Thursday, October 25, 2007

Downtown Arts District Update

Today's Gazette contains one of the year's most important arts stories - here, in the business section. In contrast with previous plans for the area - which always seemed like the longest of long shots, even when they were tantalizingly close to realization - this plan has Chuck Murphy behind it. In development terms, that's about as close to a sure thing as it gets.

My one quibble with the story is its lead, which says the area would be "transformed into a home for artists, studios and galleries." The area already houses artists, studios and galleries - what's planned is an expansion, albeit a huge one.

An expansion and a gentrification, which is going to be a major back story: Will the already-existing artists and galleries be able to afford this comparatively upscale arts district? For the past few decades, artists have been prominent shock troops of urban renewal. They move into blighted areas, improve them, and are subsequently driven out by the higher prices that result from their own success. (Denver's LoDo was a textbook case.) Much more to come as this story develops.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Not Just for Lesbians!

"The Amazing Amazon All-Stars," the final play in Upstart Performing Ensemble's Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival is without a doubt the best lesbian baseball musical comedy that you're ever likely to see. And Wednesday night's preview was a lot more fun than watching game 1 of the World Series, at least if you were rooting for the Rockies.

But more than that, it's a charming and interesting piece, despite many rough edges. The main storyline is Kelly's progress from a half-life, drifting along in fantasies, to a real life, living in the world. There are also several sub-plots, both romantic and post-romantic.

Playwright/lyricist Carolyn Gage must have worn out her copy of The Big Book of Sexual Innuendo, but she used it to good effect: The lyrics, though raunchy, are often clever. And Sue Carney's music, ably arranged, performed and recorded by Micah River Saddler, isn't bad either, though it won't make anyone forget "Damn Yankees." There just isn't quite enough of it, well enough integrated into the story, to make this seem like musical theater instead of a play with a bunch of songs in it.

Among the best performances in the 10-woman cast are Mary Maxine Fortner as Kelly (Fortner makes being narcissistically self-engrossed seem like a sheer delight); Sue Bachman as the aging, alcoholic Ruth, still bitter about her breakup with the team's manager, Hitch (okay, it's not all comedy); and the ethereal Nicole Benton as the mistress of ceremonies. It's a privilege to hear the silky-voiced Benton sing.

The cast's pleasant surprise is Kim Templin as the skanky Slide. Templin shows great presence in her first acting role since childhood.

While the performance is fairly bare bones, costumes are used to good comic effect, and Nancy Hankin has provided some nice lighting effects – important in a piece that depends on fantasies for much of its humor.

Performances are 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Smokebrush Foundation, 218 W. Colorado Avenue (underneath the Colorado Avenue bridge). Call 636-5089 for more information.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2

My audio program notes for the centerpiece of this weekend's Colorado Springs Philharmonic program are available here. (It's an 11 megabyte mp3 file, and lasts about 12-and-a-half minutes.) This format allows a level of detail that isn't possible without musical examples.

I hope to do something like this for future concerts. Other commentaries probably won't be this large - but I particularly love this concerto.

Meanwhile, I'm eagerly awaiting this performance. Pianist Norman Krieger received the first rave review I ever wrote, for his 1993 performance of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 3.

Performances are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday. More info available at the philharmonic website.

Curtis Adams at the Pikes Peak Center


My kids and I went to Curtis Adams' rockin' magic show last night at the Pikes Peak Center. We loved the idea of Adams' show much more than the show itself. Mixing high-energy hip-hop dance, rock-show effects and magic seems like a winning combination, and Adams almost has the talent to pull it off.

Unfortunately, the dancing wasn't quite up to the Britney Spears level and much of the magic was stale or over-hyped.

The worst bit was the big showcase effect. Audience members mark bullets that were then put into a machine gun. The gun was later shot at Adams, who pulled a Neo, making all the bullets suspend in mid-air. Turns out, they were the same bullets marked by the audience!

Again, nifty idea. But cheesily done. The set-up of marking the bullets took forever. The freezing of the bullets looked goofy, and the whole payoff at the end, that these were the same bullets, was silly. If we're not impressed that the man can make bullets stop with his mind, we're not going to be impressed that he can switch a gun clip.

The old "tribute" acts, such as Houdini's "Metamorphosis," didn't work, either. Woman in trunk switches with guy standing on trunk. Been there, done that.

But there were a few unexpected moments of grace and amazement. For instance, at the end of the first act, Adams' appeared to burst into a cloud of confetti. Very cool.

We also liked his work with screens that used rear projection. He would dance behind the screens, and his image would be replaced by one from a projection -- which would do all sorts of weird special-effects things to him. I like this kind of bit because it doesn't insult our intelligence. We all know how it's done. But we're still impressed by the timing and the beauty of it.

Adams may have the stuff to be the next Chris Angel. But he needs to take a lactose-intolerant approach to his act: eliminate the cheese.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

"The Normal Heart"

Sure, you'll probably have other opportunities this season to see productions as powerful and as well acted as Upstart Performing Ensemble's "The Normal Heart."

But none of them are going to cost a mere $10, making this play the season's best dramatic value. Kaleb Kohart and Ryan Hart lead an excellent cast in the gut-wrenchingly emotional second offering in the group's Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival.

Larry Kramer's largely autobiographical play about the early days of AIDS - before the disease even had a name - is a bit preachy, and too many of the climaxes involve yelling. But the preachiness and yelling reflect Kramer's outrage at the government's and medical community's slow response. And the outrage never loses its impact, because there's so much variety to the emotional texture: Kramer gives every actor a chance to shine.

Which they do, expertly directed by Sarah Owen. As Dr. Brookner, Barbara Summerville rages at the medical community; as Mickey, a young gay activist, Sam Gleason rages at Ned for suggesting that gays give up casual sex - which, for Mickey, represents freedom and humanity.

As for the outrage of Kohart and Hart, well, go see for yourself. Kohart won the 2006 Pikes Peak Arts Council award for best actor, but here he turns in what may be his finest performance yet as the passionate but volatile Ned. There's rage aplenty, but there's also tenderness, vulnerability, and self-doubt. Hart's Felix is less complicated - Felix wears his feelings on his sleeve, from uninhibited horniness to deep self-pity and beyond - but no less deep.

Other standout performances include Tony Babin as Ben, the brother who loves Ned but can't quite accept him; Roderick Garrison as the closeted but diplomatic Bruce (his description of his lover's death is one of the play's emotional high points); and William Willhide as the sweet-natured Tommy.

Performances are 8 p.m. today (Friday) and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday at the Smokebrush Foundation, 218 W. Colorado Avenue (underneath the Colorado Avenue bridge). Call 636-5089 for more information.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival

Upstart Performing Ensemble's Gay and Lesbian Theatre Festival got off to a strong start last week with "The Laramie Project" - a moving, reader's-theater production of this documentary about Matthew Shepard's murder and its aftermath.

The play was created by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, based on documents and interviews with citizens of Laramie in the year after the brutal crime. It's a journalistic treatment - I wished Kaufman had employed an actual journalist to edit out some self-indulgent passages - that builds its power through the accretion of details, climaxing with the moving statement by Matthew Shepard's father, Dennis, at the trial. The result is a vivid and thought-provoking picture of Laramie and of the crime.

The cast - Tony Babin, Sue Bachman, Mary Maxine Fortner, Sam Gleason, Millie Harrison, Ryan Hart, Dede Iozzi, John Iozzi, Kari McPherson, Jonathan Sargent, Barbara Summerville, and William Willhide - portrayed some 60 characters. The characterizations were always clear and committed, and there was a wonderful sense of camaraderie among the actors that gave the impression you were watching a family instead of a cast. (I have no idea how Babin does it, but this is something he often achieves with his casts.)

The Smokebrush Foundation deserves kudos for making its space available for the festival - but be forewarned that it's only adequate for theater, with folding chairs, minimal lighting and boomy acoustics. The occasional train was appropriate to a play set in Laramie, but may be distracting in the other festival plays. Nevertheless, no community can have too much good theater, regardless of the setting.

The festival continues this week with "The Normal Heart," a powerful drama about the early days of AIDS in New York City. It concludes Oct. 25-27 with "The Amazing Amazon All-Stars," a musical about a lesbian softball team. Performances are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays. Tickets are $10; call 636-5089 for more information.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Repeat Performance

Time - barely - for a shameless plug: Both Lauren and I have pieces in "Repeat Performance," an auction/fundraiser for the Colorado Springs Philharmonic that's being held on Saturday by the Pikes Peak Music Volunteers.

Lauren's piece is Sky Fiddle, a violin that's been painted with a deep blue night sky scene; mine is Stradivarius Toothpick, a priceless violin that's been whittled down until only a single sliver remains. (Yes, it's a joke.) Of course, there are 40 or so other artists who've contributed work, including Steve Morath, who accomplished miracles with an old guitar.

The auction is 7 p.m. Saturday at the Smokebrush, 218 W. Colorado Ave. (Underneath the Colorado Avenue bridge.) Tickets are $30, which includes a glass of wine. Come and spend money; more information here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

How the festival fared

So, how did the Colorado Festival of World Theatre do?

Festival officials tells us they had an attendance of 6,973 out of 8,445 available seats.

Wow, that sounds high. Even if you factor in the many free tickets that were floating around, that sounds high. Last year, the festival drew a reported 9,981, but it had many more shows.

An 82.5 percent attendance, if true, is darned impressive.

One of thing aspects we didn't report on much was the master classes given by visiting artists.

Here's a reaction to some of the master classes from Jim Jackson from the Manitou Art Theatre:

"There were about 15 students for each one. (Caldwell and Suzman classes.) Birgitta took Zoe’s and thought it was wonderful. They’re such pros, and great teachers, and very giving. For me, it was the highlight of the festival. The classes were mixed, from high school students to working professionals like Tom Paradise. They (Caldwell and Suzman) were very giving and very attentive to everybody. It was all monologue work, so everybody got individual attention. The feedback we got (from the students) was fantastic."

Anybody laying down bets on whether the festival will continue? We sure hope it does.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Clown of international stature

Avner the Eccentric kept up the tradition of outstanding kid shows at the Colorado Festival of World Theatre.

With his gray beard, red suspenders and deadpan attitude, this mime from Georgia (who studied in Paris with Jacques Lecoq) went through so many supremely silly schticks, everybody at the Woodland Park High School theater was giggling uncontrollably.

I don't think I've ever seen anybody balance a feather on their nose (which got really silly when it started to fall and he chased after it), nor somebody who can get so many laughs out of dropping things.

But my favorite bit was Avner's paper eating. He devours sheet after sheet, relishing them like Charlie Chaplin's shoes in "The Gold Rush," then he reaches in his mouth and pulls out a never ending streamer. His expressions as he searches for the end of the stream are priceless.

The festival concluded on Sunday with a Mountain Celebration.

I was expecting a party, with dancing and music, in a beautiful outdoor setting. It was actually more of a concert (with a talented gypsy band) in an enclosed tent. Oh, well.