Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Kitch Lit Series: Food Fiction

While a majority of books about the culinary world, at least those that gain any kind of traction, are written by chefs, restaurateurs or critics there is a plethora of fiction centered on the culinary world just waiting to be devoured.  

For me, Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal kicked off my obsession with kitch lit. Well-written and highly engaging, KOTGM tells the story of Eva Thorvald. We meet Eva in her infancy, follow her through a difficult childhood where her unique palate begins to reveal itself and relish her journey to becoming the country’s most sought-after chef. Stradal expertly shifts the point of view throughout the book and, as a result, we end up with a smart, unbiased portrait of a woman for whom there was always only one destiny.

Another great entry in the genre is Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler. Sweetbitter sometimes delves into millennial ennui a bit more than necessary but her story of back waiter work at an established New York City restaurant is captivating. Danler herself worked in a restaurant and one can’t help but presume that most of the novel is drawn from those experiences. The restaurant staff’s reaction to the surprise health department inspection is both fascinating and a bit unsettling.  

Kitchens of the Great Midwest and Sweetbitter both nicely balance the features of a traditional novel – exposition, character development and conflict – with tales from the kitchen, something a book written by a chef may have difficulty achieving at the same level.

Of course, if the science of baking is more your style, books such as The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller and How to Bake a Perfect Life by Barbara O’Neal will fill that void. Both border on the edge of so-called chick lit, each relies heavily on a romance for the central character, but they also give us a glimpse into bakery life. The smell of baked goods wafting through the kitchen is always appealing and both are charming, breezy reads.

All of the books mentioned here are relatively recent works but there are decades of books I have yet to try. In the meantime, if you haven't had a chance to sample any of these books then head over to your local library or favorite online shopping emporium to check them out.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

An American in Paris: Who Could Ask For Anything More?

Stage adaptations of popular films have run rampant on Broadway for many years now and it has not always proven to be a recipe for success. When I had the pleasure of seeing An American in Paris a couple of weeks ago I was reminded that it can, in fact, be done right. An American in Paris is a breezy adaption that takes the strongest parts of its source material, builds on it and brings it to life before your eyes. With a charming story, beautiful design, wonderful music, strong choreography and one of the strongest touring casts out on the road today An American in Paris is one for the ages. 

Based on the 1951 film of the same name, An American in Paris tells the story of American Jerry Mulligan and his romantic entanglements in post-war Paris. When Jerry, an ex-GI and aspiring painter, meets the beguiling Lise the spark between them is instantaneous. But while initially the flame burns bright and quick their courtship is fraught with complication. Some of the plot points are easy to spot but there are just enough twists and turns to keep the story from becoming a predictable mess.

Just as important as the story itself is telling the story against a fitting backdrop. One can imagine that recreating post-war Paris on stage is no easy feat and thankfully the designers behind An American in Paris are up to the task. The show uses projection to great effect; Jerry’s paintings come to life and lend the show a wonderful fairytale patina, as if we have just taken a peak inside a painting whose subjects have come to life. Instead of seeming to compensate for a no frills set, the projection provides depth and dimensionality, particularly for exterior scenes.  All of the other design elements from the lighting to the 1950’s era costumes and makeup lend the show great authenticity.
McGee Maddox and Sara Esty

The authentic tone of An American in Paris is drawn not just from the set design but also from the musical elements. The show brilliantly utilizes George Gershwin’s tone poem (also called An American in Paris) and surrounds it and its’ themes with several other Gershwin standards. Hearing songs such as “I’ve Got Rhythm” performed on stage feels like reminder of a bygone era. And of course there is the dance. Dance does not often take center stage in modern musical theater. Several recent musicals use dance to great effect (The Book of Mormon’s “Turn It Off” comes to mind), but very rarely is dance as an art form leaned upon to express emotion. An American in Paris does so beautifully. Ballet carries a reputation for being difficult for audiences to interpret but weaving it into a show with elements that match that of traditional musicals is a very clever way to make ballet accessible.

All of the design and production elements would be lost if the story was not delivered by a group of capable performers. The cast of An American in Paris is top notch. Sara Esty, as Lise, is the very definition of  ‘ingĂ©nue’. Spritely and petite, Esty shines. Sweet but not cloying so she is a talented singer, actor and dancer, a true triple threat. McGee Maddox, as Jerry, is a supremely talented dancer if a little bit stiff as an actor. Etai Benson, Nick Spangler and Emily Ferranti round out the lead roles and all are pitch perfect. Benson, as pseudo-narrator Adam Hochberg, hits it out of the park with spot on comedic timing but also imbues his character, an injured GI, and the show itself with a sensitive soul.

An American in Paris exemplifies everything that is enduring about musical theater: great music, impressive dancing and a compelling story that balances humor and heart. Adam's Act II realization says it best, “Life is already so dark, if you’ve got the talent to make it brighter, give people joy and hope, why would you withhold that?” Thank you, An American in Paris for making life brighter and sending joy and hope into the world.