Monday, June 29, 2009

Next to Normal - Way beyond Normal

The acting, the music, the staging. If Billy Elliott didn't have such a feel good story, this show would and should have swept the Tony awards.

Breath-taking and broad at some points, claustrophobic and critical at others, Next to Normal blew me away. I somewhat expected a Rent-redux musical, but this was so much more. The story could easily have been an oh-too-predictable Oxygen or Lifetime movie of the week. Instead, we were gripped in the ever-surprising twists of this roller-coaster ride.

And to top it all off, the music, singing and acting were all top notch.

It's a bleak story, that doesn't seem so tough at the beginning. But stories about schizophrenia work best when you slowly realize that normal isn't really normal.

And, yes, this is a play that had me crying during the final few minutes. Sigh.

In some ways, the central theme of the book strikes me to carry well into non-psychotic areas as well. If "normal" cannot be achieved, then life can actually progress with love and honesty if you are willing to accept "next to normal". It's a tough lesson to learn for this family, and it certainly seems like a difficult one for American society in general to accept. I for one would love to see America look at our potpourri of peoples and issues and politics and accept that the 1950's concepts of normal just can't work anymore. Instead we need to move on in full honesty of our strengths and weaknesses, so that an almost normal life can be acceptable.

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Diva and Divo - Swooning to Patti and Mandy

It was a Diva-lover's night. on Thursday. Patti Lupone and Mandy Patinkin brought their popular show to Los Angeles' Ahmanson theater. Looking around the crowd, one could see a wide range of ages, though it definitely skewed to a more mature audience with a "broadway musical" sensibility.

The first act was lively and a delight. There was an amusing and pleasant dance using office chairs. Vocally, I think Patti was more 'on'. Mandy, though quite a joy to watch and listen, seemed to have a thicker voice than I recall when I saw him at the Hollywood Bowl back in the mid-90s. It wasn't bad, but I think his voice is most exhilarating when leaping around doing falsetto gymnastics.

To cap off the act was an expected populist flourish: Don't Cry for Me Argentina sung by Patti.

The second act was dark and deep. I suspect that many in the audience may have drifted off during these still and serious moments, but I found it intense and profound. I almost regretted the eventual return to lightness.

Overall, a serious Broadway lover's dream come true! Thank you Diva and Divo!

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Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dame Edna - Her First Last Tour

Barry Humphries, aka Dame Edna, rocked the Ahmanson theater Friday night. What a delight.

Dame Edna performed with a pianist and her supposed daughter. What made this performance particularly entertaining was her relentless work with the audience. Perhaps in an homage to all that is Hollywood, she brought the audience up to sit with her on the stage and interviewed them as a talk show host. So up we welcome, Lori, Patricia, Evelyn and "Senior".

She poked at Lori's detached house in Valencia, at Evelyn's undying giggles, at Evelyn's townhouse in Pasadena, and "Senior" for his supposed drinking ("Seniorita" of course). There were some song and dance numbers. All that between a few costume changes, no less.

In the end, she tossed out what felt like 8 cases of gladiolas to the audience and to the ashtrays (balconies). That was an impressive backhand to get those things up there at her age (b. 1934). And in performance art fashion, she had the glads all up and dancing in an almost synchronized effort. Beautiful.

She wrapped up her act with that dastardly agent, Barry Humphries, locking her in the dressing room and coming out on stage to steal her final bows.

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Friday, June 19, 2009

Performance Anxiety

"Play Ikau..."
"Play Feelings..."
"Play Nadia's Theme..."

I grew up with a mediocre piano instructor and a limited array of sheet music at my disposal. I rarely played in front of strangers and when I did, it was often filled with distress and a feeling of oppression. They were largely on occasions when my parents would "encourage" me to perform in front of others.

Yes, this is about, performance anxiety.

So I surprised myself when I assented to playing for the Taize service at church last night. It's not as though I don't want to participate. For the past twenty years, though, my public performances have been in music. I've sung on a Hollywood stage, at Disney Hall, in downtown L.A. churches, and in Pasadena churches. OK, so I did Dead Parrot with Michael Palin at the Royal Festival Hall in London in an ad lib fashion during a book signing. But that's it. No piano.

I attend Taize services because I can relax and meditate, pray and reflect. It's certainly not what I experienced last night.

The chapel was hot, as the cold wet spell in Pasadena finally gave way to more typical warm temperatures. I was uncomfortable hot. My palms got sweaty and my glasses got steamy.

And boy was I stressed. For the first few songs, I kept losing my place in the simple chant music. It's not by all means rocket science, but it surprised me how anxious I was.

I finally calmed down, played more straight-forward, without flourish, and all straightened up. Soon I was able to allow the music and the meditation soothe me.

Will I do it again? Sure. I think I won't be as stressed as before. But after watching another season of American Idol where people sang as they played, and thinking of all the musician singers I've loved all these years, I've come to thoroughly appreciate the talent people have out there. What a joy and gift to be able to play multiple instruments (yes, the voicebox is an instrument that must be mastered) in front of strangers.

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Monday, June 15, 2009

Tony Awards

What is it about the Tony Awards that just gets me all excited. Not sure. Certainly it had its ups and downs. Angela may own Broadway, but 3 young lads are the talk of the town... Well, so is a certain American Idol (Constantine Margoulis) who was nominated this year.

And I thought Neil Patrick Harris was a delightfully entertaining and restrained host.

No, I think it's the annual expose to those of us in the sticks (if Pasadena and Los Angeles can be thought of that way, then I'm sure the fine folks of Manhattan would be fine with it) to the wonders of Broadway. New shows (sometimes). New stars (perhaps). And most importantly, an emphasis on the real-time, the immediate, the unrecorded masterpiece that is live theatre.

I love in Tinseltown and everywhere you look they're filming something. TV crews love the leafy and hilly looks of Altadena (where I live). I can't tell you how often I've seen film crews at my rather photogenic church.

But recorded media is manipulative. You have time to correct errors, remove blemishes, obscure reality, tint anything. That's essential to its charm of course, but when I see the dancing and the drama during the Tonys, it reinforces in me my passion for live music, drama, expository, and performance.

And hey, as though to make it more impressive, the final number had Doogie, I mean, Neil Patrick Harris singing about the memorable events and winners of the night. The verses may have been written largely ahead of time, but the assembly into a finished number had to occur during that evening.

Now THAT'S live theatre at its best

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