Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Merrily We Roll Along, Available Light, 08/28/10

Available Light never shirked from chances, and their first musical – beating much more established companies in town – doesn’t pander or dodge tough questions in any way.  Sondheim’s much-maligned Merrily We Roll Along written with George Furth (book) based on the play by George Kaufman and Moss Hart, with its backwards-looking story structure starting at 1976 and ending in 1957, hadn’t been produced in central Ohio in 20 years, and then at Denison University.  This production is a wonder, if you’re still doubting seeing it, go. Go. Go.

John Dranschak’s direction (assistant direction from Acacia Duncan) is perfect, using the space exactly right, keeping the focus on the main characters but also throwing you off with the chorus on the transitions, buying the production time to let the year-shifts sink in.  Darin Keesing’s design and Dave Wallingford’s sound design are marvels, a minimal set of not-quite-abstracted doors and sound both that place it in its time but not of its time, not leaning too much on the crutch of easy period signifiers.

This show is about the corrosion of youthful ideals and the bitterness that arises when they don’t get corroded, much reminding me of the Cai Guo-Quiang exhibit I saw at the Guggenheim  a few years ago, terracotta workers slowly less finished as you walked around the spiral until it was just raw material, raw potential.  And because it starts in success and dissolution, the songs (and their mirror-songs) start out knottier and angrier and by the second act as these beautiful songs of optimism and youth ring out you’re looking for the cracks, the dark  humor comes from how you know it all ends.

Of course any musical’s going to live and die by its stars, and Available Light’s always had a knack for matching the exact actor to a role, and they outdid themselves here.  Ian Short plays Franklin Shepard, the one of the trio who leaves his friends in the dust by – if not “selling out”, because this show doesn’t trade in easy dichotomies without puncturing them at least a little – and another in Sondheim’s list of male leads who are basically ciphers, reactive but not truly active, at least onstage (see also Bobby from Company, Frederik from A Little Night Music, and Giorgio from Passion).  The character’s confusion, the enough-self-awareness to understand why he’s being left, enough charm to sell himself the center of attention to the myriad people around him, but also enough awareness to think “Why can’t I just enjoy this success?  Why does success need to be a problem?”  All of that fuels a terrific performance that sells some of the most challenging scenes and songs in the show.

As good as Short is, even better are the other legs of the triangle, Nick Lingnofski as Charley Kringus, the purist who turns his insecurities outward when he thinks his partner’s leaving him in more than one sense.  He hits an absolute home run on one of the sharpest indictments of the ambiguity around success Sondheim ever wrote,“Franklin Shepard, Inc.” and bringing a sweetness that belies the knowledge of what happens next to “Our Time” that keeps it from being all sentiment or swagger. 

And best of all is Heather Carvel, lifting the character of Mary above another Dorothy Parker riff, and roaring through her piece of “Old Friends”, “Now You Know” and “Opening Doors”, and breaking every heart for miles on “Like It Was”.  The most cutting and the most adrift, but played so it never feels like another cliché, it feels as fresh as tomorrow, and with a voice that slips in and out of joy and rage with the power of a blast furnace but doesn’t ever rely on classic Broadway belting. 

Michelle Schroeder as Franklin’s first wife makes the absolute most out of her few scenes, maybe helped by her having the only thing in the show that ever approached a standard, “Not a Day Goes By”.  Kim Garrison Hopcraft, as Gussie Carnegie, maybe one of the most misogynistic portraits Sondheim ever painted, even manages to get us close to understanding, manages to make us feel something other than contempt when the character walks on stage, and does it by not judging and giving the character a refreshing self-awareness, and killing her songs.  But no one in the 20-person cast is bad, even people who mostly appear in the chorus transitions get moments to shine, particularly Ryan Kay as a waiter with a dream, and Elena Perantoni who damn near steals a scene she’s in with two sung lines and one spoken.

Anyone who’s ever had that feeling like the world’s at your feet, you and your friends are just about to be great, whoever’s watched that feeling disappear and had to try to find it somewhere else, whoever’s had those bullshit sessions on the roof and found one of the other people turned it into a better song or a complete novel and you had to choke back that jealousy.  Anyone who remembers how fraught with possibility the summer nights were when they were 20 and how rare it seems you’re in touch with that any more.  Anyone who wants to be inspired or just goddamn entertained, go see this.  Hell, I’m going to see it a second time before it closes at the end of this weekend.  http://avltheatre.com/1011/blog/category/shows/merrily/

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Time Turning in on Itself and Turning on You, A Parallelogram, Steppenwolf, 08/09/10

Saw the premier run of Bruce Norris’s (Clybourne Park) new play in Chicago with Tom Irwin (a little ashamed I still remember him most from My So-Called Life), Marylouise Burke, Tim Bickel, and Kate Arrington, directed by Anna D. Shapiro.  This’ll be shorter than usual because I don’t want to give anything away, but t0 start with, Jesus, it’s good.  Go see it.  Believe the hype.

It starts with an argument about a football game and perceptions, “If you saw this in a television show, a man like me, a white-collar white man, yelling at a woman, where would your sympathies be?” except there’s a time traveller in  the room that only one of them – and the audience – can see.  For the next two hours, there are several sudden shifts in the timeframe, relationships between those four characters change and deepen, and gaps between expectation and understanding widen but yu never quite fall into them.

What’s great about this play is that the central two or three questions set up in the first few minutes do get resolved but not by bashing the audience over the head, and not without humor.  Everything that comes up gets used, like Chekov’s gun, but it’s not nearly as slick as it could be.  And the direction  is impeccable.  Just like with her work on August: Osage County, Shapiro uses the set – one of the biggest wow moments in the play – as a conscious special effect and a break in the pacing but also to reinforce one of the themes, that we’re all trapped in our life, we have the will to change but things basically happen anyway, and only the trappings and the supporting characters change around us, stuck in space.

The acting is impeccable.  Tom Irwin manages to slowly win us over while not glossing over the unlikable-at-best qualities of his character, Arrington’s both luminous and completely grounded, Bickel’s more of a cipher but perfectly fine, and Burke hits every note the play asks of her.  Playing through August 29.  http://www.steppenwolf.org/boxoffice/productions/index.aspx?id=478

Saturday, August 7, 2010

The ‘60s, Illuminated Through Different Means

“The music is like that , makes you see in the dark, cause the dark be you first.  Understand.  Can you see in your self?  See the mission and the magic.  The way and the cross.  The hope and the double cross.  The music is like that.”
-Amiri Baraka, “David Murray, Addenda to a Concert”

Started out this Saturday in Chicago – in a musical sense – after a Cubs game at the Empty Bottle for the Hoyle Brothers honky tonk happy hour: a packed room with $2.50 Shiner Bock on special and a dance instructor giving two step lessons.  Exactly the scene you expect.  Purely joyous, from a band that’s been doing this long enough they don’t have anything to prove.  A drummer singing harmonies who knows the difference between a swing beat and a honky tonk stomp, a guitarist who can soar like a fiddle or snarl like a tenor sax, and a singer with the kind of smoothness that can put anything across.

Because their act is straight late-‘50s to early-‘70s country music, mostly covers but a smattering of originals in the style,  it’s built for dancing and hinges on a sometimes-subconscious familiarity with the songs.  But just as importantly, it counts on an audience not encyclopedically aware of that music, that’s kept off balance wondering “Is this an original?  Is this a cover?”  Then, before that confusion gets frustrating, out comes a classic everyone knows, like “Walking After Midnight” done by a lovely rockabillyish woman with a lilting voice, with the band backing her, or possibly the best live version of “One Woman Man” I’ve ever heard.  The last ingredient to their success is slipping in a couple of off-genre covers but covers that work in that manner and aren’t just a shock novelty (Yonder Mountain String Band, pick up the red courtesy telephone), once “You Shook Me All Night Long”, last night Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman”.  The kind of thing that makes me glad to be in Chicago on a summer night and send everyone spilling out to dinner or another show or another bar or home dancing and grinning.

Then Ernest Dawkins’ Black Star Band at the Velvet Lounge.  I’m ashamed to admit how long it had been since I was last in this south loop shrine to musics holy and ecstatic.  With the passing of the great Fred Anderson I was determined to go see something there this weekend, show my support for the mission and drink a toast to the great man.  Ernest Dawkins playing Friday and Saturday was even better.  Friday night he led/conducted a seven piece band doing his new composition “Homage”, which, as he made clear in some introductory remarks, was both a tribute to the great Abbey Lincoln/Max Roach suite We Insist! Freedom Now Suite which came out in 1960 and begging the question, “Where have the last 50 years got us?  What are the problems we’re facing now?”  And if the Hoyle Brothers made me glad to be in Chicago, this made me glad to be alive.

If you’re doing something even tangentially related to Max Roach, you need a blistering-hot trumpeter and a fierce rhythm section, and this had both.   The opening started with these tiny melodic cells from the guitarist Scott Hesse, bowed bass from the maestro Harrison Bankhead, some soft-focus (but never soft) cymbal work from Vincent Davis on drums, as Dee Alexander’s wordless vocals shot through the veins of everyone there, crying and snarling with this beautiful rage, banging on the walls of the cage of the heart.  A little trumpet and bari sax drifting around the edges in the beginning.

It all shifted with three plucks from Bankhead, pulled strongly enough that you thought he was going to snap the strings off his bass, then resonating back with such a thunk you feel the floor move.  Then those three notes again.  Only then does Davis some in with a crash and this beautiful cacophony starts to bubble up, but with perfect architecture inside the whorls of sound, with Shaun Johnson (MVP of the night) peeling off these acid tones on his trumpet like it’s nothing, then stepping back into step with Hesse and Getsug to shadow Dee Alexander’s vocals.  In this section the vocals served as a reminder that “Freedom isn’t free” (variations on that are the only completed lyrics in the piece), said fast, then slow, then amber slow, then fast again, but always with such pure, precise diction that every word hits you like a hot nail and a slap in the face.  I wasn’t the only person with eyes closed, rocking back and forth in my seat during this, I promise.

Through the entire piece everyone got solo space to shine, including this perfectly bluesy section by Aaron Getsug on baritone and Dawkins himself flipping from Coleman Hawkins to John Gilmore to Pharaoh Sanders but always staying himself, with that juicy almost-shrill tone on tenor and alto, to Harrison Bankhead reminding us that he’s the pulse and Dee Alexander’s the soul.  A perfect updating of the Roach/Lincoln piece to include what’s happened in jazz in the last 50 years but also shining light on how powerful that classic music is, how much it holds sway on our imagination and makes us all want to write a haiku or make a cave painting or write a letter to our congressman or go home and make love.  All done by musicians who just looked over the material a few hours before.  Given a couple more performances, this is is going to be classic, mark my words.

The cap on the night was a midnight Raphael Saadiq show at the Vibe – the old Crobar space uptown.  Eight piece band backing him this time, two guitars, keys, bass, drums, tenor, trumpet and trombone, all in black suits with ties, bringing Saadiq out in classic style with an instrumental, his two background singers came out dancing also in black suits with ties, then Raphael took the stage resplendent in a cream suit with a brown tie already loosened.  Opening with “Lay Your Head on My Pillow”, the first batch of the show went heavy on the Tony Toni Tone classics, then seamlessly mixing work off at least two of his solo records (I didn’t hear anything from the Ray Ray disc but then I didn’t ever spend as much time with that one, it wasn’t in heavy rotation for a year or more in my house the way Instant Vintage and The Way I See It were) and of course “Dance Tonight” from the Lucy Pearl project, with his female backing singer nailing the Dawn Robinson part and also the Joss Stone part on “Just One Kiss".

Saadiq is the kind of showman they don’t make any more: dancing well enough but not so well the show stops for the dancing, singing in this gorgeous falsetto but not dipping into showy melisma, playing to the audience but never pandering to us, walking to the side of the stage and getting us on his side, off-mic, like a cross between Marvin Gaye and Iggy Pop.  Because he’d played Lollapalooza earlier in the day, this was (he mentioned on the stage) a more hardcore R&B show with some surprises for the true heads.  Including bringing up his brother D’wayne Wiggins from Toni! Tony! Tone! on stage to join him on a couple of songs, and best of all bringing out one of the Spinners to join him on his cover of their classic “It’s a Shame”. 

For a diverse portfolio of songs spanning 20+ years, everything felt like one continuum of soul, well played and with remarkable humor.  A songwriter with total faith in his voice, a singer with total faith in his songs, an arranger and bandleader who knows he’s picked out exactly the right players to kick his ass and he’ll never need to worry about it, and a frontman who has so much confidence he knows nothing’s going to steal the spot light from him.  He lets the background singers shine in a way that with any less of an artist, would totally upstage the main act, but they never do.  You see his eyes light up when someone else on stage does something spectacular, he and the male backing singer grinning like “Oh my god” during the Spinners’ person’s falsetto (I didn’t catch the name, and its not like there weren’t 30 people in that group over the years).  This is the kind of show where you don’t want to move to get a drink or go to the bathroom when he’s on stage, but you don’t stop moving the entire time.