Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Getting Kindled and iPadded

I always said I'd never get an e-reader. I like the feel of paper in my hands. I spend enough time staring at computer screens as it is. Plus, browsing in bookstores and buying books is one of life's simple pleasures.

Well things change.

Borders went bankrupt, greatly reducing my browsing options. And as much as I love buying books, I no longer have much room for them. Last year, for the second time in 15 years, I had to get rid of almost all of my books because I was moving and I couldn't couldn't take them with me. What's the point in amassing another collection that I'll only have to give away again?

Then last month I took the bus to Boston to see a play. I was in the middle of a good novel and I wanted to bring it with me but it was over 500 pages. It wouldn't fit in my bag and I couldn't see the point of lugging it around all day.

I went to Staples, which sells the Nook and the Kindle. They were both lightweight and small enough to carry in my bag. But one thing bothered me: the text blurs slightly when you turn the page on an e-reader and it was giving me a headache just trying them out in the store.

I bought the cheapest Kindle, at $79, since I wasn't sure how much I'd use it. It comes with advertising, which you see as a screensaver when the device is turned off or as a small band on the bottom of your home page. You never see it within the text of a book and it doesn't bother me at all.

So far, I've read a couple of books on it and I like it a lot. The blurring isn't quite as annoying as I thought it would be, although I don't think I'd like to read for hours on an e-reader. On the downside, it's not as easy to flip through an e-reader as it is a physical book. But it's extremely portable and I never have to worry about running out of something to read.

My other big purchase was an iPad. I bought the 32GB Wi-Fi model. I wanted something faster and lighter than my laptop that I could use on the couch to surf the 'net while I watch TV, maybe stream some video and send some e-mail.

Here's the thing they don't tell you in the ads: it's difficult to get in a comfortable position with your iPad when you're sitting on the couch. When I rest it on my lap my neck feels strained from looking down at the screen. And it's too heavy to hold up for very long.

Apparently the connection between iPads and neck pain has been well documented but it was something that got by me until I bought one. Propping it on a pillow helps. If you're using it in bed, putting it against your knees might work, too.

On the other hand, the retina display is great for reading. I'm tempted to get The New Yorker for the iPad. I love the magazine but hate the way issues pile up. And the iPad makes a very good small TV when you fold back the Smart Cover to use as a stand. So far I've used the HBO GO and PBS apps.

My experience pretty much mirrors what others have said, that it's more a device for consuming than producing. For blogging and writing e-mail longer than a few sentences, I'll stick with my iMac. (I don't hate my iPad but I get the point of this Slate article.)

While I like the Kindle a little more than I thought I would, I like the iPad a little less, which is surprising given how much I've loved every other Apple product that I've owned. Maybe I bought into the hype and was expecting too much.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Woody Sez

Woody Sez, at the American Repertory Theater
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

My introduction to Woody Guthrie came in elementary school. We took a class trip to the symphony and at the end of the concert, we all sang "This Land is Your Land." It was nice and patriotic, nothing the least bit controversial.

As an adult, I read Joe Klein's biography, Woody Guthrie: A Life. I learned that Guthrie's most famous song was written in 1940 as a rebuke to "God Bless America." (I'm guessing we didn't sing the verse that included "By the relief office, I'd seen my people. As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking, Is this land made for you and me?")

In Woody Sez, David Lutken, who created the show with Nick Corley, also talks about learning Guthrie's music as a kid. He remembers singing "Riding in My Car" in nursery school. Then, he slips effortlessly into the character of the legendary folksinger, weaving together Guthrie's life and music in an absorbing and tuneful 90 minutes.

The other performers - Darci Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and David Finch - play various people in Guthrie's life and all four play lots of his music. The program lists more than two dozen songs and a variety of instruments including guitars, fiddles, harmonicas and two soup spoons from a thrift shop in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

This is an intimate show that uses folk music to evoke a turbulent time in American history: the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. There are no video projections or special effects or turntable sets. The design by Luke Hegel-Cantarella is simple - wooden benches and chairs for the actors to sit on, photos of Guthrie hanging over a scrim with a scene that looks like it could be his native Oklahoma.

Lutken doesn't have Guthrie's nasally twang and he doesn't really try to imitate him. But he's a great storyteller, with an affable, conversational style that really drew me in. He explores how Guthrie's love of music was nurtured by the ballads his mother sang to him, by the songs he learned from migrants and oil field workers, and his wanderlust, how he crisscrossed the country in the 1920s and '30s, writing about the things he saw and the people he met.

I'm a big fan of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, both of whom were profoundly influenced by Guthrie and have covered his work, so I've heard some of these songs before. But hearing them in the context of their times and in the context of Guthrie's life, played simply and unadorned, made them more meaningful.

Woody Sez paints an especially vivid portrait of the Dust Bowl, a time when hundreds of thousands of families left the Great Plains for California. Once there, life did not turn out to be the "Garden of Eden" they imagined. Many of the "Okies" ended up as migrant laborers. Guthrie wrote about them movingly in songs like "Do Re Mi" and "Talking Dust Bowl Blues."

Through his music, Guthrie targeted the inequities in society and politicians of all stripes. Woody Sez notes that he was redlisted, blacklisted and all other kinds of listed. But it struck me that his songs, for all their seriousness, could be quite funny and catchy. There's a mocking humor and a scathing indictment in "The Jolly Banker," and you can sing along.

Woody Sez moves rather quickly through the last 20 years of Guthrie's life, ending with his struggle against the debilitating effects of Huntington's disease, which killed him in 1967 at age 55. After that, a reprise of "This Land is Your Land" felt incredibly emotional. I was choked up as I sang with everyone else.

And his songs, of course, are still topical. He wrote about the unemployed, about people losing their homes to foreclosures, about the rights of workers and the plight of illegal immigrants. He also wrote children's songs and Chanukah songs and songs about the great natural beauty of America - from the redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters - and how it belongs to all of us.

Woody Guthrie was born on July 14, 1912, so this year marks his centennial. Woody Sez runs at A.R.T. through June 3. It will be performed at the Adirondack Theatre Festival in July and this fall at the Northlight Theatre, just outside Chicago. This is a beautifully drawn portrait of an important American voice and it deserves a wide audience.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Peter and the Starcatcher

Peter and the Starcatcher, at Broadway's Brooks Atkinson Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

Sure, I like plays that weigh in on serious subjects. But every once in awhile, it's nice to balance those doses of stark reality with a touch of whimsy.

Peter and the Starcatcher, an energetic and exhilarating prequel to Peter Pan, the story of a boy who never grows up, pretty much fits the bill. The inventive stagecraft - doing a lot with a few props and actors playing multiple roles - reminded me of another show I loved, The 39 Steps.

And it's a grand adventure story: there's a ship called the Never Land that embarks a perilous voyage to a tropical island, a trunk filled with a mysterious treasure, dastardly pirates and bedraggled orphans and singing mermaids and representing her majesty Queen Victoria, a British ambassador and his precocious young daughter.

Donyale Werle's set captured the dank cramped quarters of a sailing ship in the first act and the lush green island in the second act. A giant pineapple - a symbol of hospitality - hangs in the center of the fake wooden proscenium. It gave the show an old fashioned music hall atmosphere.

What truly carried the day for me were the winning performances.

As Molly Aster, Celia Keenan-Bolger had the voice and mannerisms of a young girl down pat.  I adored her character - a spunky and determined heroine. Christian Borle, as the pirate Black Stache was hilarious, with a thick Groucho Marx mustache and a zaniness that reminded me of the best of Monty Python. Adam Chanler-Berat was so endearing as the hapless orphan boy Molly befriends. And what a treat to see Arnie Burton, from The 39 Steps, in another terrific comedic turn as the feisty governess Mrs. Bumbrake.

Unfortunately, you can have too much of a good thing. There were times when Peter and the Starcatcher, adapted by Rick Elice from the children's novel by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, felt a little overstuffed, like it was trying too hard to be clever.

I'll admit I'm not as up on my Peter Pan as I should be and the first act whizzed by so quickly that I think I missed some key plot points. Then in the second act things slowed considerably, to the point where it almost felt too slow.

Still, I may be over-thinking this. The boy sitting next to me, who couldn't have been more than 10, told me that he'd read the books and he seemed enthralled. In fact, it was great to see so many kids in the audience so clearly enjoying themselves. Sure some of the jokes aimed at adults - a Philip Glass reference for example - probably went over their heads but there were lots of laughs.

So if I missed a few things, that's fine. Peter and the Starcatcher is an entertaining ride, with the kind of imagination that reminds you what's so unique about going to the theatre.

Monday, May 14, 2012

End of the Rainbow

End of the Rainbow, at Broadway's Belasco Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: ** out of ****

I'm old enough to remember when The Wizard of Oz was a highly anticipated television event. Before VCRs, that was the way to see it and it only happened once a year. (Those flying monkeys still freak me out.)

As an adult, I saw Judy Garland in a couple of other movies. I knew the basics: her many marriages, her children, how she'd become hooked on drugs and alcohol and died too young. But the image planted in my brain was Dorothy Gale - a teenager in pigtails with a cute little dog, dreaming of a life beyond her Kansas farm.

So watching British actress Tracie Bennett portray Garland at the end of her life in End of the Rainbow was devastating. Bennett is delivering an amazing performance as a vulnerable, difficult woman in the throes of addiction. Unfortunately the play, by Peter Quilter, is not as good as she is. She and Garland deserve better.

End of the Rainbow takes place mainly in a room at the Ritz Hotel in London in 1968. Garland, accompanied by her fiance Mickey Deans, played by Tom Pelphrey, is poised to give a series of concerts in hopes of making another comeback. Michael Cumpsty is Anthony, a pianist who's helping her prepare and who also represents Garland's legion of gay fans.

The interaction between the three of them is wrenching. Bennett's Garland is demanding and impulsive and stubborn. Pelphrey's Deans grows more and more frustrated as he tries to ensure she's in good enough shape to sing because they desperately need the money. Cumpsty's Anthony is protective of Garland and wary of Deans' motives.

Bennett is riveting but some of the things that Quilter has her do in the play seemed over the top. We know Garland is a mess. We know she's self-destructive, that she needs alcohol and pills to help her get through a concert. Unfortunately, there's a point at which all of this becomes so degrading that it felt exploitative.

I wish the play had offered more insight into Garland's life, how she reached this point. There are a few hints in the dialogue. She mentions the pills that she and other young performers were given at MGM to help them get through a grueling filming schedule. I wanted more details like that and less dwelling on the train wreck, no matter how well Bennett portrays it.

Cumpsty is appealing as Anthony, who truly cares about her and watches what's going on with dismay. At one point Deans accuses Garland's gay fans of showering her with more adulation the  more pathetic she grows, as if they were were responsible for her decline. Maybe it was the character and not the playwright speaking but that was unfair.

The way Bennett's Garland manages to pull herself together during the concert scenes was a highlight for me. You got a glimmer of what a captivating performer she'd been, her is evident. Listening to her sing "The Trolley Song" from Meet Me in St. Louis, her youthful voice now raspy, was heartbreaking.

Judy Garland was defined by her early film roles - and perhaps trapped by them, too. I'll admit I was teary hearing "Over the Rainbow." I know there have been other child actors whose lives have ended sadly but maybe because The Wizard of Oz was part of my childhood, this one felt saddest of all.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Evita, at Broadway's Marquis Theatre
Gratuitous Violins rating: *** out of ****

Years ago, someone loaned me a VHS copy of Evita - yes, it was that long ago - and I loved it. The story was fascinating, the score was exhilarating and Antonio Banderas was so sexy.

So when a Broadway revival was announced, I was excited. This would be my chance to see Evita onstage and it would be my first Andrew Lloyd Webber musical ever. (I've never seen Phantom of the Opera or Cats or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat or Jesus Christ Superstar.)

Of course with anticipation comes the possibility of disappointment, and for a few reasons this didn't totally turn out to be the Evita of my dreams. But hearing the music performed live and watching Eva Peron's story unfold was captivating.

I was really looking forward to Elena Roger, who garnered great reviews in London in the title role. Roger, a petite woman, is a dynamo and she brought out Evita's tenacity and ruthlessness so well. But her voice didn't seem as powerful as I'd hoped and she sounded kind of screechy on the high notes.

I liked Ricky Martin as Che, the everyman narrator. He's charming and good-looking and a great singer and dancer. Still, his character could have used more of an edge. He was less the revolutionary Che Guevara commenting sardonically on Evita's rise, which is what I'd been expecting, and more of an impartial observer.

And her story is such an interesting one.

Born out of wedlock in 1919, Eva Duarte makes her way to the Buenos Aires to become an actress, latches on to a rising Army officer, Juan Peron, played by a powerful Michael Cerveris, and becomes first lady of Argentina, only to (spoiler alert) die of cancer at age 33.

I found myself swept along by the music from Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Director Michael Grandage's staging and Rob Ashford's choreography told Evita's story in a way that enthralled me: her hopes and dreams in "Buenos Aires," the cynicism of "The Money Kept Rolling In" and the grief surrounding her death in "Oh What a Circus."

The scenic design by Christopher Oram is somber but it seemed appropriate. Grandage kept things moving briskly. And there were small touches that gave me a sense of Eva's character - the way she casually dismisses a suitor when she meets Peron, for example. The balcony scene, where Roger sings "Don't Cry For Me Argentina," was breathtaking.

I also like the fact that this is a complex story, not merely a fawning portrait. I got a sense of why Evita was so beloved but I didn't feel like I was being manipulated to buy into it. I wasn't sure whether she was an opportunist or someone who really cared about the poor and working class of Argentina. Maybe she was both.

It's hard to explain what makes you fall for a musical's score. But I know that each time I walked by the Marriott Marquis and heard it playing, I got tingly with excitement. After all these years of waiting and despite some flaws, I still love Evita.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

President Obama's "We Shall Overcome" moment on gay marriage

President Obama finally had his "We Shall Overcome" moment today when he endorsed the right of gay and lesbian Americans to marry the person they love.

Congratulations, Mr. President. It's about time. 

Forty-seven years ago, President Lyndon Johnson addressed a joint session of Congress to introduce the Voting Rights Act. He talked about the efforts of black Americans to secure for themselves "the full blessings of American life." He said, "Their cause must be our cause, too." He even invoked the words of the civil-rights anthem, "And we shall overcome."

The president's remarks today saying that he believes same-sex couples should be able to get married were not as dramatic or momentous as Johnson's a generation earlier. Made during an interview with ABC News, they lacked the eloquence of a prepared speech.

There was no mention of repealing the odious Defense of Marriage Act. He didn't vow to fight for same-sex marriage. His deference to the states on the matter was a bit troubling. (States' rights, did that not ring a bell for anyone at the White House?)

Yet despite all of that his words, based on his own experiences and his religious convictions, sounded sincere. I like that he mentioned the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated. And they are powerful for the way they frame the debate. The president finally figured out how to use the White House as a bully pulpit.

It's practically impossible today for any straight American to say that they don't know a gay person. They are our friends, our family, our teachers, our colleagues, our loved ones, our neighbors.

As President Obama said, they are members of his staff, people in committed relationships. They are soldiers and sailors fighting on his behalf. Their children are friends with his daughters. The president of the United States made the issue personal. There are people in his life who are gay and lesbian. And he doesn't see any reason why they should not be allowed to get married.

Anyone - and by that I mean my fellow straight Americans - who cares about this country becoming a more equal place for all of its citizens has a stake in this. The president's comments don't change anything but they push homophobia and anti-gay rhetoric a little further to the fringes of American society - where they belong.

A couple of years ago, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times that as more people have come out of the closet, we've learned about those in our lives who are gay. "It is hard to deny our own fundamental rights to those we know, admire and love."

I believe that with all of my heart. Today, I'm proud that my president believes it as well and was not hesitant to say it. Their cause must be our cause, too. That statement rings as true today as it did in 1965.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Newsies, at Broadway's Nederlander Theatre 
Gratuitous Violins rating: ***1/2 out of ****

A plucky girl reporter and a story ripped from the pages of the history books. If the musical theatre gods came together to create a show just for me, it would be Newsies.

Unlike some of my friends, I'm a newcomer to Newsies. Until a year ago, I'd never seen the Disney movie and I'd never heard of the event on which it was based, the 1899 newsboys strike in New York City that pitted a ragtag bunch of teens against the press barons Hearst and Pulitzer. While the movie flopped, I enjoyed it.

And watching Newsies onstage was even more fun. It reminded me of the Disney musicals from the Sherman brothers that I loved as a kid: The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and The Happiest Millionaire. Like Newsies, they combined real-life people and events with incredibly catchy songs, parts of which I could probably still sing.

Now I'll admit this a very traditional musical. It doesn't break new ground for Disney. It's not as imaginative as The Lion King or as magical as Mary Poppins. Tobin Ost's set is basically lots of scaffolding. It's not subtle, either. We don't get deep inside these characters and you don't need a road map to know where the story is heading.

What Newsies does it does with tremendous enthusiasm from beginning to end under Jeff Calhoun's direction. There's electrifying, acrobatic choreography from Christopher Gattelli, a rousing score by Alan Menken and Jack Feldman and plenty of humor amid the pointed social commentary in Harvey Fierstein's book.

How can you not love newsboys singing and dancing their way into your heart for the right to earn a living wage and bargain collectively? Newsies is at its most exciting when they're in midair, leaping and pirouetting and backflipping. I loved the ensemble numbers: "King of New York," "Seize the Day," and "Carry the Banner."

As Jack Kelly, the street-smart ringleader of the newsboys, Jeremy Jordan has a powerful voice and a 1,000-watt smile that made me smile just watching him. Kara Lindsay as the eager cub reporter Katherine is as delightful as I remembered from Little House on the Prairie at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis four years ago.

Sure, some of the portraits are broadly drawn, like John Dossett's Pulitzer, who precipitates the strike by charging the newsies more for the "papes" they hawk in order to increase his profits. And lots of critics have remarked on the similarity to Annie, subbing New York Gov. Theodore Roosevelt for his cousin Franklin.

But you're not going to Newsies for complex character studies. Sometimes there's merit in taking a traditional formula and executing it well. And in its own entertaining way, this is a thought-provoking show. It touches on corporate greed and child labor and the rights of workers to form unions, topics that are certainly in the news today.

Every once in awhile, I like to let down my cynical guard and revel in some good old-fashioned idealism.  Newsies is a testament to the thrill of song and dance but it's also a reminder of how powerful words and images can be, especially when they're used as a force for good.