Thirty years ago this October, a blind man opened my eyes.
Before I saw Doc Watson play at McGlohon Theatre, I had never been to a concert of traditional music. A friend of mine nagged me into going -- this was the homegrown music of my newly adopted state! -- and I acquiesced with low hopes.
He seemed old to me, old and wrinkled. (I realize now he was just about the age I am today.) He seldom spoke: maybe just "Here's a song I think you'll know" or "I heard this growing up." And without seeming to put out any effort, he filled the room with joy and sorrow.
I learned three things that night. First, music has no boundaries. He played songs academicians would classify as blues, gospel, folk and country, and they all blended into one seamless flow of Americana. Definitions became irrelevant.
Second, though his sometimes quavery baritone reached for notes, he had a beautiful voice. The honesty of his singing made it so.
Third, any kind of music can speak to a listener with a little patience and open ears. Baroque music may be more difficult to grasp on a first go-round than bluegrass, but even Bach yields simple pleasures on first listening.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have a date with Doc's CD from the Newport Folk Festivals of 1963 and '64. "Froggy Went A-Courtin'," and I have to hear how that turns out.
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
Thirty years ago this October, a blind man opened my eyes.
Monday, May 28, 2012
Critics commonly refer to 1939 as the best year ever for movies: "Gone With the Wind," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Wuthering Heights," etc., etc. They're not usually talking about "They Shall Have Music." But maybe they should be. (And hey, it got an Oscar nomination for best scoring.)
Friday, May 25, 2012
Emotionally speaking, of course. Because there's nothing more revealing for an actor than to command a platform alone for 75 to 90 minutes.
If they're bad, there's nowhere else to look, no one to share the blame for lines that fall flat or timing that goes awry. But if they're good, the triumph is entirely theirs -- and we relate to them in a direct, powerful way we can't do when dividing our attention and loyalties among a big cast.
Two actors are giving first-rate performances in just those circumstances this weekend. Mark Sutch plays a Dutch librarian who goes on an obsessive quest for 15 years in "Underneath the Lintel" at Warehouse PAC. (My take on it: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/05/16/3240163/underneath-the-lintel-sutch-a.html#storylink=misearch.) And Lauren Otis plays a pregnant 16-year-old on a journey to meet the baby's father in "The Edge of Our Bodies" at Carolina Actors Studio Theatre. (My review: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/2012/05/24/3263665/one-woman-show-is-way-out-on-the.html#storylink=misearch.)
Both shows started in CAST's cozy quarters at 2424 N. Davidson St. "Lintel" was a visitor; "Bodies" is the last show of CAST's mainstage season and runs through June 23. In fact, CAST is importing three more plays, running May 27-June 30 at various times.
"Eliza" is a one-woman piece, adapted from poems by Dede Wilson, starring Pamela Freedy as a Londoner who sails to New Orleans in 1837 and embarks on a turbulent life. "Under the Red Cloak," a choreopoem by Dee Abdullah, deals with women's shared stories of childbirth, pain and healing. Keith Huff's "A Steady Rain" is about two Chicago cops whose decisions to return a panic-stricken boy to his guardian has repercussions. (Details: Go to "buy tickets" at www.nccast.com.)
Charlotte theaters have long been helpful to temporary tenants, from Theatre Charlotte's hosting of the "Just Do It" series to Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's cooperation with everyone from The Light Factory to Sunday morning church worshippers
Yet CAST, which moved into its new digs last summer, has embarked on an especially ambitious and extensive program as a landlord. More power to the company for playing host to such a wide variety of shows; the theatrical spring will be richer for that decision.
Wednesday, May 23, 2012
Or so Hollywood wants us to think. Whenever a deranged demigod goes on a rampage or an alien attacks the planet, he or she seems to have an English accent. Current cases in point: Loki in "The Avengers" and Boris the Animal in "Men in Black 3."
Loki should theoretically have a Scandinavian accent, right? He's a character from Norse mythology. (Thor, his half-brother, has an unaccented voice.) Boris is a Boglodyte, whatever that is; he doesn't even come from Earth. But there they both are, sounding like a "Macbeth" audition is in the offing.
This tradition goes back half a century, when Hollywood typically hired Brits to play Nazi generals. It dates in superhero movies back at least to "Superman II" in 1980, when Kryptonian criminals sounded like refugees from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
So why should this be? Are American filmmakers still upset about the War of 1812? Do we resent the fact that James Bond, coolest secret agent of all time, has a British accent? (Tinged with a Scottish burr, of course, in Sean Connery's case.)
No, something else is at work. In Hollywood, a villain's British accent represents class consciousness and superciliousness. When he gets his comeuppance, usually at the hands of an American, the story reminds us that guts and heart matter more than breeding or brains. You think you're so smart, Mr. Demigod? Wait until Iron Man kicks your Norse butt all the way to another dimension!
There's a subtle message here, too: People with lots of intelligence can become megalomaniacs. We start to associate the phrase "smarter than you and I" with "better than you and I," which Americans can't tolerate. Maybe that explains why we so seldom vote for the smartest person in a political race and so often choose to support folks of average intelligence, who remind us of ourselves.
Monday, May 21, 2012
I figured the title of this post would apply to me, the come-with husband who tromped off with his wife Saturday night to see one of her former students perform with the Matthews United Methodist Church Youth Choir.
I'd sit smilingly through an hour of Broadway numbers, possibly after stuffing myself with ice cream left over from the annual church picnic. I'd shake a few hands, compliment people politely (I've known choir director Craig Estep for years) and go home, duty fulfilled.
But midway through the opening "Phantom of the Opera" medley, something happened. First, some of the singers were better than I'd expected. More importantly, the earnestness and energy -- yes, and love -- radiating from the performers swept me up.
Not all of these soloists are headed for Broadway careers, though tenor Michael Juilliard should certainly consider the school that shares his name. Nor did all of them fully understand the heartbreak and political upheaval about which they sang; they hadn't yet experienced all the passions that drive adult Broadway characters.
But every single one of them, down to the back-row choristers who never soloed, had experienced the transformative power of music. All of them knew the happiness of using a talent -- a God-given talent, I expect they'd say -- that helped them add a little joy to the world.
We often forget that the word "amateur" comes from the Latin "amator," or "lover." Like all the things we do for love, this kind of singing had a special beauty all its own.
Friday, May 18, 2012
Forty years ago today, "The Godfather" was the most talked-about movie in America. People were quoting it -- "I made him an offer he couldn't refuse" -- buzzing about the Mafia, going to see it over and over, even (briefly) letting it influence men's fashions. (Love those fedoras.)
Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Sometimes the second shall be first. Case in point: the Summer Blockbuster Series, a lineup of action-adventure films between now and August. People who participate agree to attend on the day after the movies have opened, so they probably wouldn't be the most rabid fans. But there are perks.
Here's how it works: Moviegoers who sign up via Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/2012-Summer-Blockbuster-Series/391167347582076) get together for lunch or dinner, depending on the time of the scheduled showing. They eat, get prizes, watch the screening and agree to post comments about the experience on Facebook. Everyone who went to the "Avengers" screening got an Avengers bag, poster and key chain. Promoters also gave away 18 tickets to the Comedy Zone and two fireworks bundles from Phantom Fireworks.
Another group will go to "Battleship" Saturday. The list of screenings then stretches on to "Men in Black III," "Total Recall," "Prometheus," "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," "The Amazing Spider-Man," "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Bourne Legacy."
Two thoughts occur to me. First, "Battleship" is the only movie on this list -- "Avengers" included -- that isn't a prequel, spinoff, sequel or remake, and even "Battleship" is inspired (however loosely) by a board game. Hollywood has always suffered crises of originality, but this one seems especially acute.
Second, there are some movies that should be seen only if someone gives you a gift to make the event worthwhile. I need no inducement to see "Dark Knight" and "Prometheus," but anyone who wants me to sit through a "G.I. Joe" sequel had better provide a non-cinematic incentive. A Rolex would be about right.
Monday, May 14, 2012
My wife and I were thinking of going to New York and seeing the Tony-nominated production of "Death of a Salesman," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield. Luckily for us, premium tickets were still available for a Saturday matinee at $519.35 apiece, including the $119.85 processing fee. Hmmm...pay the June mortgage, or see "Death of a Salesman"....
Wait, let me say that again: There was a $119.85 processing fee per ticket. Was a courier going to buy a round-trip on a plane and bring the tickets to my house in person?
All the other seats were sold out. But here's the brutal part: Had we been able to buy seats at the back of the theater upstairs, they'd have been $99.45 each. I can get center orchestra seats at Belk Theater for a Saturday evening performance of a big musical, "La Cage Aux Folles," for less.
The really grating thing is that Arthur Miller's masterpiece reveals the shabbiness of lives devoted to making money. It's about a guy in the lower-middle class who chases the futile American dream of financial security, instead of finding out who he's meant to be. And all the Willy Lomans of the world, the people this play is about, haven't a hope in Hades of buying tickets to it.
I'm seldom grateful to live in Charlotte instead of New York, culturally speaking, but I am right now. I look at the upcoming "Edge of Our Bodies" at CAST and "Marvelous Wonderettes" at Actor's Theatre and the current "Putnam County" at Theatre Charlotte, and ALL the tickets are under $30. In fact, you can get balcony seats to the Broadway Lights tour of "La Cage" for $20, if you're on a tight budget. On a value-for-money scale, Charlotte comes out ahead.
I realize the cost of paying Broadway unions and film stars such as Hoffman and Garfield drives ticket prices higher. But when you price your cheapest tickets at $100 a pop, you're telling ordinary folks that you have no interest in sharing one of the great works of the American stage with them. That's a pretty sad thing to do.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Wednesday, May 9, 2012
This site can apparently load aerial photos from any common street address. And if you're having a rough day at work, watching your office explode may provide vicarious satisfaction. (Note to any editors reading this: I enjoy every moment of my wonderful job.)
The publicity stunt promotes the movie "Battleship," which opens May 18. The film can use all the help it can get: Early reviews describe it as a mix between a "Transformers" rip-off and a propaganda film for the U.S. Navy, and even lenient voters at the Internet Movie Data Base have been lukewarm.
This reminded me of an old adage: The cleverer the promotion is for a picture with a bad smell hovering over it, the less good the movie is likely to be. Back in the days when studios still sent critics promotional gimmicks, I was happy to get the shipments but always doubtful that the film themselves would live up to the marketing. (A notable exception: the jewelry-box coffin, fangs and Hollywood-style blood makeup kit sent before the original "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which was good.)
I have no take on "Battleship" yet myself, as I haven't seen it. And hey -- the first "Transformers" movie was pretty entertaining. But the fact that I'm having fun with it now makes me think I won't have fun with it later....
Monday, May 7, 2012
I am addressing two sets of dimwits who sat behind me this weekend at high-ticket cultural events. The first was the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra's KnightSounds concert at Knight Theater; the second was "Come Fly Away," the touring show in the Broadway Lights series at Belk Theater.
At KnightSounds, two guys chatted blithely during a quiet moment in the Ravel Piano Concerto, superbly played by Swiss pianist Louis Schwizgebel. At "Come Fly," two women giggled and commented during the Frank Sinatra numbers choreographed by Twyla Tharp. (Good thing they weren't in New Jersey, where talking loudly during Sinatra's songs can earn you a seat in a dumpster.)
Now, I understand that people -- especially people under 30 -- have grown up with the idea that you can talk through a public showing of a movie, because they have gotten used to talking over DVDs at home; they don't make any distinction between the two experiences. But there's more leeway for loud behavior in a movie theater, especially if we're watching "The Avengers" or "Cabin in the Woods," and it's a different kind of communal experience.
These people all looked to be in their 50s, which means they were presumably raised to keep quiet at plays and concerts. I don't mean cathedral-style quiet: Laughing or applauding and speaking briefly between movements makes perfectly good sense. When you hear a song you recognize, nobody should look at you squinty-eyed if you emit a big "Ahhhhh" of satisfaction.
But the point of music is to hear it. If you talk, you don't hear it. And I, who actually want to hear it, don't hear it either. Yet these folks looked owl-eyed with surprise to see me turn around with a finger to my lips and say politely -- really, it was politely -- "Please keep it down."
Part of the problem was probably alcohol: You get a free drink ticket with each ticket you buy to KnightSounds, and I have a feeling these two guys also cadged a couple from teetotaler friends. (I'm sure concertgoers love the free booze, but...that's another column.)
Most of the problem is our cultural sense of entitlement. "Do what I damn well please" seems to be the motto of many Americans in many walks of life these days: "I bought a $70 ticket to the Belk, and that gives me the right to flap my lips if I feel like it."
By the same token, I suppose it would also give me the right to move to the seat behind you, gently kicking your chair every 10 seconds until you erupted in volcanic rage. But I would never do that -- unless, of course, you simply wouldn't shut up.
Friday, May 4, 2012
If you are a Charlottean of a certain age or a New Yorker of a certain cabaret sensibility, you may already know about the late Earl Wentz. If not, let me elucidate.
He was born in Charlotte in 1938, graduated from East Mecklenburg High School and stayed a North Carolinian through college (Queens, Wingate, UNC Charlotte) and beyond. He acted all over the state, especially with the Vagabond Players at Flat Rock Playhouse; there he once played Felix to the Oscar of the respected Pat Hingle in "The Odd Couple."
But his love of the Great American Songbook eventually sent him to New York, where classic compositions can always get a hearing. There he created the American Composer Series, which produced 15 revues devoted to Tin Pan Alley masters, and served as a church organist at John Street Methodist Church for 16 years. He died in Charlotte in the fall of 2009 at 71.
Like composers since the days of J.S. Bach, Wentz led a double life musically. He wrote serious works, including an hour-long requiem for four soloists, and music for secular venues, including an off-Broadway musical with gay themes, "The Marital Bliss of Francis and Maxine." And like the vast majority of composers since Bach, he labored in relatively obscurity and would be forgotten after death -- except for his surviving partner, Bill Watkins.
Watkins has issued a CD through Sixpence Inc. titled "What Is This Thing? Earl Wentz Plays Love Songs of Cole Porter." On it, the soloist embroiders themes from "Night and Day," "You Do Something to Me" and 10 other standards. (Go to www.sixpenceinc.com to learn more.) Tempos are gentle, rather than jaunty; the piano elaborations are delicate, rather than dazzling. Wentz maintains an uptempo groove all the way through a song just one time: This is the kind of discreet playing he might have done at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami, where he once worked.
Watkins plans to issue another three volumes of Wentz's Porter. Incredibly, he has also begun to catalog all of Wentx' musical and theatrical activities over a six-decade stretch at The Earl Wentz Project (www.earlwentz.com), which offers photos, playbill covers and an astonishing amount of detail. You could almost call Watkins' dedication to Wentz obsessive, but that's the way minor figures get into the history books -- and also one of the effects of this thing called love.
Wednesday, May 2, 2012