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Offering a fresh way of helping you keep up with art and entertainment happenings around the Capital District.

Monday, June 28, 2010

poetry can be cool

On Monday night I attended what for me might be the coolest night of the summer. I went to Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs to attend the opening night of the New York State Summer Writers Institute.

And quite a unique night it was. Poet Robert Pinsky (who was a former Poet-Laureate of the US from 1997-2000) read several of his poems accompanied by a jazz combo consisting of tenor saxophonist Pat La Barbera and bassist Todd Coolman.

It was music, drama and a poetry reading all rolled into one fascinating evening.

This is not a new concept for Pinsky who at readings around the country sometimes uses musicians to elaborate on the jazz rhythms that are already in his writing.

It's an idea that works. This was no dry poetry reading. It was absorbing and even exciting as the words found an an extra beat thanks to the help of the musicians who's work seemed completely improvised. They had sheets on the music stand but it seemed to me it was a copy of the poem being read - which offered them inspiration not direct guidance.

It was an eloquent evening that was never stuffy. Dressed in slacks and a white tee shirt, Pinsky looked like Dr. Oz's older brother. He was filled with energy and totally into finding the mood set by the musicians. Instead of being the creator of these beautiful words, he seemed willing to act as accompanist to the musicians.

Indeed, reading the final poem he announced that he would read the poem as if it were a traditional "straight ahead" poetry reading. He then did it accompanied by the musicians and the poem on a new life and energy. It was a great lesson in the nuances that exist in any work of literature.

It was a standing room only crowd in the Davis Auditorium at Palamountain Hall with most of the audience college age. Someone told me a large group was at Skidmore to take part in the Jazz Institute summer program. If that's true, it should have been a superior learning experience for the students as they got to see how words are not static things and come alive when the human voice adds intonation to the words and music adds even more reflective emotion to the creation.

It was a memorable experience that for me included a touch of nostalgia. It more than a little reminded me of life in Greenwich Village during the 1960s. It was the era of the Beat poets and every young writer wanted to be Alan Ginsburg or Jack Kerouac. I lived in NY at that time and frequented "the Village." There you could listen to poetry in a coffee house like the Cafe Wha(some good,a lot terrible) and later walk a few blocks to someplace like the Village Vanguard to hear some cool jazz.

No one thought of it as being literate. It was just a good time. Last night made me realize that it was pretty cool way to grow up. There's a tendency to feel sorry for kids today who are reduced to writing incoherent text messages and thinking spoken-word music like rap is poetry. I could, but I won't. Instead, I'll just be happy that so many young people attended last night.

I don't know if the other events at the Writers Institute will be this special but they are certainly worth a try. Mondays to Friday until July 23 there will be poets and novelists offering readings of their work. It's free and well worth your time.

Last night reminded me that poetry can be cool and words are treasures.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Anyone who has reviewed, even for a short period of time, knows that you can't predict what shows will be good or what will be bad. Some shows that I've most anticipated have been horrid and other shows I dreaded going to were fantastic.

Thus warned, I will share (in chronological order) the 10 summer theater shows I am most anxious to attend.

"Sweeney Todd" at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Mass. June 23-July 17. "Sweeney Todd" is one of the best musicals written in the last half of the last century. No show produced this century has topped it either. The BSC company looks great. Jeff McCarthy should be an ideal "mad barber of Fleet Street" and Harriet Harris could be the perfect Mrs. Lovett. I've seen "Sweeney" perhaps a dozen times and can't wait to this version.

"What a Glorious Feeling" at Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glens Falls. June 24-July 3. It's a musical supposedly based on the true backstage events during the making of the classic film "Singin' in the Rain." It's about a love triangle between Gene Kelly, the film's dance captain Jeanne Coyle and Coyle's ex-husband, who happens to be Kelly's co-director of the film. It should have all the fun of the movie and a little intrigue as well.

Richard III at Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass. July 2-Sept. 5 (in repertory). One of Shakespeare's great villains is played by John Douglas Thompson. Thompson is turning into one of the country's leading classical actors coupling his 2008 and 2009 performances as "Othello" at Shakespeare & Company with an Off-Broadway turn as the title character in "Emperor Jones." He's performed with Kevin Kline in "Cyrano" and with Denzel Washington in "Julius Caesar." Not bad credits.

Endgame at the Unicorn Theater of Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass. July 6-24. This is one of Samuel Beckett's most tantalizing plays. It's an absurdist look at the future- which to an absurdist means the end of the world. Next to "Waiting for Godot" this is Beckett's best play. It's dark and confusing, but this same BTF team made "Godot" into a very funny, accessible evening of theater without losing the point of the play. I hope the same for "Endgame."

Six Degrees of Separation, Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass. July 14-25. A young man claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier appears at a wealthy couple's home. Do they believe him because they trust him, want a walk-on role in "Cats" or because they have a need to believe in something? It's a dense play but it makes you think and even laugh.

The Guardsman at Berkshire Theatre Festival's main stage, Stockbridge, Mass. July 13-July 31. There's nothing like an old classic during the summer months and "The Guardsman" fits that bill perfectly. It's about an actor who assumes a disguise to test his wife's fidelity and finds himself in a lot of unexpected mischief of his own making. It's an old-fashioned farce directed by John Rando, a man who is an expert at farce.

Pool Boy at Music Theater Lab at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield, Mass. July 21-Aug 8. This brand new musical has been waiting to get on the Lab's schedule for two years. It sounds like a cross between "The Graduate" and "Sunset Boulevard" where an innocent young man (who happens to be an aspiring songwriter) meets the sharks of LA by the side of a pool. A number of shows given its first chance at Music Theatre Lab have moved to NYC. I sense "Pool Boy" will be another.

Imagining Madoff at Stageworks in Hudson. July 23 - Aug. 8. Talk about timely. This is a look at the man behind the greatest Ponzi scheme in history. The law couldn't get Madoff to talk about the hurt he caused others, maybe a visit to his prison cell by poet and humanitarian Solomon Galkin might do the trick.

Lies and Legends at Theatre Barn, New Lebanon. July 29 - Aug. 8. This musical revue based on the songs of Harry Chapin is simple fun and the kind of material that Theatre Barn does so well. Not everything in theater has to be dark and depressing. "Lies and Legends" is the kind of show that you enjoy in the theater and as an added gift it lingers with you when you leave.

The Last Goodbye at the Nikos Stage of Williamstown Theatre Festival Aug 5-20. This is a musical adaptation of "Romeo & Juliet." Enough said. The most beloved love story ever written with music added. It could be great or a what were they thinking?

We can't tell - but I can't wait to see it - as well and the other listed nine shows that offer promise of a great summer in the theater.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

ticket prices

Phish is at Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Saturday and Sunday and both shows will likely be filled to SPAC's mandated capacity of 35,000 people. That's 70,000 people over two days at $50 a ticket. I figure that's a $3.5 million dollar gross.

It sounds like a lot of money but the ticket price is fair and that is becoming a rarity is today's commercial world of touring shows. Phish is one of the few bands in the business who appreciates its fan base and never gouges. Another such group is the Dave Matthew Band. They were at SPAC a couple of weeks ago and had a top ticket of $75, with a more modest lawn ticket price. They too sold out two shows to a grateful fan base.

I cannot help but believe that ticket pricing has something to do with each band's enduring popularity. The members of Phish and DMB are amazingly talented musicians and offer phenomenal live shows, but they also respect their fans and that is a secret for long-term survival in any business.

I look at Melissa Etheridge, who is another talented performer, but her arena days are behind her. She's at Albany's Palace Theatre on July 7 and is charging top ticket price of $102. Compare that to the James Taylor and Carole King show at Tanglewood where top ticket is $87 for July 3 & 4, with a lawn show on Monday July 4 priced at only $25.

Of course, Tanglewood has its extortionists too. The Simon and Garfunkel Reunion Tour that plays there on July 27 has a top ticket of $225. That's not a misprint - $225. That's $450 a couple. How badly do you want to see two guys who hate each other perform? It's not like either of them have done a lot lately. I'd take the money and buy every cd they ever made and have bucks left over.

A lot of people are excited about the Bon Jovi appearance at SPAC on July 11. They are asking $175 top, but you might get on the lawn for $35. Now that's a lot of extra money for a comfortable seat.

But when you think about it, $175 for Bon Jovi looks like a bargain when you consider the Chicago and Doobie Brother show at SPAC a week earlier on July 3 is asking $125 for the amphitheater seats. Talk about having your best days behind you - they are the poster boys in that category. The lowest price for the show is $21, which is more like it.

I suppose it's all about what the traffic will bear. Some people will pay anything to see their favorite band and most of the time that favorite band will ask almost anything from their fan base. You gotta respect Phish and Dave Matthews Band. How rich do you have to be?

By the way, my feeling about the show that offers the least value? The American Idol Live 2010 tour is coming to the TU Center on July 17. Whatever they are asking - it's too much. Wait a year and see the performers for free at Live at Five or Rockin' on the River.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I never learn

When will I learn? I do it every year - watch the Tony Awards live, without even using the dvr. What do I get for my efforts? Frustration and heartache.

Every year the Tony Award voters show how insecure they are by voting for anyone from Hollywood who is willing to tread on a Broadway stage. Denzel Washington, Scarlett Johansson and especially Catherine Zeta-Jones winning a best acting category? Please.

Although Washington is one-note actor, he isn't all that bad. He's fortunate that"Fences" fits his type and shows his limited talent to best effect. I have no doubt he was good in the role.

However, let's look at what else went on Sunday night. "Red" won for best play, best direction, best supporting actor, best set, best sound and best lighting. However, the heart and soul of the show - Alfred Molina - who gave a magnificent varied, emotional and smart performance was passed over for Washington. I can't buy that.

As for Scarlett Johansson at least she had an important role in a major play, "A View From the Bridge." However for her to beat out veteran actresses Rosemary Harris and Jan Maxwell her first time on a Broadway stage - well? I'm convinced if Johansson was not a well-known Hollywood star she not only wouldn't have got the award, she likely wouldn't have got the role.

Which bring me to Catherine Zeta-Jones, who sang the worst rendition of Send in the Clowns I've ever heard and then wins the Tony. It was shocking. Even her husband Michael Douglas looked dismayed.

There's no reason to dwell on the sad state of the Broadway musical, except to say the revivals were clearly the better product this season. No surprise they won most of the talent awards. However, I have to give points to the voters for giving the best actor in a musical award to Douglas Hodge over tv star Kelsey Grammer for their work in "La Cage aux Folles." I assume Grammer did good work, but Hodge had the tougher role.

Back to musicals. There wasn't one musical number that made me want to buy a ticket to any of the shows. The Tony Award show makes it clear that the only audience Broadway cares about is the casual theatergoer and the tourist.

Holding that thought, I change my mind. For that audience, this was the perfect Tony Award show.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Tony Awards

Sunday is Tony Awards day. Besides being a day to honor the great talent of the year it is also an opportunity to look at the season as a whole and to rate the year.

Looking at the nominations, you have to say it hasn't been a very good year. Broadway is noted for its musicals and most likely you couldn't name all four nominees. They are American Idiot, Fela!, Memphis and Million Dollar Quartet.

I didn't see any of them, but I will predict Fela! just because it is the type of small musical with a conscience that the voters have been honoring over the past few seasons. I doubt that they will choose American Idiot, a show inspired by a Green Day rock album, or the juke box musical Million Dollar Quartet. Memphis has an outside shot, as it is the only contender that also had its score nominated for the award.

Speaking of musical scores, the most telling thing about the musical category this season is that in the best score category two nominees ENRON and Fences are non-musicals. Dwell on that. Two dramas have been nominated over all other musicals (except two) for best score. One of those nominated is The Adams Family which gets no other major nominations - not even for its star, Nathan Lane.

Best actor in a musical will probably go to one of the television stars on Broadway. I'm picking Sean Hayes (Will and Grace) for Promises, Promises over Kelsey Grammer (Frazier) in La Cage Aux Folles, because Hayes does a terrific job in carrying a weak show. La Cage will get best musical revival.

It would be nice to see Christopher Fitzgerald win best featured actor in a musical for his work in Finian's Rainbow. Fitzgerald honed his craft at nearby Williamstown Theatre Festival starting as an intern and working his way up to leading performer on the mainstage. He returns this year to star in the WTF opening show, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

I'm picking Sherie Rene Scott as best actress in a musical for Everyday Rapture, a work she created for herself. Best featured actress in a musical should go to Barbara Cook because she's a legend who is still great. The only competition is Angela Lansbury who already got her legend award.

I'd like to see Sarah Ruhle get the award for writing best play, but not for Vibrator Play, which is nominated. She should get it for Passion Play, an amazing work that was produced in Brooklyn and not eligible for the Tony.

If it can't be Passion Play, I hope Red sweeps the drama awards. Best play, best actor and best supporting actor.

I do think Eddie Redmayne will win best featured actor for Red, but I wouldn't feel bad if Stephen Kunken wins for his excellent work in ENRON.

I insist Alfred Molina deserves the Tony for his brilliant performance in Red, but I have to believe Christopher Walkin will win for Behanding in Spokane. Walkin did Walkin in the play but he did it so very well it was a delight to see. Sorry to see Sam Rockwell wasn't nominated for his fine work in Behanding.

Best actor is the toughest category with each nominee being deserving of the award. Also nominated is Jude Law for Hamlet, Denzel Washington for Fences and Liev Schreiber for A View From the Bridge. Talk about an all star lineup.

I just hope the Sunday show is swift, entertaining and is a credit to Broadway.

Friday, June 4, 2010

NYSTI loses funding

If the saying you can't fight City Hall is true, how powerless are you when fighting the State? Ask NYSTI as the state power structure is moving the theater organization towards its endgame.

Because NYSTI has not been included in Governor David Paterson's budget extender bill request he sent to the legislature, funds will stop flowing to the Troy-based theater company on June 9. I suppose the company could continue to function past Wednesday if the staff is willing to work without pay. However, that noble gesture can go on only so long.

NYSTI is currently producing a play, "Alice in Wonderland," at the Russell Sage Little Theater using interns and students from Sage College, and that certainly complicates things, especially since tickets have been sold to school groups. However, since there is little payroll involved for actors and box office receipts should cover production costs, this doesn't appear to be a major crisis.

If this happened in January it would be a different story. The "real" season would be in progress, schools would have booked field trips in advance and expenses would have been generated. The more people hurt means more support for NYSTI.

Staying low-key has hurt the new NYSTI management. As far as I know NYSTI hasn't announced a 2010-2011 season and that's a mistake. It puts NYSTI supporters in a position of defending history, not the future. And that history comes with the baggage left by Patricia Snyder who was tainted by a negative IG report listing many abuses of power.

If NYSTI wants to fight for survival they need to be about the future. That means creating a season as different as possible from what might have been on the schedule were Snyder still running the organization. They need to establish themselves as a new NYSTI without losing the valuable assets of the old NYSTI.

I am afraid it's too late. The powers-that-be want NYSTI gone. It seems clear if you just can't fight City Hall or the State - you certainly can't fight the Powers-That-Be.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

standing ovations

There is a tradition that says critics shouldn't take part in a standing ovation. That has to do with the idea of not tipping your hand about the review. If you are always seated no one knows if you like the show or not.

Sometimes tradition can be a good thing. If there is anything more overdone in theater than the standing ovation I don't know what it is. I once told a friend the performance was so bad the show didn't even get a standing ovation. In other words the tribute has become so banal it is almost meaningless.

Certainly there are times when a standing ovation is appropriate. I recently saw "Sarah Ruhle's Passion Play" in Brooklyn and could not stay seated as the superb cast took their bows. Wish the playwright was there so I could have stood for her too. (It was OK, I wasn't reviewing.)

I'm sort of sorry that as a country we are too polite to boo as are the Italians and other European audiences. If you can stand and shout, why can't I jeer? I do draw the line at throwing things.

People ask me how do you show that you truly appreciate a performance? By clapping louder. Trust me, a performer knows the sound of genuine applause. They also fear the sound of one hand clapping. You not only shouldn't give standing ovations, you should modulate your applause to signal dissatisfaction with a performance. There is nothing worse than a bad actor defending a lazy performance by saying "The audience loved it."

To put it in perspective, when is the last time you gave a server in a restaurant a standing ovation? A big tip shows pleasure with service, a low tip shows dissatisfaction. Since most waiters are unemployed actors you should treat them the same way when they are on stage.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

get out of the box

I recently attended the Jim Kweskin and Geoff Muldaur concert at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs. Even though I serve on the board of Caffe Lena, I can in no way be considered a folkie. Yet, I had a terrific time.

The c oncert reminded me that when you see the best you can appreciate what their art form is all about. The music at this concert was enjoyable. The links the performers made to the folk artists who came before them was informative. The history they gave of the orgins of the songs was compelling. Put together is was a fun time that made me realize the importance of a entire genre of music. And, the music was varied to the point it included a Broadway tune and an African tribal song. I had a great time.

I left the concert thinking how easily we can get trapped in our own box of narrow interests. This week, our Thursday edition of InSight will list all the free music available in the area this summer. It's not only staggering because of the amount and variety of musical styles that are offered, rather it is staggering that so much GOOD music will be available for free.

My passion is theater and in the summer there is so much theater available I hardly have time (or energy) to anything else. And there is so much else available. Last year I made it to the ballet and the opera but I missed every Rockin' on the River concert downtown Troy. I attended the first Pig Out, but missed last year's event. I have always loved baseball but I didn't make an appearance at the Joe the entire summer.

My pledge for summer of 201o is not to do more, but to put more variety in my entertainment schedule. I urge you to do the same thing. Don't let yourself get put in a box - there's too much else to do,