nightmayer

Jottings from a pop culture junkie

I always told people I wanted to grow up to be Pete Seeger. That was a lie. I wanted to be Chad Mitchell.

Chad had a great tenor that rode over the often acerbic and histrionic harmonies that were the Chad Mitchell Trio’s signature on Woody Guthrie’s “Great Historical Bum” and Michael Brown’s takedown of “The John Birch Society.”

Michael Brown re-worked “The John Birch Society,” and the Trio performed it at their reunions as “The George Bush Society.”

Then there would be three-part gentleness with Chad and Mike Kobluk singing harmony behind Joe Frazier’s beautiful version of Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” Or Chad would be alternately excitable and tender on the Trio’s mashup of “Johnny I Hardly Knew ‘Ya” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

More than that, there was a mystery to Chad’s stage presence that already as a preteen I desperately wanted to emulate — intense, charged, a little removed from the audience even on the group’s most dramatically staged songs. And the Chad Mitchell Trio was nothing if not well staged and scripted.

Why not Pete? Most people had no idea who Chad was. Many of my parents’ lefty friends in1960s Rockaway Park, NY knew of Seeger and the Weavers, and they were my likely “what do you want to be when you grow up?” inquisitors. But they didn’t know Chad or the Trio.

And while I spent countless hours in my bedroom with Seeger’s “How to Play the 5-string Banjo” instruction book (still have it, though no banjo), and had perfect pitch, it was clear I would never get the hang of frailing and using that fifth string on the banjo deftly. Meanwhile, my pitch disappeared when my voice changed at 12, just in time for my bar mitzvah at 13. Plus, I would never get my Adam’s apple to bob the way Seeger’s did.

As a pre-teen, I was already a Chad Mitchell Trio groupie before that term was coined. If the Chad Mitchell Trio was appearing anywhere in the New York City vicinity, my parents or my cousin would take me — at least until I was old enough to get around by bus and subway on my own.

The group went through several incarnations after Chad left in 1965, replaced by the then-unknown John Denver. By the summer I got my license, Denver was a soloist and I drove to see him at the 1969 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Blame my infatuation with the Trio on my sister, Joan, who was in college as I was finishing junior high. One summer she came home with the album “The Best of the Chad Mitchell Trio.” I played it out and eventually bought a second copy out of a used record bin. Joan also turned me on to “Hootenanny,” a 1963 show on ABC-TV that had blacklisted Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul & Mary — arguably the Chad Mitchell Trio’s biggest “competition” — refused to play on the show in deference to Pete, as did many others. The Chad Mitchell Trio continued to appear, singing at least some songs from its topical repertoire.

That topical repertoire was appealing to a budding liberal, and reading the fine print in the liner notes to the Chad Mitchell Trio’s albums led me to the best songwriters of the day — Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Ewan McCall, Ed McCurdy, Shel Silverstein, Bob Dylan, of course — and many from before then, including Kurt Weill and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.

I spent years searching for the book (that didn’t yet exist) from which the Harburg poems on the Trio’s 1965 “Slightly Irreverent” album were drawn. I still quote them often: “No matter how high or great the throne, what sits on it is the same as your own.” And “When nuclear dust has extinguished their betters, will the turtles surviving wear people-neck sweaters?”

About 10 years later, having found and treasured E.Y. Harburg’s book, “Rhymes for the Irreverent,” I interviewed Harburg but was too embarrassed to ask him to autograph it. I still regret that decision.

I’ve been unable to track down the exact date I first saw the Trio live. I’m convinced it was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House in 1963, though the archivist there has no record of the concert. Maybe it was the ’64 Carnegie date?

Either way, I sat on the left pretty close to the front. With my parents. Who had escaped Germany just before World War II. When the Trio launched into the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a highly dramatic satire (hardly the right word) in which a group of “ex-Nazis” sing of the presents they want for Christmas, I got very nervous about whether my parents would find it hurtful in some way. I frankly didn’t understand the song — I was 11 or 12. I don’t know if mom and dad laughed — I couldn’t bring myself to look — but it didn’t seem to offend and they loved the concert. In retrospect, “Twelve Days” was intended to make listeners uncomfortable, any laughter notwithstanding.

Close to the stage I watched Chad intently, and that’s when I decided who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Of the other members, Mike Kobluk was the grounded, calming, steadfast force, while Joe Frazier, often with his neck craned (another great Adam’s apple!), was both more political and more expressive. Joe seemed desperate to connect with the audience — the counterpoint to Chad’s remove.

I loved the Trio and its music, the way they balanced the political with the “secular,” the blend of their voices, the wider musical world they introduced me to. But I wanted to be Chad.

The quote my 14 Jewish Day School classmates chose to include for me in our 1966 8th grade yearbook was, “I have a song about that.” And for the class “Last Will and Testament” I was bequeathed “a lifetime supply of Chad Mitchell Trio records.” The Trio is who I invariably cited when we discussed civil rights (5th and 6th grade with Mrs. Fink, who chided all of us for not insisting our parents take us to the 1963 March on Washington), the anti-war movement (I brought the school record player into our classroom so I could play the Trio’s rendition of Phil Ochs’s “Draft Dodger Rag” for everyone), or any other social issue, inside the classroom or out. The song “Which Hat Shall I Wear,” written by former Weaver Fred Hellerman — I didn’t really know how my parents would take that, either, sweet harmony or not:

Oh dear, I must hurry and be on my way
There’s never a time for relaxing
Mary, the windows need washing today
The hall and the foyer need waxing

I’ve left some dresses piled up on a chair
The cleaner is coming at two
Don’t let him take the green silk with a tear
That one, my dear, is for you

Which hat shall I wear, the red one or blue one?
Which hat shall I wear to the PTA?
The red hat’s becoming, the blue one’s a new one
Mary, come here, tell me which do you say?

We were a middle class Jewish household with a Black housekeeper (Negro was the proper word at the time — a word whose pronunciation by a certain U.S. president the Trio satirized in the John Denver itieration of the group; listen to the first 30 seconds here). Our housekeeper, too, was often given the “green silk[s] with a tear.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that, either.

The “Slightly Irreverent” album, its followup “Typical American Boys” and next concert ads referenced “The Mitchell Trio.” I didn’t get why Chad’s first name disappeared, but I was loyal.

A March 1967 Mitchell Trio concert was at Brooklyn College, which campus had served as the cover of their 1961 “Mighty Days On Campus” album. By now the highly animated Denver — no remove here — was fully integrated into the group and stunned on 12-string guitar. They’d done two albums together by then, and when Denver went off on his own…well, that will be another story.

A few years after leaving the trio that bore his name (or part of it, now) Chad had a run-in with the authorities in the mid-’70s. Something to do with 400 pounds of marijuana transported between Mexico and Texas. He spent about six months in various “country club federal prisons,” he told me in response to the first draft of this article. The sentence had been five years, and Chad assumed he would be incarcerated for at least three. The decision was overturned by an appeals panel on technical grounds, and he returned to performing solo in between stints as an entertainment director on Delta Queen cruise ships out of New Orleans, as a real estate agent in Spokane, and other assorted jobs.

In New York, as mentioned, he played The Ballroom, Greg Dawson’s Soho restaurant and nightclub before Soho was SOHO. The gig was December 1976 through January 1977. I was reviewing for a trade magazine, Record World, and went to see my idol several times. I have an audiocassette of one of the shows that I’m afraid to play because it might disintegrate. I recall the shows as expectedly dramatic, showcasing some of the best contemporary songwriters in a way that was much more effective — which is largely to say dramatic — than the CDs he released. The highlight for me was that I got to sit down with Chad between sets. I asked about that “remove” from the audience at the height of the Trio’s career.

One of the reasons he left the Trio, he said, was that he couldn’t accept the audience’s adulation. So he had this shield that came down between him and the audience. It wasn’t an intentional theatrical effect, he insisted, though it clearly played out as one (I say). And maybe not always wanting to be “the good boy” had something to do with getting caught in some nefarious scheme. Maybe I related to not always wanting to be the “good boy” too.

Two decades later I saw two of the original Trio reunions, which took place sporadically beginning in the mid-1980s. A bit of history was made at the 92nd Street “Y” in Manhattan on May 23, 1994: For the first time since the “Hootenanny” TV show more than 30 years earlier, the Chad Mitchell Trio appeared on the same stage as Peter, Paul & Mary. At least that was the talk in the audience that night and at a reception following the concert; Chad tells me this is “news to me. I always assumed because PP&M had such big hits they didn’t want to be on TV. But I was hanging around with Mary — we were both living in New York. There was no animosity at all…we were on such different levels. They’d play a big university show, and we’d have to do four shows to make the same amount of money.” Peter Yarrow also sent a note that was read at the trio’s farewell concert yet another 20 years later.

Hoping to pass my infatuation forward, my wife Riva and I took our kids, then 10 and 7, to Symphony Space on September 28, 1996 to see the Chad Mitchell Trio headline Robert Sherman’s annual live edition of his “Woody’s Children” radio show.

I never could sing once my voice changed, so I was never going to be Chad. Apart from a one-show Peter, Paul & Mary cover band in high school (Winky, Ira & Marian — we weren’t going to call ourselves Weinberg, Mayer & Cohen), my “performing” beginning in the 1990s had morphed into public speaking. As marketing consultant Robert Passikoff once told me, “So you did grow up to be Pete Seeger, just without the banjo.”

In my teens the Byrds became my next infatuation, and now I was practicing on my electric 12-string guitar, trying to play “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which I first learned from the Mitchell Trio rendition) and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I didn’t make the connection at the time that the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, whose 12-string was what I wanted mine to sound like, was the same Jim McGuinn who had been the Chad Mitchell Trio’s accompanist on its earliest albums. There’s a great video of Chad, Mike, Joe and Jim on NBC-TV’s Bell Telephone Hour, a three-song set on a show that also featured Rudolf Nureyev, Andre Segovia, and Jane Powell, among others!

Still, I managed to pass on my admiration for the Chad Mitchell Trio, if not necessarily with Chad specifically: In grade school our daughter Julia built a Chad Mitchell Trio tribute diorama. And in November 2014, at 28, our DC-based son Jesse attended the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 55th anniversary/farewell concert in Bethesda, MD.

A man sitting next to Jesse looked at him, then scanned everyone else in the audience, and told Jesse, “In 55 years, you’ll be the only one who remembers being here.”

NOTE 1: I was delighted to have Chad reach out when the initial version of this article was posted, and to set the record straight on his prison time and the non-existent “rift” between the Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was like speaking with a long-lost friend, only we’d only “known” each other previously across footlights.

NOTE 2: Many of the links here are audio only. There is quite a bit of video of both the early years and the reunions, and the era with John Denver in between. “Chad Mitchell Trio Then & Now” is an excellent 3-DVD set that is out of print, but there are periodically used copies for sale. Youtube also has more clips from the “Hootenanny” show. Full album audio is on Youtube for many of the LPs, and there have been several CD collections; some of that material is available on streaming services, as well.



We are so overwhelmed by these past weeks, months, this year that sometimes masquerades as a decade. We have gone to sleep fretting over every cough or sneeze, to the sound of helicopters circling, protesters chanting, sirens whirring. We keep our contact with the outside world to a minimum, masks on and at a distance. Then, in the midst of protests fueled by the horrific death of George Floyd and so many others, in the middle of a pandemic, I received a package of photos and a video of the latest work by book-artist Julie Shaw Lutts entitled The VOTE.
About a year ago I gave Julie a collection of white-leather gloves that had belonged to my and my sister Joan Mayer Teichman‘s late mother, hoping she might create something both beautiful and impactful. Julie’s book art typically integrates text with “things,” mostly found or acquired at flea markets, and are typically “bound” in boxes. They are, at heart, collections of ephemera with a textual root. In this case, my mother’s gloves spell out, in its entirety, the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, passed by the needed 36th state 100 years ago today.
I originally suggested that the piece Julie creates from my mother’s gloves have something to do with immigration. Both of my parents were Jews who fled Germany, my mother on the last boat out of Italy in 1940. She, my father, and the others who managed to escape, took their U.S. citizenship very seriously. And a year ago, immigration was very top-of-mind.
The VOTE open boxBut immigration, per se, turned out to be a little far afield for Julie, whose ancestors may have been on the Mayflower (or not very long after). Instead, she asked if she could use the gloves to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Given how important voting was to both my parents, this felt comfortable. Little did Julie or I anticipate just how linked immigration and voting would be in the minds of those now contemplating The VOTE in a very different time.
I remember my mom putting on her gloves to go vote, which she may well have done, as Julie suggests in the video below. She and I certainly talked about the joy my mother took in her gloves and I DO remember going with her to vote — me little more than knee high standing next to her in the voting booth. She would show me how the levers worked, and sometimes let me push the ones she wanted.
I sent the photos and video about The VOTE initially to my family and friends. They triggered the kinds of memories and detailed responses an artist in the rarefied book-arts community only hopes for:
Babette Sanders:
Those gloves told amazing stories, as did the hands that filled them. Wonderful memories of my Aunt Trude, my mom and so many others like them who understood the power of their vote. The power of the vote…yes, indeed.
Emily Wilkins:
Ever with their white gloves on, they managed to do it all. We can all learn (and we all did) from these strong women.
Norma Rothstein:
My mother never wore gloves — white or otherwise. I doubt she owned a pair. Her hands were too busy cooking, sewing, cleaning up after us all and then going to work at her little store on the Lower East Side. However, she was never too busy to vote. Her vote was probably the only thing she could truly call her own.
Margot Stern:
I am reminded of how my father said, “Now we vote!” after we obtained our American citizenship and after having had our right to vote taken away as Jews in Nazi Germany. I have never since skipped my right to vote, to a point of always voting even in every primary! I also recalled how in my first job as an 18-year-old going to college at night, I always wore gloves to go out anywhere. It was just the thing to do!
The VOTE - Trude's glovesAdd concerns over voter suppression and it all comes together — gloves, immigration, the fight against racism, and The VOTE — more desperately, I’m sure, than when Julie first contemplated what to do with Trude’s white-leather gloves just one year back.
Voting is so crucial to correcting the direction of our country. May The VOTE bring us hope on this anniversary and going forward.

BROOKLYN, NY; March 6, 2020—Riva is probably right — she usually is: No one would dare cough or sneeze in a theater right now. You’d be stared down and tsk-tsk’ed right up the coronavirus-disinfected aisle.

But it’s a tense, respectful, hold-in-your-stomach quiet we’ve experienced in theaters the last few weeks, the kind of quiet that reigns at the fraught intersection of astute playwright with an ear (and pen) for eloquently spoken language; fine actors; and heightened audience receptivity. The plays: “Anatomy of a Suicide,” at the Atlantic; “Cambodian Rock Band,” at the Signature; and “Coal Country,” at the Public.

We’ve subscribed on and off at all three theater companies for 20+ years. We know we won’t “like” much of what we see, but we almost always respect it, appreciate it. Case in point: “Halfway Bitches Go to Heaven,” by Stephen Adly Guirgis, at the Atlantic. We left (my urging; Riva would have stayed) at the intermission, my stomach too knotted by the no-way-out bleakness of the characters’ all-too-realistic lives. Still, it was well written, beautifully portrayed, aptly staged, and I was in the minority in lacking receptors for it. I’d enjoyed several of Guirgis’s earlier plays, and in retrospect, I’d like to see the second half now, find out where he took those characters, though as is the norm at small theaters, the play was gone in a matter of weeks.

Bleakness — whether the no-way-out or the ambiguously hopeful variety — is at the core of “Anatomy of a Suicide,” “Cambodian Rock Band” and “Coal Country,” too. Oddly enough, “Suicide” is the ambiguously hopeful entrant here. Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 2.53.49 PMThree generations of women are played out simultaneously side-by-side on stage, their stories and lines overlapping and sometimes united, chorus-like. There are slow reveals for the relationships. And each overcomes and succumbs to a variety of demons at different points, exploring in the course of the evening the degree to which mothers, husbands, children, and others enter into each woman’s questing. It is a verbal, and sometimes visual, ballet, devastating throughout.

While I have no doubt that playwright Alice Birch knows some iteration of the characters in “Anatomy of a Suicide,” newspapers and history books attest to the realities of “Cambodian Rock Band” (which structures a fictional family story around historic events) and “Coal Country” (a direct work of documentary theater). Music is also central to the telling of the stories in the latter two plays, in the first instance as a key element to the story itself, in the second as emotional underpinning.

Lauren Yee’s “Cambodian Rock Band” depicts an adult daughter unraveling her father’s long-hidden abuse at the hands of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and his guilt over killing a friend, who initially saved him, in order to escape. Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 2.51.49 PMThe father was a musician in a Cambodian surf band prior to the Khmer Rouge coming to power — we see and hear them rehearsing and recording as the play opens — at which point music was banned. Music is key to the father’s survival before Pol Pot’s No. 2 and awkwardly becomes his peace-making moment with his daughter. This last segment, which seques into a mock-celebratory mini-concert at the end of the play, is the only misdirected element in the night. The knotted-stomach moments are most concentrated in the second act, much of which takes place in a former school room turned torture chamber. Yee needed something to relieve the pressure, but the mini-concert merely deflates it.

“Coal Country,” by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, whose best-known prior such effort was “Exonerated,” uses verbatim dialog based on interviews with two survivors and some of the families of the other 29 miners who died in the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. Five years later, Massey CEO Don Blankenship was found guilty and jailed for willfully violating mine safety standards. The play is framed by Blankenship’s trial, but its heart is the testimony of the miners and their families, their extensive family histories working in the mines, and the horrific recounting of waiting for word of their husbands, sons, nephews, and friends in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.

Songwriter Steve Earle — an underappreciated hero of Americana music whose lineage might include Woody Guthrie, Jean Ritchie, Hedy West, Aunt Molly Jackson, and John Prine, to name a few — underscores the drama here. His songs, written for the production, are neither character- nor story-driven, but they immeasurably heighten the tension of a story whose outcome is well known.Screen Shot 2020-03-06 at 2.53.00 PM

[Personal aside: I have a soft spot for coal mining stories, history, and union organizing. In college, I tailored a paper I wrote on the music of Appalachian coal miners for classes in history, political science, ethnomusicology, sociology and others. It’s a good thing professors didn’t have access to online plagiarism-checkers, even if I was only plagiarizing myself.]

Much has been written about noisy, text-messaging, candy unwrapping audiences of late; I’ve complained about it myself. And on theater critics Terry Teachout/Peter Marks/Elisabeth Vincentelli’s “Three On the Aisle” podcast recently, talk was whether personal crises gets in the way of a critic’s role. The bottom line, said Teachout, who is caretaker for his wife as she awaits a double lung transplant, was that if the show is good, you get lost in it. If you’re bored, anything distracts. This is true of all theater patrons, not just critics.

These last few weeks at the Atlantic, Signature, and Public Theaters, everyone got lost. And their respectful silence spoke loudly of transformation.

Anatomy of A Suicide at The Atlantic through March 15, 2020.

Cambodian Rock Band at The Signature through March 22, 2020.

Coal Country at The Public through April 5, 2020.

 

BROOKLYN, NY; Feb.26, 2020—I can’t tell you what a joy it was — and continues to be  days later — to have hosted Christine Lavin performing a house concert in our home last Saturday night.

We’ve had professional jazz musicians play in the past, typically as background for parties. And a young classical pianist played a Scriabin sonata on our petite baby grand as the curtain raiser to a charity dinner despite the fact that the keys on our piano are shorter than standard and his fingers are twice as long as mine. That, too, was a thrilling night.

But this was different. People ask me if I miss reviewing. I miss it only when I see something/someone new and wonderful who I want to share with everyone.

I first wrote about Chris in the late 1970s/early 1980s, as her career was building, and got to introduce her quirky humor leavened by heart and feeling to many via the New York Post and other publications. But that was at a certain remove. Now Riva and I had the opportunity to present her in concert, in the intimacy of our home, and to introduce her to more than 50 friends and relatives, only some of whom had seen her before. Chris easily won over a houseful of new fans.

Because the room was so full, we ditched the intermission and Chris sang through for 90 minutes — and then, after a well-deserved ovation, raced with everyone else to the dessert table in the dining room, for which Riva had made incredible mocha cheesecake, orange cheesecake, chocolate mousse, rosewater macarons, chocolate macarons, blueberry cake, raspberry tart, cappuccino biscotti, poppy seed cookies, orange cookies, and a bowl of berries with whipped cream.

Chris is a humorist, raconteur, musical storyteller who can bring tears to your eyes, unafraid to tackle the serious issues of life as well as the foibles of everyday living — always with a smile and a heart.

As people thanked us at the end of the evening, more than one added, “Thank you for giving us the opportunity laugh and feel good while hearing great music. For a night, I didn’t have to think about…” and the sentences invariably trailed off.

If you’ve never seen Christine Lavin, above is a video from the house concert of one of her better-known songs, “Good Thing He Can’t Read My Mind,” which includes an updated version from a male point of view.

There are many far more sophisticated videos on her website and on Youtube; Chris has taken to creating her own videos of most of her songs, as well as making videos for others. I’m including this one to hopefully give you a sense of the impact she was having in our crowded living room.

But nothing beats seeing her in person. She’s touring all next month with On A Winter’s Night, which over the years has been a rotating group of folk singers and for this tour includes Cliff Eberhardt, John Gorka, Patti Larkin, and Cheryl Wheeler as well as Christine; and in April and May she’ll be on the road with the Four Bitchin’ Babes, another rotating group she co-founded. There are solo shows coming up, too, and a summer of folk festival appearances.

Go see her for yourself. It won’t quite be like seeing her in our home, but you’ll still feel warm and wonderful at the end of the night. In fact, why not think about hosting a house concert yourself?

BROOKLYN, NY; FEBRUARY 14, 2020—Will you experience magic too if you attend one of the two remaining performances of the Brahams Violin Concerto in D Major by violinist Janine Jansen tomorrow (2/15) or Tuesday (2/18) with the NY Philharmonic under conductor Jaap van Zweden? And what is magic? When does it happen?

I’ve been attending live music for close to 60 years, and wrote about it professionally for 25+. I’ve seen thousands of concerts, been moved by many. But last night was rare magic that left me exhilarated and teary. Is it that Jansen was simply so lost in the music that there was nothing else in the world? And that she carried me so completely into her world (and judging by the lengthy ovation she earned, everyone else in David Geffen Hall)? It was certainly that, but that feels inadequate to describe the experience.

I’m not familiar with Jansen. I’m getting so now, listening even as I write to her beautiful recording of Bach violin concertos. She has a solo recital next season at Carnegie Hall. We’re signing up. But in the meantime, you have two opportunities to test out whether this magic is conjured consistently or what.

Bonus: This is part of the NY Phil’s Project 19, marking the centennial of the 19th Amendment for which the orchestra commissioned 19 women composers to create new pieces. There is an interesting Tania Leon commission on the program, and as I write, there are still more than 100 $19 tickets in the orchestra for Tuesday night (just a few for Saturday). Visit here and use promo code PROJECT19.

This brief video from a different concert is energetic and passionate, but doesn’t begin to convey the sensitivity of the overall performance.

Until recently at the Metropolitan Opera, my all-time favorite performance of Porgy and Bess was in 1971 at an outdoor theater on Lake Constance in Bregenz, Austria. No doubt the setting had something to do with it: When the residents of Catfish Row headed by boat to Kittiwah Island, they did in fact get on a boat, which circled out behind the stage before returning for the next act. It didn’t hurt, either, that William Warfield sang Porgy, as he did on a great recording I loved (still do) which featured Leontyne Price as Bess (in Bregenz, Joyce Bryant played Bess).

Until Bregenz, I’d only seen Porgy & Bess on film; today, the new production at the Met is the sixth live version I’ve seen.

I was seven when the film came out in 1959, and credit to my parents on many counts for bringing me to see it. Not many years later, the combination of taking piano lessons, the film, and the soundtrack and Warfield albums inspired me to head to G. Schirmer on W. 49th St. in Manhattan (any excuse to spend a few hours at this rarified sheet music and record emporium; more on that another time) and purchase the only complete vocal score I’ve ever bought. There was nothing I could really do with that score, but the recordings didn’t have enough of the music, and I wanted to have it all. No, I needed it all. [For an excellent article about the troubled history of the Otto Preminger-directed film starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis, Jr., click here. I’ll just note that Poitier and Dandridge were dubbed by others; but to this day, no matter who plays Sportin’ Life, I see Sammy Davis, Jr.]

At the Met there were “only” eight dancers, but the waves they generated literally and figuratively made it seem as though everyone on stage was moving, gracefully and authentically. The Met has its own tremendously accomplished chorus, but Porgy & Bess calls for an all Black cast, and so fresh voices were recruited — and they delivered enthusiastically. The Met Orchestra played gloriously (as it almost always does). And, yes, the entire large cast, headed by Eric Owens’s Porgy and Angel Blue’s Bess was on the mark for both singing and acting, even if Owens could have used a little more power especially in the duets with Blue. I do believe this James Robinson production, conducted by David Robertson, would do the Gershwins and DuBose Heyward proud.

The other productions I’ve seen:

The Houston Grand Opera, on Broadway, with Clamma Dale as Bess; 1976

A Sherwin M. Goldman touring production based on the Houston Grand Opera version, which stopped at Radio City Music Hall; 1983

The Metropolitan Opera, with Simon Estes as Porgy and Grace Bumbry as Bess; 1985

A musical theater interpretation, with script by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, on Broadway, starring Norm Lewis and Audra McDonald; 2011

Of course, there are dozens of jazz and pop albums interpreting the score, with personal favorites by Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald & Louis Armstrong, and Joe Henderson, among many others. As the Met production, and many of the recordings demonstrate, this is timeless music with a deep humanity.

 

 

Broadway Theater; January 6, 2020 (preview performance; opens February 20)—I’m curious whether a younger video-based generation (assuming they’re interested in West Side Story) will embrace this production. The often brilliant director Ivo Van Hove uses live and recorded video projections, as he often does, and mini-sets from which some of the video is broadcast, to distressing effect here.

All of that constant two-story-high motion blunts the impact of one of Broadway’s most beloved scores (Leonard Bernstein/Stephen Sondheim). And the classic Jerome Robbins choreography is eschewed in favor of mediocre imitations. We heard understudies for Tony, Maria (bravo to Mia Pinero), Riff and others.

Plus, Stephen Sondheim may cringe when he hears “I Feel Pretty,” but having been jettisoned, I still miss its playfulness (not to mention the “Somewhere” ballet). And playing “Gee, Office Krupke” for gravitas rather than playfulness makes no sense.

I don’t regret hearing this production; I do regret being distracted by video-verite blow-ups of what I was watching. I don’t mind updates. I’ve seen plenty of well-deployed live video and video sets. I’ve seen fine choreography “inspired” by masters. But this production is burdened by change for change’s sake.

Metropolitan Opera; January 2, 2020—The Met hasn’t always delivered on its new productions in recent seasons. This one, designed and directed by South Africa’s William Kentridge, is devastating and dazzling at the same time, much as Berg’s 12-tone score. Not for newcomers to opera, Wozzeck was stunningly moving, beautifully sung (Peter Mattei) and acted, and Kentridge’s video projections evoked the opera’s transplanted-to-WWI setting brilliantly.

Ask for Jane” is an important, beautifully made, moving re-telling of the true story of a group of women in the pre-Roe v. Wade 1960s who provided 11,000 illegal but safe abortions to University of Chicago women and others. Made on a shoestring budget by a clearly passionate cast and crew, the writing, acting, and story-telling are exemplary.

We saw it at the Teaneck International Film Festival, where Heather Booth — the original “Jane,” still an activist and political consultant – along with Cait Cortelyou (producer and lead actor), and screenwriter/director Rachel Carey, among others, appeared for a discussion following the screening. Cortelyou, who had the idea for the film in 2016, didn’t foresee a need for the message at the time; Donald Trump hadn’t been elected president yet. But as Booth said during the discussion following the screening, we may need the Janes’ brand of activism once again. Let’s hope (and pray) not.

“Ask for Jane” is on the festival circuit; it is also streaming on Amazon Prime, Youtube, and Google Play. Very worth your time.