Saturday, February 4, 2023

Palm Beach Dramaworks Debuts the Hyperrealistic ‘The Science of Leaving Omaha’



If The Science of Leaving Omaha makes you feel uncomfortable then this World Premiere succeeds.  It is a deeply affecting but frequently disheartening social commentary.  Playwright Carter W. Lewis explores so many themes in this tightly developed work: death, love, violence, and in particular the marginalization of a segment of our society.  It is a rare play that can convey philosophical weight, drama, and black comedy at the same time, concluding with a breathtaking scene of magical realism.  The Science of Leaving Omaha has been under development at the PB Dramaworkshop. 


Lewis’ play is brought to life by a cast making their PBD debuts.  The director Bruce Linser, who has been fully involved with its development, brings a deep sensitivity and passion to this project, which is clearly obvious from the opening scene.


There is a heightened sense of realism with an eerie dream-like deterministic inevitability as the play unfolds in front of a retort or cremation oven.  The “Science” includes details about the cremation process, as the occasional strange sounds from the retort seem to call out (as amusingly noted by the off-stage character “Mrs. B” in the play) “ask not for whom the cremator clunks it clunks for thee.”  The action takes place in real time late one night in this macabre setting.  The retort becomes a looming character onto itself and the technical details of its operation a metaphor for getting out of Omaha.


Nicholas-Tyler Corbin and Georgi James Photo by Tim Stephien

Two young people, each with issues of finding a place in a society that seems to offer them little hope or opportunity, are thrown together by chance.  There is no shortage of adversity in their lives, simply because of parents and birthplace.  Iris, played by Georgi James, is minding the nighttime basement office of a crematorium as the owner, “Mrs. B is super religious, and she thinks no one should crossover alone.”  James channels her character’s frustration, as she sits there working on an essay which she needs to qualify for her GED, but clearly this is a discouraging struggle for her and she feels marooned in Omaha.  James’ outstanding performance captures the anxiety of her character, along with her kookiness.  It is a particularly difficult part as her halting speech and erratic, fragile personality are purposely abstruse and she is on stage for the entire play.


There is a body bag there that night holding Ruth Ellen who was shot while on the back of a motorcycle driven by Baker, played by Nicholas-Tyler Corbin, as they were escaping from a bar.  Ruth Ellen was Baker’s wife for only one day.  He breaks into the crematorium to see her and make sure Ruth Ellen would “approve” of how her body is being handled, wanting to know about the details of her impending cremation.  Corbin flawlessly plays the volatile yet sensitive Baker, who also has been looking for answers to an amorphic future.  The actor projects a palpable sense of grief along with his anger at the system.  He played baseball and was hoping for a scholarship but found out his high school taught him nothing.  Anger, because he is stranded in Omaha where there are “lame ass people workin’ lame ass jobs n’ doin’ a lame ass job of it all.”


What begins as, possibly, a set up for more violence develops into a story of kindred spirits, Iris even seeing the possibility of running away from a life without opportunity with this stranger.  She’s quite jealous of Ruth Ellen as she sees how much she is loved.  Iris, however, does have a close relationship with Mrs. B, the owner of the Belladonna Funeral Home, who has assumed a motherly protective relationship to Iris.


Baker has been on the run ever since his last job as a ward attendant at “Lasting Hope Recovery Center,” yet another ironic touch, “with the young crazies.”  He and Ruth Ellen were bound for Albuquerque before their encounter with the police.  There are shifting moods in the play, ebbing and flowing with Baker’s volatility.  He makes it clear he’s mad at the world, not Iris. 


Merrina Millsapp and Georgi James Photo by Tim Stephien


Into the mix comes the night watchperson, “Security Sally” poignantly performed by Merrina Millsapp, who has never imagined she would ever actually have to draw her gun in her part time job.  She is yet another victim of society, raising children as a single parent, having to take this night job to survive.  But she is yet another “protector” of Iris and was assigned to a mall where Iris once had a melt-down and whose shame was captured on social media which went viral. 


The building tension is palpable and foreboding, the resolution surprising but fated as Iris – tearfully and plaintively delivered by James -- beseeches advice from the remote, offstage Mrs. B: “I mean, damn. Damn Mrs. B, I don’t know what to do, I just–Oh Mrs. B, I’m so scared.”  The best advice Mrs. B can give is to allow her to put on one of her opera records, which has been off limits, the music soaring at the conclusion.   Mrs. B clearly has aided Iris, given her a job (actually created one for her), and wants to help her succeed.  Could Mrs. B be a surrogate for a compassionate but powerless god?



The Scenic design by Michael Amico reflects the morose nature of the play, the basement of a funeral home owned by a Catholic Italian American family.  There is a replica of a cremation oven almost front-and-center and “a gurney garage” or what Iris amusingly calls “the wine cellar,” a place to temporarily put a body behind velvet red curtains.  Family pictures are scattered about (Amico uses ones of his own family), as well as a portrait of Jesus.   A sign hangs prominently, “Fire is the most tolerable third party,” which Henry David Thoreau meant for two people huddling around a campfire.  It has a more profound meaning here. 


Kirk Bookman’s lighting design is critical, insightful, full flat light in the middle of the night in a basement balanced with spots following the actors, but breathtaking when red hot lighting emanates from the open retort.


Sound design by Roger Arnold cleverly captures the strange clunking sounds of the retort, some unexpected, helping to build the tension.  There are sounds of metal expanding and flames heating up as well as the creak of the opening door.


Brian O’Keefe, the indefatigable costume designer captures the everyday dress of two unmoored contemporary young people, naturalistic and appropriate.  Iris is in jeans and a plaid shirt, poor serviceable clothing while Baker has that worn LL Bean look with ripped-knee jeans.


Director Bruce Linser pours his heart and soul into this piece, the action flowing and pausing where appropriate, the tension rising and falling like waves in an agitated ocean.  Both characters have their quiet contemplative moments and outbursts as well.  He succeeds but be prepared for an intentionally bumpy ride. 


So many plays are about the pursuit of the American Dream.  This one deals with the struggle for mere survival; there are no aspirations other than escape.  The Science of Omaha dramatically illustrates what happens when we abandon a large swath of our society, deprive them of opportunity and education, subject them to the microscope of endless bullying on social media, and corporate America adopts them as their servants at low-paying fast food or superstore jobs.  Such as the extreme classes of H.G. Well’s Time Machine where the underground Morlocks do the menial work to benefit the privileged, hedonistic Eloi, two classes of people that have become almost different species.  This is America today and the playwright perfectly captures the essence and the tragedy of the consequences. 

Nicholas-Tyler Corbin and Georgi James Photo by Tim Stephien


Sunday, January 15, 2023

2023 Jazz Cruise – Music Unites Us Again


The Jazz Cruise vintage 2023 blew away the blues of years of Covid dormancy.  We had attended the 20th anniversary cruise in early 2020 right before Covid upended all of our lives and booked it for the following year which never came (or the following year).

The 2023 happening was extraordinary as one could feel a singular energy between the performers and the appreciative audience, an energy which has always been unique to the Jazz world but was enhanced by the long interval and a deep appreciation of what music means to these extraordinary artists and their audience.  We went from one venue to the next, lining up our day of sometimes as many as five different performances.  This sometimes meant skipping a meal (shocking on a nice ship!).


Speaking of the ship, I might as well mention that we were on the newly upgraded Celebrity Millennium, but it is a charted vessel through the Jazz Cruise, so everyone on board is there for the jazz only, with Celebrity merely operating the ship.  Even the destinations are secondary, many people (such as us) preferring to stay on board, passing up Costa Maya, Cozumel, and Nassau, places we have previously visited.


Bill Charlap, Ann, Bob

It is impossible to summarize all the wonderful artists we heard, saw, and frequently met and chatted with.  It is probably the only venue where the latter is possible.  Nothing like talking to a piano God such as Bill Charlap as we were both in the solarium in shorts! 


The first six intensive days

This photo of the first 6 days of activities summarizes (the 7th did not fit in the photograph) the frenzied pace and the extent of the artists on board.  Some of our little notations sketched out our “strategy” for making the most of our days, focusing on some of our favorites, although it does not show the serendipitous performances we caught as well, musicians who were new to us.  I’m certain we enjoyed a full eight to ten hours each day of music and talk with the musicians and other devoted fans.


Ann, Bob, Emmet Cohen


Here were some of the high points for us.  It is remarkable to witness the maturation of Emmet Cohen, who we first saw as a 28 year old at Dizzy’s (but has been involved in the Jazz Cruise practically right out of college).  His progression as a jazz pianist now places him near the top of such musicians, technically, soulfully, and multifaceted, eager and capable to play all forms of jazz, with a deep reverence for jazz history.  


Emmet made lemonade of the lemons Covid delivered, making more than 100 Monday night jazz performances from his Harlem apartment.   Live at “Emmet’s Place” frequently showcased many of his neighboring musicians, particularly his talented sidemen, bassist Russell Hall, and drummer, Kyle Poole.  Kyle is still his drummer, a talented recording artist and arranger in his own right, but his new bassist, on board the cruise as well, is Yasushi Nakamura.  Those Monday night shows were the highlight of the week for his fans during our quarantine.


Emmet Cohen, Yasushi Nakamura, Kyle Poole

Emmet has become a “rock star” at the age of 33 and an important part of the jazz cruise, as well as now touring the world.  We knew him when.  He organizes the popular Keyboard Capers towards the end of the cruise, all the talented pianists on board performing, with a camera cam projecting their keyboard strokes and then all of them lining up to take their turns with as many as 10 hands on the keyboard, such improvisional genius and pure love of the music and respect for one another.


Ann, Emmet Cohen

With “Emmet’s Place” Cohen has reimagined the music business model.  Forget about selling CDs.  Instead, go back to the days of Hayden and Mozart and seek patrons, but in this Internet world, smaller contributions from members of “Emmet Cohen Exclusive,” with four different levels of contributions.  We’ve been members from the get-go.  This allows such talented artists to free themselves from the music label, dependent on selling CDs (which have suffered in the Internet world), and to tour and to develop their unique styles (his CDs are part of the benefit of being a member, but the main one is knowing we along with hundreds (or thousands now) of others are helping an artist to reach his fullest potential).


For me, his popularity has a downside.  There was once a time I could email him about a Johnny Mandel song, as an example, and he’d eventually answer.  Now due to his enormous popularity he has a staff, a technical crew; he’s gone big time, but that’s fine.  It’s wonderful to watch him grow.

Bill Charlap


The other pianist whose performances we never missed was the incomparable Bill Charlap.  The other pianists on board have the same reverence.  With the exception of Oscar Peterson – and Emmet – my favorite ones are all named Bill: Bill Charlap, Bill Mays, and the late great Bill Evans.  As I mentioned, we happened to chat with Charlap as he passed through the Spa.  We were having a “health” breakfast.  I think he was a little perplexed when we told him that we have breakfast with him every morning.  Huh?  And we do.  We turn to Alexa and ask “her” to play the Bill Charlap trio.  He was amused and friendly.


All the “Bills” I mentioned, I think play with a similar sensibility.  I made that observation to him and, small world that music is, he said that Bill Mays is a close friend and he just spoke to him the day before.  Makes sense.  No wonder I am drawn so personally to their music.  The songs they prefer, and their styles are ones that I’m most familiar with, not that I can play anywhere at that level, but most of the songs they play are the same ones I play from the Great American songbook and Broadway.  At one of Charlap’s performances he played a song I’m intimately familiar with, a classic ballad I’ve tried to master, Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane’s “Too Late Now,” from the 1951 movie musical Royal Wedding.  As he was playing, I found the fake book version on my phone and was able to follow his unique style which he applied to the song, thinking maybe, just maybe, a little will rub off on me.


Bill Charlap, Peter Washington, Kenny Washington

Surprising to me was at times Charlap exhibited a sudden physicality in his performances along with his lyricism.  He seems like such a mild mannered person, a piano style which relies on a melancholy feel and suddenly an explosion of sound.  We sat close to him in each of his performances as he prefers the more intimate lounges (which were nonetheless packed to SRO).


Bill Charlap Keyboard Capers

The piano pyrotechnics of the younger pianists in Keyboard Capers was handed to Charlap to conclude, a salute to his stature by his contemporary greats.  Brilliantly, and in contrast, he concluded with the wistful “You Are My Sunshine” which I would put in the same category as two songs I like to sometimes conclude concerts with, “Smile” or ”Bye Bye Blackbird.”  Then all the other great pianists on board lined up for an extravaganza of multiple hands on the piano.  Just phenomenal.


Jeff Hamilton, Tamir Handleman, Jon Hamar

One of the pianists who we saw on the last cruise is Renee Rosnes, coincidentally Bill Charlap’s wife, who is a master in her own right, and I just have to wonder how it must be to grow up in such a talented family.  And then there is the incomparable Benny Green who we saw in several venues, once being interviewed with Tamir Handleman both of whom have their own distinctive styles.  Handleman is the pianist for the world class drummer, Jeff Hamilton Trio, along with the bassist Jon Hamar and we went to as many of their gigs as we could.  Jeff Hamilton is a drummer in his own elite league and has a rich history of playing with some of the great bands.


Benny Green accompanied Nicki Parrott who plays the bass and is a wonderful jazz vocalist (a little reminiscent of our favorite Doris Day).  Unbelievably she said it was the first time she has ever performed with Benny Green and the looks they were giving each other, back and forth, during their performance spoke adoration and respect.  It is something special in jazz as artists hand the melody back and forth for improvisation and then come together, almost like magic to me.   

Greg Hutchinson, Christian McBride, Benny Green

Green also was the pianist for the Jazz Hall of Fame bassist Christian McBride which honored the great bassist Ray Brown.


Tamir Hendelman, Leroy Downs, Benny Green

Benny Green and Tamir Hendelman were interviewed by Leroy Downs, talking about their own histories, approach to jazz piano.  Every word was fascinating.  But there was a certain body language and enthusiasm expressed by Green which Ann read as his being in a very different place in life than where he was when we saw him three years earlier, so she went up to him after the interview and made the observation.  Green was stunned.  He is such a soulful individual and he admitted that there was a woman in his life now and that he’s found a new level of contentment.  It showed in all his performances, with McBride, Parrott, and whenever he was called to play.  He is one of the greats in jazz piano, technically and emotionally.  


Also on board were established elder jazz greats, Monty Alexander, who we first heard in the early 1970s, a Caribbean pianist whose early work had that driving Caribbean rhythm.  We recently caught one of his performances at Dizzy’s too.   


Huston Person, Emmet Cohen, John Pizzarelli

Then the senior saxophonist, playing all the classics, Houston Person, now in his late 80s wowed every age in the audience.  He still has the heart and strength of a younger person (and had the courage to climb the five flights to Emmet Cohen’s apartment one night to perform with him).  We actually met Person three years ago at the 2020 cruise, sitting with he and his family on board in the restaurant waiting for our respective rooms to open, easily talking back and forth about music but our not knowing who he was.  He never said; we never asked and then we learned the legend we were honored to be sitting next to!  Then, although not an octogenarian like Alexander and Person is Wynton Marsalis who is almost synonymous with the word ‘jazz’ itself.  He’s won Grammy awards in five consecutive years.   


Dee Dee Bridgewater’s hilarious, playful solo with John Pizzarelli (above) was also memorable, honoring the induction of the late Joey DeFrancesco into the Jazz Cruise Hall of Fame.  Emmet Cohen also was part of the ceremony, playing Joey’s vintage Hammond along with Huston Person.

Ann Hampton Callaway and Trio


Ann Hampton Callaway, Ann

Ann Hampton Callaway and Niki Haris were in an elevator when we got on one day and as we pushed the button for the 7th floor they broke out into an impromptu song about riding to the 7th! (Nice chord in music.). We’ve seen Callaway many years ago at the Arts Garage and had a photo of that performance to show her later when she too was interviewed by Downs.  Talk about a soulful performer, a singer who knows how to sell a song.  And what a sense of humor, her standup routine being to pick on some guy as being her ex-husband, so I was determined to stay out of the first row! 


Tamir Hendelman, Tierney Sutton, Serge Merland


Tierney Sutton’s arrangements were memorable, one more great vocalist on board with so many others. She was accompanied by Tamir Hendelman, and her husband, guitarist Serge Merland.


Shelly Berg another pianist and educator of renown, who is one of the two directors of the shows, the other composer, bassist, and arranger, John Clayton, was omnipresent, playing and interviewing.  As with the last cruise, I loved attending Berg’s “Jazz University” lectures, this one covering a brief history of jazz juxtaposed to American history and what distinguishes a great jazz piano solo.  Imagine fitting that into an hour?  He did and played some selections as well.  I enjoyed watching Berg watching his many students perform, such as Emmet Cohen.


Shelly Berg, Samara Joy

One of his interviews though was with the “overnight” sensation, the 21-year-old Samara Joy.  He recorded it for XM radio as well.  We first took note of Joy, then a shy vocalist, about two years ago on Emmet’s Place.  She was just a senior in college as I recall then.  But by then she had already won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, the range and control of her voice reminiscent of both Sara Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, and as we learned in the interview, perhaps her greatest influence, Carmen McRae, who we saw in the late 1970s in an upper East side club.  We heard Joy sing one of our favorites, “Guess Who I Saw Today,” her range and intonation remarkable.  21 years old.  Imagine?  (BTW, I think Eydie Gorme’s version of that song, although a very different style, equally excellent.)


Berg asked her that if she could have a wish granted to sing a song with a pianist who has never accompanied her, she responded Sullivan Fortner who of course was on board and then with a little hesitation, her eyes opening wide, Bill Charlap.  That’s jazz, a circle of respect.

Bria Skonberg


Then, there is the unexpected.  A trumpet player, Bria Skonberg, played a song she wrote, “So Is The Day” and then broke out into song.  Extraordinary to have such a voice and presentation.  The rule on board is no videos are allowed.  I did take a few brief ones, those that are very personal to me, but will not post them.  There is a YouTube version of her song, so here is a link.  It starts with the vocals rather than the trumpet.  I think it is more effective the other way around as we heard it, a remarkable and unexpected moment.


As I mentioned, Emmet's Keyboard Capers is the concluding show in the main theater.  It is so special to me as all the great pianists on board come together, individually playing and then jamming together. It is a particularly joyous moment as these photographs attest.

Emmet Cohen Keyboard Capers

Emmet Cohen, Bill Charlap, Tamir Hendelman, Benny Green

I’m leaving out so many of the greatest jazz artists we have seen in one place, ever, but I’m hoping my unrestrained enthusiasm makes up for the voids.  My apologies to all who I failed to mention.  So many of them.  But to Michael Lazaroff, the Executive Director of The Jazz Cruise (this being the first of four weeks of jazz on the ship, but this was Straight Ahead Jazz, our favorite, particularly the classic piano, bass, drum trio), our thanks for bringing us all together and to help us forget politics, Covid, and so many of the ills of the world.  United in music we stand.  And it’s all there, in one place.  Congratulations Michael!

The last night at sea...