Blogs > The Arts Whisperer

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Peter Pan at Sage

Russell Sage College in Troy just announced their production of "Peter Pan" currently playing at the schools Little Theatre has added another show to the run. I saw it over the weekend and my opinion is they could have added another weekend or two and it would sell out.

This is a fun production that offers well-sung musical numbers, energetic dance sequences, a couple of great performances, good ensemble work and a number of endearing performance by young kids from the community.

"Peter Pan" runs tonight (Friday), Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Another show has been added on Friday evening Oct. 8.

"Peter Pan" is that rare thing - a commercial hit at a local college campus as every show has played to capacity audiences. I like that. For some reason, the community-at-large does not take advantage of things offered at area schools and this work is an example of what people are missing throughout the year at local colleges.

Certainly the world of mouth on campus is drawing students but I think it is the title more than anything else that is the draw for off-campus audiences. "Peter Pan" is a true family show.

To keep myself a member-in-good-standing in the National Cynic Club, I claim not to understand the appeal of "Peter Pan." That is until I see a production. Then I realize (again) it is a fable that appeals to all ages. I thought the fun of the story stopped when you left high school, but judging by the response of the audience on opening night - for sure it appeals to college-age females, young kids and cynical old men.

Like the circus, "Peter Pan" appeals to children of all ages. There are some people who grow up by the time they are twelve. For the rest of us, we will be told to grow-up for our entire lives. And most of us - like Peter - will refuse the command.

Though Peter is the focus of the story, I think the genius of the tale is Captain Hook. Hook is a terrible man but instead of a Bogeyman, he is comical in his intent to kill Peter, destroy the group of Lost Boys and rid the world of Tiger Lilly's band of Indians.

Indeed, while Sage student Sara Curtis is a delightful and believeable Peter, it is David Girard's performance of Hook that makes the show so much fun. Girard is a professional actor who is participating in the school's Male Acting Apprentice Program (MAAP). His experience and talent elevates the good work on stage and adds a comfort level to the work that is picked-up by the entire cast.

Another member MAAP, Brian Sheldon is very funny as Smee - Hook's pirate sidekick. The two make a delightful comedy team that never goes too far in their search for laughs. The discipline shown throughout the production is just one of the many things director Michael Musial brings to the table.

And yes there is flying. A spoiler alert: you do see the wires.

But it doesn't make any difference. Just as you clap to save Tinkerbell's life and in so doing admit to believing in fairies, when Peter, Wendy, John and Michael lift off the ground to go to Neverland you believe they are flying.

That's the magical charm of Peter Pan. For two hours you believe in flying, fairies, funny pirates and most of all you believe you never have to grow up.

For show and ticket information call 244-2248

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The real St. Patrick's Day at Irish Fest 2000

On Saturday I attended Irish 2000 Music & Arts Festival. I'm almost ashamed to admit it was the first time I've been to the festival. Now I wonder why I didn't force myself to go before this.

Truth be told, if it wasn't for the urging of a friend I might have missed it again this year. As it was we didn't get there until about 4 p.m. when the party was in full swing.

I usually say I don't mind Irish music. In fact, I actually like Irish music, but in small doses. Therefore it was surprising I didn't get tired of the constant sounds of Celtic music. That's because of the variety. They have three band areas at the Ballston Spa Fairgrounds. There is the Rock Stage, Traditional Stage and Pub Stage. The appeal of each should be obvious by the name.

There is indeed something for everybody. Early on we sampled local favorite Hair of the Dog at the traditional stage and the Young Dubliners at the rock stage. Needless to say both were excellent. The headliner at the rock stage was Seven Nations (7:50-9 p.m.) and Great Big Sea closed the night (9:30- 11 p.m.) and the festival. Talk about energy. Neither is your mother's Celtic band.

Throughout the day, acts were introduced with the tune of a marching pipe band. You don't have to be Irish to have your hair stand on end or get a tear in your eye when you hear a piper.

John McDermott who wrapped up the traditional stage (7:30- 9 p.m) would bring a tear to any eye. He was as traditional as corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day. He charmed the older audience with his stories, jokes, music and personal charm.

In the shed where McDermott performed you could hear Seven Nations rock-Celtic sounds and it re-enforced what I observed throughout the day. Irish Fest has appeal to all ages. They were older folks enjoying themselves, young families with kids were having a great time, as well as were every age and demographic group located between the two.

But aside from the music, fair food and of course the beer tents ( It was so rewarding to be somewhere where Guinness appeared to be outselling Coors 2-1) there was the feeling of being united by a common culture. I usually scoff when in the course of an interview about the festival people would talk about the cultural nature of the event. I take my cynicism back. Not only were there booths supporting Irish culture and kids doing step dance exhibitions in small venues - the people attending embraced the Irish culture. When you talked to someone one of the first questions asked was - "Have you ever been to Ireland?" Since my answer was always "No," I was given a verbal tour that made me want to go there.

If you've ever been dismayed by the behavior of people celebrating St. Patrick's Day you would be proud of the behavior of everyone at Irish Fest 2000. I saw no bad behavior or drunks and I was never made to feel uncomfortable. And with a gathering of about 15,000 people that's rather remarkable. It was a perfect event to bring your kids or your grandmother.

I look forward to going again next year.

Friday, September 17, 2010

illness in theater

I attended "33 Variations" at Capital Repertory Theatre on Wednesday night to see a compelling play that essentially spoke to the idea of embracing illness in order to be free to live your life.

The concept of embracing illness sounds strange because in our society it's thought the brave thing to do is to fight illness. Indeed that's what the characters in the play do for most of the night. Beethoven fights his increasing loss of hearing to work on creating 33 variations of a simple waltz. Dr. Katherine Brandt struggles against a disease that is claiming her body to research why Beethoven was so obsessed with the variations.

However, it isn't until they embrace the fact that their mortality is limited that they can find the freedom to accomplish things they need to do for themselves. Beethoven went on to reinvent the language of music and Dr. Brandt gave up trying to control her adult daughter's life.

I found the themes in the play positive and uplifting. Yet I fear because one of the characters, Dr. Brandt, has a disease that will claim her body and then her life people will avoid the play because it is "too depressing".

I understand the concerns of audiences. Indeed, I had some myself. The disease Dr. Brandt has is ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. This is very personal to me as 6 months ago my wife died from ALS. I was very touched by the number of friends who came up to me before the show, at intermission and at the end to inquire how I was handling watching a woman being consumed by a disease that took my wife of 45 years,

I felt almost guilty by saying it hardly bothered me. The play isn't about the disease. To call "33 Variations" a play about a woman dying of ALS is like describing "Media" as a play about matricide.

"33 Variations" is about a woman who is taught by the disease to embrace what is good about her life and to appreciate the limited time she has left. That's what I want to remember about my wife's illness. The insight it gave her to embrace life to the fullest and appreciate all that is good about life. It didn't come easy and you have to wonder if such a gift is worth the price. But there is no denying that it is a worthy way to live and to leave life.

I don't want to give a wrong impression. There are moments in the play that made me remember things about her battle that I'd prefer to leave buried. But to avoid good art because it might be painful is to condemn yourself to only watching the Disney channel on T.V.

I also know there are moments in theater, film and music that so evoke emotions that it is touches the psyche in a deep and moving way. In the past couple of months I avoided two productions of "Our Town" because I didn't want to endure the final act graveyard scene where those who passed looked on the living and wondered why they mourned and still grieved their loss. That is a beautiful and wise scene, but one I still am not ready to deal with because I am not ready to let go of my own mourning - no matter how controlled it might be.

People suffering or dying on stage is not a reason to avoid a work of art. Plays about courage and wisdom are things we should seek out and hopefully learn from. "33 Variations" is not profound theater but it is an honest look at people who live courageous, meaningful lives. That makes it worth seeing.

It plays Tuesdays to Sundays until Oct. 3. By the way, before the final performance I will be a guest and speak to the audience with artistic director Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill on the topic of disease and the theater.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

hallowed ground

A couple of days ago, I was talking with a friend who has a two-year old daughter about earliest memories. I'm at the age where I have difficulty remembering what I had for breakfast that morning - so I contributed little to the conversation.

However, on Saturday night, September 11, I went with a friend to the Joe to watch the Valley Cats beat Brooklyn in the first game of the playoffs. It was a night of mixed emotions as I spent much of my youth in Ebbets Field rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Now I was rooting against a team from Brooklyn.

Sitting in front of us was a father with two sons - probably about 8 and 10. At the end of the game I heard him tell them - "No we can't go to Brooklyn to see the next game." I wanted to tell him that based on my personal experience they are now hooked on baseball forever.

That game made me realize that indeed some of my earliest memories of my father was him taking me to Ebbets Field and teaching me to love the game of baseball. As I grew older I would go to Ebbets Field whenever possible. I would even go to a place named Dexter Park where the Bushwick Bombers, a team on the level of the Valley Cats - would play what was then called semi-pro ball. I was and remain hooked on what is the most American of sports.

At the start of the seventh inning on Saturday a barbershop quartet sang "God Bless America" and after the game an awesome fireworks display was offered to the Ray Charles rendition of "America." It was a perfect way to honor 9/11. Baseball, hot dogs, lots of little kids, fireworks and a touch of patriotism.

On the ride home it was impossible not to compare this evening of wholesome Americana that celebrated our nations values to the hideous debate surrounding the area near ground zero. You can't enter that debate without hearing someone utter "hallowed ground."

For me Ebbets Field was once hallowed ground. Now it's a housing development. That loss of a ball park did nothing to diminish the wonderful memories of a youth rooting for his heroes. The beauty of life is we move on and we find new hallowed ground. Saturday night I thought of the Joe as hallowed ground.

The lesson I learned is geography isn't hallowed ground. It's what happens at that space. Whether it be baseball, theater or religious worship - it is the purity of the event that makes it special.

The United States is "hallowed ground" because as a geographical entity we permit magic to happen wherever good people congregate.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

NYSTI returns

The New York State Theatre Institute has announced a fall program of two shows. "The Miracle Worker" runs Oct. 1-15 and "A Christmas Carol" plays Dec. 3-19. Both shows will be performed at the Schacht Fine Arts Center on the Russell Sage campus in Troy.

It's good news, but not exciting news. "The Miracle Worker" is a good play and is appropriate for students. But it has been around seemingly forever and has been produced by almost every local theater company. Curtain Call Theatre in Latham offered it last season.

As for "A Christmas Carol" there are at least three other versions of the Dickens tale being produced in the area this year. One is at Cohoes Music Hall a professional theater company that is less than 10-miles away. Does it make sense for struggling not-for-profits to cannibalize each other's audience?

NYSTI has been lying low since its final show in May/June. That was when Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder resigned as producing-artistic director of the organization. That resignation came under a cloud of scandal after the state's inspector general released a report charging her with fiscal irresponsibility and nepotism.

David Bunce who has been acting director of NYSTI has obviously been working diligently. The company that lost millions of dollars in state aid and has emerged as a leaner organization. Staff has been reduced by almost half and the word is the fall plays will be budget-conscious productions.

The question is - of course - will this be enough to save them? The second question is will the new NYSTI be worthy of being saved? The third question is does the state really want NYSTI to be saved.

Without question, a theater company that educates school-age children is worth saving. We can only trust the professional theater artists to produce work that will be worthy of being saved. However, does the new board care about NYSTI or are they political appointees with little interest in the company who are merely going through the motions?

The new board of NYSTI is mostly composed of members of Gov. David Paterson's staff. It is unlikely any of them will have a job in the next administration. How much do they want to go on the line for a theater company that has been soiled by scandal? Because of their positions in government they can't do outside fundraising and it's pretty clear they haven't been able or willing to restore past cuts.

More troubling is the terrible timing of the season announcement. NYSTI has been working with schools for over 30 years and understands most teachers prefer information either before they leave school for the summer break or they want it in August before the new school session starts. This announcement comes when few teachers are paying attention. I have to believe the timing of the release of the fall schedule is board mandated.

It is very late. "The Miracle Worker" opens in three weeks and not a school group has been booked. Indeed, in what might be the most frantic week of the school session they are just learning about the shows. This in a year where teachers have to battle for any field trip.

Call me paranoid, but if you were on a board of an institution that you wanted to fail wouldn't this be a great way to help that outcome? The state chastised the former NYSTI board for not being responsible to the organization. Now it's time for the current board to start behaving responsibly by doing everything in their power to see NYSTI survives.