Thursday, February 14, 2019

Malfeasance of Action and Morality

I used to write more in this space about topics such as this, but it lacks the immediacy of Twitter.  This space deserves more thoughtful pieces.  I’ve written about gun control (or the lack of it) and our culture’s love affair with guns in more than two dozen entries.  There will be more as the next mass tragedy is brewing, although gun violence is a daily occurrence, but generally not reported on.  How our elected representatives can ignore the arc from Sandy Hook to Parkland is unthinkable, unconscionable; indeed, a malfeasance of action and morality.  I see the face of Mitch McConnell in my mind’s eye as I write this as he, in addition to Trump, represents the worst kind of pandering to the NRA.  Ballots for bullets.

This is the one year anniversary of the Parkland shooting and as an anniversary it is being appropriately marked, particularly by our local paper, the Palm Beach Post.  If it were not the anniversary, it would be forgotten by our NRA blessed representatives who instead want to shift the problem of violence to refugees who are actually trying to flee to a safer place.  So “build a wall BS” transcends any discussion of violence in this country perpetrated by native born citizens.  Blame any feeling of insecurity on refugees, innocent people on the most part. The rhetoric and the demagoguery of it all boggles the mind, no gaslights the mind, the exact intention of this administration.

I’ve turned to twitter to at least make a statement on this, asking our representatives to look at each and every face of the Parkland victims and read their stories.  Let them never forget these helpless victims of their inaction as they are steeped in rhetoric about "The Wall," ignoring the nation's plea for sensible gun control.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

A Diva Blessing

A couple of months ago our friends Karen and Bob suggested we join them at Del Ray’s Arts Garage where Ann Hampton Callaway was performing.  As much as I love the Great American Songbook, memories of a parking nightmare in Delray made me hesitant to go.  That experience is a story onto itself, not worth going into here.  Easy, they said, we’ll drive and park, so we said you’re on.

The indoor parking garage was full to the third level but there Bob found a space.  No doubt, I thought, if I drove, it wouldn’t be there and I’d end up driving around in circles as I did one evening in Delray (ok, I said I wouldn’t go into it, but the memory lingers on).

The Arts Garage performance venue has been configured into a cabaret, six to a table, bring your own food and drink.  Karen supplied a delicious cream and fruit tart for dessert and Ann brought the wine (coffee for me).

My seat was ideal (thanks Karen!); with a full view of the piano, a Kawai Grand.  You rarely see a Kawai being used professionally, the instrument of choice usually being a Steinway or a Yamaha.  I have a Yamaha baby grand which I love, but I almost bought a Kawai as I think it has a brighter sound, so ideally suited for playing The Great American Songbook.

As I said, we were seated at a table for six and our two other tablemates turned out to be a man who we used to watch on NYC TV years ago, Bill Boggs, who had an interview show with some of the entertainment greats, and to this day does a professional speaking tour discussing those people, so watching the Diva perform with Bill and his partner, Jane was serendipitous.  This is how I remember him way back when we were in NYC, a photo of him interviewing Chuck Berry.

We’ve seen other great Divas in a cabaret setting before, and three special ones spring to mind, including a rare US appearance at the Colony by perhaps the greatest living female jazz singer, Stacey Kent.

Unfortunately, it was at a time before I had a smart phone and did not have a camera on me, but seeing her and meeting her was a thrill.  She’s been called the “Frank Sinatra” of divas, because of her unique way of phrasing a song.  Her husband backs her up on the sax but does not overwhelm her.  If she ever returns to Florida or to NYC while we are in that area, we will be there.

We also saw another fabulous Diva at the Colony, Jane Monheit, who has a distinctive style and great range with her voice.  She too performs with a back up group headed by her husband on drums.

When we lived in New York we were lucky enough to go over to a small Supper Club on the Upper East Side and there we sat right at a front table, mesmerized by the jazz legend, the late, great Carmen McCrea.  I think I have all her CDs.  Jazz doesn’t get any better than that.  She too was backed by a combo she probably worked with for years.

Of course we’ve seen other singers, Keely Smith at the Colony once, but usually on stage in an auditorium, as we once saw Ann Hampton Callaway at the Eissey Campus Theatre of Palm Beach State College many years ago.  She was accompanist by, arguably, the most original jazz pianist today, Bill Mays.  There is a world of difference, however, between a stage performance and cabaret.

The obvious difference is the intimacy created, resulting in the give and take between the performer and the audience.  One feeds on the other.  You get the sense that we’re all part of the Great American Songbook “family.”  And it is a family that loves its progenitors, the composers, the lyricists, the performers who have stylized this great body of music.

Ann Hampton Callaway preserves and has become part of this wonderful tradition in her program “Jazz Goes to the Movies.”  Her program fully realizes the breadth of the great songs which emerged from film.  In addition to the obvious ones, there are endless streams of classics that have come from lesser watched films, such as "This Time the Dream's on Me" by Harold Arlen, and lyrics by Johnny Mercer for the 1941 film “Blues in the Night,” just one of the many songs sung by Callaway during her two part performance.

Her song selection was broad.  I wrote them all down, but I’ll only mention a few of the 18 (yes, 18!) songs she sang.  Naturally, I’m going to focus on some I love to play on the piano myself.

This has to be at the top of the list, the not often performed song by Henry Mancini with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse, “Two for the Road.”  Undoubtedly she chose to perform this wonderful song, I think Mancini’s best, because the co star of the film of the same title, the actor so many of us watched “grow up” on film from his first performance in “Tom Jones,” Albert Finney had just passed away.  This is the same song which Ann (my Ann) and I chose to “perform” at our son’s wedding last August, me at the piano and Ann reading (as, unfortunately, my Ann can’t sing – and neither can I) the evocative lyrics, so appropriate for Jonathan and his bride, Tracie.   

We hung onto every word as Callaway lovingly performed this number.

I interject an important observation here regarding her performance, unique among the cabaret divas I mentioned above, and that is she accompanied herself on the piano.  I mentioned above the Kawai piano.  I guess I simply expected a pianist and a bass player to come out to accompany her.  Oh, it is so, so much better when a great singer and pianist are one.  Her piano chops may not be in the league of a Bill Mays, but in accompanying herself, she is able to ring out every drop of emotion from The Great American Songbook.  It’s as if her piano and voice are but one instrument, in perfect harmony and symmetry. 

Her opening number, “From this Moment On” demonstrated her remarkable range, her smoky voice, and her ability to scat.  During another number, again one of the strengths of a cabaret setting, was taking the audience through a scat lesson and we found ourselves scatting along with her.  Really fun stuff.

Another diversion, about a third of the way through her program, she finally noticed a man in a front table and she was somewhat startled, saying, “Oh, my ex husband is here!”  Well, that got the audience’s attention, and from that point on, there were some very funny, but harmless jabs sent his way by Callaway.  She knows how to work an audience, including giving attribution to our table mate, Bill Boggs.

She incorporates all styles in her piano accompaniment, from a bluesy feeling playing and singing “As Time Goes By” and some bouncing boogie-woogie in her tribute to Fred Astaire (she knows his sister) in “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.”

Her jazz sensibility on the piano came out in “This Can’t be Love,” again demonstrating her incredible voice range.

One of my favorites when I play the piano is “Folks Who Live on the Hill,” by Jerome Kern, and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II from the 1937 film “High, Wide, and Handsome.”  But, oh, my heart be still listening to Callaway play and sing this song, channeling Peggy Lee with whom the song is closely associated.

Her rendition of “At Last” Etta James's signature song but more recently BeyoncĂ© Knowles’ “big song” demonstrated the power of Callaway’s voice.  Rarely does a singer have the gift of the subtle and power as well.  It was breathtaking.

Callaway is not only a performer, but a composer as well, and those skills were put on full display in a playful impromptu performance she composed and sung on the spot taking silly suggestions from the audience; a blind man, a pizza maker, meets a woman who makes burrata, they make love on the beach in Del Ray in a one night stand, where they lose their clothes while swimming, the details not being important other than her ability to compose in real time.  She also jokingly “tuned” her voice to the piano, easily singing a half step below or above a note to display her voice control and musical sensibilities.

At one point, she gave a “diva blessing” to the audience.  In sum, it was an exhilarating night.  There is nothing in the world like the joy from hearing the Great American Songbook, performed by a woman completely in command of her musical gifts.  In fact, her warm personality, eager to be with her audience in every way, happy to greet them on the way out, made it a perfect evening of “being with family.”  Thanks to our friends, Karen and Bob, for bringing us to see Ann and to all those who continue to perpetuate The Great American Songbook, performers and audiences alike. We are all truly blessed!

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Spitfire Grill Serves Up Hardy Fare at Palm Beach Dramaworks

An exuberant production by topnotch professionals convincingly delivers The Spitfire Grill’s message of the redemptive power of forgiveness and second chances.  This compelling effort by Palm Beach Dramaworks’ cast enhances the play’s many transformational high points, as satisfying as meat loaf with mashed potatoes and a helping of hot apple pie for dessert.  American literature and theatre has always been susceptible to the wholesome yet troubled heartbeat of small town life, Thornton Wilder's Our Town, Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, William Inge’s Picnic, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, and in film Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  Add this production of The Spitfire Grill to the list, distinctive and deeply moving in its own way.

The music and lyrics by James Valcq with lyrics and book by Fred Alley is based upon the 1996 film by Lee David Zlotoff, but with an unabashedly (and in these times desperately needed) upbeat ending. While in prison our young protagonist, Percy Talbott, prepares for her life as a parolee by randomly cutting out a photograph of the fictional town of Gilead, Wisconsin in resplendent fall colors from a travel magazine.  She chooses this as her serendipitous destination upon release.  But she finds it a depressed community; people on guard about her, including the local Sheriff, Joe Sutter, who declares she’s come to a place to leave (projecting his own feelings).  There is no real employment other than at the centerpiece of the town, the now failing Spitfire Grill, a diner owned by cantankerous Hannah Ferguson who has been trying to sell it for years.  

The townspeople come and go through this diner, ultimately revealing their own figurative prisons.  Hannah’s nephew, Caleb Thorpe, is still bitter that the stone quarry closed, losing his job as foreman.  He’s lost his self respect, dominating his timid wife Shelby who ultimately comes to help out at the diner.  The postmistress, Effy Krayneck (names don’t get much more vivid than that) carries the town gossip and supplies some much needed comic relief.  There is also the mysterious stranger who never utters a word but stalks the action. 

This incendiary mixture ignites a cathartic yet palliative plot for revealing secrets and allowing the town to see itself in a new light.  The awakening begins with an idea Percy suggests – aided by her persuasively written contest copy -- to give the outside world an opportunity to enter an essay contest with a $100 fee “Why I want the Spitfire Grill.”  Those essays arrive in increasing numbers, and with heartrending content.

This dramatic musical is delivered with soul searching intensity by an outstanding cast and musical accompaniment.  It is not a big Broadway production but is reminiscent of Sondheim’s work where language and song seem to merge, and the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters are transported by the lyrics.  Each performer in the PBD’s production is ideally suited to his or her part, making one wonder whether they are exceptionally talented actors who can also sing, or professional singers who can also act.  

Ashely Rose as Percy, Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
Ashely Rose, her PBD debut, plays Percy, the parolee with a dark secret, a shocking past.  Rose carries her character’s deeply seated hurt and trust issues with a defensive jadedness; slowly opening up to the community as friends are made and ultimately secrets are shared.  She once played the lead in Always…Patsy Cline and here she delivers her songs with that country sensibility, always reaching those notes of loneliness and powerful emotional truths that country music so often evokes.  Rose’s comedic talents are on full display in her number “Out of the Frying Pan” as she sings this country song while wrestling with the demands of cooking, frantically juggling pots and pans, reminiscent of a Lucille Ball. Her show-stopping song near the end, “Shine,” is both musically heartrending and dramatically affecting.  It is at this moment that she finds the light, the “shine” in herself and can cast off her past.
Amy Miller Brennan, Ashely Rose Photo by Alicia Donelan
Amy Miller Brennan’s performance as the initially introverted, browbeaten Shelby, is metamorphic as she blossoms into an independent woman right before our eyes.  She and Percy bond at the Grill and it is there she sings her beautiful ballad to Percy “When Hope Goes” revealing the day the town’s childhood hero went to war, Hannah’s son, Eli, much admired by the town, never to return and changing the town forever.  Brennan has an exceptional musical theatre voice, so ideally suited for pairing to Rose’s as is evident in their duet, “The Colors of Paradise.”  Also a PBD newcomer, her passage from Caleb’s often abused wife is heartening to witness, culminating with her song, “Wild Bird” consoling Percy in her arms. 

Elizabeth Dimon and Ashely Rose,Photo by Samantha Mighdoll
This is also a play about three wildly different women miraculously bonding and the bedrock of that triumvirate is one of the grand dames of the South Florida theatre scene, the veteran of so many productions, including several at PBD, Elizabeth Dimon.  She’s the prickly, hardened Hannah, the owner of the Spitfire, who through her interaction with Percy and Shelby finds a family and redemption.  She, like Percy, has carried a sad secret and is ultimately able to cathartically expunge it.  Her beautiful musical rendition of the dirge like ballad, “Way Back Home” displays her talents both as a singer and an actor.

Johnbarry Green makes his PBD debut a poignant success through playing the part of Caleb Thorpe, the nominal villain as he dominates his intimidated wife, Shelby.  But at heart, and Green brings this out with such conviction, he is a man who has been emasculated by the loss of work, and changes brought on by the passing of time over which he has had no control, the audience feeling his pain while he sings “Digging Stone.”  Green showcases his character’s loss of self respect with a heavy, mystified force.  Ultimately he too finds release from the prison of his own making with his clear baritone voice adding conviction to his acting and depth to his songs.  

Johnbarry Green, Blake Price Photo by Alicia Donelan

It is also the PBD debut of Blake Price as the Sheriff, yet another character who has failed to see the beauty of his surroundings and yearns to leave this sagging town for greener pastures.  Then he suddenly meets Percy and has a new insight on how his life could flourish right where he lives.  Prices’ strong tenor voice and handsome face win the audience over to him, rooting for something positive to come from his relationship with recalcitrant Percy.   Indeed, the outbound train that he had imagined being on now has “one less passenger,” as he sings his moving solo ballad “Forest for the Trees.”

PBD veteran of six productions, actress Patti Gardner, plays the busybody postmistress Effy Krayneck with comic ease and in perfect harmony with the cast.  Gardner also imparts her character’s inherent loneliness, and in the end finds her emotional place in the community, having “the thread” and “finding the needle.”

David A. Hyland is the “The Visitor.”  Hyland is a PBD veteran and it is strange to see him in a non-speaking role, but his hulking pained figure on stage speaks volumes about the past and regret, and tears easily well up in his eyes about his life.  Suffice it to say, the audience quickly surmises who the “Visitor” is and how he relates to the core of the story.

Director Bruce Linser has many musical credits on his resume, including last season’s smash hit, Woody Guthrie’s American Song.  He knows how to manage a complicated musical, and, in spite of its outward simplicity, there are so many moving parts to this show, different scenes, and times of the day, seasons, and the evolution from depression to outright joy, all of this in a relatively small space.  Scenes are changing on one side of the stage as another is underway on the other side.  Linser brings out the best from his talented cast and musicians, not allowing the characters to become stereotypes.  Each has his or her own story, becoming fully integrated as the plot evolves.

The incredibly talented Lubben Brothers, triplets Josh, Tom and Michael (who were such a hit in Woody Guthrie’s American Song) now perform under the show’s musical director, Joshua Lubben, along with his talented wife, Katie.  They form the orchestra for this show and resoundingly back the company with mostly piano, guitar, accordion, violin, or bass, the latter instrument underscoring the mournful moments.  Some of the music has almost a liturgical feeling, although deeply rooted in folk and country, with many elements of Celtic music.  Phrases are frequently repeated in a song, driving home meaning and emotion.  Even when the cast is not singing there are often musical riffs played in the background. 

Paul Black had the unusual task of being both the scenic and lighting designer.  Accordingly, he could conceive one knowing what he would do with the other so there is a harmonic effect.  This is a complicated play to design, the same challenges that Linser had to deal with in the performance space, he addresses in the physical space.  At first I thought the scenic design too intricate until the performance was underway, each scene flowing into the next, actors passing from the figurative outside, into the diner, through the back door and to the outside once again.  There are stairways to a second level which serve different scenes, including the opening one of Percy leaving prison and her concluding one, reaching the top of her emotional mountain.  Lighting had to denote seasons, times, moods, and highlight one side of the stage while another was preparing for the next scene. 

Costume design by Brian O’Keefe was similarly challenged given the cinematic, scene to scene, month to month, changes over a full year.  There are pallets of colors associated with each character, with costume changes to indicate the passage of time.  These are realistic costumes to identify everyday people in rural Wisconsin.  Think plaid, jeans, and mukluks.

Brad Pawlak sound design captures all this great music, and sounds from the woods – birds, geese flying overhead, and I thought I heard a few Wisconsin crickets.  In spite of a very busy sound design, the sound and the musical accompaniment never overwhelmed the lyrics.

Stage Manager James Danford, the veteran of untold productions, keeps everyone on cue and all props in their proper place, a feat in a complicated production such as this.  Stage managers are the unsung heroes of such productions, becoming, in effect, the director from opening night.

Indeed, “Something’s Cooking at the Spitfire Grill.”  Palm Beach Dramaworks serves up this heartwarming musical story with skill and enthusiasm.