Jottings from a pop culture junkie

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.

Love Tanya Tucker’s new album “While I’m Livin’,” produced by Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings, with Carlile and bandmates Phil and Tim Hanseroth providing backup and writing many of the songs evoking Tucker’s story. Her vocals are as evocative as they were (in a different way) when I got to meet her and review “Would You Lay With Me In A Field of Stone” for Record World magazine in 1974. I was 22, she was 15. Even crushes were off limits!


NEW YORK, NY; AUGUST 5, 2019—Let me say right off the bat (duh; that would pass for quality dialog here) the theatrical spectacle Bat Out of Hell was worth every penny (I paid under $50 a seat). I haven’t heard this much laughter at City Center since I saw Richard Pryor there in 1978.

Listen, folks, no one ever accused Jim Steinman of writing anything that wasn’t overblown, so it’s fitting that everything about this Bat Out of Hell is over-the-top. The sets, the slo-mo motorcycle, the awful video-verite…

However, these must be some of the best actors in the world. They go on stage night after night sometimes playing it straight, sometimes playing it for laughs, sometimes not clear which way they’re playing it — giving their all for what they clearly know is the worst show they will likely ever be paid to appear in.

The songs carry themselves in arrangements that, for the most part, pay due respect without purely imitating the classic originals, be the originals from the iconic Todd Rundgren-produced Meatloaf Bat Out of Hell album or the Celine Dion hit bag. As my son pointed out, the audience seemed even more confused than it had been when Steinman’s It’s All Coming Back to Me Now started up, probably not realizing the same man wrote both.

The audience giddily bopped along and cheered the songs, and hooted, howled and “What the hell are they doing”’-ed the rest of the time. Literally. “Oh, my god, what are they going to do next?” asked the incredulous couple behind me. Several times.

The choreography was pedestrian at best. And when I say pedestrian, for the leads who couldn’t dance that meant being relegated to dropping to their knees and pushing their way along the stage floor. Several times.

It’s definitely a night’s entertainment, just maybe not how the creators intended.