Wednesday, February 27, 2013

You snooze, you lose (theatrically)

A reader asked me this morning how long "Fela!" would be in town. I had to tell him that, though it opened Monday night, it was already gone. One of the most exciting shows in recent memory played just two performances and then moved on to Atlanta. Virtually the same thing will happen next week with "American Idiot," which plays just three dates (although five shows) March 8-10.

Many things could account for abbreviated runs: availability of the production while it's in our part of the country, predicted ticket sales, etc. The size of the city may be a factor but doesn't necessarily relate directly: The Schenectady/Albany, N.Y., run of "American Idiot" also lasts three days, while Milwaukee gets only two.

Shows in the Broadway Lights season package run a week or more and have time to build word of mouth. But Blumenthal execs Tom Gabbard and Douglas Young have been importing more productions for two or three days: "Catch Me If You Can" will pop into the Belk June 7-9, the week after "War Horse" has set everybody abuzz and earned reams of publicity.

This means two things. First, we have more chances to see national tours of shows that didn't get quite as much attention during their time on Broadway, shows that are often more interesting than the big names that come through regularly. I could have done without "Les Miserables" this winter, though I was happy to see it again, but I wouldn't want to miss a "Fela!" or an "Idiot."

Second, theatergoers have to be vigilant. The Observer ran a CLT cover story on "Fela!" last Friday and a review on the second (and last) day of the show, and we splashed those stories online with colorful art. But we won't always be able to give a production that much attention. The days are gone when people could gradually accumulate friends' input about worthwhile shows and make decisions at leisure.

After "Monty Python's Spamalot" slipped back into town last February for a three-night run, a friend who missed it said, "You blink, and a show has come and gone." He's right. So if you want to stay on top of Broadway-style theater, you can't blink.

Monday, February 25, 2013

I was gonna watch the Oscars, but...

...for the first time in more than 25 years I wasn't writing about them, blogging live or sitting in a chat room during the show. So I didn't.

I will pause for a moment for comments along the lines of "What an idiot," "A real film critic would have watched," "You must not care about movies," etc. (But make them to yourself, because I'm going to delete them if I remember to check for them below.)

Three things kept me from watching. First, the ceremony is no longer the exciting climax to a contest; it's a coronation. I checked the complete list of winners, and there were absolutely no surprises. Well, one: "Zero Dark Thirty" and "Skyfall" tied for sound editing. Woo-hoo! Or maybe you could count Ang Lee beating Steven Spielberg for best director, although they were always neck and neck, and it was obvious that "Lincoln" never registered with awards voters. They were both surrogates for Ben Affleck, anyhow.

Second, I might see an awards show if I thought I'd learn something about the industry. If I watch the Grammys, I hear a lot of music that's new to me (if not to most other viewers). But I've seen every Oscar winner and virtually all the nominees, except for foreign movies and documentaries that will never play here, and I can look those up online.

Third, the Oscars celebrate mediocrity and tradition, not innovation. "Brave" was a perfectly decent, by-the-numbers, empowering-a-tweenager movie that Disney has distributed almost since the advent of sound. But if had been released by anyone other than Pixar, voters would have left it alone. The costumes for "Anna Karenina" were lovely, but this is the 30th time in the last 33 years that a film set more than half a century ago has won that award, mainly because it so beautifully copies designs from its period. (The others were two fantasies, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King," and "The Adventures of  Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.")

A friend whose opinion I respect later e-mailed me: "Oscars were not bad but not great. Rotten Tomatoes probably would have it tracking at about 53%." Heck, the novel I read, the music I listened to and the cat I kept petting rated a lot higher than that.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Schubert -- the hard way

Digital downloads now offer almost every kind of classical music, so I smiled when an old-fashioned compact disc landed on my desk this winter. The jacket bore no record company label, just a website name: Inside was a recording of Franz Schubert's last and greatest song cycle, "Winterreise" ("Winter Journey").

Pianist Reiko Uchida accompanied Thomas Meglioranza's vocals. The layout was simple but handsome; the liner notes included not only synopses of the songs in English but full texts in English and the original German, which many distributors no longer provide. The mailing envelope was hand-addressed and hand-stamped.

You have to understand what such an endeavor represents. (my favorite online site for the classics) lists dozens of recordings of this cycle by some of the greatest lieder singers of the 20th century. (Lied is another term for German song.) Men and women with high voices and low have taken cracks at the darkest and loneliest song cycle Schubert (or maybe anybody) ever wrote. Thrusting yourself into this group is like running your first marathon against a field of Olympic champions.

My own favorite recording pairs Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, perhaps the greatest lieder singer on record, with pianist Jorg Demus. Meglioranza acknowledges the master in his liner notes. He sent D F-D another recording of Schubert songs and got this reply: "Lovely singing. Let me tell you that you gave me much pleasure on a healthy and beautiful-sounding way to these difficult songs. Your accompanist is of the best qualities, strictly in the style called for in these pieces...." So the master, who was near the end of his own journey -- he died last May at 86 -- acknowledged a young man at the beginning of his vocal voyage.

This intelligently sung, understated version doesn't displace Fischer-Dieskau from the pinnacle of my collection. But the singing and accompaniment are sensitively done, and the sense of a man going ever deeper into the wintry night and his own despair comes through. Meglioranza's pain is real, and Uchida clings to him like an instrumental shadow.

I admire his craft, but I admire his daring even more. Meglioranza specializes in very old and very new music, dating back to the Baroque or forward to our lifetimes. A record company isn't pressuring him to sing Schubert to make quick dough. He simply realizes every serious singer has to take a crack at this repertoire, the way every serious mountaineer has to sink his ice ax into the slopes of Everest.

He took the time to learn the names of classical music critics and spent his own money (I am guessing) to mail them copies of his disc, in hopes of reviews. These days, that task can be as futile as throwing messages into ocean-bound bottles, so I hope his missives wash up on the right shores.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Getting horizontal with UMAR

The only horizontal flower vase I've ever seen is now sitting on my desk. It's full of dried blooms and cattails and rests on a hollowed piece of driftwood, and it's the best use I've made of $20 this month.

The artist didn't think outside the box, because he doesn't even know there might be a box. He and his colleagues at UMAR, a local organization that supports folks with intellectual and developmental disabilities, unveiled their work at the annual UMAR fund-raising luncheon today at Providence United Methodist Church.

This blog entry isn't a pitch for UMAR, admirable though I think it is. (You can find out more at It's a reminder that virtually any human being can make art with the proper stimulation, training and opportunities.

Sale tables at the lunch were crammed with necklaces and earrings, paintings and photographs, recycled and redecorated boxes meant to hold keepsakes, rustic bowls made of cement. UMAR folks like bold colors and striking arrangements, and the art leapt out at you. The makers, many of whom stood shyly by, did not. Like many visual artists and designers, they're not especially verbal.

UMAR defines art less traditionally than the rest of us do, to include gardening and culinary work. Sometimes its artists cross boundaries: On entering the lunch, I got a hug (almost everybody's a hugger here) and a bookmark with a hole cut in it for a piece of fresh rosemary. Not utilitarian, but it makes my desk smell better than my usual onion bagels.

Some of these folks live wholly independently, while some need group homes. Some have jobs; some don't. But all of them have some kind of creative spirit, and seeing those spirits liberated at this event always leaves me with a lighter pocketbook and a lighter heart.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Free arts parking -- brilliant or crazy?

Reader Nish Jamgotch phoned me this month to make a remarkable suggestion: What if the Bank of America parking deck behind Founders Hall were open for half an hour after performances, so people attending plays or concerts could get out for free?

He believes folks like himself, who are elderly enough to need to park as close to the hall as possible, won't want to wait half an hour or more for traffic in that deck to snake out onto city streets after a show. He believes the inconvenience of sitting behind some smog-belching vehicle could be the tipping point in a decision not to attend events -- and, as he observes, cultural institutions can't afford to have anybody drop away these days. His proposal: Leave the gates up to prevent cars from backing up three or four levels. Within half an hour of the event, return the garage to pay status.

He spoke to an administrator in charge of the lot, who made counter-arguments: 1) Diners and drinkers uptown and concertgoers at Time-Warner Arena (and maybe even employees who simply work late) would hear about this scheme and take advantage of it, costing the lot owners too much money. Patrons leaving the Belk or Booth Playhouse might be outnumbered by people who parked their cars for hours, then wanted to get away for nothing. 2) Drivers leaving the deck would still be delayed by pedestrians, traffic already on the street and passing Blue Line trains, which block Fifth Avenue. So even if they leave without paying, they won't rocket out the door.

I never park in that deck, so I don't have a Toyota in this fight. I put my car on the street or in a deck I can leave within 10 minutes, usually the one between Fifth and Sixth streets. It's also possible to park free at a Blue Line stop and pay less to get uptown and back on the train than you'd spend in the Bank of America deck. (Or any deck or lot.) That train puts people out at Third Street or Seventh Street, within four blocks of the Belk.

Jamgotch has one indisputable point: Many concertgoers and playgoers are elderly and don't want to be made uncomfortable by walking long distances or going through unsafe areas (whatever they consider those to be) after a show. Whether or not the inconvenience of sitting in post-concert lines will keep them away from events is anyone's guess; they're lucky to be able to park across the street from the hall for just $5, so perhaps not. But Jamgotch has given us something to think about.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Dancing on the edge of a dollar

If I pay $150 for a ticket, and Paul McCartney sings for two and a half hours, is that event "worth" a dollar per minute? How would we calculate its value, exactly? Can one measure the arts that way at all?

If so, Dance Charlotte! may be the best artistic bargain in town this winter. These modern dance concerts break down to $1.67 per act (or, if you get the better seats at Booth Playhouse, $2.22). That's right: Nine acts will perform for $15 or $20 Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. (Get the lowdown

I always like this kind of tapas-table entertainment. If two or three artists speak powerfully to me, I've justified my attendance. If I don't warm up to someone, I wait 10 or 15 minutes and try a fresh approach from somebody else. None of these groups has been overexposed locally: Caroline Calouche & Co. and Echo Contemporary are headquartered here, but the others come from as far away as Baltimore and New York.

These concerts are the tip of a weekend-long iceberg that includes master classes all day Saturday and a Booth performance at 5:30 p.m. Saturday by CEDA, Charlotte's Emerging Dance Artists. (That gig by young performers is even cheaper -- $10 and $15 -- and is also a series of short pieces.)

Dancers take the most physical punishment, work against the longest odds and have the shortest-burning candles of any performing artists. To see so many of them trailblazing away in the same spot is an opportunity you might not want to pass up. I'm guessing it's worth the investment.

Monday, February 11, 2013

It's not 'y'all,' you stupid Yankees

Alden Ehrenreich and
Alice Englert in
"Beautiful Creatures."
I have often been told I'll never be a true son of the South, though I've lived in North Carolina for 39 of the last 42 years. But I get defensive when Hollywood clings to the same stupid stereotypes over and over.

"Beautiful Creatures," which opens Friday, has the usual depictions of life in a small South Carolina town: the banning of "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the high school library, the idea that anyone who wants to go to an out-of-state college is a bit of a freak, bible-thumping by a woman who accuses someone of being a "liberal Satanist." (I guess there are no conservative Satanists.)

But the final thing that set my teeth on edge was hearing a Southern boy ask a Southern girl -- with nobody else around -- "Are y'all gonna go?" (Or something to that effect.) Now, "y'all" has a place in speech: It denotes second person plural, and I use it myself. But nobody uses it one-on-one, and directors based in New York and Los Angeles haven't bothered to learn that.

Directors wouldn't film in Paris and set the Eiffel Tower on the wrong bank of the Seine. They wouldn't shoot in London and give all the characters Irish accents. But the American South? Who can be bothered to figure out how we really speak and behave? A continuity person would straighten this out in a moment, but nobody in Hollywood cares.

I know the stereotype of the dumb Southerner still gets laughs in other parts of the country, though I last found it hilarious when I watched "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." at the age of 10. It's not on a par with the crueler stereotypes -- the cheap Jew, the shiftless African-American, the drunken Irishman -- but it makes my teeth grate nonetheless, because it's a constant indicator that the rest of the country needs some region on which to look down.

Filmmakers can still use "Southern" as a synonym for "backward" without bothering folks in America's cultural centers, so I know this won't change soon. I just wanted to share an observation with y'all. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Bigfoot is -- hold your hats -- a fraud!

I thought everybody knew that. In fact, I thought so at 13 years old, when I saw the raw 1967 footage of a guy in a lumpy gorilla suit ambling through the woods for 60 seconds. That clip, known as the Patterson-Gimlin film, is apparently the shaky rock on which Bigfoot believers have built their pseudoscientific church. But the documentary "Hoax of the Century" kicks it apart, and a Charlotte man plays a key role.

The apparently ageless Philip Morris, who looks the same on camera now as he did when I first met him 33 years ago, sold the Bigfoot suit in the summer of 1967 to Roger Patterson. (Morris Costumes, still open at 4300 Monroe Rd., has been in business since 1960.) Patterson adapted it for a pal, who donned it for a ramble in the woods and laughs about it today.

Morris, thinking the whole thing was a goofy prank, didn't tattle on the prankster. But when directors C. Thomas Biscardi and John L. Johnsen sought him out for their debunking documentary, Morris spilled the beans about the way a glass eye could be made to reflect light and an industrial-sized zipper line could be concealed from the camera.

You can find the DVD at, where you can also obtain a camouflage Bigfoot hat and Bigfoot welcome mat. I'm not sure this is really the "hoax of the century" -- I'd put the subprime mortgage market up against it any time -- but I was fascinated by the seriousness with which people exploded a myth I'd always thought was silly from the get-go. (Another man, the most famous person to "discover" Bigfoot tracks, admitted in 1969 that he'd made them himself.)

Perhaps unintentionally, this film reveals how desperately people cling to things they want to believe, regardless of how little evidence supports them and how much mounts up on the other wide. Believing in Bigfoot isn't as self-destructive as refusing to believe tobacco is harmful or the Earth is warming up, but it's a symptom of the crazy stubbornness that plagues our species.