Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Found in '15

In this day and age, there are seemingly endless forms of entertainment competing for our attention in a multitude of constantly evolving mediums. Because I am part Luddite, I find most of the newer mediums abhorrent. I’ve never tweeted, don’t visit Instagram (that’s probably not the proper verb), and I haven’t logged onto Facebook in seven or eight months. Instead, I gravitate to classic forms of entertainment: books, music, movies, television and theater. I canceled cable last summer so my consumption of new television has drastically decreased, and I’ll take a Gilmore Girls marathon over most of the new shows out there. I can count on one hand the number of movies I saw in 2015. $7 for a matinee? In Des Moines? I’m not made of money. So movies and TV are out, but I discovered some fantastic books, music and theater this year. They were not necessarily created or published in 2015, but I found them this year and if you haven’t found them yet then I beg you to put them on your list for 2016.

As the saying goes, you can’t judge a book by its cover. But let’s be honest, sometimes that’s all we have to go on. I don’t have time to stand in the stacks reading the first fifty pages to decide whether to read the book or not. Cover art not withstanding, I discovered a lot of great books this year.  And as different as they are, these novels have one thing in common: superb writing. Each author has their own distinct style, but all write in such a way that there is never a wasted word.
Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle pulls you forward to a point when the end of the world is near. Told with humor, heart and just the right number of fornicating mutant grasshoppers, the book sparked my interest in Smith’s other books and, with only a couple of exceptions, I have devoured them. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel also deals with the end of life as we know it. Yes, there is a theme here; I’ve found apocalyptic fiction fascinating since my ninth grade Alas, Babylon assignment. Mandel’s flowing prose belies the complications contained in the multiple plotlines. Finally, I’ll Give You the Sun, Jandy Nelson’s coming of age tale about two inseparable twins who grow apart and must find their way back to each other, is equal parts heartbreaking and life affirming. Nelson’s imagery is so rich that the characters and their surroundings seem to spring forth from the pages right before your eyes. Read them all, you won’t be disappointed.

There is not enough praise in the world to heap upon Josh Ritter. I have been a fan of everything he does for many years now, and cannot implore you enough to seek out his music. A true storyteller, Ritter’s lyrics are a mouthful in the best way possible. His fantastic new album, Sermon on the Rocks, came out in October. The style is not what we’ve come to expect from Ritter; Sermon on the Rocks is looser and rowdier than some of his previous work, but that style lends itself perfectly to the rollicking, pulsing feel of the songs. Luckily, Ritter's telltale wit and turns of phrase remain front and center. One of the standouts is “Getting Ready to Get Down,” a thumping anthem about a girl sent to Bible school only to learn “a little bit about every little thing they ever hoped you'd never figure out/Eve ate the apple cause the apple was sweet/What kinda God would ever keep a girl from getting what she needs?” Brilliant. Ritter’s live shows are epic - you’ve never seen someone enjoying himself so thoroughly - and he’s hitting the road this winter so check him out in a city near you. One complaint: no stops near Des Moines. Come back to Iowa Josh!

Last, but certainly not least, theater. Where else but in a theater do you get to see a story come to life before your eyes? Different than TV or movies, the story unfolds thanks to performers who are standing, singing or dancing right in front of you, taking you to another time and place. And nobody gets a second take. The performers have to be on. That kind of immediacy is impossible to replicate. This year I saw several shows that were new to me. One of the highlights was Kinky Boots, a show whose feisty music and positive message are impossible to resist. The Bridges of Madison County, a show I went into with rock-bottom expectations, snuck up on me and won me over with breathtakingly beautiful music and lyrics. And in the not new to me category, I was lucky enough to see Wicked for the 29th-32nd time. Wicked will always be my #1 and I am thrillified each and every time I see it. It’s live theater, people. Get on board.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Love is Always Better

Elizabeth Stanley and Andrew Samonsky
When The Bridges of Madison County opened on Broadway in 2014 it played a disappointing 137 performances. Despite critical acclaim, the show did not catch on with audiences. Luckily, the powers that be have given it another life on the road and, even luckier for me, when the show launched its’ national tour last week it was right in my backyard at the Des Moines Civic Center. When I set out to write this post, I told myself I would avoid gushing. But since these posts are written mostly for my own enjoyment (there are not a whole lot of eyes on them - Google gives me the numbers, thank you Google), why not gush? 

The Bridges of Madison County is brilliant. Even though I knew of the acclaim and Tony Awards the show had received, the title has been reduced to ‘Meryl Streep has an affair with Clint Eastwood,’ and that burden was difficult to shake, at least until the moment the show began. And while the plot does indeed revolve around an extramarital affair between a farmer’s wife and a photographer, the show is about so much more: the choices we face, the chances we take and the weight of the consequences. The strong book, music and cast make this show stand alone in a Broadway landscape riddled with copycats.

Set in Iowa in 1965, The Bridges of Madison County tells the story of Francesca Johnson, an Italian immigrant who came to the United States after World War II, and Robert Kincaid, a National Geographic photographer on assignment in Winterset, Iowa, to capture the famous covered bridges.  Their worlds unexpectedly collide as Francesca’s husband and kids head off to the fair and Robert approaches Francesca for directions to one of the bridges. The story could have easily veered towards pure treacle, but Marsha Norman’s book is nicely balanced with moments of quiet emotion and dry humor. 

What sets The Bridges of Madison County apart is the lush, layered and nuanced music from Jason Robert Brown, who received two well-deserved Tony Awards for the score and orchestrations. Brown has impeccably blended several musical styles: Americana, twangy bluegrass and soaring operatic passages. That may seem disjointed, but in Brown’s capable hands each style blends flawlessly with the story and the scenes in which they play out. Brown has infused each song with the emotions of the characters. “One Second and a Million Miles,” beats and pulses in time with Robert and Francesca’s rapidly entwining hearts. In addition to the emotion, the imagery in the lyrics paints a picture so rich that the audience finds themselves transported across the globe and back in time. A verse from “It All Fades Away" is a prime example, "There was something in a desert. There was some place wild and green, and a child in a village I passed through. There are places that I’ve traveled, and so many things I’ve seen, and it all fades away but you.” “It All Fades Away” is the show-stopping ballad, and how fantastic that instead of belonging to the female lead (in typical Broadway fashion) here it is belted by the male lead. It is impossible not to fall for the melodic strains of the guitar, piano and mandolin. It would be easy to expound on each and every song, but it will be to your benefit to discover the beauty for yourself.

Samonsky and Stanley
The entire cast of The Bridges of Madison County is superb. Mary Callanan and David Hess, the nosy neighbors, deliver the well-timed humor with their comedic timing and each has a strong set of pipes that they display during a couple of fantastic solo opportunities. Rounding out the core ensemble, Cullen R. Titmas, Dave Thomas Brown and Caitlin Houlahan as Francesca’s husband, son and daughter are also very strong. Elizabeth Stanley (Francesca) and Andrew Samonsky (Robert) carry the weight of the show on their shoulders and do not disappoint. Their rich, clear voices never reveal the complexity or difficulty of the music and they bring the songs to life with distinctive expression and tone. You can see the conflict in their eyes and feel the trepidation in their voice. Neither Robert nor Francesca had any expectation that a simple request for directions would go beyond just that and from the flicker of unexpected connection to the freedom of giving in, Samonsky and Stanley expertly portray the emotional journey. 

Frames, photographs and the stories that they tell is a theme woven throughout The Bridges of Madison County. The theme plays in obvious forms, such as the lyrics of “The World Inside a Frame” or “It All Fades Away,” which packs a unique emotional punch with the haunting images of fading photographs, but even the set expands on the theme. The Roseman bridge is simply presented as three framing beams and other interior and exterior sets are always partial, lacking walls and other structure. Practical for a touring show? Sure. But giving the audience only part of the whole emphasizes that no one other than Robert and Francesca will ever truly know or understand their story.

And if launching the national tour was not enough, Des Moines had the privilege of hosting Jason Robert Brown himself, who conducted the orchestra at each performance last week. What an amazing treat to watch the creator of the show bring it to life for new eyes. Alas, The Bridges of Madison County has moved on, out to LA. But it is set to swing back to the Midwest next spring, and you can bet I’m already making plans. To paraphrase Brown’s lyrics: The Bridges of Madison County surrounds you, it connects you and it simply won't let go.