Culture Vulture: Best of 2017

December 18, 2017

 Top Theater of 2017

The Band’s Visit – David Yazbek’s sublime musical score, impeccably direction by David Cromer, wonderful ensemble headed by Tony Shalhoub and Katrina Lenk (above).

Poor People’s TV Room – this haunting multimedia performance by electrifying dancer-creator Okwui Okpokwasili at NYLiveArts, with terrific cast directed by Peter Born, Okwui’s partner (their previous collaboration, Bronx Gothic, inspired a documentary film that was also a highlight of the year).

A Pink Chair (in Place of a Fake Antique)
– the Wooster Group outdid themselves with this almost unbearably beautiful homage to Polish theater legend Tadeusz Cantor at Bard College’s Summerscape with ambitious music overseen by Gareth Hobbs.

The Glass Menagerie
– Sam Gold’s iconoclastic Broadway staging of Tennessee Williams’ classic (above), with Sally Field, Joe Mantello, wheelchair-bound Madison Ferris as Laura, and a stark set by Andrew Lieberman, wasn’t to everybody’s taste but it was to mine.

The Town Hall Affair
– the busy Wooster Group continued to expand and refine their restaging of a 1971 forum on women’s liberation with Kate Valk’s standout evocation of Jill Johnston.

The Antipodes
– Annie Baker’s very strange and surprising play at Signature Theater beautifully staged by Lila Neugebauer (whose crazy-good production of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s wild Everybody, also at Signature, was another favorite).

Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train
– Mark Brokaw’s brutal revival of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s play.

People, Places, & Things
– an excellent cast headed by Denise Gough (superbly directed by Jeremy Herrin) and Bunny Christie’s astonishing set lit up a tough play about addiction written by Duncan Macmillan (who also wrote and directed, with Robert Icke, the terrific adaptation of Orwell’s 1984 on Broadway).

Also: Phyllida Lloyd’s The Tempest set in a women’s prison with original score by Joan Armatrading; Manual Cinema’s gorgeous Mementos Mori with music by Kyle Vegter; Laurie Metcalf and Condola Rashad in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2; Rebecca Taichman’s inventive staging on Broadway of Paula Vogel’s Indecent; Jo Bonney’s impressive revival of Suzan-Lori Parks’s F**king A; KPOP, the witty, immersive piece about a Korean popstar factory at Ars Nova; David Greenspan’s miraculous solo performance of Eugene O’Neill’s nine-act Strange Interlude, directed by the Transport Group’s Jack Cummings III; Keegan-Michael Key’s lively Horatio in Sam Gold’s impenetrable staging of Hamlet at the Public; Ramsey Nsar in Ivo van Hove’s spectacular if unsatisfying staging of The Fountainhead at BAM (above); Taylor Mac’s holiday extravaganza at Town Hall; and David Zinn’s  extravagantly fun sets and costumes for SpongeBob SquarePants (below).  

Movies That Meant a Lot to Me: I Am Not Your Negro, Julieta, Get Out, Icaros: A Vision, Marjorie Prime, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, Call Me By Your Name, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, The Ornithologist, Bird on a Wire (Tony Palmer’s Leonard Cohen documentary), Long Strange Trip (Amazon documentary about the Grateful Dead).


December 14, 2017

Taylor Mac’s 24-Decade History: Holiday Sauce was in some ways a New Orleans-style funeral for drag legend Mother Flawless Sabrina disguised as a Christmas show. Between some of the most savage, scornful renditions of carols and pointedly political commentary, Taylor shared the pearls of wisdom that judy gleaned from a long apprenticeship with Flawless Sabrina, who died three weeks ago at the age of 78. An icon within the drag/faerie/trans community, Sabrina was best known for organizing a national drag competition that culminated in an event at Town Hall that became the basis for the award-winning documentary film The Queen. That made this concert at Town Hall exactly 50 years later a very special convergence of powerful forces.

“Remember your substitution skills” was a Flawless Sabrina axiom that Taylor Mac employed in order to give a queer spin to classic holiday numbers (“O Holy Night” was thoroughly sliced and diced to layer acceptably inclusive meanings over heterosexist Christian-capitalist propaganda). And the essence of Mother Flawless Sabrina’s teaching was that “expression is an act of citizenship,” a lesson Taylor Mac has thoroughly absorbed.

The show was a sort of coda to the 24-Decade History of Popular Music that judy unfurled at St. Ann’s Warehouse last year, with the same extraordinary collaborators, genius costume designer Machine Dazzle and supernaturally gifted music director Matt Ray. Taylor’s first outfit combined a Christmas wreath headdress that conjured Medusa, a camisole with roast-pig epaulets, and a tutu-skirt of candy canes, reindeer antlers, and pussy-grabbing hands; while Tigger Ferguson performed the inevitable striptease (to “Spirit in the Sky”), Taylor changed into a Glinda tiara with carousel hoop-skirt.

Machine of course appeared as well, first as a Christmas tree, then as naughty housemaid.

From the piano, Matt Ray took the exquisite eight-piece orchestra through a nutty unpredictable set list that ended with the whole house quietly humming “Silent Night” along with the distinctly New Orleans-flavored horn section. Additional special guest Glenn Marla came out as Hot Santa to demonstrate how every mall in America could use this season to conduct a Sexual Consent Workshop.

It was one of those all-star audiences that convene for special occasions in New York. Andy and I went with our friends David Zinn, Bob Mower, and Phil Hayes (who jumped onstage when Taylor Mac summoned all the Brits to sing along with the Pogues’ beery pub anthem “Fairytale of New York,” above). There was Jackie Rudin, of course, with Fussy LoMein, and Wesley Morris, and Rob Marx and Jim Ingalls, and Emily McDonnell, and Gabriel Ebert, and and and. The minute the show ended, everyone looked at their phones and learned the good news from Alabama, and the theater erupted again with cheers and tears.

A bunch of us repaired to Cafe Un Deux Trois afterwards for refreshments. O, what a night!

From the Deep Archives: Jon Hendricks live at Sweet Basil in 1980

November 23, 2017

I got to see Jon Hendricks, the jazz legend who died yesterday at age 96, perform live twice right after I moved to New York. The first time, I wrote about seeing him perform at an intimate club in the West Village and speaking to him afterwards.

“The Vocalese, Please”

Jon Hendricks, the quick-lipped hipster whose witty way with words launched Lambert, Hendricks & Ross in the late ‘50s, returned to New York after a long absence for a week’s stand at Sweet Basil. For the first half of his show, Hendricks traced his career from a Toledo childhood in church to his five-year stay in London, where they voted him number-one jazz singer in the world.

He sang his theme song, “Tell Me the Truth,” “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” some blues and a medley of “In Fondest Mem’ries Of” and “September Song”; he introduced his daughter Michele, who sang “I’ll Remember April,” and his “spiritual son,” Bobby McFerrin, who sang “Satin Doll,” both youngsters exhibiting vigorous and individual scat-singing styles. Then Hendricks sang Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado,” explaining that he was asked to write lyrics to the tune only after Johnny Mercer, Ned Washington and Hugh Martin declined the offer; it took all of 10 minutes, Hendricks said, and the proceeds put his kids through college. “Ah, the vicissitudes of creative life,” he sighed.

Singing solo, Hendricks was no more than pleasant, a polite crooner like, say, Tony Bennett. But when he brought on his wife, Judith, his daughter and McFerrin, standing in for his real son, Eddie, who was sick) to reconstruct LH&R, he unleashed his true genius. Hendricks didn’t invent the idea of setting words to big-band jazz arrangements and recorded instrumental solos – Eddie Jefferson and King Pleasure get the credit for that – but he perfected it. Besides the sheer visceral excitement of four voices straining against and merging into one another, Hendricks’ devilish arrangements of jazz standards like “It’s Sand, man!” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” generate awe at (I know this sounds corny) the miracle of music. There are four people up there not just singing notes but making music from scratch, lowly human voices producing a symphony of sounds, wrestling from chaos precision – and having fun, too.

With Hendricks walking all over the melodies, Judith wailing the high trumpet parts, and Michele and Bobby hugging the bop foundations, this foursome proved superior in both craft and jazzmanship to LH&R (groundbreakers at the time who now sound dated) or even Manhattan Transfer (who’ve made excellent records of Hendricks’ vocalese versions of Jimmy Giuffre’s “Four Brothers” and Weather Report’s “Birdland”).

Between sets Hendricks grandly received well-wishers in the hallway between the bathrooms and Sweet Basil’s kitchen. (“You’re getting’ preposterous around the circumference,” he told a tall, snaggle-toothed jazzman, who replied, “And ridiculous, too!”) It looks like his musical, Evolution of the Blues, which ran five years in San Francisco and another year in L.A., won’t make it to New York, but he’s working on another revue called Reminiscin’ in Tempo. When I wondered why he hadn’t made any records since the 1975 Tell Me the Truth on Arista, Hendricks unloaded a diatribe against Clive Davis (“He’s set the cause of jazz back 100 years. He wouldn’t swing if you hung him. I hate that motherfucker – and you can quote me on that!”) Oops. Well, someone ought to get Hendricks, Hendricks & Hendricks on record, anyway – they’re hot.

Soho News, March 26, 1980

Quote of the day: THINK

November 16, 2017


Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.

–Robert Bly, “Things to Think”

Quote of the day: BROTHERS

November 12, 2017


When his brother and sister, Hunter and Ashley, stood up to give their eulogies [for Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2014 at age 46], I don’t know how they did it, but I’ve never been prouder of them in my life. Hunter, who’s a beautiful writer, said: “My first memory of Beau was when I was 3 years old.” They were in the hospital [following the death of their mother and baby sister in a car accident]. Hunt had a skull fracture, almost every bone in his body was broken. And Beau, just 4, in the next bed, held his hand and kept saying: “Hunt, I love you. Look at me. I love you, I love you, I love you.” At the funeral Hunt said in 42 years that “he has never stopped holding my hand.”

I want readers to know that there are people like Beau in this world.

–Joe Biden, interviewed by Philip Galanes on the occasion of publishing his memoir Promise Me, Dad

                   Joe Biden with his sons Hunter, left, and Beau, in the early 1970s.

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