical theater has come a long way from off-Broadway’s The Fantasticks and its entreaty, “Please, God, don’t let me be normal!,” to this new dysfunctional family show in which the most one could hope for is normalcy. Musicals do not get much darker than this tale of a suburban housewife with bipolar disorder whose hallucinations keep her so removed from reality that the eventual treatment for her is electroshock therapy.

Yes, we are not in The Fantasticks anymore.

Composer Tom Kitt (previously on Broadway with the short-lived High Fidelity) delivers a hard-edged rock score, well matched by Brian Yorkey’s cut-to-the-bone lyrics. Without sacrificing their story’s dark tones, they manage to inject some humor into the Goodman family’s search for medical relief for mom.

Diana Goodman, haunted by ghosts from her past, is played brilliantly by Alice Ripley, whose grasp for sanity or merely a life preserver is all exposed nerves with underlying sweetness. J. Robert Spencer is comparatively understated as her caring, but clueless husband and Aaron Tveit is electric as Diana’s son Gabe, who rattles around inside her head with the insistent I’m Alive.

Michael Greif, who staged Rent, puts a similar raw directorial spin on Next to Normal, on a multi-tiered, metallic set by Mark Wendland. Still to be determined is whether a sufficient Broadway audience will be drawn to this painful material, but its creators certainly show themselves to be talents to reckon with. (Booth Theatre, $36.50-$116.50. (800) 432-7250)

* West Side Story: This classic transformation of Romeo and Juliet to the mean streets of 1950s New York is surely one of the top handful of great musicals of all time. And because Jerome Robbins’ original staging was so on-target, there really has never been a major revival that veered far from his original vision.

Nor does the current production, in which Joey McKneely reproduces Robbins’ iconic choreography -- the turf-claiming Prologue, the cultural conflict of Dance at the Gym, the angular angst of Cool, and on and on. The most radical notion of director Arthur Laurents (whose original script remains urgent and searing) is to have the immigrant Shark gang often spouting Spanish, a touch of authenticity and further proof of the gulf between them and the less-recent immigrants, the Jets.

That should work well enough, since the show and its Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim songs are so emblazoned on our memories. But the decision of when to translate seems so arbitrary. I Feel Pretty, sung among Maria (the lovely, lyrical Josefina Scaglione) and the shopgirls is trilled in Spanish, but America (led by the sizzling Karen Olivo as cynical Anita) is not.

Nevertheless, the show retains its potency, Laurents brings it to life with an emotional wallop -- stubbing his toe only on an oddly wan Gee, Officer Krupke -- and its message of hope is always welcome, even if the gang warfare continues unabated. (Palace Theatre, $46,50-$121.50, (800) 755-4000)

Marin Ireland and Thomas Sadoski in reasons to be pretty.


* The Norman Conquests: There is a good reason why television sitcoms come in 30-minute segments. Sustaining comedy for longer periods of time can be exceedingly difficult, but you would never know that from Brit Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of interlocking, yet independent romantic farces which, taken all together, span more than seven hours.

Expertly directed by Matthew Warchus (God of Carnage) with a nimble cast of six that represents the best ensemble currently on Broadway, The Norman Conquests is layered comedy that gets funnier with each successive installment that you see.

While the title suggests a heavy slog through a history lesson, in fact these plays are about a fuzzy-headed British librarian named Norman, on the prowl for sexual conquests one weekend at the country house of his sister-in-law. The three plays take place roughly concurrently, in the dining room, living room and garden of the house, where an exit from one play is likely to become an entrance into another.

The wildly prolific Ayckbourn has never been particularly successful in the States, where we treat him like England’s answer to Neil Simon, but there is usually a streak of melancholy running through his plays. That is certainly the case with The Norman Conquests, where the extended family members each are yearning for something, though not as libidinously as Norman (sublimely selfish Stephen Mangan). In a cast of no weak links, he stands out, as does put-upon Annie (Jessica Hynes), with whom he schemes to run off for a naughty weekend.

Circle in the Square has been converted into theater-in-the-round for this production, with a clever stage design by Rob Howell, topped by a relief map of the estate that situates the action before and after each act. (Circle in the Square, $107-$112; $255 for three-play trilogy, (800) 432-7250, through July 25)

* Waiting for Godot: Leave it to Samuel Beckett to illustrate the bleakness of life with a pair of vaudevillians. The play, of course, is considered one of the most influential works of the 20th century and his two dutiful attendants have long been cast with expert clowns (beginning with a bewildered Bert Lahr in the 1956 American premiere). Now, in what is the play’s only Broadway revival in 53 years, Vladimir and Estragon, the existential Abbott and Costello, are played by Nathan Lane and Bill Irwin.

With Lane in particular, that conjures up ambivalent feelings of anticipation and dread. The potential for Lane to make Vladimir a schtick-laden first cousin to The Producers’ Max Bialystock loomed large. Instead, under the firm hand of director Anthony Page, Lane and Irwin (a natural New Age clown) are quite funny, but completely faithful to Beckett’s vision of hopelessness.

So they wait (spoiler alert!) without success for the arrival of Godot -- pronounced here “GOD-oh,” perhaps to link the unseen being with the deity -- whiling away the time with stories, songs and pranks. The closest the play gets to an event is the entrance of a master-and-slave duo, Pozzo (a mountainous John Goodman) and the tethered Lucky (John Glover). The latter is usually silent until he explodes with a stream-of-consciousness torrent of words.

Ask your English teacher what it all means, but in this surprisingly involving production, despair has never been so entertaining. (Studio 54, $36.50-$116.50, (212) 719-1300, through July 12.)

* reasons to be pretty: Although not as interrelated as the plays of The Norman Conquests, dramatist Neil LaBute has been writing a trilogy of his own on the nature of physical beauty and society’s response to it -- The Shape of Things, Fat Pig, and now, reasons to be pretty.

LaBute is a facile writer who knows how to push buttons and draw an audience into his web. His latest, which also happens to mark his Broadway debut, manages to entice us and sustain our interest, but do not be surprised if you leave the Lyceum Theatre feeling that you have heard before what LaBute has to say on the impossibility of coexistence between the sexes.

It begins with a full-throttle shouting match between Steph (a fierce Marin Ireland) and her fiance Greg (Thomas Sadoski, a deer caught in the headlights). It seems that Greg made an offhanded slighting remark about Steph’s looks to someone at their warehouse job site, the remark made its way back to Steph, and she now wants Greg’s head on a platter.

The remark ends their relationship, but Greg is hardly the male pig that Steph makes him out to be, at least compared to his buddy Kent (Steven Pasquale), who cannot open his mouth without maligning someone. Eventually, as is often the case with LaBute’s well-structured scripts, Greg’s attitude gets sorely tested and comes full circle, thanks to Kent’s wife Carly (Piper Perabo), a security guard at the warehouse.

Although reasons to be pretty is probably best received by those uninitiated into LaBute’s dark recesses, it is directed with a visceral glee by Terry Kinney and will surely make a rabbit punch of a film. (Lyceum Theatre, $31.50-$111.50, (800) 432-7250)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

ArtsBuzz: Predicting the Tony winners

From left: Aaron Tveit, Alice Ripley and J. Robert Spencer
in the musical Next to Normal.

By Hap Erstein

It’s true: I can see into the future and am willing to prove it with my uncanny predictions of this year’s Tony Award winners. Those without my clairvoyance will have to wait until Sunday, June 7, to learn how accurate I am.

* Best musical: OK, your maiden aunt Sophie from Iowa could pick this one. It will be Billy Elliot by a landslide, the crowning award of what should be a big night for the British show based on the 2000 movie of the same name. The only show that could stop it is Next to Normal, but its chances are next to nil.

* Best play: Only two nominees are still running, and Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage should triumph easily over Neil LaBute’s reasons to be pretty.

* Best book of a musical: Billy Elliot again, for its emotionally potent script, beating out Next to Normal again, which covers darker, more groundbreaking ground, but not as effectively.

* Best original score: Here is where Next to Normal could edge out the Bill-ster, with Broadway giving a back pat to relative newcomers Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey over Sir Elton John, even though John’s score is his best yet. Dolly Parton has her admirers for her 9 to 5 songs, but not enough to cop the Tony.

* Best revival of a play: Strong category, but the Tony goes to The Norman Conquests, which was helped by the ruling that its three interlocking plays would be considered as one.

* Best revival of a musical: West Side Story is a far better show than Hair, but the former’s bilingual production has left many unimpressed, so the Tony will go to the retro tribal love-rock musical.

* Best special theatrical event: If there were an award for Least Funny Comedy, Will Ferrell’s You’re Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush would win in a walk. Instead, expect Liza at the Palace, Ms. Minnelli’s umpteenth comeback show to emerge victorious.

* Best leading actor, play: Geoffrey Rush, Exit the King

* Best leading actress, play: Marcia Gay Harden, God of Carnage

* Best leading actor, musical: David Alvarez, Trent Kowalik and Kiril Kulish, Billy Elliot (In another unlevel-playing-field decision, all three boys who shared the title role when the show opened are nominated collectively)

* Best leading actress, musical: Alice Ripley, Next to Normal

* Best featured actor, play: Roger Robinson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

* Best featured actress, play: Angela Lansbury, Blithe Spirit

* Best featured actor, musical: Gregory Jbara, Billy Elliot

* Best featured actress, musical: Karen Olivo, West Side Story

* Best scenic design, play: Derek McLane, 33 Variations

* Best scenic design, musical: Ian MacNeil, Billy Elliot

* Best costume design, play: Anthony Ward, Mary Stuart

* Best costume design, musical: Nicky Gillebrand, Billy Elliot

* Best lighting design, play: Hugh Vanstone, Mary Stuart

* Best lighting design, musical: Rick Fisher, Billy Elliot

* Best sound design, play: Russell Goldsmith, Exit the King

* Best sound design, musical: Paul Arditti, Billy Elliot

* Best direction, play: Matthew Marchus, God of Carnage (his only real competition is himself for The Norman Conquests)

* Best choreography: Peter Darling, Billy Elliot

* Best orchestrations: Martin Koch, Billy Elliot

Tomorrow: Hap's overview of the musicals and plays of the current Broadway season.

THE TONY AWARDS will be broadcast at 8 pm Sunday, June 7, on CBS.