Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Time Out

Swept Away

I've stepped out of the blogging batter’s box for a while.  In fact, there will be more breaks over the next couple of months.  A few of my faithful readers have wondered where we are, why the silence, and although writing from our present location on a boat is complicated, this entry plus some photos addresses that question.  But it results in a Facebook-type entry, just personal minutiae best ignored by others.

It’s that time of the year again for us, driving up from Florida to move onto our boat in Connecticut. Our son Jonathan now maintains the boat so he’s entitled to use it as if it is his own; thus our time here has diminished over the years.  The “old girl,” ‘Swept Away’ stands tall. Optimistically speaking from a health viewpoint, next year we might just fly and rent a car while here.  This is the 17th time we’ve done this drive together, and this one was the worst.

Perhaps gas prices and a pent up urge to hit the American road, mostly I95 for this trip, has had their impact.  Hotels were sold out along the way, some sleeping in their cars at rest stops.  Luckily, we had reservations and the weather cooperated so we could keep to our schedule, first stopping in Savannah, having dinner with our friends Suzanne and George who we don’t often have an opportunity to see.

Then we drove the longer haul to Frederiksburg, VA on a Saturday so we were in a prime position to go through Washington early on Sunday morning.  In spite of having made the journey so many times, between today’s GPS “preferred route” and utterly bewildering signs, we now seem to miss the connection from I95 to I495 and this time had to correct that by going through Laurel MD, but early enough to make the detour just a minor inconvenience.  From the Jersey Turnpike to Norwalk though it was bumper to bumper with frustrated drivers 25 cars deep at gas stops on the Turnpike to take advantage of Jersey’s lower prices.  I topped off in Delaware, not that much price difference, and that was sufficient to get us here plus.  After the narrow Garden State Parkway, zany drivers zigzagging to get a few car lengths ahead, we crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge less than 48 hours before a construction crane collapsed across the roadway, creating a traffic nightmare but luckily no loss of life.

It’s a massive structure that is being built to replace the aging bridge.  When I was a kid my father had a 35’ Owens that he and I brought up the Hudson River to Poughkeepsie.  We stopped overnight at a marina that was at the base of the Tappan Zee then under construction.  So I’ve seen two bridges being built there and amazing I’ve seen the entire life span of one, its construction and before long its destruction.

Arriving in Norwalk felt like we achieved a military objective without casualties.  Thankfully, our son and girlfriend Tracie were here to meet us, help us unpack the car and even prepare dinner, sparing us yet another restaurant visit.

Low Tide Shorefront Park
The first order of business the next day was to get my sneakers on and resume my early morning walk routine, at home the golf course in North Palm Beach, and Shorefront Park here.  Amazing, years after Hurricane Sandy its impact is still being felt in this area, homes being torn down or raised (the flooding here ruined many houses).  So there are empty lots and the homes that are not simply being raised with the help of insurance companies are new “McMansions.”  The whole character of the neighborhood is changing from one that felt so familiar to me from my childhood in Richmond Hill, Queens to one of wealth, progress I guess, but a loss of a time when we mere mortals could enjoy New England waterfront.  Over to you hedge fund managers and real estate moguls!


It only took a few days before s**t happened, breaking a tooth on, of all things, cucumber salad (guess it was ready to go).  I knew a crown would be inevitable and my instinct was to fly home to my dentist, but that would have required multiple trips as he would put in a temp while the crown was being made.  Our friend Cathy here suggested her dentist who makes his own crowns while you wait using the Terec system which I can only liken  to a 3D printing system, the dentist shaping the remaining tooth into a post and using CAD technology to design a crown, a porcelain/ceramic substitute, it being manufactured while you wait.  Two plus hours later, voila, I walked out of the office with a new tooth!  Luckily for me he had a cancellation so within 24 hours what I thought would be a nightmare was immediately resolved.  Thanks, Cathy and Dr. Tamucci!

Copps, Crow, Chimons Islands
So, we begin our “vacation” with this past weekend being hotter here than in Florida.  Jon and Tracie came up from the City on Sunday and we all went out to our mooring set among the Norwalk Islands.  We and our friends used to be the head of the nautical “wagon train” out to the islands, our kids tagging along and now the reins have been turned over to them, we the passengers. Ironic to look around, seeing all the islands,  remembering  them from four decades ago, but watching our “kids” now in charge, we tying up our boat to one of theirs.

As I began this very personal entry with a baseball metaphor, I conclude with the realization that we’re no longer the generation on deck, but the one in the batter’s box facing a full count. If we cannot continue to get hits, hopefully we’ll foul some off.
Sunset at SNBC

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Jim Harrison, a Singular Writer

Jim Harrison produced an extensive number of novels, novellas, poetry, and screenplays, yet I had never read his work (other than seeing his screenplay version of Legends of the Fall, perhaps his most famous novella).  When I saw his obituary earlier this year I made a mental note to remedy this.  Just this short eulogy by his best friend,Thomas McGuane (whose recently published short story collection Crow Fair is a treasure) says it all about the kind of writer and person Harrison was.

I chose to read one of his more recent works, The River Swimmer, which is the title of one of the two novellas therein, the other being The Land of Unlikeness.  I forgot what a joy it is to read a novella, which can be read in one sitting (but in my case taking my time, savoring the language, the perfect literature to read at bedtime, being able to expunge the real world and take in the rural north of Harrison’s world).  These two works are about two men, one young, one old, each on a journey to find his true self. 

The Land of Unlikeness especially resonates as it is about a man much closer to my age who is going through a late life identity crisis.  Clive was an artist who became a renowned art appraiser and as such traveled throughout Europe on behalf of his clients, leaving far, far behind the farm on which he was raised in Michigan.  There, his mother lives with his sister.  Suddenly he finds himself obligated to return home for a summer, when his sister wants to see Europe for the first time and expects her brother to step into a caretaking role for the mother.  He does so reluctantly, finding himself back in his boyhood room.  And then things change.

His first love, Laurette, now owns the old stone farmhouse of her parents, visits there on weekends, her “housesitter” or “whatever” Lydia living there as well.  It brings back memories of Clive’s nearly consummated sexual encounter with her as a teenager.  But it also brought to surface the truth about his life: “He was suddenly quite tired of the mythology he had constructed for his life.  The idea of having quit painting was far too neat.  He had lost heart, run out his string, or the homely idea he had painted himself into a small dark corner.”

Meanwhile, he had his mother to care for and all she wants to do is to be taken out for bird-watching expeditions early in the morning.  “The dawn was loud with the admittedly pleasant chatter of birds.”  These expeditions, although obligatory, become pleasurable.  More things change.  Laurette and Lydia come to visit the mother as they have been neighbors for a long time.  Clive awakens from a nap and observes the women on the patio and goes downstairs to join them and have a martini.  “Even more prepossessing was a casserole of lasagna she had brought over which was on a table beside an empty wine bottle.  The smell of garlic and tomato sauce, Lydia’s thighs, and the sunlight dappling through the willow tree overwhelmed him and he drank deeply.”

He and Laurette wander to the back of the garage nearby.  “He found himself pressing her against the hood of his mother’s car, trying to kiss her but she averted her face.  His hands kneaded her buttocks and he was becoming hard at an amazing speed.  ‘Jesus Christ, I have to think about this.  I can’t fuck you in a garage with people outside.’  She slipped away laughing.  ‘Why’ he said glumly.  He stood there waiting for his penis to slump.  It seemed comic at best that this woman could still bowl him over after forty years.  How wonderful it would be to find a ’47 Plymouth and paint her slouched in the corner with her pleated skirt up.”

Just superb erotic imagery as Clive works towards that wishful goal of finally consummating their teenage relationship while still caring for his mother.  Then he finds himself painting once again.  In fact, “on a warmhearted whim he did a small portrait of a bluebird for his mother and then was embarrassed when she was overwhelmed.”  It is at this point that I totally identified with Clive, his love of painting is akin to my love of writing, but to say I’m a writer, or that I’m a pianist, my other great interest, is to endow an obligation and subjects the passion to categorization: “Now he was speculating whether or not Laurette would pose half-nude on the car seat.  The whole idea was preposterously silly but why not?  It was not more cheeky than the idea of his resuming painting.  Part of the grace of losing self-importance was the simple question ‘Who cares?’  More importantly, he didn’t want to be a painter, he only wanted to paint, two utterly different impulses.  He had known many writers and painters who apparently disliked writing and painting but just wanted to be writers and painters.  They were what Buckminster Fuller might have called ‘low-energy constructs.’  Clive didn’t want to be anything any longer that called for a title.  He knew he wanted to paint so why not paint.  Everybody had to do something while awake.”  A priceless paragraph of writing and wisdom.

A subplot in the novella is his being estranged from his daughter Sabrina and their eventual reconciliation, all part of his becoming himself, they sharing a camping trip to Marquette on Lake Superior.  But it was stormy and that first night they had to take a hotel room on the lake.  Finally, they were able to camp.  “Behind Sabrina there was a shade of green on a moss-colored log he had never seen before.  And on that first afternoon in Marquette there had been a splotch of sunlight far out on the dark stormy lake, golden light and furling white wave crests.”  In nature Harrison finds his halcyon home and his most beautiful writing is centered there.

Nature figures even more prominently in The River Swimmer, the second story in the book.  Here Harrison moves into the realm of magical realism.  Thad is a young man who wants to swim all the rivers of the world.  Cheever’s The Swimmer merely swims the suburban sins of Westchester.  Thad wants to take in all of nature and in fact has a mystical relationship with “water babies” which his American Indian mentor, Tooth, called them.  She was born on the same land as Thad and was allowed to stay there when Thad’s father bought the land.  Tooth says they may be the souls of lost children who became aquatic infants.  These apparitions frequently accompany Thad on his journeys but the demands of two young women conflict him, Laurie and Emily.  “Thad felt a slight wave of nausea over money and power, including Laurie and Emily.  Nothing ever seemed to be denied to rich girls….What kind of preparation for life can wealth be except to make it easy?  Thad preferred Tooth’s niece, Dove, in many ways….They had such a good time his heart broke apart when they split up and she said, ‘You like those rich pretty cunts not a big-nosed Chip girl.’

As in any piece of magical realism, one has to suspend belief to get the most out of the tale.  Thad endures criticism, even violence, in his pursuit of his aquatic life.  “In periods of extreme loneliness we don’t know a thing about life and death and the reality of water consoles us.  In school he had long thought that history, the study of it, was an instrument of terror.  Reading about either the American Indians or slaves can make you physically ill.  He wanted a life as free as possible from other people, thus simply staying on the island was tempting.  The possibility of stopping people from doing what they do to other people seemed out of the question.”

He makes compromises towards the end, but one in keeping with “the idea that he was a whore for swimming, the only activity that gave him total pleasure and a sense of absolutely belonging on Earth, especially swimming in rivers with the current carrying your water-enveloped body along at its own speed.  It was bliss to him so why shouldn’t he be obsessed?”

As painting was an obsession to his older version, Clive. They both found solace in nature, doing what they were born to do.

Jim Harrison, a unique writer, who died while writing long handed at his desk.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

A Rousing '1776' Musical as Reimagined by Dramaworks

Talk about a timely show, given our prickly political season: 1776 has been staged by Dramaworks in a stirring, “reimagined” version with top notch acting and singing talent.  It is THE musical of the year in South Florida.  The show was written during its own contentious times, the Vietnam conflict, and also when the musical theatre was in a lengthy transition period, the days of Rodgers & Hammerstein in the past and at the dawning of the age of Sondheim, with Hamilton lying in the future.  I mention these as there is a dotted line to all.

However 1776 stands on its own as an innovative musical and although it has some long dramatic stretches between musical numbers, its inspired songs fit perfectly with “the book.”  It is in the tradition of some of Broadway’s best since Rodgers & Hammerstein changed the course of musical theater.  And now Dramaworks has augmented it with several innovative concepts, including a clever opening, the cast in modern dress, clutched to their smart phones and iPads, images of MSNBC and FOX news and important moments of electioneering history projected in the background, wondering whether political acrimony has always been the norm in America.  Costume changes on stage bring them into the Continental Congress and so begins the journey of discovering that the here and now is not that dissimilar to the then and there.

1776 portrays our founding fathers as real people.  It was conceived by Sherman Edwards who at one time taught high school history and wrote the music and lyrics.  The brilliant book was written by Peter Stone who chronicles the event with dazzling drama, tenderness, and abundant comic elements.  There are the blue and red states, each with axes to grind, federalism vs. state’s rights, but, debate, commitment and compromise inexorably drive the production’s calendar pages to July 4, 1776 so we all know how it ends.  The show is about how we get there.  Suffice it to say, one wonders whether we would have a nation at all if today’s dysfunctional congress was arguing the case. 

It invites comparison to today’s musical sensation, Hamilton, which we were fortunate enough to see last year.  Hamilton’s “room where it happened” is about a grand compromise - the assumption of debt by a new national bank in exchange for placing the capitol on the Potomac whereas 1776’s “room where it happened” is about another grand compromise, striking the slavery clause for unanimity on signing the Declaration of Independence: two monumental moments in American History, two outstanding musicals on the subject, both ageless in their own right.  

1776 is the story of the events leading to the Declaration of Independence while Hamilton is more about the revolution and its aftermath.  Hamilton himself does not figure at all in 1776 while Adams is not in the musical Hamilton, other than when Alexander Hamilton makes reference to off-stage John Adams, saying, “Sit down, John, you fat motherfucker!”

Gary Cadwallader, Laura Hodos
That was Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hat tip to 1776 and its opening number “Sit Down, John,” the lyrics which immediately grab you and bring you into the show, establishing its central character, an impassioned John Adams vs. the hot and tired Continental Congress and the themes of discord that run throughout the musical to its ultimate resolution. 

John Adams is compellingly played by Gary Cadwallader, the only actor in the show who has a singular role.  He is on stage almost during the entire show -- a bravura performance!  Most of the other actors play characters from the liberal and conservative sides of the aisle.  Necessity was the mother of a creative solution of staging this play with “only” 13 actors instead of the original show’s 26 and even having some of the female cast members play male roles, seamlessly, convincingly – sort of the same way the audience of Hamilton adjusts immediately to its multicultural cast.  This conceit of playing parts from both sides of the aisle also challenges the confirmation bias that tends to permeate political views.

Nicholas Richberg
Never shying from having to be “politically correct,” the satirical song “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men” elegantly portrays the right-wing members of Congress doing a minuet around the lyric "never to the left ... forever to the right."  It was originally cut from the film version of 1776 because of pressure from Richard Nixon through the producer, Jack Warner.  The song is led by the conservative leader from South Carolina, John Dickinson, delectably played by Nicholas Richberg.  His other part is Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, singing the “deliciouslee,” “compellinglee” memorable “Lees of Old Virginia” with “hilaritee. It is a show stopper and Richberg is a very talented young actor whose professional future is assured.

Allegedly Nixon also wanted to excise the song "Momma Look Sharp," a plea from a dying soldier to his mother.  Again, it helps to put the musical in the context of the times: the Vietnam War.  This song was not cut.  It captures the heartbreak and misery of war on a very personal level and you can hear a pin drop when it is hauntingly sung by the courier played by Mallory Newbrough, yet another young rising star. She also plays the passionate wife of Thomas Jefferson singing “He Plays the Violin” with exuberance and joy, dancing with Adams and Franklin.  Remarkably she also has the minor role of George Washington reciting some of his dispatches to Congress.

“Molasses to Rum” is a powerful piece about the struggle to include an antislavery clause in the Declaration of Independence which the northern states capitulated on to make the final compromise.  The song incorporates auctioneer’s sounds of slave markets, and links ties to the northern states in the practice of slavery thus encapsulating the hypocrisy.  It has to be one of the most devastating songs ever written about slavery, and its economics and pain.  We wondered who could bring the voice and emotion to this song like the great John Cullum did in the original stage and film version, and fortunately the show has the experienced Carbonell Award recipient Shane R. Tanner to play Edward Rutledge of South Carolina who is definitely up to the task and the comparison.  He also plays Dr. Josiah Bartlett representing New Hampshire.

One of my favorite songs from the show is “Is Anybody There?” -- a lament sung by John Adams (Gary Cadwallader). While his sentiments come from the Adams’ letters to his wife Abigail, the title is from the dispatches sent by the weary George Washington to the Congress without action or reply.   
Although he is separated from his wife throughout the convening of the Congress in Philadelphia, she appears on stage for duets with Adams, always very dramatic and touching, their correspondence to song.  Abigail Adams is wonderfully depicted by four-time Carbonell nominee Laura Hodos who has a Broadway-class voice and seems ideally paired with Cadwallader.  Her duet with him “Yours, Yours, Yours,” is heartbreakingly beautiful as they conclude the song with “Till then, till then/I am as I ever was and ever was/And ever shall be/Yours, yours, yours, yours, yours.”  She also plays the critical role of John Hancock, the President of the Second Continental Congress, excelling in that role as well.  

Clay Cartland, Allan Baker, Gary Cadwallader
Special mention goes to Allan Baker who plays the sometimes cynical and often bawdy, but always pragmatic and influential Ben Franklin as well as Clay Cartland who convincingly plays the aristocratic Tom Jefferson, pining for his wife and suffering from writer’s block until she appears.  Mr. Cartland also plays Georgia’s Dr. Lyman Hall.  The rest of the cast, without exception is terrific: Kevin Healey, Sandi Stock, Troy J. Stanley, Matthew Korinko, James Berkley, and Michael Collins (providing much hilarity as New York State’s Lewis Morris who repeats "New York abstains....respectfully” to all motions).

The musical numbers reminded me of Sondheim with their harmony and internal rhymes.  There is a touch of Gilbert and Sullivan as well.  These are not the songs one immediately remembers as so many of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s, but they get under your skin and I find myself today while writing this review thinking about them and even singing (in my mind) Martha Jefferson’s “I hear his violin/And I get that feeling within/And I sigh, oh I sigh/He draws near, very near/And it's hi-hi-hi-diddle diddle/And it's goodbye to the fiddle/My strings are unstrung/Hi-hi-hi-hi/I'm always undone.”  Just brilliant lyrics set to a wonderful waltz melody.

Dramaworks’ reimagined production is under the competent direction of Clive Cholerton who had his hands full with a crowded stage and multiple set changes that had to be choreographed to perfection.  He demanded that the actors fully get into their characters although playing two different people, bringing to the show “creativity not from freedom but from restrictions.” 

As a fully formed musical, the set and the costumes were critical, especially with frequent costume changes and the limited space on the stage.  Scenic designer Michael Amico emphasizes functionality above all because of the space and large cast.  Brian O'Keefe’s costumes were equally functional, period perfect, and numerous.  In one scene there are actually 31 quick-change of costumes!  Lighting design is by John Hall, and video design is by Sean Lawson.  Michelle Petrucci is choreographer and assistant director.  Sound design by Brad Pawlak adds an additional layer of drama to the production. James Danford, Dramaworks’ always dependable stage manager, shows his expertise in keeping all these moving parts together.

The musical director Craig D. Ames, who doubles as an extraordinary keyboardist, brought out the best in this talented cast and his five piece combo sounded more like a full orchestra.  1776 is a must see, not only for its relevancy, but simply because it is one of the preeminent Tony Award-winning American musicals and “reimagined” and presented perfectly by Dramaworks.