Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hear the Music, See the Light

Even if you have not seen the movie Frozen you have heard “Let it Go.” The movie’s power ballad was inescapable after the release in 2013. The movie went on to make millions, win Academy Awards and, most recently, it spawned a big-budget Broadway musical. The Walt Disney Company knows a good opportunity when it sees one and, after seeing the show in New York last month, it’s hard to argue with their logic. Frozen is a faithful adaption: the magic, the music and the story are all brought to life with exquisite detail and expert performances.

The Frozen story is originally drawn from Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen” and follows sisters Anna and Elsa, the latter of which has the power to create snow and ice. When Elsa becomes queen of Arendelle and accidentally turns the kingdom to an ice town (Parks and Rec anyone?) Elsa flees the kingdom and Anna sets off to find her.

The movie version of Frozen was essentially a movie musical so it comes as no surprise that the movie translates well to the stage. The show includes the music from the movie but is filled out with new material. Adding new music to a beloved story is a risk that may not pay off (ahem, Aladdin) but in the case of Frozen the new musical numbers feel like a natural fit. For example, “A Little Bit of You” and “Hygge” are fun and serve as a showcase for the talented young performers and ensemble cast. And then there is the moment for which the entire audience has been waiting. The audible gasp when the audience hears the opening strains of “Let it Go” illustrates the exact reason live theater is so important. The collective, immediate experience of a performer inspiring joy right before your eyes is impossible to replicate in any other medium.

Caissie Levy as Elsa and Patti Murin as Anna
One of the reasons Frozen is such a delight is that the theatrical effects, lighting and design literally turn the stage into bustling Arendelle – before, during and after the freeze. Creating a frozen wonderland without the use of actual snow or ice is surely no easy feat but the sounds of crunching snow, cracking ice crystals and the shimmer of icicles is inspiring. 

Of course no matter how good the music, the book and the design, it all falls flat if the actors tasked with bringing the story to life are not up to the task. Caissie Levy has the weight of “Let it Go” on her shoulders but you would not know it to look at her. Her Elsa navigates the arc from fear to confidence to contentment with poise. On top of that, Levy’s voice is impeccable, smooth and strong; she belts the high notes without belying any of the difficulty inherent in that task. And while Elsa has the biggest moment of the show, it is actually Anna who has more stage time, so it is perfect that Patti Murin is tailor-made for the role. Murin imbues Anna with a bubbly brightness and the head and heart of a modern princess. Jelani Alladin and Greg Hildreth, as Kristoff and Olaf, have great comedic timing, always appreciated in a show where the meat of the story is not rooted in comedy, and the ensemble is made up of a talented group of singers and dancers.

Does Frozen break any new ground? No. But it doesn’t need to. Frozen is perfect for families with young children but will also appeal to the kid in all of us. A national tour has already been announced so very soon audiences across the country will be able to take a trip to Arendelle.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Same Old World

Disney’s movie musical renaissance produced some of the biggest hits in Disney movie history.
Aladdin, released in 1992, was one of them. Closely following the success of the films came a rebirth on stage. Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King both hit the stage in the 90’s but Aladdin did not get the musical treatment until 2011. The stage adaptation is decent if not amazing but it has seen success thanks to one thing: Genie.

The musical version of Aladdin does not mess with success. Other than cutting out some non-human characters the stage adaptation stays very true to the movie. I cannot be the only one dismayed to learn that the magic carpet is now merely a prop (I was so obsessed with the notion of flying that as a kid I wrote a magic carpet themed book. I also had a plush Raja so…). Aladdin is the story of the titular character, a “street rat” orphan who, after he awakens a genie, is granted three wishes. In hopes of winning the heart of Princess Jasmine, Aladdin uses one of his wishes to become a prince. 

The story is simple enough but some the magical elements surrounding Genie lend themselves to a little theater magic. When Genie comes up from below the stage and Aladdin and Jasmine fly on the magic carpet the audience is in awe, but overall the set design lacked the spark of some other Disney stage musicals. Nothing in Aladdin even comes close to feeling as unique or breathtaking as The Lion King. 
Major Attaway as Genie

The vibe of the show gives the impression that all of the creative juices went into one thing: Genie. The result of that is spectacular. Genie is a quick-witted, fast-talking ball of energy. Anything other than a superb performance would sink the show. Luckily, Major Attaway was born for this role. His voice is strong, his comedic timing is spot on and his stage presence is magnetic. Attaway had the audience in the palm of his hands.

In comparison to the bright spot that is Attaway in the role of Genie the rest of the show underwhelmed. The classic, hummable songs are there but the addition of dance breaks and new songs did not contribute anything of note. They seemed to be filler, a way to avoid complaints about the cost of the ticket versus the length of the show. Telly Leung as Aladdin and Arielle Jacobs as Jasmine are acceptable if not groundbreaking. Jonathan Freeman, who provided the voice for Jafar in the movie, does a good job as the villain and Don Darryl Rivera as a human Iago gets some laughs.

Aladdin is certainly acceptable family-friendly entertainment. There is a place for that. But inside the New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street it should and could be so much more. A whole new world it is not.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Roofs Scrape the Sky

I had mixed expectations last week before heading to New York City for the first time. The city has a certain reputation, that of a good place to visit for a short time knowing that you'll soon return to a quieter, greener, less pungent reality. But I was traveling with two people who had been before and had fallen hard for its' bright lights. I was ready for anything!

The best surprises:
  • The Subway - Cleaner than imagined. A couple of the stations we visited were gross and I certainly would never use a public restroom in any subway station but overall the subways were decent.
  • The People – All of the people we interacted with were polite and cordial. Either they are naturally great people or their hospitality training was top notch (if I’m honest we almost exclusively interacted with individuals in the service industry).
  • The Smell – The smell was better than expected. Jokes are often bandied about that seem to indicate that the city smells exclusively of garbage (it is everywhere) and urine (in reality we only witnessed one instance of public urination) and that did not seem to be the case.

No surprise:
  • The People – People are everywhere. We spent most of our time in heavy tourist traffic areas and literally the sea of people never subsides. Crossing the street is like going into battle: a wave of people on opposite sides of the street colliding in the middle. Be nimble, be quick or risk being swept back to your side. 
  • The Noise – It is always noisy. The honking, sirens and other traffic sounds that you hear carefully edited in film and TV is an understatement. Why honk at someone ahead of you who is stopped to allow pedestrians to cross the street? No answer? Yeah, me neither.
  • The Advertising – Every space is a space for an advertisement. It may be a large LED or a small sign in the subway, don’t waste space. Manahattan cannot grow out, only up, so use the space you have to get the people (there are just a few million of them hanging around) to buy your wares.

To paraphrase Daddy Warbucks: it’s big, it’s loud, it’s tough, but no other town in the whole forty eight can compare. The High Line was great, Kellogg’s NYC was a great place for this proclaimed cereal lover to relax and get away from the crowd (did I mention the sea of people?) and when I go back I will devote more than a couple of hours to The Metroplitan Museum of Art. It crowds, it cramps but it's still the champ. Why not, it's NYC.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Don't Leave This Band Behind

Just a damn good band. That’s how I would succinctly describe The Steel Wheels, a folk bluegrass band from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. I had a chance to catch a recent gig at Knuckleheads in Kansas City – and no, I do not live anywhere near Kansas City, that’s how good they are – and was reminded of how satisfying it is to see a good band perform live.  But five words does not a blog post make so allow me to expand a bit.

The Steel Wheels are Trent Wagler, Eric Brubaker, Brian Dickel and Jay Lapp, all tremendously talented instrumentalists and vocalists. Brubaker effortlessly showcases the the full potential of the fiddle, an instrument made for high-speed riffs. Dickel and Lapp are equally strong on upright bass and mandolin, respectively. Quick pause for the mandolin: a beautiful instrument that deserves more spotlight than it gets. Wagler writes a lot of their music and also serves as a vocalist and picks on banjo and guitar. His songwriting is impeccable and features beautifully constructed lyrics that tell a story while simultaneously leaving room for the music - the instruments and their vocal harmonies - to shine.

As with most authentic musicians The Steel Wheels are better live. It’s a challenge to capture the energy of performing for a live audience in a quiet recording studio. The immediacy is lost so the loose, go-with-the-flow quality cannot be duplicated. Other than Josh Ritter’s ear-to-ear grin, the Wheels are at the top of the list of performers who personify pure appreciation and joy on stage. And just like Ritter, I have more fun watching the show because of how much fun they are having up there. Every song they performed during their set at Knuckleheads was a standout – they don’t really have a weak song in their repertoire – but my favorites were "Go Up to that Mountain," a fun, fast paced tome and "End of the World Again," a beautiful, calm melody.

The Steel Wheels have a few albums out and tour pretty regularly so the opportunity is at hand for you to listen to their music and see them live. The Steel Wheels are in a group with some of my beloved musicians such as Josh Ritter and Socks in the Frying Pan: if more people knew who they were their popularity would soar. Their talent is through the roof, their songs are beautifully crafted and their pure enjoyment in doing what they do is unmatched.

Friday, April 6, 2018

All the Feels

Damn you, Hulu, sucking up all my free time with your endless trove of television. Just when I was nearing the completion of watching the entire Top Chef series  again (Again? Yes, again.) I pop into the menu one evening and find that Everwood is now streaming. I clicked play on the pilot episode faster than Padma can say “Pack your knives and go.”

Everwood did not get the airtime it deserved but in its’ four seasons it accomplished more than most series do in eight. When it originally aired from 2002-2006 it was a perfect gender-flipped counterpart to another much beloved CW series, Gilmore Girls, but with more friction in the parent/child relationship.

Everwood is the story of Dr. Andy Brown (Treat Williams), a world-renowned neurosurgeon who, after the death of his wife, moves his teenage son (Gregory Smith) and young daughter (Vivien Cardone) to Everwood, Colorado, a gorgeous, and, sadly, fictional small town. To say that the relationship between historically distant father Andy and son Ephram is tumultuous is an understatement. Williams and Smith are great sparring partners and their moments of understanding and reconciliation are all the more gratifying because of the authenticity of their vitriol.

As Everwood follows the family on their journey to rebuild their lives it addresses challenging topics ranging from marijuana legalization to abortion. Upon second viewing some of the story lines feel a bit heavy handed with morality tales but I can forgive it that flaw. Everwood is smart, witty and beautifully written and acted. And, yes, that is Chris Pratt before he was Chris Pratt.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Kitch Lit Series: Romance Edition

Until a few weeks ago I had never read a romance novel. Once a genre thought to be too campy to be taken seriously, romance has seen a bit of a rebirth and readers are no longer meant to feel shame for reading popular fiction. The genre has never appealed to me but, as it turns out, chef and cooking-themed stories account for an entire sub-genre in the romance world, who knew? In the name of research, I dove into Too Hot to Touch by Louisa Edwards.

And while it was a bit laborious, I finished the book and, needless to say, my thoughts will be brief. The characters were a bit clunky. One of the main characters, Max, frequently talks like a preteen boy. That may be intentional but it did not serve to create a relatable character.  Most of the other leading characters seem to be merely sketches instead of finished paintings. And while Edwards’ writing is fine, cooking provides too many easy metaphors for romance. Gems such as, “with a fervent passion that felt like fiery hot peppers burning through his chest” and, “passion flared…like the blue flame on a range” are sprinkled on every page and it all felt too forced, too on the nose. 

All that aside, the author’s inclusion of the story about the Zen master and the young priest tending the Zen garden was appreciated. By far my favorite part of the book. 

I recognize it is not entirely fair to pass judgment on an entire genre based on one book but I may be doing just that. So while the chances of my reading another romance novel may be slim, I know for sure that I will read many more books about chefs. Check back for more Kitch Lit coming soon!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Frying Up A Good Time

If it’s a good time you’re after, I have bad news. You missed the Socks in the Frying Pan concert last night. And I know you are probably thinking, “I don’t care that I missed it because I’ve never heard of that band, plus that is the weirdest band name ever.” I will grant you the point on the name. Never has a band name been quite so intriguing and mysterious. And based on the name you would never guess that Socks represents the best in traditional Irish music. But I’m here to tell you that this immensely talented band deserves a listen and you will care the next time they play in town.

Having discovered Socks at the Walnut Valley Festival, I could not pass up the chance to see them right in my own back yard sans the seven hour drive. Their set at Hoyt Sherman Place on Friday night was nothing less than spectacular.  The band is made up of Aod├ín Coyne on guitar and brothers Shane and Fiachra Hayes on button accordion and fiddle, respectively. Shane is taking a break from touring right now so Socks is touring with another bloke on the accordion. However, with Fiachra’s thick accent and my untrained Irish ear it was impossible for me to catch his name. He is unnamed here but not unappreciated!

Socks’ concerts are a showcase for each band member’s immense instrumental and vocal talent. The speed with which Fiachra Hayes can play the fiddle is astounding and the slow build of some traditional jigs is a perfect showcase for that. "Slipjigs and Reels" was a rousing good time and one of the jigs they played in the second act left them genuinely out of breathe (Fiachra blames their adopted U.S. diet, namely, Dunkin’ Donuts). Coyne’s songwriting was beautifully showcased in his solo guitar piece written about the role of women in the 1916 uprising. All in all, perfection. Zero complaints. I could have done without the two guest appearances of the local Irish dance troupe but that is only because they danced in front of the band and obstructed my view. 

Their stage presence is winning. Fiachra took the lead as chief communicator and he is a great storyteller. His yarns often poke fun at his fellow band members but are also charmingly self-deprecating. The crowd on Friday was small-ish but mighty, foot stomping from the very first song. I hope that every single person who was in attendance tells at least 5 other people about Socks so that their next stop in Des Moines is a sold out show. My only regret? They did not play "Shady Grove" and I didn’t catch one of the little socks that they threw out into the audience! Come back to Des Moines anytime Socks! We’ll be ready!