Performance diary: Amanda Palmer, INTO THE WOODS, and EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH

September 18, 2012

September 11 – Amanda Palmer first made her name as half of the Boston-based theatrical punk-cabaret duo Dresden Dolls. Most recently she achieved internet notoriety by raising over a million dollars with a Kickstarter campaign intended to raise $100K to finance the current tour supporting her newly released album Theatre Is Evil. In between she carved a major niche for herself as a DIY breast-baring grass-roots ukulele-toting championship social-networker, acquiring not only an ardent fan base but also a geek-idol husband, the charming, prolific and equally media-savvy science fiction-fantasy writer Neil Gaiman. I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Andy, a huge Gaiman fan, got intrigued and then swept up by the Kickstarter campaign. And I was perfectly happy to go along with reconfiguring September 11 as Amanda Fucking Palmer Day this year, even if it meant enduring the rigors of standing up for four hours straight at Webster Hall. (I swear I’m not going to say it, I refuse to say it, you’ll never hear me utter the words, but of course I’m thinking: I’m getting too old for this.)

It was a whiz-bang show, with three opening acts. We missed the first one. The second was a really young power-pop trio called the Pleasant Surprise led by AFP’s guitar player Jherek Bischoff. The third was Ronald Reagan, “Boston’s premiere ‘80s-rock saxophone duo” – a classic one-joke-two-song opening act who wailed out “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” while half the audience sang out all the words (including my sweetie). Palmer had been traipsing out in her dressing gown to introduce each act and to whip up interest for the inevitable live-streaming webcast. Introduced by Meow Meow, an Australian female-impersonator-impersonating female, Palmer entered borne aloft through the crowd (above) and led her three-piece Grand Theft Orchestra through most of the new album, whose destined-to-be-some-kind-of-hit is the Bowie-esque instant earworm “Do It With a Rock Star.” There was stage-diving and crowd-surfing, there were costume changes, and there was the obligatory hilarious cheesy Top-40 cover encore (“Call Me Maybe”). Palmer made the pre-emptive strike of addressing an issue that would be all over the internet and the New York Times the next day – that she’s enhancing her touring band with crowd-sourced string and horn players (“crowd-sourced” meaning volunteer, meaning unpaid, meaning uh-oh, here comes the musicians’ union out for blood…). I think she’s handling the evolving music-world economy pretty well (giving her new album away online, trusting that fans will pay for it, for instance), but if she gets as big and successful as she seems to want to be, there will have to be some rethinking of all this.

September 15 – Andy has never seen Into the Woods, the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine show, and he was dying to get tickets to see the production in Central Park this summer. We never managed to (which may have been a blessing), so we hunkered down instead with the DVD of the 1987 original Broadway production. The songs continue to dazzle, the performances hold up (especially Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s Wife, Danielle Ferland as Little Red Riding Hood, and Bernadette Peters as the Witch), James Lapine’s book….not so much. With the distance of time and home video, the holes in the second act gape like chasms. Without her magic powers, how does the Witch disappear in a puff of smoke? And the subtext related to AIDS, supplied by the zeitgeist when the show first appeared, is now completely imperceptible.

September 16 – Revisiting masterpieces is always worthwhile because they’re never the same twice. The original U.S. performances of the Robert Wilson-Philip Glass opera Einstein on the Beach (only two of them, at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976), epitomized the saying, “The legend is created by the people who weren’t there.” I heard about it as a college student in Boston, devoured the original cast recording, was thrilled to hear a concert version performed by the Philip Glass Ensemble at a church in Harvard Square, and couldn’t wait to actually see the first revival at BAM in 1984, in the early days of the Next Wave Festival. It lived up to all my expectations. This revival seemed, well, not exactly tamed but certainly different. My memory of the earlier production was that the music was extremely loud – body-bracing loud, rock-concert loud. This production is definitely not deafening (maybe because Glass isn’t playing in the band, for the first time ever?), and it’s funny to find that a little disappointing. Also in my memory of the first BAM revival, the performers maintained neutral facial expressions, which perfectly matched the Steinian prose of the spoken texts (by Christopher Knowles and Lucinda Childs, anyway) and the wordless vocals (all numbers and solfege syllables) as well as Glass’s monumentally release-avoidant score. In recent years, Wilson has been working a lot with German theater companies and incorporating much more expressionistic acting – white-painted faces, garish makeup, and exaggerated expressions at times virtually indistinguishable from clownish mugging. I didn’t like seeing that stuff in Einstein on the Beach. I wished the performances were as cool and sleek as the sets and the imagery and the lighting. But what the hell, to paraphrase what Paul McCartney said about critics who grumble about The White Album – “It’s fooking Einstein on the Beach. Shut up.” I was surprised that the music that grabbed me most was the choral music during the Knee Plays (maybe it helped that we could see the singers in the pit very clearly from where we were sitting). Four and a half hours without a break didn’t seem arduous at all. And I felt an unexpectedly strong wave of emotion when Wilson, Glass, and Childs came out and took bows at the end – three brave artists now old and gray who created a massive piece of work decades ago that still looks exceedingly strange and fiercely original.

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