Sunday, October 21, 2012

Staying Power

Pop culture staying power. Does it even exist? The term pop culture implies that it, whatever the ‘it’ may be, is popular at a point in time – a fad. Popularity fades. So while there may be very few things that are deemed timeless by the collective people - Saturday Night Live, "Don't Stop Believin'," the mullet - there are things that are timeless to each of us.
Anne Brummel as Elphaba
When this topic popped into my mind, the first thing that hit the nail on the head was Wicked. Wicked is my favorite Broadway musical by a mile. I now suffer from PWD (post-Wicked disorder), which is an affliction that strikes when I am sitting in a theater watching a great show but wishing all the while that the show was Wicked instead. One reason Wicked sticks is because it takes place in another world and therefore does not age the way the shows that rely on current events for plots and punch lines do (Spamalot comes to mind). And yet, even though the show is set in a fantasy world, the emotions and motivations of all of the characters are rooted in reality and wholly identifiable. Wicked is a show that is in my life for good.

John McCutcheon
Photo: Walter Hansen
Tastes change throughout our lives, but I have loved folk music my entire life and there is no sign of that ever changing. I grew up listening to Peter, Paul, and Mary and John McCutcheon primarily, but musicians such as Pete Seeger and Tom Paxton were also in heavy rotation. Even years later, I would jump at the chance to hear new music from any one of them or see them perform live. My affinity for folk music led me to another musician that I will listen to forever: Josh Ritter. The instant I discovered him on NPR I was hooked. While I may not listen to him and his incredible band exclusively the way I once did, I will follow his every musical move as long as he is writing and performing. See him live if you ever have a chance. The tickets will likely be reasonably priced because he is still a well-kept secret, and you’ll have a blast and be a fan for life.

Some people may not consider food to be in the realm of popular culture, but I disagree. And though Jell-O has moved way beyond its’ heyday, there is a Jell-O salad at all of my family’s gatherings. I went through a phase some time ago where I was consuming 2 boxes of Jell-O every week – sugar free of course, so just delicious gelatinous water. There is one other food that will always be a staple: cereal. I love cereal, everything about it, all varieties. Cheerios, Life, Honey Bunches of Oats, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Waffle Crisp, I love them all. I actually eat Fiber One Original everyday (not necessarily because it’s a favorite…) mixed with something that does not taste like cardboard. My affinity for cereal only increased during college, also known as cereal heaven. What’s for dinner? A fajita with a side of Cracklin’ Oat Bran? Sounds wonderful! I sometimes ate cereal at every meal, and if it weren’t for the rock solid self-restraint I have developed, I still would.

The list could go on and on. And it doesn't mean I avoid new opportunities, but some things just hit the sweet spot. I mean, I love the new varieties of Cheerios General Mills has been chugging out. 

So what has staying power for you?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Chicago: Not Just for Blustery Politicians

Of late I’ve been replaying Season Four of Top Chef. And because I'm known for my intuitiveness, I know what you are thinking, “Who watches a season of Top Chef  for a second time?” What can I say, I love cooking challenge shows and Top Chef is pretty much the gold standard. Anyway…Season Four was set in Chicago and I love that the producers included Chicago themes in several of the challenges. From Top Chef my mind instantly jumped to other entertainment that hails from or is set in Chicago.

Roxanne Roberts, Mo Rocca, and Poundstone

One of the first things that jumped to my mind is the number one reason to be in Chicago on a Thursday night: to catch a taping of the radio show Wait…Wait…Don’t Tell Me. If you have not heard of Wait…Wait you are missing out. The weekly show, produced by Chicago Public Radio, bills itself as a news quiz show but is so much more. Where else will you find a crop of comedians acting as panelists constantly quipping one-liners and guests ranging from Bill Clinton to Kevin Bacon and Leonard Nimoy. From the “Not my job” segment with the always willing celebrity guests to the “bluff the listener challenge” Wait…Wait offers the most consistent laughs in radio since Car Talk. All of the past shows are in their archives, and I challenge you not to laugh through Jeopardy champion Ken Jennings’ spot as the “not my job” guest. The same goes for the exchange between panelist and Hostess Cupcake enthusiast Paula Poundstone and the “not my job” guest Michael Pollan. I can’t believe I’ve never put my name in the pool for a chance to play and win Carl Kasell’s voice on my home answering machine.

Roberts and Mulroney on the Chicago River
And what about movies set in Chicago? My Best Friend’s Wedding, in rotation on the tube lately, is one of my favorites because it turned the romantic comedy formula on its’ head. Sure, you know a Julia Roberts film will employ a certain tone but (spoiler alert!) the fact that she doesn’t get the guy makes it all the more relatable. And not only does it take place in Chicago but it also shows off the city with visits to Comiskey Park, Union Station, and the Drake Hotel. Not to mention the bread truck race down Michigan Avenue.

I also caught Chicago-set Vice Versa this morning and was reminded that Fred Savage and Judge Reinhold should be national treasures. You wouldn’t think that an adolescent Fred Savage sipping a martini and cursing like a sailor would be the makings of a great movie, but you would be wrong (okay, “great” may be stretching). This comedy did body switching before body switching was cool. Admittedly, Chicago does not play as big a part in Vice Versa as in other movies, but who can pass up the chance for a Judge Reinhold shout out?

Image:David Greedy/Getty Images 
And let’s not forget that one of the biggest pop culture icons calls Chicago his home: President Barack Obama. He may not be a Chi-town native, but he has adopted the city as his own. Though it does seem strange to put a sitting president in the category of pop culture icon, there is no denying that he is as popular as any performer or entertainer in a traditional sense. Obama’s image alone has been the impetus for art and design in a way that no other president has in the past. Not to mention the fact that, no matter the politics, he has captured the attention of the United States and the world.

Despite the message of this post, this is not an advertisement for the city of Chicago. Heck, I don't even live there or work there so I'll reap no benefit if you decide to make the trip, but there is no denying that Chicago is a pop culture powerhouse.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Love the One You're With

To give you a little perspective on my attendance at Thursday's Crosby, Stills and Nash concert, held at Kansas City's Starlight Theatre, CSN released their first album fifteen years before I was born. That being said, I have always preferred the music of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s so I decided that even though I am not a huge CSN fan that I should not pass up the opportunity to see the classic rock act.

Unfortunately, between buying the tickets and the actual date of the concert I happened to catch a television broadcast of a relatively recent CSN concert and then I regretted having purchased the $58 ticket. The CSN of today did not sound like the CSN of yore. My excitement for the concert plummeted.

The crowd at the outdoor theater was of a certain age, but you wouldn't have known it by the enthusiasm gushing from most everyone. Surely the alcohol flowing freely did not play a part! CSN's first set was filled with rocking, up tempo hits, including their most well known song, "Love the One You're With." The crowd greeted every song with cheers and showed appreciation with mini ovations at the end of each song. After a short break, the group took to the stage for a more somber second set that could have used a little editing. The crowd was there to rock not slumber. I overheard a woman remark that she started to doze off during the second set - agreed. But they finished on a high note with a double encore and ended the night with a tried and true crowd pleaser, "Teach Your Children."

Given what I had seen on the broadcast of their concert, David Crosby and Graham Nash performed remarkably well. As the eldest member of the group at 70+, Crosby sang very clear and had control over his voice. Nash was also very well tuned and neither seemed to tire during the nearly three hour show. 

Stephen Stills was a different story. On the songs that featured his voice alone rather than as part of a harmony, it was apparent that he has lost his ability to sing. At times, it appeared he was suffering from some sort of an ailment. Stills stumbled on the lyrics and pronounced words in a way that sounded as if he had a mouth full of marshmallows. The electric guitar was his saving grace, and he can still shred with the best of them. Props to the production manager who wisely kept him off stage for some of the songs that did not require his picking prowess.
Stills' voice aside, the group transported the audience back in time and put on a great show.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I've Got a Fever

Olympic fever that is. Everything about the Olympics is exciting. From the pomp of the opening ceremonies to the repetition of John Williams’ Olympic theme to the amazing feats of strength, I love it all. I even enjoy the vignettes about hardscrabble athletes that rise from adversity to become champions. Many people grumble that the vignettes are just filler, but they serve to remind me that the athletes are just like me, albeit ten years younger and about one hundred times more talented. Surely if my parents had given me the opportunity there would be a heavy gold medal on my mantel right now.

While I love everything about the Olympics, that love does not spread to all sports. My interest lies mostly with the big-ticket contests that receive the majority of the television coverage. Bring on the swimming, diving, and gymnastics. No matter how hard I try I cannot feign interest in beach volleyball, cycling, or sailing.

Gabby Douglas
Diving and gymnastics impress me in large part because neither is simply a contest of speed or strength, but rather a test of combining those basics with body manipulation. I mean, how do they get their bodies to twist and turn like that? I can’t even touch my toes let alone jump in the air and do three and a half twists.

This year the hometown favorite in gymnastics is Gabby Douglas. And though she is not originally from the area, she now lives and trains here in Des Moines at Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute. And like previous hometown favorite and Chow's alumna Shawn Johnson, Douglas is a serious medal contender and our state is definitely rooting for her. Aside from Gabby, my gymnastics interest has shifted to the men’s competition. The height that the competitors get on the high bar is absolutely incredible and that event alone is reason enough to watch.
Danell Leyva

While it is understood that the Olympics is largely a cash cow with some political undercurrents, I choose to enjoy it for what it is at its’ very simplest: an opportunity for athletes who have trained for years to get the opportunity to prove that they are among the best in the world.

Get ready for some serious Olympic action because the opening ceremonies are July 27th. I know where I'll be that night.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

If You're Not Enjoying the Show, You're Wrong

So said Steve Martin when he joined collaborators the Steep Canyon Rangers for a show at the Civic Center Saturday night. Martin has found himself a pretty good gig. It is clear that he still loves to make a crowd erupt with laughter and he obviously loves playing the banjo, so now he gets to hop on stage and play some music and tell some jokes without the pressure of making the audience laugh for an entire set.

The draw for the sold out show was Martin, which he himself recognizes as an odd proposition; he likened it to seeing an ad for Jerry Seinfeld performing original music for the bassoon and deciding you can’t miss it. But the Rangers deserve just as much credit for the success of the show as Martin.

The band includes Mike Guggino on mandolin, Charles Humphrey on bass, Woody Platt on guitar, Graham Sharp on banjo, and Nicky Sanders on fiddle. These are clearly life-long musicians who somehow manage to make playing a million miles an hour look easy. Compliments to the Rangers takes nothing away from Martin, who is a fabulous picker in his own right.

The set included several pieces from their joint albums such as “Daddy Played the Banjo,” “Me and Paul Revere” and “Go Away. Stop. Turnaround. Come Back.” The good-bye and good riddance anthem “Jubilation Day” was met with uproarious laughter and cheers. But the show was not all fast and furious. “Best Love” and “The Great Remember” the latter of which Martin performed solo, proved that bluegrass can be moving and reserved.

Martin spent a couple of numbers off-stage wherein the Rangers showcased their crisp, clear voices on the a capella “I Can’t Sit Down.” Following that hymn was the hilarious “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs.” Even if you don’t count yourself among them you will still enjoy it. As the clip reveals, Martin is not the natural singer that the Rangers are, but on other numbers he proves he can carry a tune.

The encore was the marathon “Auden’s Train” which Martin wrote using W.H. Auden poetry. The piece features fiddler Sanders tearing up the floor and displaying an adeptness that must be nearly unmatched in the bluegrass world.

The Rangers and Martin put on a very good show. The shtick  - Martin as the buffoon that the Rangers put up with – works and the music is fantastic. Let’s hope that they continue to collaborate and present great bluegrass music for years to come.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shoulda Started Wedman

What movies do you know by heart? I don’t mean the ones you remember really well or from which you are able to recall some of the catchy lines. I mean the movies where you can repeat all the dialogue without turning on the subtitles.

For me, the movies I know by heart go back to my youth when I had all the time in the world to watch my favorite movies over and over again. I caught one of my by heart movies on TV today (thank you GMC – uplifting entertainment, read between the lines on that one!) and was immediately able to recite the lines despite not having seen the movie in years.

My by heart movies are Little Big League, The Parent Trap, and The American President. I loved them all the first time I saw them and I have not outgrown them. Little Big League is the kind of movie that does not get made very often. It is a family movie that is not animated and though the hero does not win in the end it is incredibly uplifting. Little Big League has lines that I can throw out to my brother to this day and he will know exactly to what I am referring. The homework scene is priceless, as is the running riddle: A cowboy rides into town on Friday, stays two days and leaves on Friday. How does he do it?

The Parent Trap – the reboot – is so much fun that I would have loved it even if I hadn’t been brought up on the Haley Mills original. Reboots are often attempts by the movie studio to reuse popular titles and avoid the risk that comes with original storytelling. In this case, the reboot was just as good if not better than the original.

The American President is a pretty typical romantic comedy: unlikely pair, barriers to staying together, and ultimately breaking down those barriers. What separates the The American President from run of the mill rom-coms is the excellent dialogue from Aaron Sorkin and the rich backdrop of White House politics. Each time I watch it I pride myself on remembering President Shepard’s climactic speech.

There is also a whole roster of movies that are close to by heart movies including The Sandlot, A League of Their Own, and Rookie of the Year. Yes, I love baseball movies. 

This is the point at which if anybody read this blog other than me that I would say please use the comments to tell me what movies you know by heart but since it's just me reading this I'll just tell myself what I already know.

On the off chance that anybody else reads this, the answer is: the horse's name is Friday.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

"Caught" In The Act with Parsons Dance

The athleticism on display at Thursday's performance by Parsons Dance was a sight that could only be believed after seeing it live. Parsons Dance is a contemporary dance company run by choreographer/director David Parsons. The performance featured six pieces with a range of two to eight dancers and a variety of lighting and music to enhance the movement. Regrettably, the evening was only two-thirds successful.

The performance got off to a slow start with the clunky "Round My World." Punctuated by plodding, digitized music from cellist and composer Zoe Keating, the only bright spot in "Round" was the lighting. Howell Binkley's ethereal lighting design created planes of light such that it began to appear that the dancers in the background were dancing behind a translucent screen. At the end of the piece, the dancers were lit from the front of the stage creating shadows on the backdrop and thereby increasing the dancing figures on stage from six to twelve. Alas, the lighting alone was not enough to start the evening off on an intriguing note.

The two-dancer jazz piece "Step into My Dreams" passed quickly, only to give way to "Kind of Blue," which proved to be the second piece of the evening that seemed to be never-ending. 

The pieces following intermission were the evening's highlights. The second act kicked off with Parsons' 1984 piece "Envelope." The lighthearted portrayal of losing identity within an organizational structure with the passing amongst the dancers of an almighty envelope was welcomed by the audience, at times with uproarious laughter. Commenting on the loss of identity with an exercise that requires conformity is Parsons at his best.
"Caught" is arguably Parsons' most well known piece and rightfully so. The performance features a single male dancer performing more than 100 leaps timed precisely with strobe lighting to create the illusion of flight. And if there was any doubt that dancing is an extremely difficult art, watching the dancer's stomach and chest heave in and out during the pauses between the leaps will prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

If only "Caught" had finished the evening. Another never-ending piece, "Nascimento," wrapped up the evening and was the fourth piece that failed to engage. "Nascimento" was long, featured bizarre musical passages, and needed to be edited for length even more than some of its' predecessors. 

Nothing can diminish the talent of the dancers. All were fluid and rarely was there any noticeable lapse in synchronization. Unfortunately, the talent got lost in the midst of long and underwhelming selections. The dancers held the evening together and their skill will continue to draw crowds that will overlook the disappointment of some of the pieces to focus on the display of raw talent.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Most Amazing Gift

Talk about anticipation. The Civic Center of Greater Des Moines announced the 2012-2013 season a couple weeks ago and it will put a major dent in my pocketbook. Not only are we getting the current Tony winner for Best Musical, The Book of Mormon, but we are also getting the current Tony winner for Best Play, War Horse.

I have been listening to Mormon since the show exploded last year and it is back in my rotation, and better than ever, knowing that I will get to see the show live. War Horse, known for the magical life size puppets from the Handspring Puppet Company, will no doubt be better than the movie which came out late last year.

One of the returning shows is Les Miserables, which somehow I have not seen. The last time it was in town I was fourteen and it really was not on my radar. Since then I have become attached to it because I watched the 25th anniversary concert and a friend of mine gave me the music. I'll admit that I don't understand all of the  pieces of the plot and am hopeful that seeing the full show will fill in the gaps.

Million Dollar Quartet will also make a stop. And while I am not anticipating it quite as much as the others, the music of Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis will no doubt be a draw. The Civic Center's announcement event included a performance from the Chicago company and they brought the house down with familiar numbers such as "Hound Dog" and "Great Balls of Fire."

The other returning show in the Broadway Series is also the one that I will skip. That show is Jekyll & Hyde. Constantine Maroulis was a hit when he stopped here last year with Rock of Ages and that may help the show's chances. For me, Maroulis is not a draw, the story is not a draw, and I do not think I will regret my decision to put the funds towards one of the add-on options.

The add-on shows include Beauty and the Beast, Rock of Ages, and Jersey Boys. All wonderful options, but I am most excited to see Jersey Boys again. So much so that when they announced it my heart fluttered with delight. Jersey Boys has a solid story and music that gets toes tapping; if you have not seen it, you will not be disappointed.

All in all, no complaints. Next season will be amazing and will only further the case that Des Moines is a major player in the theater world. Just one of the many perks to living in Des Moines; that is, if the corn fields, ceaseless wind, and bitter cold just aren't doing it for you.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Get Up, Stand Up

Stand up comedy is a different animal. Comedy is not like a play or a musical where it will be essentially the same at each performance. And unlike a concert wherein you are familiar with the songs, with a comedian you never know what you will get at any given performance. Of course, you can know the types of routines they typically perform - they don't call it a routine for nothing - but because the audience is different every night, even a rehearsed comedian changes each night.

When Paula Poundstone performed at Hoyt Sherman Place on Friday night, she displayed how an adept comedian reacts to the audience and tailors the act to the type of humor the audience reacts to the most.

Poundstone incorporated stories about her children, pets, and habits with the dry wit that has characterized her comedy. Poundstone may not be an edgy comedian, she does not tell politically incorrect anecdotes, rather she is hilarious when expounding on regular activities. This quality makes it easier for the audience to relate to her.

The part of the act that was the most fun was when she latched onto several audience members and poked fun at their careers. In most cases, the people were game, and even when they seemed a little timid Poundstone was able to pull it out of them to the enjoyment of the rest of the audience. Then towards the end of the show, when she herself admitted she was in a strange mood, she laid down on the stage, propped her feet up on the stool and used her feet to act out the situations she had pulled out of those audience members. I am sure that sounds bizarre, but you had to be there.

Some of her prepared bits went on a couple minutes too long; the CNN and the cat stories could have been cut down, but that was a minor detail in an otherwise hilarious evening.

Poundstone was very gracious with her fans as well, staying after to sign merchandise, take pictures and listen to stories. She should consider herself welcome in Des Moines anytime.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

As if the Presidential Campaign season wasn't bad enough...Enter Sarah Palin

Around these parts we have to wait for the free HBO weekend to catch Game Change, so my apologies for the fact that this is not exactly timely. Game Change, though it gathered mostly positive reviews, is not without flaws.

First the positives. Most notably, Julianne Moore is fantastic as Vice Presidential hopeful/media whore Sarah Palin. Much has been publicized about how Moore learned Palin's speech patterns and Alaskan drawl, but it is what Moore does when she is not speaking that is more profound. She manages to make Palin more than just the SNL caricature that we all know and love.

Woody Harrelson is a joy to watch as campaign adviser Steve Schmidt. It is Schmidt who suggests Palin as the game changing running mate to counter the immense popularity of Barack Obama. Harrelson masterfully displays Schmidt's realization of the error in his suggestion and his stubborn determination to make her work.

And yet Game Change lacks a clear vision of how to portray Palin. Throughout the course of the film, Palin transitions from a sympathetic character who is a small fish in a big pond to a woman under such pressure that she is on the verge of a breakdown to a ruthless individual out for her own celebrity. The one consistent message about Palin that runs through the film is that she lacks very basic knowledge of the world around her. The difficulty that the filmmakers faced was, of course, that we will never know the real Sarah Palin and crafting a consistent portrayal of her was a clearly a challenge.

Game Change is worth a watch on a free HBO weekend, and even if you pay for HBO, I would still recommend it. On a side note, the free HBO weekend has also allowed me to confirm that Sex and the City 2 is actually worse than the critics had let on.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Not as Bright as I had hoped...

Bright's Passage, songwriter Josh Ritter's first novel, is a book that I wanted to love. As always, with high expectations comes a greater chance of disappointment. So with a heavy heart I report that I did not fall in love with Bright's Passage. That said, the book is well written, but unfortunately does not overcome a cumbersome storyline.

The novel follows the story of Henry Bright, a young WWI veteran, and his travails following the death of his wife during childbirth. The misdirection in the plot comes to the fore when we learn that Henry is communicating with an angel who has manifested itself as a horse. What are we to make of the communication between the two? Is Henry simply hallucinating? Is he experiencing true divine intervention?

The ambiguity surrounding that question is the real stumbling block of the novel. The horse/angel device proved to be distracting at best and left me disconnected from the main character. It must be noted, I had great difficulty not picturing Josh Ritter himself as Henry Bright, but that is my issue not that of the author.

Plot aside, the book is beautifully written with long, descriptive passages that harken back to many of Ritter's best songs. Indeed, much of Ritter's music is closely aligned with a storytelling sensibility. Take a listen to "Temptation of Adam" or "The Curse" to get an idea.

The saga of Henry Bright would work perfectly as a song, but the story, when fleshed out to the length of a novel, loses the punch that makes Ritter's music uniquely satisfying.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Can They Bring It?

Bring it On: The Musical will have to battle low expectations wherever it goes. That has nothing to do with the show itself, but stems from the fact that it is based on the movie of the same name. And though the movie has built a cult following, nobody would argue with the notion that the film is not exactly classy fare.

Luckily for the musical, the fact that the movie and show follow two rival cheer squads is the extent of the similarities. Bring it On: The Musical follows the travails of cheer captain Campbell Davis when she is uprooted from the life she knows and forced to transfer to another school - one that does not have a cheer squad. The school redistricting is the evil plot of a fellow cheerleader who is out to take Campbell down.

So you can see that the show cannot rely on the plot to draw a crowd. Instead, all of the fun is in watching the spectacular aerial stunts performed on stage. The cast, made up of both musical theater and cheer professionals, performs all of the high flying acrobatics with what appears to be great ease but is of course the result of hours of training.

The music is forgettable largely because it is not of the traditional musical style. Instead it is similar to the stream of consciousness style that harkens back to Stephen Sondheim's Company and was brought to the fore more recently in Jonathan Larson's Rent.The music is not terrible, but nobody was humming any of the songs on the way out of the theater; the music is simply not conducive to that.

The number that came the closest to bringing down the house was the beauty comes in all shapes and sizes anthem "It Ain't No Thing" performed by Ryann Redmond, Ariana DeBose, and Gregory Haney. In fact, Redmond, in the comic relief role, nearly stole the show from leads Taylor Louderman and Adrienne Warren. While both leads were adept singers and performers, Redmond seemed to dive into her role with more enthusiasm. The ensemble, while very strong choreographically, revealed in several numbers that not all of the members are professional singers.
Redmond and Louderman

Bring it On: The Musical
has not made it to Broadway yet and though there are a few kinks to iron out, the show fits in well with the many of the musicals showing on the Great White Way. There is little doubt that Bring it On will flip, jump, and cheer its' way to 42nd Street.