Friday, February 13, 2015

Bernadette Peters in Concert

Last weekend Bernadette Peters was in town to perform for one night.  Well, not really in town.  She was in St. Charles at Lindenwood University's J. Scheiddegger Center for the Arts.  This was my first visit to this facility, and I was impressed.

I've seen Bernadette Peters in concert a few times and she was, as usual, highly entertaining.  Wearing a signature slinky gown, backed by a full orchestra, she strutted onto the stage to perform Let Me Entertain You, a song from the musical Gypsy, which she starred in a few years ago on Broadway.  That wasn't one of the songs she sang in that show but it was the type of song that Peters loves to sell. She followed that up with No One is Alone from Into the Woods, another show she starred in on Broadway and another song she didn't perform in the original production. From there she went on to There is Nothing Like a Dame, from Rogers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.  This number is usually performed by a chorus of men dressed as sailors but Peters vamped it in high style. 

The nice thing about a concert is that the performer can perform Broadway Musical songs that she would be the wrong age, or sex, or even size to perform in the actual Broadway show. And Peters took advantage of that, performing Some Enchanted Evening, again from South Pacific, and Johanna from Sweeney Todd.  She did When I Marry Mr. Snow from Carousel, a song she would now be far to old to perform in the show itself.

In between numbers she chatted to the audience, although I had heard much of her schtick about having a house in Florida to sell before.  Although she must be in her mid-60's she looks great and can still pull off the sexy pout when singing the Peggy Lee classic, Fever, on top of a piano.

But my favorite part of the show was the two songs from Follies that she sang.  These were songs she sang herself in the show a couple of years ago:  In Buddy's Eyes and Am I Losing My Mind.  Peters can take a lyric and deliver it in a way that makes you hear it for the first time.  I would have predicted that I didn't need to hear Send in the Clowns ever again in my life, but she made it fresh.

Her high notes are not always as bell-like as they have been in the past, but she can still deliver. And she is probably the world's leading interpreter of the songs of Stephen Sondheim.   One of my favorite songs that she performs is Sondheim's You Could Drive a Person Crazy.

Her final song was Sondheim's Being Alive, and she gave it her all.  For an encore she performed a song that she wrote herself to support her favorite charity, Broadway Barks. 

It was a wonderful evening of show tunes by a Broadway legend.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tango Buenos Aires

I'm a sucker for live tango (for filmed tango too, for that matter).  I can never get over the fact that they aren't accidentally kicking each other through the whole performance.  I constantly rue the fact that I am uncoordinated and could never learn to tango - I mean, really tango.

Dance St. Louis brought us, this past weekend, "direct from Buenos Aires, Argentina" Tango Buenos Aires performing "a journey through dance and music of the life of Eva Peron".   The live dance performance was accompanied by live music (always a joy) performed by an ensemble of pianist Fernando Marzon, bandoneon players Marco Antonio Fernandez and Emiliano Guerrero, violinist Mayumi Urgino and bassists Roberto Santocono and Sebastian Noya (there was only one bass in our performance and I don't know which one was playing).

Bandoneons are like accordians - the old fashioned kind - like what the Italian waiter plays in the famous spaghetti scene in Lady and the Tramp.  Some of the music was familiar and some was composed for the performance.  All of the musicians were wonderful but I particularly liked the violinist who had a couple of extensive solos that brought huge rounds of applause from the audience.

You'll notice that I'm speaking more of the music than the dance.  That's because the music in a way seemed the center of the evening.  The dancers sometimes (not always) seemed secondary.  

The "journey" was, of course, all in dance.  If I didn't already have an idea of the biography of Eva Peron (mostly from watching Evita) I probably would have been lost.  But it wouldn't have mattered because most of the dances could have stood alone without a story.  At the end of the first act the men perform Las Boleadoras - these are dances where each man holds an Argentinian tool used to catch cattle in the countryside in each of his hands - ropes with a weight at the end.  The men would swing the two ropes and make clacking noises on the ground with them.  The combination of dance and the rhythmic sounds of the ropes hitting the ground were compelling.  Then one of the men took center stage and performed on his own for a good 10 minutes without any accompaniment other than two box drums that the other dancers drummed.  At times he swung his ropes so fast that it was hard to believe that he wouldn't hit himself with the ropes.   The audience was wowed.

The second act also had some dances between various couples that were exquisitely done.  Strangely, the program never told us the names of the various dancers so I don't know who was who.  It seemed that the female dancers especially were of varying degrees of virtuosi, one of them seemed more of a beginner than the others.  Another was perfect, holding herself straight and haughty - the way you always picture tango dancers - her arms and hands casually elegant and her footwork impeccable.

Tango Buenos Aires has visited St. Louis a number of times previously.  I always enjoy them when I get a chance to see them.  I hope they come back the next time they tour. 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

My January Reading

Well, 2015 started out strong on the reading front so I've decided to re-start my monthly summary of what I've been reading.  If I read something that really strikes me (and if I have the time) I'll blog about that book separately.  Although I enjoyed much of what I read this month, nothing hit me so strongly that I needed to drop everything and write about it.  Here's what I read:

1.  Kate Atkinson.

I've been wanting to read more Kate Atkinson ever since I read Life after Life last summer so I took the opportunity of my January "lull" in the workplace to do that.  I discovered through Helen at She Reads Novels that Akinson has written a series of "sorta" detective novels.  That seemed up my alley and a good way to ease back into reading.  In January I read  four of them:  Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There be Good News, and Started Early, Took My Dog.   I think those are all she has written in her series so far.

I call them "sorta" detective novels because they aren't really detective novels in the true sense of the word.  They seem more like literary fiction that simply features a (somewhat reluctant) detective named Jackson Brodie.  Former military and retired police, Brodie is more than up to whatever life throws at him. And Brodie is very fallible and at times can seem somewhat incompetent.   In Case Histories he has set himself up as a private investigator and is approached to find missing persons and missing things.  By the end of that novel he is able to retire completely but the next few books find him dragged into situations that require him to solve crimes.  Atkinson seems just as much, if not more, interested in the other characters she creates as she is in Brodie and it usually takes a good 100 pages or so before she really gets us into a real plot. That was ok with me because plot is often the least important thing in a book to me.  I admit, though, that her habit of spending a lot of time in characters' minds rather than on their actions does get a little tiring at times. But just about the time that I'm starting wonder if anything is ever going to happen, something unexpected happens.   Case Histories is probably the weakest of the four novels and she gets better and better with each subsequent novel, probably because with each novel she strays further and further from the genre demands of detective fiction.

One of the things that I really liked about Life after Life  was Atkinson's "voice" as a novelist, especially her devastating but understated sense of humor.  That sense of humor is there in the Brodie books but less so in the first couple books than in the last two.  Finally, in Started Early, Took my Dog she seems to have hit her stride and that same voice really comes out.   One of my favorite lines was when she was describing Brodie's taste in books.  He wasn't much of a guy for fiction.  "What he had discovered was that the great novels of the world were about three things -- death, money and sex.  Occasionally a whale." 

On the whole I enjoyed this series and hopes she gives us more Jackson Brodie.  I plan to look up her other novels this year and work my way through them.

2.  Storm at the Edge of Time by Pamela F. Service.    This may seem an odd choice for me to read, as it is really a children's book.  I was drawn to it because the author has a background in archaeology and the story is set in the Orkney Islands, which I would like to visit some day.   Three children, all from three different time periods, are drawn to a stone circle on one of the Orkney Islands and end up coming together through some kind of magic.  They go on a quest through the time periods to find the three pieces of a broken magical staff that will save the world.   Part of the story takes place in the last days of the Vikings, part takes place in current time and part takes place in the 26th century.  As an adult I didn't find it particularly gripping but I think an 11 year old might like it.

3.  The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.  My book club chose this book and I was glad because I've been wanting to read it. Wilkerson won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction a few years ago for this book.   She tells the story of black migration from the American South to the rest of the United States in the years from about 1915 through 1970.  Wilkerson primarily tells this long history by focusing on three individuals:  Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster.

Ida Mae was born in Mississippi where her family picked cotton.  She moved up to industrial Chicago with her husband in the 1930's after a relative was beaten almost to death for a crime he didn't commit.  Ida Mae was an uneducated woman who was hard working and seemed to be genuinely good person.  George was from Florida where his people were fruit pickers.  He got part of a college education before his father stopped paying for it.  He moved New York in the 1940's when he was warned that he was going to by lynched for trying to gain more rights for the pickers.  George got a job as a baggage handler on the east coast train lines.  Robert Foster was born in Louisiana, became a doctor and moved to California in the 1950's because he thought there was more scope for him to succeed than there was in Louisiana.  He was married to a woman from an upper class black Atlanta family.  Robert eventually became the physician to Ray Charles.

The substance of the book is fascinating and thought provoking.  Be warned that it is long - my paperback version is over 600 pages (although the pages after p. 538 are acknowledgements, notes, index, etc.)  It took me a long time to get through, longer than I expected.  My one complaint (and the one reason I kept putting it down) is that it is written in language that,  to me, seemed to be at about the 6th grade level.  Certainly a high school student could easily read this book and understand it.  Most people would call it "accessible" and consider that a compliment.  I, on the other hand, found myself bored by the style.   For instance, here she is on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor:  "On the other side of the Earth, at a harbor in Hawaii, a bomb exploded. It was at a naval base. Pearl Harbor.  People heard it on the radio, not knowing what it meant."

Almost all of the book is written in that style.  You could easily read this book out loud to a child of seven (if you didn't mind reading to your child about lynchings and racism) and they would understand what they were hearing.  Sometimes there will be interludes between the stories of Ida Mae, George and Bob that are written in normal, adult non-fiction style and I found myself flying through those parts.   Most people will not have a problem with this and will probably consider it a plus, but for me it was sometimes excruciating and I just had to put it down and read something else written at an adult level. Besides that, however, I'm glad I read it.

4.  Some Luck by Jane Smiley.  The first book in a planned trilogy, Jane Smiley is telling a family saga.  Interestingly, however, she doesn't tell it in an epic style.  There is no narrative arc, things just happen.  Every chapter is another year, beginning in 1920 and ending in 1953.  In some ways the family experiences everything that happened to the country in that time period and in other ways they just skirted the edges.  Within each chapter, the story is told in the third person, but shifting between the points of view of the various characters.  Often the point of view is that of a child ... which I, truthfully, found mostly boring.  But I liked the adult points of view, including the points of view of the adults who started out as children.  I can't honestly say that I loved this novel.  I love her writing style but I found the structure of the novel caused me difficulty engaging with the characters.  But I enjoyed it enough that I'll read the next two books.

5.  A Fine Summers Day by Charles Todd.  The next in the Inspector Rutledge series, Todd goes back in time to before the Great War, before Rutledge became a victim of PTSD.  I was doubtful about this, prequels often don't work.  There is no suspense because we know what comes next.  But this one does work.  The future doesn't really matter for the story itself and seeing Rutledge as he was before the War makes Rutledge after the War much sadder.  So far, the writing duo of Charles Todd, hasn't managed to create a woman character worthy of Rutledge but I wondered if maybe one of the female characters in this volume might come back later.  And no, I don't mean the vapid fiance, Jean who of course is back.

6.  The Children Act by Ian McEwan.  I admit to being a big Ian McEwan fan.  I like the way he strings sentences together and I usually like the settings of his novels.   This one is set in the legal community of London.  I spent some time in London during one trip wandering around near Lincoln's Inn and so I could picture some of the settings.  It's not a long novel and I flew through it.  Not my very favorite McEwan novel but I did enjoy it.

7.  Poetry of the First World War:  An Anthology edited by Tim Kendall.  I've been working my way through the poems in this anthology for three or four months and finally finished it.  My immediate take away was that it wasn't a surprise that, of the poets that survived the war, only Robert Graves really went on to great things.  My second thought was that I really don't like most of the WWI poets.  I was glad to find the Laurence Binyon poem, For the Fallen, from whence came the famous stanza: "They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:  Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them."  I don't think I had ever read the entire poem before. But it ended up being symbolic of the entire set of poems.  Certain lines in some of the poems struck me, very few entire poems touched me.  I might, however, read some more Robert Graves.