Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

John Kelly Winds Up His Memorably Tragicomic Performance Piece on Governors Island

The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.

Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.

Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.

Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?

Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.

June 29, 2015 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

January 17, 2015 Posted by | concert, dance, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bora Yoon Holds the Crowd Spellbound at La MaMa

Bora Yoon is a connoisseur of high, ringing sounds, and the things that make them. Wednesday night at La MaMa, in the first of a four-day run of her new program Sunken Cathedral, she employed her signature instrument, singing bowls, in addition to rattles, chimes, a music box, pizzicato violin and several items typically found on the stove or in the cupboard. She also played piano, tersely and evocatively, in a thoroughly opiated Erik Satie-meets-Cab Calloway vein, acting out a surrealistic, shadowy, existential one-woman play of sorts against a shapeshifting prerecorded backdrop incorporating both electronic atmospherics and snatches of material from her enveloping, enigmatic new album from which the production takes its name.

Onstage, the exit and re-entry point was the grandfather clock in the corner, giving Yoon the chance to change costumes – and also allow for flitting appearances by a male dancer dressed in traditional Korean garb, complete with twirling tassel atop his colorful cap. Yoon bookended the performance with pre-renaissance vocal works augmented by atmospherics: she has a crystalline chorister’s voice and held the sold-out crowd rapt along with her. In between, she took brief detours into brooding art-rock, lengthy, nebulous vocalese sculptures and a couple of horror-film interludes complete with scary shadow puppetry and projections. Early on, she got an almost imperceptible doppler effect going with what looked like a crystal on a spinning turntable, a more subtle take on an old Andrew Bird shtick.

The theme of the album – recently reviewed here – and the show are something along the lines of “if you don’t make your life happen, it’ll happen to you.” Despite the pretty relentlessly moody ambience, what was most striking was how absolutely hilarious Yoon can be. A couple of momentary appearances by Yoon’s mom speaking animated Koreanglish into her voicemail drew predictable chuckles. But the funniest sequence involved a countertop, an oven and the things around it. The sight gags were priceless, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them – suffice it to say that Yoon is hardly the first person to peel and then munch on a carrot while singing, but she didn’t let it throw her off, pitchwise or otherwise, no small achievement. The rest of the La MaMa run, continuing through tomorrow night as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, is sold out, but there is a wait list and several people on that list made it into Wednesday’s show.

January 16, 2015 Posted by | avant garde music, concert, drama, experimental music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ivar Pall Jonsson’s Sinister New Rock Musical Is a Hit

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

August 12, 2014 Posted by | drama, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Derek Ahonen’s The Qualification of Douglas Evans: A Corrosively Funny Meta-Comedy

A persistent sense of meta fuels Derek Ahonen‘s hilariously satirical new play The Qualification of Douglas Evans, an Amoralists production running through August 9 at the Walker Space, 46 Walker St. (off West Broadway) in Tribeca. The playwright plays Evans, a playwright himself, tracing his romantic and alcohol-fueled adventures and misadventures (far more of the latter than the former) from dorky acting student, to enfant terrible of the New York theatre underground, to a long downward spiral that seems to telegraph where it’s all going to end with the first slurred words of a long bender. Booze may be Evans’ muse, but women are a close second, and Ahonen mines his character’s inability to navigate a series of relationships for an often devastating look at the battle of the sexes. Along the way, Ahonen directs plenty of venom at backbiting and careerism in the New York theatre world. The writing is crisp, the humor murderously spot-on: the jokes come lickety-split, one after the other.

The acting is as acerbic as Ahonen’s dialogue. Kelley Swindall plays Jessica, who takes Evans’ virginity, with a cynical self-awareness that’s all the more amusing for being completely deadpan and straightforward. And while the other characters seem at first to be straight out of Central Casting, Ahonen gives them all a counterintuitive edge. Mandy Nicole Moore plays Douglas’ first drunken foil, Kimmy, your classic cluelessly chirpy drunk chick, who as it turns out has something up her sleeve. Samantha Strelitz is deliciously self-serving as the fauxhemian trust fund girl who suddenly drops back into the picture when it seems she can play the starfucker role. Agatha Nowicki gets the play’s most complex and arguably most troubling role as Cara, whose immutable, Adderal-fueled new age cheer masks inner torment every bit the match for Evans’ demons. Those are illuminated via flashbacks with Evans’ alcoholic dad and codependent mom (Penny Bittone and Barbara Weetman, who also shine in multiple roles).

While the first act plays up the jokes for every possible ounce of corrosive cynicism, the second is practically the reverse image of the first, a theme straight out of Charles Bukowski whose ending you can see a mile away – or can you? No spoilers here.

July 14, 2014 Posted by | drama, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Vickie Tanner’s Casually Searing, Insightful Solo Show Earns Another Run

One-man or one-woman theatre pieces are usually to be avoided at all costs. Former sitcom stars recounting every anxious second of a struggle to adopt a Chinese baby…addled old men doing standup about their time in rehab as a condition of their probation…you know the drill. The famous exceptions to the rule – Krapp’s Last Tape, Eric Bogosian in general – give the genre a better reputation than it deserves. Vickie Tanner‘s nonchalantly incendiary solo show Running Into Me, which ended last month at LaMaMa, rises to the level of the latter category and deserves to be brought back in a larger room, especially considering how explosively audiences responded during the run’s final performances there.

With a nonchalant gleam in her eye and a disarmingly direct delivery, Tanner employs her stilletto wit throughout an autobiographical narrative that in many ways is a metaphor for racial relations in American in the here and now. Director Bruce McCarty doesn’t wait ten seconds to set up a clever device that amps the suspense to fever pitch, leaving an unresolved question and its potentially ghastly answer to linger until the very end of the show. In between, Tanner lets her story speak for itself. While an ironclad logic fuels her acerbic humor – her bullshit detector is set to stun as far as hypocrites and cognitive dissonance are concerned – she doesn’t preach.

Tanner is straight outta Compton…originally, that is. But her easygoing if exasperated account of her younger days on the playground in Ice Cube’s old turf quickly takes on a series of ironies, most drastically when she goes to live with her drug dealer dad. And suddenly…she’s transformed from ghetto girl to comfortable suburbanite, with a car of her own, a guidance counselor who assumes college is in everyone’ s plans, and a big-screen tv where she can get lost in whatever’s playing on Turner Classics. This is the first of many implications offered obliquely throughout the show, that people will follow their own compass no matter what their ethnic or economic background, especially if given the opportunity. Without stating it outright, Tanner’s point is that her story could be pretty much anyone’s: what makes hers different is that people make assumptions about her that they shouldn’t.

Over and over, what makes Tanner’s narrative so appealing – and its occasional disquieting detail so appalling – is how universal it is. College girl/party animal with no idea of what she wants to do afterward suddenly gets the epiphany that New York is where she belongs…and the race is on. From there it’s a whirlwind trail of absurd dayjobs – one particularly heartbreaking one in the New York City public schools – bad apartments and one obstacle after another. What gets Tanner over the hump, and gets her over with the crowd as well, is her dedication to her muse and the unlikely places it leads her, the intimation being that not that many young African-American women from Compton are unlikely to find their niche in the world of New York experimental theatre. Throughout what may seem to be an unlikely success story (though certainly not to Tanner herself), she slings the occasional bullseye at preconceptions on every side of what could be called a racial divide. The media takes the most direct hits; in one particularly casual but poignant moment late in the show, she muses on her experience working a college fair for a mostly black crowd of high school kids uptown. And whatever deprivation they may have faced, Tanner marvels, “They’re just like me.” These kids aren’t thugs, they’re just looking to get ahead like anybody else. Balanced against that ultimately triumphant conclusion, the denouement packs quite a wallop and puts those hopes in very, very clear perspective. California-bred though she may be, Tanner is ours now and we’re better off for it. Come to think of it, it’s hard to imagine her anywhere else.

November 23, 2013 Posted by | drama, review, theatre | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Federico Garcia Lorca Inspires a Twisted, Funny, Cruelly Ironic Puppet Show

Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are the Spanish equivalent of Punch and Judy. In their new show Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, Luminescent Orchestrii multi-instrumentalist Rima Fand and puppetry designer-director Erin Orr intersperse Federico Garcia Lorca poems set to haunting, flamenco-tinged original music within a sly, innuendo-fueled program that’s part dirty puppet show, part shadowplay and part farce. Lorca several times hinted that Don Cristobal may be deeper than a mere one-dimensional buffoon, a character study that this piece develops by leaps and bounds with plenty of laughs but also an undercurrent of existential angst that eventually takes centerstage.

The fourth wall comes down quickly and for all intents and purposes stays down the rest of the way. Many of the jokes and sight gags are theatre-insider humor, but they’re not so abstruse as to go over the heads of the audience. The plotline is pretty straightforward: having been tantalized by the prospect of life beyond the stage, Don Cristobal suddenly finds his predictable role mauling the other puppets much less interesting than usual. To complicate matters, he’s become hopelesssly infatuated with Rosita. Both characters are portayed with small stage puppets, Don Cristobal also via a creepy, toddler-size Japanese bunraku-style puppet manipulated expertly and voiced by Brendan McMahon. Claudia Acosta plays Rosita with an unwavering sweetness and blind taskfulness, literally unable to think outside the box. John Clancy is a smash hit as Don Cristobal’s smarmy stage director, with a malicious relish completely lacking either boundaries or scruples. David Fand is his meek, downtrodden antagonist, the Poet, who gets a few plaintive, gentle folk songs; Alice Tolan-Mee sings a handful of numbers for Rosita in Lorca’s original Spanish with a lively Broadwayesque flair.

As Don Cristobal’s existential crisis deepens, his dedication to his job as a puppet begins to waver; he slips out of character and his health declines to the point where his prospects of surviving a repair appointment with the Puppet Maker (a deadpan Quince Marcum, who also doubles on horn and percussion) don’t look good. Racy shadowplay interludes alternate with vaudevillian tomfoolery, a bizarre witches’ dance of sorts and endless messing with the audience. At yesterday’s matinee, there was a possible technical malfunction early on. If this was scripted, it fooled everyone; if it was a genuine snafu, the players improvved their way through it seamlessly.

And the music was the high point of the show. Multi-instrumentalist Fand (who primarily played keyboards and mandolin) was joined by guitarists Kyle Senna and Avi Fox-Rosen for a twisted overture, a plaintive, dramatic bolero, skeletal folk-rock interludes, a couple of absolutely chilling, macabre, carnivalesque Lynchian piano themes and an artsy mandolin-fueled goth-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Black Fortresss of Opium catalog. Fand’s music matched the mood of Lorca’s lyrics, whether voicing longing (Midnight Hours), lust (Rosita’s Song) or suspenseful narration (El Rio Guadalquivir). A score this memorable deserves a DVD, or at least an original soundtrack release. The show continues at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. on the lower east side on February 22-23 and March 1-2 at 8 PM; February 23 and March 2 at 3 PM; and February 17, 24 and March 3 at 5 PM. Tickets are $20; the discount code for $15 tix this weekend is Rosita.

February 17, 2013 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Theatre Review: Doug Vincent’s A Day for Grace

To call playwright Doug Vincent’s show A Day for Grace harrowing is an understatement. Exploring the events of a hardscrabble Virginia childhood that culminated in his alcoholic father’s suicide, along with those events’ many ramifications, Vincent plays himself as well as a Greek chorus of family members whose take on events don’t always sync with his own: those multiple perspectives shed considerable light on the kind of baggage he brought into the delivery room the day his daughter Grace was born. We know beforehand that despite what could have been an equally harrowing scene at her birth, Grace survived, but even that knowledge doesn’t spare the audience from an emotional roller coaster ride. After a sold-out run at New York’s Stage Left Studio, Vincent is returning it to his native Colorado at a venue still to be determined.

Vincent is a gifted and extremely entertaining storyteller. Early on, his depiction of his childhood emulation of the future Hall of Fame catcher from the Cincinnati Reds is delivered suspensefully, with a deft touch not unlike a baseball broadcaster recounting events as they happen in real time. But even more than he wants to be like Johnny Bench, the young Vincent wants to be like his dad. With one problem: dad’s “medicine” for a persistent physical ailment comes in a can labeled Pabst Blue Ribbon. When grandma comes over with her 40-ounce Colt .45, dad requires even stronger medicine, in the form of Canadian Mist. Vincent’s description of family interaction at moments like these is surprisingly elegant, without the least bit of the kind of mawkishness that typifies so many autobiographical works. Much as this must have been problematic, to say the least, Vincent never lapses into cliche, nor does he play the blame game. Instead, gallows humor is what pulls him through, something he no doubt picked up from his doomed father.

As the show’s segments shift, Sam Llanas – former frontman of popular Wisconsin roots rockers the BoDeans – does his part as Greek chorus with his acoustic guitar and warm baritone voice, singing excerpts from songs including the BoDeans’ brooding classic Far, Far Away from My Heart as well as several numbers from his 1998 cult classic cd A Good Day to Die, by the short-live side project Absinthe [#629 on the 1000 Best Albums of All Time list here – ed.]. Written to memorialize the teenage suicide of his older brother, the pieces from that song cycle used here have had their lyrics tweaked to fit the new context, and add considerable depth and gravitas to the overall ambience.

While Vincent’s father’s suicide is described in graphic detail, it’s the emotional impact that resonates more shockingly. Certain sounds and behaviors become Post Traumatic Stress Disorder triggers for Vincent, culminating with his wife’s struggles as his unborn daughter’s life hangs in the balance. At this past Saturday’s show, as the suspense reached breaking point, Vincent was literally moved to tears recalling how events unfolded: several audience members were overcome by emotion as well. Sometimes the drama of real life surpasses anything contrived for the stage.

One tantalizing aspect of the show, one which sadly won’t be missed by anyone who doesn’t know Sam Llanas’ more obscure catalog, is that his songs sometimes get cut short. Like Vincent, Llanas is also a first-rate storyteller, and there were points where songs like the haunting, down-and-out saga It Don’t Bother Me and the majestically angst-driven, Orbisonesque anthem Messed Up Likes of Us were about to reach their denouement…and then they were over. On one hand, Vincent deserves considerable credit for making such an apt pairing of music and monologue: on the other, those familiar with the Absinthe record will be left longing for more. During the New York run, Llanas played a series of intimate club dates; perhaps the same could be done the next time the show is staged. Otherwise, it couldn’t hurt to extend the work by, say, fifteen minutes, to let Llanas’ grim sagas sink in as impactfully as Vincent’s narrative.

September 17, 2012 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Rocking the World with John Koprowski

Singer John Koprowski’s Five Years That Rocked the World, 1964-1969 is the rare cabaret show that’s both family-friendly and edgy. That may seem like the world’s biggest oxymoron, but Koprowski (abetted by musical director and perennial MAC awardwinner Tracy Stark) has put together a somewhat stagy revue that tells the story of the Sixties via an informative, sometimes predictable but often counterintuitive mix of rock and pop songs from the era (and a little afterward, if you count the Kinks and the Grateful Dead). It’s a rock show for cabaret rooms at this point: with some work, it would have legs on Broadway, as last night’s performance at the Laurie Beechman Theatre more than hinted. Eric Michael Gillett’s direction keeps the show moving along briskly: between songs or medleys, Koprowski’s narration comes across in the style of a low-key, friendly AM disc jockey with a casually encyclopedic, historical awareness of oldies rock that transcends the trivia usually associated with those songs.

This isn’t some anonymous pit band phoning in Abba covers for the umpteenth time, either: Stark, a luminous pianist, strikes an imaginative balance between the hippie inspiration of the originals and an artsy, frequently harder-rocking edge. Eclectic guitar virtuoso Peter Calo and the incomparable Susan Mitchell on violin bring serious downtown cred, backed by a rhythm section of Owen Yost on bass and Donna Kelly on drums along with Wendy Russsell and Cindy Green on vocals. Koprowski projects a friendly, knowing I-was-there vibe: a comedic explanation for why he’s able to remember it comes around when he explains how much of his friends’ time and energy was consumed by the ever-present search for drugs (a subject that he tackles deftly and then deflects, something that parents will appreciate).

There are some transcendent moments here. Russell and Green give Koprowski a lurid backdrop to eerily explode out of with a gimlet-eyed menace on an absolutely chilling, gothic reinterpretation of Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising. Mitchell’s sizzling gypsy-blues solo on a Hendrix-inspired All Along the Watchtower (which Calo caps off with a surreally savage one of his own) is worth the price of admission alone. Mitchell and Calo also unearth the rustic country song beneath Arlo Guthrie’s Coming Into Los Angeles, then segue effortlessly into the Byrds’ Fifth Dimension (that band, along with Dylan, is an obvious favorite here). Koprowski’s strongest moment, a bitterly declamatory take on Phil Ochs’ I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag, is again set up by Green and Russell, this time with deadpan cruelty, a potent evocation of the antiwar struggle, not to mention the sheer body count of the Vietnam War. The nascent gay liberation movement is also addressed via a winking version of the Kinks’ Lola. Among the rest of the songs, including hits by the Mamas and the Papas, Country Joe and the Fish, the Jefferson Airplane and the Beatles (a spot-on version of Revolution lit up by Calo’s overdriven guitar against Stark’s warm, flowing chordlets, and a less successful version of With a Little Help from My Friends), the only dud is America, a shaggy-dog story from the Paul Simon songbook that comes across as something like a Pinataland outtake.

Koprowski is funny, humble and sings the songs in context, something that a younger singer might not be able to pull off so effortlessly. But to a millennial generation raised on autotune and American Idol (and their long-suffering parents), it couldn’t hurt to bolster Koprowski’s vocals, which are those of a survivor, dents and all. Consider: the people who wrote these songs were all in their twenties. To relegate Green – a versatile, tremendously compelling talent – to the occasional harmony is a mistake (was she a last-minute addition to the cast?). Likewise, the show would benefit from considerably more time in the spotlight from Russell: her quietly crescendoing lead vocal on Janis Ian’s plea for racial harmony, Society’s Child, is unselfconsciously poignant. Obviously, with shows like these in their early stages, rehearsals all too often are limited, but since so many of the original versions of these songs featured all sorts of vocal harmonies, the opportunies that the presence of Russell and Green – and Stark as well – offer are tantalizing, and with a little work could be every bit as compelling as the instrumentation. With a little more help from his friends, Koprowski could take this to a much bigger stage.

May 3, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debussy Was Right – And Apparently So Was Obama

Debussy was right about gamelan music. In a marathon three-and-a-half show Friday night at the Asia Society, famed Javanese dhalang (shadow puppeteer) Purbo Asmoro led New York’s Gamelan Kusuma Laras along with musicians from his own gamelan troupe Mayangkara in a lush, hypnotic, often thrilling and frequently hilarious modern update on the medieval wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) epic Dewi Ruci. Subtitled “Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment,” it’s an Indonesian spin on an old Indian myth. The plotline concerns a spiritually-inclined prince’s Herculean adventures in the search for enlightenment: who knew that a quest for personal growth could be so arduous? Bima tackles ogres in the woods and dives to the ocean floor to do battle with a giant sea serpent, all in the name of wisdom. Which makes sense, given his lineage. Utimately, the story could be termed a battle between blue and red states: Bima’s family, the peaceful Pandhawas, are vying with their rivals, the materialistic Kurawa clan, for control of an empire. As part of a “comic interlude” that was only supposed to take five minutes but which went on much longer (to the delight of the remarkably diverse crowd of expats and Americans), a Barack Obama puppet made an appearance, which only made sense: as Asmoro told it, Obama was exposed to wayang as a child in Indonesia and enjoyed it. And who wouldn’t.

Simultaneously playing the role of lyric baritone, comedian, and conductor, Asmoro was a force of nature, acrobatically spinning his wayang (puppet figures manipulated with what look like giant chopsticks) to cast shadows on the screen, aggressively thumping his giant wooden puppet box, clattering his foot cymbals to signal dynamic shifts and all the while entertaining the crowd. This was all the more impressive considering that he and most of his ensemble played the entire show seated, their backs to the audience, which is the style in Indonesia these days (apparently the desire for a backstage pass is universal). Throughout the performance, audience members traipsed onstage to get a look at the figures on the shadow screen facing the band, which was also being projected via live video on the side of the stage. To the immense benefit of the non-Javanese speakers in the crowd, gamelan member Kitsie Emerson furiously typed a witty and insightful simultaneous English translation that was projected high above the musicians.

The music itself covered the range of the entire sonic spectrum. Director I.M. Harjito led the group as they built calmly dreamy ambience with a hypnotic, gently polyrhythmic, pointilliistically glimmering web of instrumental “welcoming music” with their bells, gongs and fiddle that went on for practically a half-hour before Asmoro took the stage. Alternately dramatic, intense, droll and ribald, he shifted voices as much as he shifted characters while the band rose and fell along with the plotline. When the stage momentarily lost power, puppets blamed each other; Freudian metaphors abounded, and Asmoro got the crowd roaring with his explanation of how New York winter cold affected his manhood. Musically, the highlight of the show was a harder-charging interlude meant to illustrate soldiers in what seemed to be competitive training exercises, the tinkling of the bells balanced by the low, richly reverberating boom of the gongs. In between acts, a choir sang choruses along with soloists from the ensemble (notably soprano Ibu Yatmi, with her meticulously nuanced, piercingly microtonal melismas). After about an hour and a half, wine and snacks were served upstairs: people made their way up and back into the theatre, happy for a break but eager to see what else the group had in store. It was after eleven when the show finally concluded, Bima victorious at last in his search for wisdom, the future of the Pandhawa uncertain, the crowd still invigorated, on their feet, wanting more.

March 19, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment