Singing the Belfast Blues
Gimme a break, you're thinking: Another play about "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, and a one-person show to boot? Who needs this? Well, you do. Belfast Blues is a surprisingly refreshing take on this tragic conflict because it isn't really about the issues; it's about trying to live an ordinary life in extraordinary times. It's also about getting out. Written and performed by Geraldine Hughes, this wrenching, exquisitely acted, autobiographical piece has the added virtue of proving that art -- and artists -- really matter.
The central event of the play, seen through the eyes of a little girl (Hughes) in a working-class Catholic family, is the girl's unexpected opportunity to appear in an American movie that's being shot in Northern Ireland. The film is far from major, not is the girl its star, but the experience affords her a glimpse of another way of living. As we watch her play a variety of different characters in her family and her neighborhood, she takes us through the daily grief of growing up in the middle of a simmering civil war. The takeaway is her fierce desire to escape the conflict; the poignant irony is that she did so but is now reliving her sad yet inspiring true story eight times a week.
Shylock, Have You Anything to Say to Me?
What with the Christmas (not the Hanukkah!) release of the movie version of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice starring Al Pacino, this is a time of heightened interest in the Bard's take on Jews. Is the play an ant-Semitic slur or, given its time and place in history, is it a surprisingly compassionate defense of The Chosen People?
The best part of Gareth Armstrong's Shylock is the historical context he creates for the play. As a theatrical historian, Armstrong is both entertaining and elucidating. But he also delivers sizeable monologues from the play -- and, after seeing Big Al in the part, Armstrong is pretty weak tea. If you want a lecture, you'll be satisfied; if you want theater, you'll be underwhelmed.
At bottom, solo shows are an exercise in ego. Whatever the subject of each piece, when there's just one person on stage for its entire length, it is finally all about "me, me, me." There's no better example of this than Mike Albo's My Price Point. This oftentimes funny collection of monologues and sketches satirizing modern life consistently makes the actor, not the material, the focus of our attention. One gets the feeling that, instead of an audience, Albo would rather be playing in front of a huge mirror so that he could see his own reflected glory. This may be true of a great many actors, but rarely is it so overt as in My Price Point.
Once you get past the self-indulgence of the performance, you will appreciate Albo's wit as a writer. He has a bitchy attitude, but he gets his laughs. Say what you will; the man has style. His show is largely about consumerism, and it's worth consuming.
There are good reasons why many of Andrew Lloyd Webber's lesser-known songs are lesser-known, but it was fascinating to hear the music in a one-time only concert at Joe's Pub last week. Rather than focus on trunk songs or numbers cut from famous shows, the concert largely showcased selections from Webber musicals that are more famous in England and/or simply didn't succeed in America -- e.g., By Jeeves and Whistle Down the Wind. But one of the surprises (at least to us) was that Webber and Tim Rice wrote "It's Easy For You," a deeply moving song recorded by Elvis Presley. It was beautifully sung and acted at Joe's by Raymond Jaramillo McLeod.
The evening offered lean musical pickings, but that was to be expected. Unfortunately, the band was too loud and the arrangements tended to bury the performers rather than support them. Still, there were some highlights. Among those who shone were Max Von Essen, making theatrical magic out of "Never More Alone" (from The Woman in White, lyrics by David Zippel); Rob Evan, with a fiery rock version of "A Kiss is a Terrible Thing to Waste" (from Whistle Down the Wind, lyrics by Jim Steinman); and a charming duet of "The First Man You Remember" (from Aspects of Love, lyrics by Don Black and Charles Hart), performed by Marc Kudisch and Jessica Grové.
Most special of all were Peter Sanchon playing "Variations" from Song & Dance on cello (very classy) and Tom Hewitt's pure musical theater rendition of "Vaults of Heaven" (from Whistle Down the Wind). The success of the latter performance had little to do with the song itself, which is slight, and everything to do with the fully realized interpretation. Hewitt was amazing. As directed by Jamie McGonnigal, the concert did offer some unexpected pleasures.
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