Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Beethoven rolls over — again! And Tchaikovsky's heard it all before!

It's gotta be rock 'n' roll music, if you want to dance with some people, I guess. And it's gotta be heard the way they hear it.

My recent FB post venting about rock criticism was perhaps too categorical in seeming to dismiss rock music in general. I'm inferring that some of the blowback I got was provoked by this sentence: "Pop music, historically considered, is about memories, not merit."

Hopelessly dated — and that's a good thing.
What provoked me was an NPR interview with Greil Marcus, who I guess has some standing in his field and has just written a book (a book!) about 10 songs that define rock 'n' roll even though they aren't obvious "greatest hits."

The phrase "historically considered" is essential to understand what I was getting at. "Merit" can be applied to anything in the world, for sure. Yet in pop music — particularly since the advent of rock 'n' roll and the commercial triumph of youth culture — memories are the touchstone. The brief flowering of each new song attains a lasting bloom only in retrospect. In the short term, the song is  designed to lodge in the psyches of impressionable youth. From there, the immediately expected payoff is record sales and, more recently, increased downloadable prominence.

What rock criticism gets wrong is attempting to apply the long view of arts criticism to music explicitly designed for short-term marketability.  It's irrelevant and pretentious to do so. And putting up an ancient hit record against a modern "cover" (a wretched jargon term that was originally, and correctly, applied to white versions of black songs — for the sake of marketability, by the way) is a ploy designed to justify the critic, not the music.

Case in point: the Teddy Bears' "To Know Him Is  to Love Him" versus Amy Winehouse's 2007 recording.

If I wanted to play Marcus' game, I could launch a crit-fit all my own. It could  go in several directions.  For example, I could don my classical cap snugly and smugly — risking the accusation that I come to praise the monster, Phil Spector, who wrote the song — to say that the key change in the bridge section raises the intensity just at the point when the anxiety behind the girl's unquestioning devotion bursts through.

The texture also thickens (more apparent with the Teddy Bears than the minimalist Winehouse) to heighten the anxiety, and the melodic line becomes more chromatic, especially toward the end, at the words "Someday he'll see that he was meant for me," after which the backup vocalists drift behind the singer through V and IV back to I for the "A" section to repeat. (It's not insignificant that "me" in what I've quoted rests on the dominant, the second-most important pitch after the tonic, or key center, thus reminding us that the girl is really focused on herself, not him. And, just after "me"— for the Teddy Bears, not Winehouse — the girl's self-conscious, BuddyHollyesque "uh-oh" is the perfect fillip .)

If the egregious Marcus were my model, I might point out that the song, especially in this version, is sort of the inverse of what classical settings of the Mass do with the "Credo."  There, anxiety enters the music after "Et incarnatus est" (indicating the provisional nature of this life) and the texture typically thins and darkens with the words "sub Pontio Pilato passus et sepultus est" (= suffered under Pontius Pilate and was buried), only to brighten suddenly and shed chromaticism with "Et resurrexit".

In "To Know Him Is to Love Him," in contrast, the certainty is frontloaded in the "A" section; the mood is one of calm devotion. The song's dark counterpart to "Et resurrexit" in the Mass is "Why can't he see? How blind can he be?" — questions that introduce doubt into puppy-love sentiment as decisively as "And he rose again on the third day according  to the Scriptures" introduces triumph into the Credo.

Or, switching hats, I could stick more to pop history/sociology, and draw attention to the special value of the doo-wop style, of which the Teddy Bears' version is a fair white representation. The dappled texture of doo-wop's solo and group phrases has its parallel in similar contrasts between soloists and chorus in classical Mass settings. Whatever the other merits of doo-wop, it was great to dance to — both the fast (I still pop my 45 of the Del-Vikings' "Whispering Bells" onto the turntable now and then, and twitch somewhat like Peter Sellers in "Dr. Strangelove") and the slow tunes.

The background vocals gave continuity and drive to the melody; in the slow songs, the heavy overlay of triplets on the basic slow four was intoxicating. For the Teddy Bears, the men repeating "And I do, and I do, and I do" reinforces the main vocal line and embeds the girl's sincerity. Doo-wop is dependably capable of undergirding adolescent illusions. That's why I dared to share a personal memory about the song that did not  particularly flatter me. So what? "To Know Him Is to Love Him" did its job when it was supposed to, and in a style appropriate to it.

Winehouse's version fusses with the vocal line — nothing steady remains: She also fatally blurs the emotional contrast between the "A" and "B" sections. And discarding the doo-wop accompaniment for solo acoustic guitar is just plain wrong — the musical objective correlative of an addict's narcissism. However, the laws of pop decree that any original and its covers may properly be judged by how well they do in the marketplace, period. As I declared in my FB post: "Rock and roll is here to stay only [I should have said "mainly"] in the nostalgic minds of baby boomers" — and their kids and grandkids, who have music of their own to put money into and make memories of.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Rufus Reid Trio at the Jazz Kitchen: Comfortable mastery from the bass on out

The veteran bassist Rufus Reid is steeped directly in influences that stem from the favorable position jazz once enjoyed in popular culture: He first encountered the music of Horace Silver on a jukebox in Birmingham, Ala., in the early '60s.

Reid has both an old head and a young heart — an impression based on his second set Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen. when he told that story.

Rufus Reid rendering righteousness
Fresh from an appearance Friday at the Chicago Jazz Festival, the 70-year-old master fronted a trio with pianist Steve Allee and drummer Steve Houghton. A nearly full house reveled in the comfortable vibe created by this compatible threesome in a half-dozen tunes, plus an encore suitable for a jazzman who's seen a lot: Eubie Blake's "Memories of You."

Indianapolis jazz fans know how capable Allee is of creating and sustaining a performance's atmosphere. So it was no surprise that the leader let him open a couple of the tunes unaccompanied. Allee stated the whole of a two-part medley alone, etching a beautiful interpretation as he worked in  a loping "stride" version of Silver's "Peace."

That provided a fine segue into a tribute to another recently deceased pianist, Mulgrew Miller. The full trio poured its full heart into Miller's "Second Thoughts." The performance included several surging climaxes, patiently built up and then cresting, like ocean surf captured in slow motion. Allee also introduced Tominho Horta's Brazilian ballad "Francisca," an ensemble winner that comprised a variety of virtuoso opportunities for Houghton.

The drummer was unfailingly sensitive to Reid's fondness for tender balladry, wielding brushes lightly on cymbals during the bassist's subtly inflected statement of the melody in Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now."  Reid also favors tunes that can go either way — toward something intensely funky and driving, or amply reflective. That may be why he took two solos in Allee's "The Rise of the Road," the second leading to a long diminuendo capped by an exquisite plucked bass harmonic.

Reid is ingratiating in his bandstand manner and in his music-making, too.  But he doesn't pander. There's no gratuitous playing to the gallery, yet the audience's pleasure never seems to be a consideration that's teasingly withheld.

He ended the set with a challenging, yet rewarding, performance of a composition he conceded was "out" — "Hues of a Different Blue," the title song of his 2011 Motema CD.  Harmonically unsettled, the work toggled between two rhythmic arenas — a churning beat alternating with medium-swing four-to-the-bar episodes.  Everything was smoothly managed by his band-mates, with Houghton (who, Reid told the audience, had never played this music before) taking expert charge of managing the shifts.

Reid's explicit gratitude for the audience and the club itself was thoroughly reciprocated — and deservedly so, given the trio's expertness in all aspects of its musical assignment.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

IndyJazzFest preview: Some major stars of the mainstream are heading our way

Rob Dixon, one of the mainstays of the Indy Jazz Fest as both performer and organizer, says that the
absence of the smooth-jazz and fusion sides of the music in this year's schedule was no snub.

Local jazz stalwart Rob Dixon
"We know that smooth jazz is popular around here," he told me last week, "so it isn't due to a lack of effort" that programming for the 10-day festival emphasizes mainstream acoustic jazz. Dixon explained that fellow saxophonist Dave Koz, a major smooth-jazz figure, had set his popular jazz cruise to Alaska for about the same time, and that made a lot of the genre's big names unavailable. It put such conceivable ornaments to the IJF schedule as Jonathan Butler, Chris Botti and Earl Klugh out of the picture, even though the Koz cruise runs just through Sept. 12.

But some of the bestin  local jazz will be featured, however. Dixon had a few things to say about a program he's involved in Sept. 17, featuring a new group, the Indianapolis Jazz Collective. The band will share the stage with mallet percussionist Stefon Harris and local singer Cynthia Layne and her band. "We wanted something outdoors," he said. "People like that, and it will give that real festival feeling. That night we hope to have something like a festival within the festival."

This show, on the Terrace of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, will start at 7 p.m.  Tickets: $35 and $25 (students, $10).

The Indianapolis Jazz Collective will make its debut with this show. The personnel at this point: Dixon, saxophones; Marlin McKay, trumpet; Steve Allee, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Kenny Phelps, drums. The band is modeled on the San Francisco Jazz Collective, with its core group of performers-arrangers and a blend of standards and new material.

"We wanted to create an ensemble that's eclectic, playing an older repertoire with historical references and a lot of new compositions," Dixon said. "We see it as expanding to an octet, even up to a big band. We'll be trying to create a lot of energy around it."

Here's a look at some of the people I'm looking forward to hearing, with performance information and my recording recommendation(s):

Claire Daly (Sept. 12)

Daly,  a 56-year-old baritone saxophonist from New York, first got excited about jazz as a teenager after hearing the Buddy Rich Band with her father. 

Claire Daly: A maestra of the big horn
A year ago March, Daly wrote on her blog: "The North Coast Brewery made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. They brought my quartet (Steve Hudson, MaryAnn McSweeney, Peter Grant et moi) to the west coast, sponsored a tour from Vancouver to Santa Cruz, recorded us in NYC with Jim Anderson at the board at Avatar Studio, produced “Baritone Monk” and it has been on the charts for about 3 months...." She went on to say all profits go to the Thelonious Monk Institute, adding:  "They also make Brother Thelonious Ale, which kicks in a portion of the proceeds. To say I didn’t see that one coming is an understatement. We are really grateful for this opportunity."

The opportunity has given a boost to Daly's career since then. She will appear under North Coast Brewing Co., sponsorship, at 7 p.m. at the Jazz Kitchen. Admission: $12.

Recording: "Swing Low" (with Eli Yamin, piano; Dave Hofstra, bass; Peter Grant, drums; George Garzone, tenor saxophonist, guests on three tracks), Koch Jazz, 1999. Daly's hearty sound romps through a program of 11 (mostly) standards. She's a very approachable, melodic player with considerable oomph.

Steve Turre (Sept. 14)

A Californian in his mid-60s, Turre is a trombonist extensively influenced by J.J. Johnson, whose memorial service he attended in Indianapolis (Johnson's birthplace and home) in 2001. Turre had sideman experience with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Woody Shaw, and Ray Charles, among others, and got a chance to indulge his exotic tastes (including virtuosity on conch shells) with Dizzy Gillespie's United Nation Orchestra. He has logged over 30 years in the "Saturday Night Live" band, and has forged strong connections to academic jazz, mainly through the Juilliard School.

Steve Turre has a knack for issuing CDs that show various facets.
He will lead a quintet here at the Indiana Landmarks Center, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $40 and $25 (students, $10).

Recordings: "One for J: Paying Homage to J.J. Johnson" (Telarc, 2003). Fine arrangements for a raft of trombonists and rhythm section (Stephen Scott, piano; Peter Washington, bass; Victor Lewis, drums) paying tribute to the master of modern jazz trombone.
~"T-N-T" (Telarc, 2001). Turre gets back to hard-bop basics with a favorite sound — a tenor saxophonist joins him in the front line. James Carter, Dewey Redman, and David Sanchez are showcased.
~"The Spirits Up Above" (HighNote, 2004). Turre has a high-energy band behind him to pay tribute to Kirk, the first jazz star who encouraged him.  The flamboyant James Carter channels Kirk quite well on tenor, and Dave Valentin makes a cameo appearance on one track with some Kirk-style, vocalized flute-playing. Amid the plethora of everybody's jazz tribute albums, this one stands out.

Stefon Harris (Sept. 17, with Indianapolis vocalist Cynthia Layne)

Born in Albany, N.Y., in 1973, Harris was heading toward a career as a classical percussionist when
Stefon Harris brings his "A" game.
he made a switch to jazz that paid off almost immediately. At 25, "A Cloud of Red Dust"(Blue Note)  introduced him to the world as a formidable vibraphonist and marimba player. Among the established musicians he's worked with is Turre. He is also a member of the Classical Jazz Quartet.

Recordings:  The high quality of Harris' representation on CD has been compromised by his use of the ghastly vocoder in his ensembles, but the early CDs are easy to recommend. In my book, "The Grand Unification Theory" (Blue Note, 2003) is a better example of successful long-form composition in jazz than Wynton Marsalis' much-admired "Blood on the Fields" and "In This House, On This Morning." Harris' playing and arranging has been mature and self-assured from the outset.

Grace Kelly Quartet (Sept. 18)

Raised in a Korean-American family in Brookline, Mass., the 22-year-old Kelly has been a
Grace Kelly has lost no time moving ahead.
well-received vocalist and alto saxophonist since her early teens. She left high school early, later picking up a GED so she could enroll in Boston's Berklee College of Music.

Kelly had already acquired some renown as a 14-year-old soloist with the Boston Pops, under the baton of Keith Lockhart. She has since impressed the likes of David Sanborn, Wynton Marsalis and her longtime teacher, Lee Konitz.

Recordings: I've encountered some arresting examples of Kelly's work on YouTube, but have yet to make her acquaintance musically on a full-length CD.

If you like what you hear when she leads her quartet in a 7:30 p.m. concert at Apparatus, 1401 N. Meridian St., Her website can direct you to a slew of her CDs.

Tom Harrell  (Sept. 19)

Launching his career in the big bands of Woody Herman and Stan Kenton, the 68-year-old Illinoisan trumpeter-flugelhornist Harrell first made his mark with Horace Silver. As a leader, he has varied his stylistic inclination to hard bop through expanded instrumentation and considerable focus on challenging, well-crafted originals and arrangement. It's no secret that Harrell has achieved much in a long career while suffering from medically controlled schizophrenia.

Tom Harrell's discography presents him in an array of settings.
Recordings: You won't hear anything of this sort in Harrell's two sets (7:30 and 9:30 p.m.) at the Jazz Kitchen, but I just have to single out "Time's Mirror" (RCA Victor), a big-band album from 1999. I'll concede the point made by Richard Cook and Brian Morton in the fifth edition of "The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD" that "it's sometimes too thoughtful and accomplished," but I favor that end of the spectrum much more than its thoughtless and slipshod opposite. Harrell is inspired throughout and the band sounds great.

[Photo credits: Turre, Harris, Kelly and Harrell — Mark Sheldon]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

IndyFringe Festival wrapup: The executive director looks back — and ahead

Looking at a new contribution to local culture from the perspective of 10 years, Pauline Moffat sees
Pauline Moffat has guided IndyFringe from the start.
the one she has led from the beginning as part of the mainstream.

That may seem to challenge the very name of her enterprise: IndyFringe, whose signature event started life 10 Augusts ago as the Indianapolis Theatre Fringe Festival.  Though the "fringe" image may still apply to aspects of its sometimes avant-garde and raunchy  entertainment, IndyFringe now makes a firm claim to having added to downtown Indianapolis' cultural stature.

"I believed it would take us 10 years for us to be seen as part of the culture," Moffat told me Wednesday. Extraordinary sponsorship came this year from BMO Harris Bank (festival naming rights) and Indy Eleven Soccer (a new theater and "Trailhead" facility). "Once you've hit that point in terms of exposure and the numbers who've come to the festival," said Moffat, such support emerges.

Moffat says that year-round programming has also built credibility with funding sources, in addition to having provided training grounds and continuing opportunities for IndyFringe's public to remain connected.

"The more you work, the more you want to rehearse and put on shows," Moffat said of the fledgling groups and playwrights. Twenty-three percent of all festival shows last year were written by women, she added, pointing to the annual DivaFest as a prime generator of new female talent.

Audiences were urged to fill out one-page surveys at every 2014 show. From over 1,000 returned, Fringe learned that 58 percent of its audience came from Marion County, 16 percent from outside the metropolitan area.  The rest traveled from the counties surrounding Marion. From the same questionnaires, Moffat learned that 8.4 percent of the attendees were black, an increase that can be attributed in part to the presence on the schedule of three African-American shows.

This kind of diversity helps keep funders happy, Moffat noted, but age diversity is also very important. It helped bring BMO Harris on board as the festival's title sponsor this year. "We covered that whole range, and they went in on it because of that young-old spectrum."

That also raises the question of gauging suitability of the 64 Fringe shows, as "family-friendly" offerings help the image and the bottom line. Every year, participants are asked to provide warnings  about such matters as violence, loud noises, strobe lights and "adult language" in their shows; these are printed in the program book, along with showtimes and one-paragraph descriptions. A problem that arises is that often the content of participants' shows hasn't been set by the time they're admitted (the window for 2015 participants, for example, is Nov. 1 to Feb. 28).

Artist's conceptual rendering of IndyFringe's Trailhead facility.
But sometimes mild or no warnings can be traceable to the desire to attract maximum audiences. Why warn off any paying patron? presenters figure. "All of the performers could have been stretching, and we got some of them to adjust," Moffat said. "We went to everyone that put 'family-friendly' on their shows and asked why they were going family-friendly."

Moffat said the festival will become more strict about this in years to come; otherwise, "you get a backlash with people who don't trust the warnings."

This was the first year that "backer buttons" were not required. Formerly, one-time-only purchase of these buttons (at first, $3; more recently, $5) was a prerequisite to purchase of any show ticket. Backer-button sales failed to support the festival adequately, however, so the standard show price was boosted to $15, with a small portion underwriting the festival itself.

Advance ticket sales, now in their fourth year, helped boost attendance to 16,500, with box-office receipts totaling $137,000. Forty-three percent of all ticket sales were made in advance; no portion of seats was held out to accommodate walk-up sales, she said, which made Fringe volunteers happy.

"If we are going to sell in advance, we might as well sell them all off," Moffat explained. "This was the year of customer service, and we wanted that to be part of  customer service. We listened to focus groups that said, 'We want to buy tickets online.'

Meanwhile, Moffat, heading a two-person staff with a host of community support, is looking forward to the January opening of the Trailhead facility. The expansion of Fringe headquarters will include a new theater named for the Indy Eleven, open in time for the annual Winter Magic Festival. And come next summer, that new facility will be the home of the festival's eighth stage, which has moved around the neighborhood annually up to now.  "I've reached the end of my tether, so I'll be delighted," Moffat said candidly. "One more permit, and we're ready to go."

Then Fringe will have moved another step closer to being off the fringe and closer to the center of the tapestry. In the decade to come? "To keep growing and keep improving," Moffat said. "We have to start succession planning and get a good solid business base in the next 10 years."

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Bringing my Fringe to a close at TOTS: "The Great Bike Race" and "Lolita"

Theatre on the Square has built a justified reputation as the home for "out-there" shows, especially on its main stage. Its proportions are unusual, long on width and short on depth. If they are well-staged, action-packed shows can revel in all the room from side to side, while seeming to unfold practically in the audience's laps the whole time.

Four Humors' "Lolita: A Three-Man Show" and Zach Rosing Productions' "The Great Bike Race" displayed their comfort in that space Friday night. (There is just one more chance to see these shows before the IndyFringe festival ends Sunday; catch up with the schedule here.)

The competition is fierce and (mostly) mustachioed in "The Great Bike Race."
Rosing, a local wizard of technical theater, outfits Zack Neiditch's script with multimedia splendor in "The Great Bike Race."  The show is loosely based on the prophetically dishonest 1904 Tour de France. Undercutting the competition by means other than performance-enhancing drugs, the all-French competitors seeded the course with cats and tacks, encountered interference from spectators annoyed by the annual disruption, and were otherwise sidelined by mechanical sabotage, romance, and alcoholic consumption.

Using black-and-white film occasionally for both backdrops and to supplement the onstage action, Zeiditch and Rosing concoct a fast-moving show inspired by Mack Sennett comedies. Handlebars and hard-pumping legs mimic the thrill of jostling, tightly packed bicyclists. There is ample carping and cooing dialogue, plus songs by Paige Scott (who also stars as presumptive champion and braggart Hippolyte Acoutrier), including an ensemble chorus set to the most famous Jacques Offenbach tune.

The performance style owes a lot to vaudeville, it seems to me, though neither I nor the young cast has any direct knowledge of that manic style — the blend of visual and verbal comedy that's unabashedly lowbrow and direct. Whatever the inspiration, Neiditch and Rosing have gotten their high-spirited cast to coalesce around the scenario, which reaches the height of burlesque, in the original sense of that word. However short of brilliance individual performances may fall here, everything is redeemed and enhanced by the solid esprit de corps.

Brant Miller is a risibly counterintuitive Lolita.
From the Twin Cities comes the Four Humors, who are just as adept at catching the Fringe vibe. They have a much more directly parodistic show than their TOTS main-stage companions' free-floating historical fantasy. With unflagging gusto, they've taken on the Stanley Kubrick film version of Vladimir Nabokov's notorious novel about the love affair between a middle-aged English academic and a spoiled 12-year-old girl in upstate New York.

Director Jason Ballweber collaborated on the show with cast members Ryan Lear, Brant Miller, and Matt Spring. The three work superbly together, inhabiting mainly the characters of, respectively,  Humbert Humbert, Lolita, and Lolita's mother Charlotte/Humbert nemesis Clare Quilty.

Little reverence is expended for the film, despite the obvious admiration the creators of the Four Humors show have for the original and its bizarre love affair. Certainly the taboo exemplified by the Humbert-Lolita liaison has only become more entrenched since the movie was released. To see, in his initial appearance, the hairy, pudgy Miller lolling poolside in a red bikini wearing heart-shaped sunglasses both softens and sharpens that taboo.

In making hilarious revisions, the production merely builds upon what Kubrick did to the novel and Nabokov's screenplay. This is how the novelist recalled the movie's debut: "At a private screening [in June 1962], I had discovered that Kubrick was a great director, that his 'Lolita' was a first-rate film with magnificent actors, and that only ragged odds and ends of my script had been used."

Four Humors indulges in some goofy digressions, such as Spring's wholehearted arabesques on the role of the butler — loquacious, slightly deranged, and afflicted with a spasmodically wavy left hand. There's a phone picked up before it's finished ringing and a gun that doesn't fire when it should. The guys quibble amusingly on the authenticity of Lear's James Mason accent, and near the end, try to deal with Miller's astonishment at learning the truth about Lolita's relationship with Humbert and Quilty.

Both shows exemplify some of the best this year's Fringe has to offer in its 10th-anniversary season. Whatever the appeal of the festival's many one-person shows, ensemble productions that are as unified, brazen and all-out as these two will remain at the heart of IndyFringe's enduring appeal.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A conspicuous star on the clarinet joins forces with the Pacifica Quartet in Mozart and Brahms

Freshly escaped from the troubled Metropolitan Opera organization, where he was the orchestra's principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill now occupies the corresponding position with the New York Philharmonic. (McGill was interviewed this week on the Tavis Smiley Show.)

Chicagoan Anthony McGill performs on Chicago's label.
This luminous recording of the two best pieces for clarinet and string quartet will  raise his artistic profile beyond the reach of the audiences of those two great musical institutions. Cedille Records released in June his collaboration with the Pacifica Quartet on Mozart's Quintet in A major and Brahms' Quintet in B minor.

The emotional and technical synchronization between the string quartet and its guest is consistent and delightful. The repetition of the main theme in the first movement of the Mozart features well-coordinated tugging at the tempo. The interplay between first violinist Simin Ganatra and McGill in the slow movement couldn't represent better the Mozartean knack for characterization.
Best of all is the perky finale, with the nuanced expressive range of its six variations.

In the Brahms, the clarinet is deployed effectively across the breadth of its range. McGill's strength in all registers is unsurpassed.  I liked how the five musicians scrupulously observe the rests in the first movement, making them an essential part of Brahms' rhetoric. The composer's resourceful management of his material is fully respected in this performance; this ensemble digs into every phrase as though it means it.

The spirit carries through the "Con moto" finale, whose heading is scrupulously obeyed with a nicely impelled momentum. A rounded, retrospective quality lent to the closing section, with its recall of the work's very beginning, completes the performance — and brings to a close this perfect partnership,
defined by two masterpieces.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

IndyFringe on Tuesday night: If you're not eccentric, you're not at the center

"Live On Air With Poet Laureate Telia Nevile" (Theatre on the Square Stage Two)  is one of those IndyFringe shows with a perfect matching of concept and detail. Like many of the shows that are strutting their stuff a half-dozen times on and around Mass Ave through Sunday, it makes a virtue of eccentricity.

If you're not at the far edge of the search for identity and self-expression, you're not at the center of the Fringe persona. That's OK, too, because even Fringe festivals need their outliers, their flashes of ordinariness.

In the case of "Live On Air," Nevile creates a comic microcosm focused on a lonely suburban girl's passion for poetry, expressed over a pirate radio station. She puts the "try" in "poetry," she declares, and her efforts are both trite and insightful, whimsical and plaintive. The show is never dull.

Telia Nevile goes live with poetry.
Her sweet-voiced storytime segment  is a "West Wing"-inspired gay-hookup episode loaded with sexual punning and governmental jargon. A soft-focus blues track lies behind her lamenting "First Date Fail Blues."  By her own measure, she is a poet so given to "deep thought" that she fancies spelling "deep"  with a few extra "e's."  She brings her most menacing voice to "Apostrophe Apocalypse," hilariously warning against the confusion of "its" with "it's". A proud rap on her zest for unusual words proclaims her right to "wallow in wistful antiquities."

Every part of Nevile's act unfolds its own delightful surprises. She mocks her character gently insofar as the show indicates that the most intelligent word-lover can be just as subject to feelings of isolation and defeat as the semi-literate. She also satirizes the expressive limitations of pop songs and cliches.

The Australian comedian's appealing young woman is after something that her literary reach may be forever unable to grasp. Her T-shirt declares "Rimbaud Built My Hotrod," and the French poet's call for a derangement of the senses may be just what she needs to leave tire marks on the pavement. It's so much fun to watch the attempt that it feels like she's made it already. "Live on Air" should be on everybody's frequency.

It would be a pleasure to report that the elaborate preparation behind "Jacked!" at the Cook Theater  was well-served by the content. Derived from the radio sketch comedy that's been key to the success of the long-running "Prairie Home Companion," this is a rather frantic spoof of "Jack and the Beanstalk." A huge (for Fringe) cast of eight is mostly lined up along the front of the stage, each player with microphones. A screen placed  in front of the stage cues the audience to say or do scripted things as the story proceeds.

The faux-radio show is presented by "the Folkettes," which says a lot.
Essential to the show as the story lumbers on, interrupted by commercials, is bickering among the principals and a series of scripted gaffes and disasters. There is no end to the cleverness applied to this scenario, the creation of Bob Sander. Very little of it tickled my funnybone, however. Upon being informed that the Giant's fowl-produced golden eggs have made him as rich as Midas, we are reminded just how very rich that must be because of the current cost of muffler replacement. And after host Travis DiNicola, victim of an explosion in the scenario, is allegedly replaced by a twin brother, one of six such (he says), the predictable objection that twins come only in twos is answered by "I'm not saying it was easy."

I'll pause here until you recover yourself.

"Jacked!" ends with a faux-academic argument on how to interpret the story: Is Jack the hero, or is the Giant? In my view, the execution is the real hero, because it makes a technical silk purse out of a conceptual sow's ear. And the writing, while it percolates as brought to life by the committed cast, suggests that the bar wasn't set very high above the camaraderie required to produce such a show.

TOTS' Stage Two was also the venue for my third show of the evening, "How to Raise a Good Child Badly." Paul Strickland's convoluted script of a young woman's upbringing and adjustment to life's confusion was brilliantly interpreted by Julie Mauro. With her toothy grin and sparkling eyes, Mauro ingratiated herself with the audience by rendering the charm of youthful naivete through the entangled lives of a character named She and one named Her.

Julie Mauro is thoroughly winning.
I'll admit I had a hard time keeping them straight, but something vivid embedded in "How to Raise a Good Child Badly" swept me along over the rough spots. Iconic objects and experiences illumine all of our lives, and Strickland's script particularizes these and gives them polished auras. It's the kind of play that would remain murky on the page, and even in performance, without such a striking performance as Mauro's.

Her achievement extends to Strickland's notion that a couple, presumably up in years, is attending the show and struggles with their confusion about it. The woman's attitude has the right aspirational endorsement the Fringe experience requires, while the man remains hostile.

I'll end by giving vent to my chagrin that Mauro gives this man a sorghum-thick Southern accent, which chimed uneasily for me with a similar vocal caricature in "Jacked!", where Sue Grizzell voiced Jack's mother as a braying hayseed.

I confess I'm avoiding Fringe shows that put forward either a sentimental or a satirical view of rural American life. Either tendency indicates that safe entertainment for likely Fringe patrons has to be at a far remove from how they live.  Thus we can either sentimentalize the rubes or make fun of them. I think it would be good to give the country-bumpkin impressions a rest. In 2014, we Americans must be uneasy about how much of traditional lifestyles and manners we have lost, so we make them either folksy or ridiculous in high and low art alike.

Plus, actors with rudimentary mimicry skills can always manage a cornpone accent. I'm thinking it's too bad that certain odious walks of life today — say, hedge-fund managers or wedding videographers — don't have distinctive accents. It's time to draw a bead on fresh easy targets.