Tuesday, July 28, 2009

CULTURAMA: 'Complete (Abridged)' a triple-decker hoot at CSF

From left to right: Stephen Weitz, Geoffrey Kent and Matt Mueller in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)." (Photo by Casey A. Cass for CU Communications)

If laughs are needed anywhere, it’s at a Shakespeare festival. “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)” is an idea whose time has come.

Oh, wait, it was created in 1987.

Well, it’s an idea . . . let’s see . . . an idea. Yes. It is. A good idea!

And where better than to stage it at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival!

Oh, wait, they put it on there last year.

Well, good job bringing it back!

As long as there’s been Bardolatry, there has been Bardophobia. Shakespeare is our sacred monster, and he provokes as much fear as awe. And much more sheer boredom.

Even the most ardent, arrogant iambic-pentameter-spouting smarty-pants gets tired of the Canon in his or her face from time to time. We have all toiled through mind-numbing English courses on Shakespeare, endured productions of his work so horrible that they warped space and made clocks run backward.

“Complete (Abridged)” is a cure for this condition. It’s a hilarious, breakneck dash through all 37 plays (OK, some merit only a mention) (and is it 38? Did he really write them? No time press on) staged by three fine clowns, Geoffrey Kent, Stephen Weitz and Matthew Mueller. That each is handling a role or roles in other CSF productions – hey, Stephen’s only playing Hamlet – is a testament to Rebecca Ramaly’s direction, their energy and the power of creative scheduling.

The Reduced Shakespeare Comedy started out at California Renaissance Faires in 1981, outclassing by a wide margin anything else that ever came out of a Renaissance Faire. Daniel Singer, Jess Borgeson and Adam Long condensed “Hamlet,” then gradually added “Romeo and Juliet” – then got greedy and dumped the rest in as well.

Years of touring and tweaking led to “overnight” success, and the brave adumbrators have since moved on to distill the Bible, American history, the Great Books, and so forth for a paying public.

The results are a riot. Whether you are the apotheosis of the cognoscenti or completely troglodytic, you will enjoy this show. The players tell you all you need to know (such as: Shakespeare invaded Poland in 1939?) and then illustrate their points with brio, a dash of insouciance and a big slice of ham.

And, to paraphrase Bobby Terrance, it’s the ham of truth. Like any cultural monument, Shakespeare needs the pigeon poop power-hosed off him from time to time. It’s centuries past the time a fresh conception of what Shakespeare was about existed. In many ways, we know him through a distorted, dirty lens. The buffoons of “Complete” pull out the funhouse mirrors instead. They have no agenda; they don’t care about analysis, criticism, or comment. They want us to have fun. They succeed.

Even the program’s funny. Make sure to read their section before the lights go down.

Kent’s clueless confidence, Weitz’s staggeringly long takes, and Mueller’s loony string of female roles (and antic vomiting sprees) mix with rapid-fire comic combat, puns, drag and more to keep things hopping. (There are a few jokes for the older set, so young children might feel left out of the fun at times, unless they are already dating and getting high.)

That being said, “Complete (Abridged)” IS fun, guaranteed. Go see it!

“The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 15. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

CULTURAMA: ‘Two Gents’ fails to satisfy at CSF

Jamie Ann Romero as Julia and Karyn Casl as Lucetta in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." (Photo by Kira Horvath for CU Communications)

OK, there are these two guys from Verona . . .

Not an inspiring opening. OK, guys, “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is, by critical consensus, Shakespeare’s first play. As such, it doesn’t rate very highly on the Bardometer.

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the play suffers from a desperate sense of shame. Sure, “Two Gentlemen” . . . well . . . the script kinda stinks. In his introduction to the play in the Oxford edition of Shakespeare’s Complete Works, Stanley Wells even admits that “the play has succeeded best when subjected to adaptation.”

So the team for “Two Gents,” led by director Tom Markus, constructed conceptual scaffolding for it. Beyond that, they built an entire play about doing the play around it. With extraneous characters, loads of extra dialogue, and digressions that involve limericks, the hokey-pokey, insights, and such.

It’s a late rehearsal of a CSF production of “The Two Gentlemen of Verona.” (Bruce Bergner’s set works well.) The actors are in a mix of costume pieces and street clothes. The production’s haughty English director outlines his concept, the actors grumble, drink, and talk on their cell phones. These scenes are interspersed with those from the play. The result is not so enjoyable.

Now, I don’t mind anyone monkeying with Shakespeare. Not any more. I have seen “The Tempest” in outer space, “King Lear” as a Western, “Titus Andronicus! The Musical,” a Desert Storm “Julius Caesar.” I have seen 10-minute, and 8-hour, “Hamlet”s. Adapt away.

But make it work. CSF’s “Two Gents” doesn’t work because a) it doesn’t trust the material and b) it gives us something worse in supplement to it. A good try, but let’s move on.

Everyone does their best with what they’ve given to work with. Actually, the “Two Gentleman” scenes are fine, with moments of comic invention and pathos. Despite the constant interruptions, Matt Mueller makes something out of Proteus, and Jamie Ann Romero proves as adept comically as Julia as she did dramatically as Ophelia in the concurrently-running CSF “Hamlet.”

Alexandra C. Lewis is a perfect figure of grace as Silvia, Sam Sandoe has some fun as her father, the duke of Milan . . . and of course who doesn’t love those kooky outlaws.

Listen: we’re Shakespeare fans, we’re tough, we can take it. Let’s face it, not every word out of him was of the highest caliber. But hey! This is a Shakespeare festival and sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it.

For instance, I’m sure we’ll have to run into “King John” again someday. Just don’t bring him in at the end, when he’s dying, on a surfboard or a giant French fry or anything like that. Unless it works.

“The Two Gentlemen of Verona” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 9. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

CULTURAMA: Tenderness and tragedy -- "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival

Sam Gregory as Atticus Finch and Ellie Schwartz as Scout in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "To Kill a Mockingbird." (Photo by Glenn Asakawa for CU Communications)

One definition of a classic is something that rewards repeated encounters with new meanings.

Such is Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1960 novel, “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Its first-person evocation of a childhood in the American South, its gripping tale of prejudice, courage and empathy, struck a chord with readers immediately.

Since then, its impact has never diminished. The 1962 Oscar-winning film adaptation is itself a deeply affecting work. The book is taught in our schools, and sometimes it’s banned in our libraries (use of the ‘n’ word and frank talk about rape cited as reasons).

It should be no surprise that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival might see it as a fit work to stage. The current production, under the direction of the incredibly gifted Jane Page, is strong and compelling, a classic in every sense of the word.

Firstly, the story itself is brilliant – compelling and insightful. Christopher Sergel’s adaptation of the play, first staged in London in 1988, is a skillful translation of the work’s essence.

Over her career, Page has demonstrated her ability to summon the best out of both the materials and the ensemble at hand, on and backstage. This “Mockingbird” is no different. The pace and tone fit the piece perfectly, and the cast seems sprung from its pages.

Once again, Andrea Bechert’s set design gets the job done with elegant efficiency, and Kevin Brainerd’s costumes and Victor En Yu Tan’s lighting collaborate admirably with Page’s intentions.

The production frames the tale as a memory play, narrated by the now-grown Jean Louise Finch (played gracefully here by Tammy Meneghini). In truth, the story is so familiar to most that it could be played on a bare stage. The actors are key here, and a particular difficulty is finding the right child actors to play the young Jean Louise – the scruffy, feisty “Scout” – and her older brother Jem.

Fortunately, Ellie Schwartz and Connor Schearrer are great as Scout and Jem, respectively. Alex Rosenthal does similarly as their temporary neighbor and friend, Dill. The three children refract the events of Scout’s remembered 1935 summer in their tiny, dusty Alabama town through their personalities, and the actors let those lights shine through.

The most daunting role of all, of course, is that of Atticus Finch, the children’s father. A principled, modest hero who takes on the hopeless case of a black man charged with the rape of a white woman, the role is tough enough to begin with.

Then, consider that every actor who takes on the role must contend with the enormous shadow cast by Gregory Peck’s indelible portrayal in the film. It’s difficult to cast that interpretation out of your mind and make the role your own.

Sam Gregory, who also essays a great Leonato in CSF’s current production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” is an exemplary Atticus. He takes an impossibly good character and gives him humanity. The same is true for Doug Bynum as Tom Robinson, the condemned man who faces no chance of acquittal from the all-white jury judging him.

Other standouts include Steven Patterson as the conflicted sheriff Heck Tate, Kristen Adele’s Calpurnia, Michael Kane in the small but crucial role of “Boo” Radley, and Chip Persons and Emily Schmidt-Beuchat as Robinson’s accusers, the dastardly Ewells.

One of the big beefs with “Mockingbird” is that its characters are flat and, morally, black and white, and there’s some truth to that. But part of that comes from the unequivocal gaze of its child narrator. Part of it comes from the fact that “Mockingbird” is something of a fable, a morality play.

But Harper Lee imbued it with a magical, unforgettable quality, and it is with us now, for better or for worse. I think we are the better for it. Thanks to the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, that vision lives onstage as well.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 5. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Monday, July 20, 2009

OLDFANGLED: Buffalo Bill's unquiet grave

(An expanded version of an article originally published in 5280 magazine in 2007.)

“Buffalo Bill’s
who used to
ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death”

e.e. cummings

Ninety-two years after his burial on the top of Lookout Mountain, does the spirit of Buffalo Bill still rest unquietly?

William F. Cody lived many lives in one. He was a Pony Express rider, trapper, prospector, Civil War soldier, Army scout, Indian fighter and, of course, buffalo hunter. What distinguished him from his frontier contemporaries such as Will Bill Hickock was his flair for self-promotion.

“He was known as the most handsome man in America, and was the best-known American in the world,” says prominent Denver historian Thomas J. Noel.

Beginning in 1872 with stage appearances in adaptations of the dime novels that brought him national fame, Cody established himself as the archetype of the bold plainsman, complete with fringed buckskin jacket, flowing locks and signature goatee.

Remarkably, he also set in stone the popular vision of the American West. Having hatched the idea of an “Old Glory Blow-Out” in his home town of North Platte, Nebraska on July 4, 1882, which is often cited as the origin of the rodeo, Cody (with the able assistance of manager Nate Salsbury and pioneering press agent John M. Burke) created Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.

From 1883 to 1913, it traveled the world, crafting out of a collection of riding, roping and sharpshooting exhibitions and a band of cowboys, Native Americans, and vaqueros a “national entertainment” that appealed to all classes and ages alike, and delivered the legend of Manifest Destiny as a historical pageant. “Re-enactments” of the Pony Express, Indian attacks, stagecoach robberies, and even Custer’s Last Stand kept crowds that ranged from, literally, the crowned heads of Europe to throngs of orphans, enthralled. Packaged as living memories of a disappearing era, it taught two generations ways of thinking about the West that are still passed along in the media today. “Pahaska” (the Sioux name for Bill, meaning “Long Hair”) was one of the first international celebrities.

It’s ironic, then, that the frontier scout whose reputation as a pathfinder was justly unparalleled should find himself so far from home. In 1907, Cody’s will dictated that he be buried near his namesake town of Cody, Wyoming. However, as the years passed, so did Cody’s business acumen. The debt-ridden showman had placed himself in the power of the unscrupulous co-owner of the Denver Post, Henry Tammen, who auctioned off the assets of the Wild West show in Denver in 1913, and used Cody’s indebtedness to him to force him to act as master of ceremonies for his Sells-Floto Circus from 1914 on.

By the time the 70-year-old Cody died in the home of his sister at 2932 Lafayette St. on Jan. 9, 1917, of uremic poisoning brought on by kidney failure, his will was no longer his own.

It has long been rumored that Tammen, with the aid of a $10,000 bribe to Cody’s estranged widow Louisa, conspired to have him interred against his wishes in Colorado, the better to profit from the late scout’s corporeal presence. Both Cody and North Platte clamored for the right to bury him.

“Everybody realized that it would be great tourist attraction,” says Noel.

Cody’s funeral was held in Denver on a freezing Jan. 15, 1917, with thousands filing past his body in state at the capitol building. His body was then placed in the Olinger Mortuary at 2600 16th St., supposedly under armed guard, for six months, while the authorities waited for the dirt roads that led up the mountain west of Golden to become passable. (The body was re-embalmed six more times.)

On June 3, 1917, a motorcade ferried what was estimated as between 7,000 and 20,000 mourners to the summit of the peak to pay final homage to the “knight of the saddle,” as News correspondent Meredith Davis floridly referred to him. The widow ordered the casket opened, and poems, songs and trumpet fanfares stirred the summer air as attendees filed past the coffin for a final glimpse of their hero. At 3 p.m., the coffin was lowered into the concrete-lined vault; a photograph shows the words “BURGLAR PROOF GRAVE VAULT” embossed on its side.

Just to make sure, several tons of concrete, reinforced with iron rails, eventually topped the gravesite. The undertaker is said to have stated that grave robbers “would have to blow the top off Lookout Mountain” to get at the body. In fact, when his wife Louisa died in 1921, it proved impossible to dig down to his level – so they buried her on top of him, sealing them both in with more concrete.

Meanwhile, Cody’s adopted son and Wild West sharpshooter Johnny Baker proposed in 1920 that the city of Denver allow him to construct a building adjacent to the grave to house Buffalo Bill memorabilia, as well as “the sale of the Colonel’s books, postcards, photographic views, candies, and light refreshments.” The deal was struck, and the “Pahaska Tepee” was built.

Still, the controversy wasn’t over. Serious calls for the repatriation of Cody’s corpse continued as late as 1948, once prompting the National Guard to drive a tank up Lariat Trail Road to stand guard over Bill’s remains.

The museum/gift shop’s rag-tag assemblage was presided over by Baker until 1931, and by his widow until 1956. The city took over the site, and a freestanding museum building was finally completed nearby in 1979. Today, it is presided over by director Steve Friesen, who in 12 years has crafted a more interesting and even-handed display of Cody’s life and legacy than visitors have ever before enjoyed.

“Every once in a while somebody up in Wyoming gets a wild hair going,” he says of disgruntlement over Buffalo Bill’s final resting place. As recently as last year, he states, consultants in Cody recommended a renewed effort to disinter the pioneer.

“They said, ‘You need to get Buffalo Bill’s body here,’” he chuckles, and goes on to characterize the repositories of Buffalo Billiana as sharing “a good-natured rivalry.”

So Buffalo Bill still sleeps ‘neath Colorado skies, trapped under the wife he avoided in life, catching the pitched pennies tossed on his tomb for luck by travelers, still a moneymaker through the auspices of the nearby gift shop, still a showman in death.

“It’s pretty up there,” Louisa Cody reported her husband saying of Lookout Mountain shortly before his death.

Tom Noel chimes in with a wry quote from Voltaire -- “History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead.”

Sunday, July 19, 2009

CULTURAMA: Mighty 'Big River' at the Arvada Center

Alan H. Green (left) as Jim and Alan Shaw as Huck in the Arvada Center's production of "Big River." (Photo by P. Switzer/Courtesy Arvada Center)

Good theater springs up in unlikely places.

When the Arvada Center opened in 1976, no one thought that it might one day become a regional center for professional-quality theatrical productions. The main stage, for instance, was poorly designed and had extreme technical limitations. Ambitions, likewise, didn’t extend much past the community-theater level.

After decades of patient effort, and thanks largely to the vision of Artistic Producer Rod Lansberry, the Center is a success story. Case in point: its current production of “Big River,” the award-winning musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s classic novel “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

Of course, it would be difficult for an adapter to ruin the original’s charm, but what makes the work soar is its score. Roger Miller’s brilliant roster of songs is reason enough to attend a performance, and “River in the Rain” is already a standard.

Before “Big River,” there was country sound on the Broadway stage – at least faux country. The Gershwins used Nevada as a gimmick setting in “Girl Crazy” in 1930, and shows such as “Oklahoma!”, “Shenandoah” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” gave nods to the flavor and instrumentation of rural acoustic music.

But Miller, the country composer/performer who had already won more Grammy awards than anyone would until Michael Jackson came along, was the real deal. He was more than equal to the occasion, using the genre in an effective, expressive way. In “Big River,” for which he won a Tony award, he crafted songs that not only capture but augment and supplement the original material.

William Hauptman’s book aptly condenses its sprawling source, shaping it into a swift-moving, entertaining evening with – gasp! – actual content.

Despite the adolescent high jinks, the emotional center of the piece is Jim, the escaped slave and Huck’s bosom companion who travels down the Mississippi with him. (Twain’s Jim was the first instance of a white writer coming within spitting distance of portraying a black character as a dimensional human being.)

Hauptman and Miller use “Big River” to open up the work past Huck’s first-person perspective, illuminating Jim’s suffering. Passages such as “The Crossing” and “Free at Last” show the underside of Twain’s universe – institutionalized slavery as a poison that ruined the souls of the enslaved and the enslavers.

Director/choreographer Stephen Bourneuf knows how to put a show across. Brian Mallgrave’s efficient, versatile set helps the action move along seamlessly, helped along by Nicole Harrison’s beautiful period costumes, Gail Gober’s lighting plot and Steve Stevens’ sound design.

Vocally, the cast sparkles – in particular, Gabrielle Goyette and Valisia Lekae pull out all the stops during their solos. Alan Shaw’s Huck, though ingratiating, is overshadowed by the immense presence of Alan H. Green as Jim. Other standouts include Kitty Skillman Hilsabeck as the sour and proper Miss Watson, and Emily van Fleet as Mary Jane Wilkes.

The biggest delight of the evening is the duo of rapscallions, the King (Eric Leviton) and the Duke (Jim Newman), two con artists who hijack Jim and Huck, using them to help them fleece the populace as they float downriver. Newman’s hopelessly awful pseudo-Shakespearean pomposity, combined with Leviton’s drawling sarcasms, makes every moment with them on stage a pleasure.

Knowing the story won’t preclude enjoying seeing it in this incarnation. Those who don’t know it will find “Big River” a stirring, entertaining introduction.

“Big River” is presented by the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, through Aug. 9. For tickets and information, please visit www.arvadacenter.org or call 720-898-7200.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

BLUEGRASS: Blue Canyon Boys' new CD a treat

House Full of Sorrow
The Blue Canyon Boys

A lot of bluegrass bands are slick but lose the soul. The Blue Canyon Boys have both quantities in equal measure.

Winning the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition is no walk in the park. When The Blue Canyon Boys did so in 2008, it was a tribute to their musicianship and hard work. This, their third album, showcases a blend of keening voices, powerful drive and some of the most brisk picking heard recently.

The quartet – Drew Garrett on bass, Gary Dark on mandolin, Jason Hicks on guitar and Jeff Scroggins on banjo – tackles an astute mix of old and new here. Rollicking instrumentals such as “Daybreak in Dixie” and “New Camptown Races” alternate with strong pieces by Hicks like the melancholy “Wondering What Happened to You” and Dark’s simple, beautiful “Lyin’, Cheatin’, Cryin’”.

A most soulful time is had with standards such as “Winsborough Cotton Mill Blues,” the Stanleys’ “Highway of Regret,” and an enchanting live version of “Jesus on the Mainline.” Sometimes, you get the feeling that a group is covering gospel material because it’s expected; the Boys bring it from the heart.

In the “everything’s a potential bluegrass song” category, Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” is hilariously apt. The entire group is lightning-fast on the strings, and possessed of precision. The result is a high-energy, pointillist attack that enlivens the listener and encourages repeat listens.

Catching up with Dr. Banjo: Pete Wernick juggles projects, work with Steve Martin

Pete Wernick is a busy, busy banjo man. (Photo by Kevin Ferguson/Courtesy www.drbanjo.com)

Reprinted from the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society's Pow'r Pickin

Banjo legend Pete Wernick is also one heck of a juggler.

The 62-year-old instrumentalist, composer, singer, bandleader, educator and doctor of sociology (thus the Dr. Banjo monicker) is working in four different musical ensembles these days.

In addition to his own group, Flexigrass, he performs as half of a duo with his wife, guitarist and singer Joan; as an addition to the relatively new local ensemble, Long Road Home; and of course an as integral part of the periodic reunion concerts given by the seminal progressive bluegrass group Hot Rize.

He also spends many weeks a year teaching at bluegrass camps across the country. He is editing two more instructional videos this month (he’s got seven under his belt, plus “about seven books”).

He writes a monthly column for Banjo Newsletter. He works diligently on his Web site, www.DrBanjo.com (over 150 questions answered in his “Ask Dr. Banjo” column to date!).

Oh yeah, did we mention a new Pete & Joan CD is in the works? And, hey, he just finished collaborating on Steve Martin’s new CD The Crow: New Songs for the Five-String Banjo, a departure into serious bluegrass for the famous comedian that has attracted a great deal of popular interest.

“A lot of people seem interested in Steve Martin,” Wernick says in his usual wry, understated way.

The two developed a friendship a few years ago, after Wernick learned that Martin cited him as an inspiration – “it was very strange to hear an icon of American culture saying that he admires me!”

They eventually met, jammed, and started hanging out together. Hot Rize wound up playing at Martin’s wedding in 2007. Martin began to work on some original banjo tunes.

In 2008, Martin passed around a demo recording of 18 pieces for possible use to Wernick, Tony Trischka and John McEuen, the last a friend of Martin’s since high school. The project jelled into being fairly quickly, with recording sessions last summer in the studio of Dae Bennett, Tony Bennett’s son, in New Jersey, a short distance from Manhattan over the George Washington Bridge.

Over 30 bluegrass and country greats ended up contributing to the recording. Wernick co-wrote one cut, “Words Unspoken.”

“Of those 18 initial pieces, I liked the last one, which was only about 30 seconds long,” he says. “I asked Steve, ‘What are you going to do with it?’” Wernick asked Martin if he minded if Wernick tried to add a second part to it.

“I wrote a second part for it, and we expanded it. Then I said, ‘It sounds like a song.’” The two wrote lyrics separately and then combined them over the course of a lengthy long-distance call.

(The album’s liner notes state that “the lyrics are practically finished,” and as yet it’s still an instrumental piece.)

Wernick doesn’t know if Martin is interested in touring with his music, and he wonders if the quiet, private writer and performer might like resuming the rigorous life of a touring performer.

Wernick certainly does. He is traveling quite a bit with Flexigrass, a heady mix of bluegrass and classic jazz sounds. Wernick is clear that the emphasis is on roots music with unique instrumentation, to wit: clarinet (Bill Pontarelli) in place of a fiddle, vibraphone (Greg Harris) in lieu of guitar, and drums (Kris Ditson) fulfilling what Wernick calls the “pulse function” of a mandolin.

The group, now in its 17th year, “carries the same kind of musical density” as a bluegrass outfit, says Wernick, and it’s been welcomed across the country.

Wernick appreciates events such as Merlefest “giving this kind of music a home.”

On top of that, Wernick recently joined the straight-ahead ensemble Long Road Home, working with Martin Gilmore on guitar, Justin Hoffenberg on fiddle, and Jordan Ramsey on mandolin, as well as Nashville Bluegrass Band vet Gene Libbea on bass.

“‘I’m dying to do (traditional) bluegrass,’” he told Hoffenberg when he was told that the band needed a banjo player. The group has been touring, and recording sessions last month in eTown Hall in Boulder should yield a live album in the near future.

Meanwhile, Hot Rize endures. The groundbreaking group, which stopped touring full-time in 1990, survived the death of guitarist Charles Sawtelle in 1999, reformed in 2002 with Bryan Sutton on guitar.

They return to the RockyGrass festival in Lyons, north of Boulder, in late July – and the rumor that Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers, Hot Rize’s wacky country-swing alter egos, are back is confirmed.

“The Trailblazers will be back this year,” says Wernick, smiling. “They did a long set at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival last year – nearly two and a half hours at the dance stage.”

Wernick still sees Hot Rize as his “peak experience,” a life-changing achievement that, in his eyes, “helped make Colorado a center for bluegrass.”

He sees his work as a teacher as his most lasting influence, however.

“You really affect people’s lives when you get them to play with others,” he says. “Many, many people love to play but they play by themselves, they are stuck in this box. We call it ‘closet picking.’ They stay in that stage, they get discouraged, and they give up. Playing well is only half of it – you have to learn to give and take with other musicians. So, hopefully, we save these people from undeserved oblivion.”

Taken all in all, how does he balance all these commitments? He states that he thinks and plans only about three months in advance, staying “pleasantly busy.” When he finds himself with an open week, he’s glad to catch up on things at home, his two acres north of Boulder, which is crossed by Left Hand Creek.

“People ask, ‘Do you have a little studio where you create?’” he says. “And I do – I have a funky little shack I built in the back, down by the creek. It’s strictly functional, not built for looks, and that’s where I work out a lot of my ideas. It’s so nice – a spot by a creek, a pleasant place to be.”

For more information about the Colorado Bluegrass Music Society, please click this link.

Monday, July 13, 2009

CULTURAMA: "Much Ado About Nothing" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Perfect fools

Geoffrey Kent as Benedick and Karen Slack as Beatrice in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of "Much Ado About Nothing." (Photo by Kira Horvath for CU Communications)

Comedy is hard. Shakespeare is hard. Therefore, Shakespearean comedy carries the highest degree of difficulty possible, for performers and audience members alike.

Luckily, Shakespeare’s comedies are, by and large, actually funny. It takes an astute director and ensemble to flesh out the promise of those gags and the real feelings couched in that antiquated language. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival’s production of the romantic comedy “Much Ado About Nothing” is blessed with that – and it’s triumphantly hilarious, one of the best shows they’ve staged in recent memory.

This show will cure anyone with Shakespeare-itis. You know if you’re afflicted – your eyes begin to roll back into your head when you hear iambic pentameter, doublets and hose give you the conniptions, and you fall into a narcoleptic coma well before the end of Act V.

Well, there are reasons the Bard is the Bard. He knows how to tell a story, he knows how to write dialogue, his characters are lively and intense. No amount of horrible English classes or other forced indoctrinations to his work will change that.

At CSF, everyone from director Lynne Collins down to the humblest supernumerary is focused on the same thing – making us laugh. They succeed splendidly. Collins has set her ensemble free: free to find the funny and work it. The dreaded Shakespearean language barrier is vaporized; you can follow the action with the same kind of relaxed clarity the players being to their performances.

The production is set in summery Spain in the mid-1930’s, a time when liberalism and conservative values warred bloodlessly, until the region tipped into civil war at the end of the decade. The warm, bright colors of Andrea Bechert’s attractive, straightforward set, anchored around a functional fountain in its center, give the proceedings a cartoonish flush.

The gist of the matter is love lost, found and confused. Geoff Kent and Karen Slack are perfectly matched as the witty, warring Benedick and Beatrice, two madcap personalities who are tricked into revealing their true feelings for each other. Neither is afraid to bend the play’s language, play with its rhythm, bring the audience into their confidence, or break up a speech with an apt bit of business or touch of physical comedy.

The play’s second, “serious” couple, Hero and Claudio are equally well-drawn by Caitlin Wise and Ben Bonenfant. The paterfamilias of the piece, Leonato, is played so adeptly and with such gravitas by Sam Gregory that he seems to gather the moral focus of the piece. Whether the trickster or the tricked as the plot demands, he radiates authority and emotion in clear and ringing tones.

Steven Patterson is just great as Don Pedro, the brother-in-arms of Benedick and Claudio. His rough-hewn, teasing soldier’s wit is pitched perfectly. The biggest surprise of the night is Michael Kane. He begins the evening as the peevish villain of the piece, Don John (his agonized melancholy is a great choice for the character) and then reappears, unrecognizably, as the affable, demented and stooped constabulary sidekick, Verges.

His crime-fighting partner is Chip Persons, as wonderfully daft a Dogberry as I can remember seeing. Clad in beret, luxuriant mustachios, and crossed bandoliers, he murders the language and the crowd with his stylized gestures and blissful ignorance.

It takes great diligence to strip away the layers of scholarship, and the intimidating reputation of Shakespeare, to get to the essence of his work and make a compelling show out of it. “Much Ado” does. Anyone who needs a laugh should snap up tickets for this show as soon as possible.

“Much Ado About Nothing” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 7. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"Hamlet" at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival: a bloody conundrum

Stephen Weitz as Hamlet, and Gary Wright as the Gravedigger, in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival's production of "Hamlet." (Photo by Kira Horvath for CU Communications)

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival is a juggernaut. On it rolls, cranking out the Bard’s works for the delectation and edification of its audience.

This isn’t such a terrible thing. I used to think, “Better no Bard than bad Bard,” but let’s face it – it’s so damn difficult to do well. Theater people don’t tackle Shakespeare; they dash themselves at it, like climbers at Annapurna. Sometimes they make it to the summit – and sometimes they die.

Whatever happens, they learn, as do the audiences that witness their work. Such is the case with the production of “Hamlet” that opened the CSF season. It’s an uneven effort that communicates the gist of the play without ever really getting off the ground.

CSF’s Producing Artistic Director Philip C. Sneed is the director, and he sets the play in a provisional space of unfinished, propped-up forms (Andrea Bechert’s scenic design). Similarly, the actors are costumed in a hodgepodge of overlapping styles – doublets and jeans, T-shirts and dusters. Claudius is swathed in what looks like yards of Persian carpet, topped like an Assyrian frieze (Clare Henkel put the costumes together).

The intent is to provide the audience with a sense of time out of joint, to paraphrase Hamlet himself. The spare approach to the staging is appealing, but the admixture of styles weakens the play’s impact and is distracting to boot. Anything that takes the focus off this difficult piece should be jettisoned.

According the to production’s dramaturge, “we examined the three printed versions of ‘Hamlet’ line by line, taking some lines from each in order to create what we judged to be the most interesting and compelling version of the play.” That’s well and good. What’s there makes sense. A lot is chopped out, too – also good, since only the hardiest venturers can endure an unexpurgated version of “Hamlet.” I miss Fortinbras, though.

Despite the streamlining, and the attempts to universalize it by unmooring it from specificities, the visceral fascination of the play is missing. The players themselves seemed distanced from the material. There are a number of funny moments that . . . well . . . really oughtn’t to be funny, you know? It’s a solid, legible effort, but unaffecting.

As for the performers, the best are the Polonius trio. Sam Sandoe’s Polonius is spot-on – he’s the pompous, well-meaning fool Shakespeare wrote him to be, and his clear tenor voice is a model of clarity and communication. Jamie Ann Romero’s Ophelia slides convincingly from coyness into madness, and Mat Hostetler as her brother Laertes is refreshingly straightforward. Gary Alan Wright, who doubles as Hamlet’s father and the Gravedigger, is properly spooky as the former and a riot as the latter, with a little help from sidekick Alex Malone.

Stephen Weitz has an uphill battle as Hamlet. He’s the linchpin of a confused production, which hampers him. Still, he struggles manfully on, giving full play to the main character’s nimble intellect and sense of humor, if not convincingly his passion (note: not his intensity, his passion – big difference).

It doesn’t help Weitz that his nemesis, Claudius, is portrayed by someone out of his depth in the role. (Caveat lector: this actor is a well-respected regular at the festival, about whom I have caviled time and time again . . . sorry I couldn’t be more positive yet again this time.) Claudius as written is a commanding, manipulative villain. This one doesn’t look like he’d be comfortable making decisive dinner reservations, much less executing a plan to murder his brother and nail his sister-in-law.

So, to sum up: it’s a good introductory “Hamlet.” It’s OK. Ouch.

“Hamlet” is presented by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on the campus of the University of Colorado in Boulder through Aug. 9. Ticket prices range from $14 to $54 each; however, there are discounts for multi-show purchases, CU students, staff and faculty; and those under 18. For more info, please visit www.coloradoshakes.org or call 303-492-0554.

Monday, July 6, 2009

OLDFANGLED: Don't cry for me, Travalena: the death of celebrity impressions

A cascade of celebrity deaths tends to turn up the heat at news Web sites. A mixture of genuine sadness, nostalgia for what the late person of note represented, and sheer ghoulishness draw numbers.

In death, there is a final hierarchy. Farah Fawcett's demise was abruptly and immediately overshadowed by Michael Jackson's. Twelve years ago, Robert Mitchum's passing was passed over when Jimmy Stewart died a day later.

One of the overlooked entertainers who recently left this life with muted fanfare was Fred Travalena - a 66-year-old, brilliantly talented and hardworking comedian and singer who specialized in celebrity impersonations. His death on June 28 merited little widespread attention, but prompted a thought: for 30-40 years, a wildly popular wave of imitators crowded the stage and screens. What happened to them?

Although the successful have always spawned imitators, mimicry as an art form didn't really take off until the invention of mass media. Being well-known became a form of commoditization: the personality as coin.

Charlie Chaplin was probably the first to be copied: lookalikes such as Billy West and Billy Ritchie profited by copying Chaplin's persona, mannerisms and gags in their own films. Charles Amador, who billed himself as "Charlie Aplin," was successfully sued by his model in 1925 for copyright infringement.

No vaudeville performer worth his salt was without an impression or two in his grab bag of tricks. Many a turn onstage was saved by an earnest if inexpert take on the phenomenally popular and distinctive Al Jolson ("Mammy!").

Even the early cartoons used celebrity caricatures as a hook. Disney's 1938 "Mother Goose Goes Hollywood" and Warner Brothers' 1941 "Hollywood Steps Out" utilized the recognition factor. From 1931 through 1945, the incredibly popular "The March of Time" radio news program delivered reports on current events - dramatized and enacted by imitators of world leaders (Art Carney got his start there as the voice of FDR).

By the time World War II ended, a common cultural landscape had been created by the media giants. Movies, radio and magazines had made the phrase "household names" an accurate one. There was a pantheon of stars to imitate and a generation of talent willing to imitate them.

Presidential imitation hit the spotlight in November of 1962, when Vaughn Meader's "The First Family" record album, a gentle spoof of the Kennedys, became the fastest-selling album in history, eventually selling 7.5 million copies and winning a Grammy as Album of the Year. (Of course, Kennedy's assassination a year later destroyed Meader's career. A legendary anecdote about Lenny Bruce has the great comic saying, to open his first show after Kennedy's death, "Vaughn Meader is screwed.")

The golden years of celebrity impressions played out in nightclubs and "supper clubs" across the country - inheritors of the kind of acts that used to tour legitimate theaters across the country. As TV grew in importance, one appearance on powerhouse showcases such as "The Ed Sullivan Show" and ABC's "The Hollywood Palace" could make an aspiring performer's career.

The cream of the crop were chameleons such as Travalena, Frank Gorshin, Rich Little, Charlie Callas, George Kirby, Joe Baker, David Frye and John Byner. All of the above save Frye and Byner, with the addition of Marilyn Michaels, appeared in seven astonishing episodes of "The ABC Comedy Hour" (aka "The Kopycats") in 1972. Strong writing and amiable and cooperative guest stars made this a memorable endeavor.

And they kept playing - but audiences were getting older. The common coin of mainstream culture was beginning to fragment, and the 60's generation wasn't very interested in imitations of James Cagney, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and the like. Later generations wouldn't even know who they were.

The primary inheritors of the imitative tradition became TV sketch shows, in particular SCTV, "Saturday Night Live," and "MADtv." Impressions of political and entertainment figures, and even the momentarily notorious, became an important part of a performer's skill set - especially for people such as Joe Piscopo, Billy Crystal, Dana Carvey, Phil Hartman, Jan Hooks, and Bobby Lee. Without camerawork and prosthetics, though, few could take that act on the road.

The surviving impressionists worked to increasingly older audiences in the venues to which that decaying demographic is lured - cruise ships, Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and casinos and other gigs in between.

A few success stories linger on. Presidential mimics such Steve Bridges (George W. Bush), and Iman Crosson (Obama) still thrive. Lookalikes for hire are a particularly strange subset of the genre: think of all the Elvis imitators, and people like Steve Sires, a ringer for Bill Gates who has stirred the wrath of Microsoft for the uses to which he puts his likeness. Not to mention Edward Moss, a professional Michael Jackson copy who was actually hired as a stand-in by Jackson himself: will his career blossom or fade with his original's demise?

A few comics can use impressions in balance with a strong comic act. Danny Gans, who died unexpected on May 1 at the age of 52, was a Vegas impersonator superstar. Standup Kevin Pollak's takes on William Shatner and Christopher Walken are complemented by his quick wit and versatility as an actor.

Craig Gass, Greg London, Frank Caliendo ("FrankTV"), Louise DuArt, Daniele Gaither and Terry Fator, "The Human Jukebox," are among the few who make a living from imitations today. As well, radio "stooges" for personalities such as Howard Stern, Don Imus and Rush Limbaugh aid their hosts in castigating those in the spotlight with handy impressions of them, which fade away with that person's prominence.

Without a common cultural context and lexicon, the glory days of stepping into the look and sound of others for fun and profit may be fading away -- forever.

NRR Project: 'Gregorio Cortez'

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