Sunday, February 19, 2017

Joe Lovano Quartet fills the room and our warm February souls at the Jazz Kitchen

Joe Lovano, looking like the chairman of the board.
Coming into the Jazz Kitchen on a beautiful unseasonably balmy Saturday evening to hear the Joe Lovano Quartet provided a layer of further relief.

The early set by the veteran saxophonist dispensed not only balm, however, but also a bracing sort of liniment that stung before it soothed. An older sax master, Sonny Rollins, offered a musical caution about global warning several years ago. But sometimes you just have to enjoy the late winter gift of 60-degree temperatures, set aside thoughts of planetary danger, and just take in the music.

Lovano's protean style and wealth of invention skirts the edge of glibness, but there's always enough in his solos and the unity he has nurtured in his bands over the years to keep the music fresh. With a short introductory cadenza as a kind of throat-clearing, Lovano and the band launched into some bluesy oratory with the leader's composition "Fort Worth."

Now, Fort Worth is a homespun Texas city that nurtures its cowboy heritage reasonably well, but I assume the title is applicable to what Lovano does because Fort Worth is the hometown of Ornette Coleman. The theme is down-home, casual about chord changes, and saturated in country blues, and thus is a durable tribute (you can hear it on at least a couple of Lovano CDs) to the apostle of free jazz.

Lovano's solo was cogent and vigorously focused, but his young pianist Lawrence Fields, besides being undermiked, was somewhat slow to roll out his ideas, then reluctant to release them.  His improvement in the course of the set was dramatic. By the third piece, "On This Day, Just Like Any Other," he was hitting his stride, moving things along smartly. He sounded both fully relaxed and generously motivated in the last two numbers, a Wayne Shorter tune and Tadd Dameron's "Hot House."

The set's second piece,"Our Daily Bread," gave the capacity crowd the first extended exposure to bassist Peter Slavov, vivaciously interactive with Larry Istreli's pistol-shot drumming. This band can fill in a broad canvas without seeming to turn aside to touch up an unrelated watercolor. In other words, it can  establish a ballad feel on a piece like this, work it up to a midtempo swinger and, with the leader as inspiration, turn a reflective mood into a more playful one, as Lovano did in his second solo. Yet it all hangs together, and declines to ride madly off all directions, unlike Stephen Leacock's Lord Ronald.

The sixth tune, the aforementioned "Hot House," came off like something you might hear in a second set. The quartet was fully at home and reacting well to its enthusiastic reception. The conventional device of exchanges with the  drummer, delayed until this piece, was unusually high-profile and concise.  A chorus or two with just Lovano and Istreli made an exciting interlude just before the quartet chimed in for the out-chorus.

We may all be living in a hot house with a sense of foreboding, but we might as well catch a little fun as the glaciers calve and the polar ice caps melt. The Joe Lovano Quartet is among the vehicles to carry us away from worry for a while.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

An elder statesman among conductors works wonders with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Realizing that I was out of town when the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra last played Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat ("Eroica"), I unfortunately can't comment on how different Friday night's performance under the baton of Edo de Waart was
Edo de Waart, this weekend's guest conductor.
compared to Mario Venzago's in 2014.

But it was soon evident as the first movement got under way at Hilbert Circle Theatre that de Waart was drawing something of significant contrast to the Beethoven styles of Krzysztof Urbanski,  Venzago, or Raymond Leppard — the current ISO music director and his two immediate predecessors.

I've never heard the ISO sound quite like this in core classical repertoire, and it's almost frustrating to try pinpointing the differences, which were all to the good. There was a glow and warmth to the first movement that avoided overheating. The sound was full and commanding, without excessive upholstery. In "The Symphony: A Listener's Guide," Michael Steinberg complains of conductors "whose attitude of reverence and awe before A Great Classic leads them into 'monumental' tempi" that seem to justify early critical carping that this trailblazing symphony was inordinately lengthy, even unendurable.

While grandeur was never far from the vision de Waart imparted to the ISO, the performance never took on any rigidity of the kind summed up in Steinberg's capitalized phrase "A Great Classic."  This was a supple interpretation whose dynamics and tempos seemed to grow from within.

The structure of each movement — particularly the first and the fourth — was delineated without any evidence of micromanaging. I think Beethoven meant for his audience to see both the forest and the trees. The "greatly compressed motif cells" (Maynard Solomon's phrase) in the opening movement, for example, were given a clarity that was nevertheless nestled in the fabric of the whole. The tidiest movement, the Scherzo, had the requisite panache, including the three-horn magnificence of the Trio section. The "funeral march" second movement sounded properly like the best thing of its kind ever created, music that Richard Wagner sought in vain to equal in his heroic funeral music for Siegfried.                 

The finale was not taken on the power trip some performances can't resist. It's obvious Beethoven is treating his much-loved theme to a kind of apotheosis, but why clamber up Parnassus heedless of the terrain's special beauties? De Waart never let the cumulative insistence of the material take over. He invited the orchestra to bask in the spectrum of Beethoven's variation treatment, and it did — from march to caprice to "Hungarian" dance to the flaming coda.

The overall progressive development of the ISO is not to be slighted, even though the vacancy issue must continue to be addressed. Nonetheless, while acknowledging the contributions of the three music directors already mentioned, what a guest conductor of de Waart's stature can lend to the ensemble speaks not only to his gifts but also to the flexibility any major orchestra needs to display. When the ability to adapt in repertoire the players know thoroughly is exercised this well, the result encourages enthusiastic patronage and brightens the future.

De Waart opens this weekend's programs (the series concludes at the Palladium Sunday) with the significant but rarely heard "Symphonies of Wind Instruments" by Igor Stravinsky. Twenty-some musicians are required for the 1920 work, heard here in its 1947 revision. Friday's performance sparkled, but showed the need for a little more rehearsal. At issue is not how well the performance hung together; it did that, but there's a host of challenges in blending so much instrumental diversity in unconventional ways.

Saxophone virtuoso Timothy McAllister
The work's peculiar title indicates the composer's interest in elaborating on the roots of the word "symphony": a sounding together. Declaring himself — in an annoying watchword of modernism — uninterested in expressing emotion, Stravinsky still managed to come up with a chastely moving tribute to Claude Debussy, as was commissioned from him. But the main focus is on a constant shifting of ensemble colors across a range of short themes that owe much, including their Russian character, to "The Soldier's Tale," "The Wedding" and even "The Rite of Spring."

Though Stravinsky disdained the organ ("The monster never breathes!" he once said), I often think that this work should come across as if one instrument were parading all these different sounds in front of us, like a finely registered organ. Friday's performance was fairly shipshape, but the score's challenges are huge. To give just one example, in one of the passages just after another repetition of the work's signature herald-like motif, three flutes have a showcase marked mezzo forte ("medium loud"), joined near the end of the seventh measure by a large proportion of the band playing piano ("soft"). If the large group does not play softly, it of course will tend to obscure the flutes. Not having a phonographic memory, I won't try to assert how close Friday's performance came to Stravinsky's demand here, but I had the sense that overall blend and balance were not all they could have been; maybe just two more concert performances will meet every requirement.

The novelty in this weekend's program is John Adams' Saxophone Concerto. To play the solo part, the ISO enjoyed the participation of the alto saxophonist who inspired the composer to create the piece, Timothy McAllister.  The soloist's playing was equal to the unrelenting nature of Adams' writing — to its bursts of lyricism and controlled feverishness alike. His tone remained pristine and properly centered throughout. The orchestra supports him after the Adams manner of repetitive elements that change direction much more freely than the minimalism with which the composer was associated long ago.

The first movement creates the illusion of rising continually, yet somehow remains grounded, like a tethered hot-air balloon.
The soloist is set against an instrumental texture that owes something to a style of Weather Report, and indeed that seminal jazz-fusion group's saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, was an acknowledged influence on the composer. The surprising breadth of Shorter's phrasing — his way of leaving a notion incomplete in one place only to answer it satisfactorily later — was represented  excitingly in the solo part.

There are moments of relaxation in the course of two long movements. The finale, with its spiky energy from soloist and orchestra alike, drew more on early bebop pioneers, specifically Charlie Parker. This was a style in which rests and abrupt breaks in the line take on structural importance. After meeting so many requirements so well, McAllister still seemed to have fresh resources to bring to bear on the second movement's climax. I'd love to hear this piece again before too long.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Letter from the Earth: Phoenix Theatre nails the Deity in "An Act of God"

Not sure what the technical glitch (clearly intentional on the part of the Phoenix Theatre tech team) was that gave an opening-night audience "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell as an emanation, or incarnation, or embodiment of God Himself in "An Act of God" Thursday night.

You'll have to forgive me for my confusion on how to describe the substitution. Human theological language is mostly opaque to me. I should say right off that, coincidentally, I was there as a representative of regular blog critic Jay Harvey. As an angel, though not among the higher orders — my application to either Dominions or Thrones is under consideration — I am pretty well qualified to stand in for any human observer of the celestial scene. I daresay Harvey cannot make that claim.

First off, I have to declare that David Javerbaum, the author of "An Act of God," has some startling insights and intuitions about Himself. You can see for yourself on weekends through March 12 at the Phoenix, whose current home used to be a church. I find that charming, given this production.

Scot Greenwell convincingly doing some God-splaining.
And Greenwell is a dead ringer for God. Of course, since man was made in God's image, just about anyone would be, right? But that gets into theology, and I've already implied I would avoid that as much as possible. So let's just say that Greenwell is outstanding in a play in which Himself tirelessly presents a revision of the Ten Commandments and talks at great length about his motivation and achievement. He wraps things up by presenting an entirely new vision of Creation, which I guess quaint human custom would advise me not to reveal here. God Himself hasn't always been conscientious about spoiler alerts. Not that I'm bragging.

Under the direction of William Fisher, the actor exerts a firm hold on our attention from the start. He certainly held mine, and I'd never conceived of Himself being anything close to "legendary local character actor" Scot Greenwell. This is part of the magic of theater, which God in this play assures the audience he loves. People eat that kind of thing up: If they know God loves what they love too, they feel reaffirmed. The audience couldn't have been happier at the end, though I wonder if the final divine directive was bound to co-opt the slightest resistance. But my lips are sealed.

Greenwell is given lots to say, and he seems fully invested in all of it. As God, he has His moods, and He has a sense of humor, with great timing. Irony is not His strong suit, yet 21st-century humans like to interpret a lot of what God says and does ironically, and Javerbaum plays to that tendency brilliantly. When I'm sent down here on my occasional errands, distinguishing between irony-impaired and irony-dependent people is the hardest thing I have to do.

Archangel Michael won't take divine guff.
Everybody knows from Genesis that God is quite verbal. He felt the need to announce a lot of what He created over those six days, and unless He meant for us angels to overhear him, He was talking to himself, or Himself. Subsequently, as the Bible records, He chose His words carefully but always had a way of making them stick. Presented with an opportunity to justify divine injustice, He went on and on to Job (the play reminds us), becoming as beside the point and abrasively defensive as Kellyanne Conway.

Yes, I'm up on current events and pop culture,  as is Javerbaum's God. Omniscience entails an allusiveness as extensive and au courant as Shakespeare's. (They're neck-and-neck as to who has more footnotes.) The play's God also presents an up-to-date take on the first human beings — not particularly clearing anything up, but rather setting perpetual confusion upon a new platform, IMHO.

Archangel Gabriel attends to the sacred text.
Himself's talk about His "mysterious ways" seemed a little smug and evasive to me, but we hear that in Heaven all the time. It's one of the God cliches He says He hates. That wasn't the only point during Thursday's performance that I heard low murmurs of agreement from the audience. And there was plenty of laughter, too. This God really likes his human creatures, wants to amuse them when appropriate, and seems in this play to blame Himself for many of their failings. Well, it's about time, a survey of my colleagues might find. Just sayin'.

Michael certainly thinks so. Played here by Joshua Coomer, the patron angel of Israel tightens the rhetorical thumbscrews on Himself several times, with understandable frustration, even ferocity. Once, he gets a wing lopped off for his pains. He is of course in character to bring up the Holocaust, among other ills besetting the Creation. Nimble Michael also fields questions from the audience, which have an inevitability to them. It's nonetheless risky, as when the current U.S. President calls on reporters not from FoxNews or Breitbart.

In contrast, Gabriel (Michael Hosp) stays at an onstage lectern, some distance away from blowing the last trump (I've picked up the nasty human habit of naughty puns). He's devoted to the Good Book and the Heavenly Record. At the end of the show, the archangels join Himself in an uplifting trio that conveys God's parting message.

These dutiful, slightly edgy inner-circle angels have been splendidly outfitted by Sara Gable on a multilayered set (designed by Phil Male, and lit with just the right amount of dazzle by Michael Moffatt).  Michael is more working-class celestial; Gabriel projects archangel chic. White dominates, of course, and the apt accents and exquisite detail on all three figures made me feel right at home.

Questions and issues that have vexed human beings for millennia are addressed with magnanimity. Impressively, Himself takes a detour through the Valley of Tender Parental Regard in talking about Jesus, his headstrong middle child. On the whole, though, Himself is currently miserable. If He wrote a personal ad to humanity, it would no longer say "ISO LTR." Yet every time there's a one-night stand, a new cult religion gets founded.

But you'll have to discover for yourself why God might come to such a wary, weary conclusion. It will be worth your while. Speaking personally, this show put me in touch with the better angel of my nature. Maybe I could even make Seraphim! That would be awesome, if you'll allow a rare, suitable use of that word.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Butler University Theatre opens a resonant "Glass Menagerie"

Butler's Wingfield family in "The Glass Menagerie"
Background music is part of the scenario Tennessee Williams stipulates in "The Glass Menagerie," the 1945 drama that made his reputation.

In Butler University's production of the play, the overheard accompaniment varied in appropriateness; there were some puzzling anachronisms. But particularly exact and evocative of both the era and the mood was Billie Holiday's recording of "Crazy He Calls Me," played before the first words came from the stage.

The romantic devotion the song addresses is never realized by anyone in the Wingfield household in a lower-middle-class apartment in St. Louis. But the fierce wistfulness of the family matriarch, Amanda, is caught particularly in these lines:  "The difficult I'll do right now / The impossible will take a little while."

Wounded by the early departure of her handsome husband and the father of her now-adult children, Laura and Tom, Amanda does the difficult daily. That means keeping her son on track, correcting his manners and nurturing the conventional ambitions she imposes on him, while  pressuring her painfully shy daughter to develop a few modest pink-collar skills on the way to a proper marriage. Pathetically, she tries to bring in a little money selling magazine subscriptions by phone, flattering her customers with effusive sympathy for their woes.

Seen in a preview Wednesday evening in the Studio Theatre, the show reinforces in several respects the distortions of memory and the way fantasies sustain the will to go on, grasping to transcend real-life constraints and inhibitions. There is choreography, for example: Dance takes wing to elaborate upon Amanda's memories of being an attractive Southern belle, and later to allow Laura's imagined release from her shell, spurred by a sympathetic conversation with the Gentleman Caller. The former seemed to put forward an overly Oedipal interpretation of the mother-son relationship, but was well brought off. More poignantly, the Laura/Caller dance projected an attractive young woman, moving free of lameness and blossoming under the male attention she misinterprets.

Director Elaina Artemiev displays an imaginative latitude in fleshing out the playwright's assertion (through Tom as narrator) that the story is not told realistically. There is occasionally bold separation of actors, turning Rob Koharchik's unit set to advantage, as some conversations take place as if symbolically underscoring the way each Wingfield, though crucially bound to the others, lives in an individualized world. Tom seeks escape from a dead-end job at a local warehouse, Laura retreats into her collection of glass animals, and Amanda attempts to keep her sugary, vinegary temperament in control while clinging to the hope that the impossible will take just a little while.

Lexi Rohrer, playing Amanda, probably didn't need a dialect coach to emphasize the matriarch's Southern roots; she hails from Lexington, Kentucky. Beyond the idiomatic accent, she creditably created the illusion of a middle-aged, careworn woman. I'll admit I thought her sashaying and fluttery gestures in Amanda's reminiscence of her belle-of-the-ball youth were excessive, but then it struck me that the distorting mirror of Tom's memory means that his mother needn't be played with stylistic restraint or consistency. People we have mixed feelings about tend to be recalled with their features and idiosyncrasies exaggerated. It was thus quite striking that the scene shortly afterward, with Amanda returning home grim and humiliated by the discovery Laura has been skipping classes in stenography and typing, presented a much different person, with all the flutter and well-honed gracefulness gone, and defeat stamped on every feature.

Jeffrey Bird played Tom, a touch self-satisfied in retrospection — a trait that I thought worked: Though Tom's feeling is genuine for his sister and mother, it has been refined by distance in time, place and perspective. In the scenes where Tom is fully in his recalled past, Bird showed an appropriate range, flaring up at his mother or playfully chatting with Laura after a night on the town. Everything about the character came together in Tom's final speech, which I've always considered the most beautifully poignant narrator exit in 20th-century American literature, along with the last page of "The Great Gatsby."

Kallen Ruston's Laura conveyed better through her facial expressions than her voice Laura's fragility, but her look and sound worked together well enough to convey the tender heart of the action. As the Gentleman Caller, Ian Hunt projected the buoyancy and good nature of Tom's co-worker, a dinner guest of whom far too much is expected. It's a difficult role, in that we have to see him as sympathetically sincere, even if he may have self-consciously worked on being well-liked to further his ambitions, rather than someone toying with Laura's affections. A wild analogy: the Gentleman Caller must not seem Eddie Haskell-ish, smugly leading either Laura or Amanda on. Hunt skirted the edge of such a characterization, yet helped keep the poignancy of the situation mostly intact.

The black-box environs probably presented no practical way to lend enough symbolic stature to the family's crucial missing member, but it's no small matter to mention in conclusion that the framed portrait of the scapegrace father ought to be much larger — if only for the sake of reinforcing the memory exaggerations this  production otherwise represents admirably. He stands for the endless "little while" that doing the impossible can take. It's a feature that's made this play classic in a nation devoted to fresh starts and second chances.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

'Flynn Is Out the Back Door': An upbeat revision of an old favorite celebrating the departure of Trump's national security adviser

Duchess brings its three sets of vocal cords and six old and new ears to bear upon a varied vocal repertoire

Duchess is a vocal trio whose vocal discipline never smothers its direct appeal.
Jazz vocalists who push scatting and vocalese (new lyrics on old tunes and solos) to the sidelines are fairly rare, particularly when they combine in groups.

Thus Duchess, which on the recorded evidence has a keen jazz sensibility, also draws on an old pop tradition represented by the Andrews Sisters, the Boswell Sisters, and the Mills Brothers. In the trio's second recording, "Laughing at Life" (Anzic Records), the blend is seamless and invigorating. Projecting the lyrics with verve and clarity seems to be a watchword with Amy Cervini, Hilary Gardner and Melissa Stylianou. At the same time, they negotiate clever arrangements with agility and true pitch.

The tempo shifts in "Everybody Loves My Baby" are thrilling, particularly with a couple of lickety-split choruses (to Duchess lyrics)  that are the last word in precision. This song also enjoys idiomatic help from clarinetist Anat Cohen. The selection of guest stars on the disc is unerringly right; besides Cohen, there's the sly, inventive trombonist Wycliffe Gordon,  licking his chops to savor "Stars Fell on Alabama" and "Creole Love Call." Cohen is also featured on the perpetually wistful "We'll Meet Again."

Each of the three singers handles a solo turn more than capably: Cervini on Cole Porter's ode to flirtation, "Give Him the Oo La La," Stylianou on the moody Newley-Bricusse number "Where Would You Be Without Me," and Gardner animating a high-kicking tour through Ray Charles' "Hallelujah I Love Her (Him) So."

The nucleus of accompaniment — pianist Michael Cabe, bassist Matt Aronoff, and drummer Jared Schonig — is always firm in support of the songbirds. Occasional supplementary zest comes from guitarist Jesse Lewis (his acoustic solo on Vet Boswell's "Dawn" is exquisite) and tenor saxophonist Jeff Lederer. The latter contributes some flavorful roadhouse deep-fry to the first track, "Swing Brother Swing."

Enthusiasts of close-harmony vocal jazz and classic pop will find every part of that repertoire range well-covered. To mention just two adjacent tracks: Porter's imperishable "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye" yields to one of Johnny Mercer's inimitable novelty numbers, the teasing portrait of an artistically self-directed ecdysiast, "Strip Polka."

The nonesuchness of Duchess is evident throughout "Laughing at Life," whose title tune alone is a great pick-me-up in these difficult times.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Israeli guitarist finds simpatico quartet in his American home base with "The Village"

Born in Tel Aviv and trained in jazz on a scholarship to the New School, Yotam Silberstein has been a rising star on the
"The Village" is Yotam Silberstein's fifth recordings as a leader.
international jazz scene for about a decade. Like many Israeli jazz players who've become known in the West, Silberstein is unusually open to making the music truly multicultural in addition to putting a personal stamp on it. It sounds entirely natural and inevitable the way he goes about it.

On "The Village" (Jazz+People) he has the advantage of putting his fleet, melodic guitar style into a thoroughly compatible quartet context. His pianist, Aaron Goldberg, is often paired with Silberstein on this disc in unison statements of the tunes, most of them originals.

The partnership is subject to all kinds of steeplechase challenges, in songs like Carlos "Negro" Aguirre's "Milonga Gris," Lennie Tristano's "Lennie Bird" (a "How High the Moon" contrefact featuring lots of guitar-piano counterpoint) and the leader's own aptly named "Changes," a composition that seems as loaded with harmonic shifts as Coltrane's "Giant Steps."

Goldberg is a deft accompanist, with an even touch, as well as a soloist given to single-line soaring that never seems desperately in search of new ideas. The quartet is completed by bassist Reuben Rogers, set a little low in the mix but obviously contributing much to the texture, and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who's a focused whirlwind in the extra exposure he gets on Silberstein's "Albayzin," a piece inspired by a visit to Granada, Spain.

The title song brings it all back home, being a tribute to Greenwich Village, which Silberstein describes as "a very important place for me... musically and spiritually."  But the guitarist-composer says he also means to refer to the way music has become a global village. The piece picks up speed and energy as it proceeds, as if to fulfill the all-embracing insistence of this extravagantly gifted guitarist's muse.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Heading a quintet, Canadian sisters Jensen explore "Infinitude" in new CD

Ingrid and Christine Jensen commit to a personal outlook with "Infinitude."
"How are we going to dive into his pool and swim together?" is the question Christine Jensen posed on behalf of herself and sister Ingrid as they approached the small-group CD project that's just been issued: "Infinitude" (Whirlwind Recordings).

The Canadian sisters — saxophonist and trumpeter, respectively — in fact keep their heads above water, and dive deep when they feel like it, in these ten tunes, most of them originals. To continue the water analogy, however, there is some drifting toward the end of the CD. So I re-listened to "Infinitude" in a couple of separate sessions to make sure it wasn't just my attention that was drifting in the last few tunes.

I want to get the discouraging words out of the way quickly, because I believe "Infinitude" presents a fresh, unified vision, with an intimacy that would be evident even if this quintet's front line weren't so closely related. And the other three musicians display particular sensitivity to that vision, especially guitarist Ben Monder. Bassist Fraser Hollins and drummer Jon Wikan (Ingrid's husband) complete the group. Everyone sounds at home in the sisters' atmosphere.

But "Hopes Trail" is both glum and bombastic, and "Trio: Garden Hour" features intrusive guitar mutterings around Ingrid's melody line. "Margareta" kicks up somewhat, giving its waltzing blandness a little extra flavor. That segues into "Dots and Braids," whose overlong introduction eventually yields to a theme where a pulse establishes itself with an odd reluctance.

That takes care of the last four cuts; the first six find the five-way rapport more creditably deployed. "Blue Yonder" has a floating theme that introduces Christine's sax, meandering but in a firm, inner-directed manner and exhibiting an easy command of different registers. Monder's guitar sounds like a mysterious sound emanating from a cave — and I mean that in the best sense; it fits.  "Swirlaround," another Christine original, swirls around slowly but with a firm sense of direction; it's a gentle maelstrom. There's a little more blur from the guitar than suits my taste, but the piece holds up well, and features fine playing from Ingrid.

Ben Monder's "Echolalia" is a spirited number, with more good Ingrid, plus Monder at his most cogent. Christine's "Octofolk" finds the composer and Monder mutually inspiring one another, but what does it say, finally? I found it a foreshadowing of the disappointments in the last half of the disc. "Duospace" provides the best exhibition of the group's admirable trumpeter, and "Old Time," a Kenny Wheeler tune, is perfectly placed to show that this band can rare back and get a down-home groove going. The piece fits well within the overall ensemble concept, nonetheless, and is particularly welcome before the program threatens to bog down.

 "Infinitude" may not have horizons quite as wide as its title implies, but it searches those horizons with a solid commitment to making new discoveries and personalizing the world it finds.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

With Neil Simon's "Rumors," Civic Theatre revels in a garden of spin and hearsay

So 20th century: Leonard Ganz  and Chris Gorman try to consult a doctor.
Falsehoods seem to be in full flower these days. But who's pointing fingers?

In "Rumors," Neil Simon puts concatenations of lying, innuendo, and "fake news" through close-order drill. There's no larger message here, because the community that comes under scrutiny is merely a daft selection of well-connected, well-off New York City people trying to squelch an embarrassing event: the attempted suicide of the city's deputy mayor.

In 2017, public embarrassment may have become as passe as telephones with cords on them. The spiraling black cord on the cast page of Civic Theatre's "Rumors" explicitly acknowledges the quaintness of Simon's farce. It's kind of charming to take a look into the not-so-distant past and realize how dependent so many cultural artifacts are on the restricted ways people once communicated. (I find the ruse that the singer of Irving Berlin's "Change Partners" uses to steal another guy's dance date especially delightful: "Ask him to sit this one out and while you're alone / I'll tell the waiter to tell him he's wanted on the telephone".)

Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's production of the 1988 play was in its second weekend when I saw it Feb. 10. Charles Goad directs a cast as funny as it is fulminating. The triggering suicide attempt is itself ridiculous, the wound being a bloodied earlobe and the real explanation for it lying at the bottom of a continuously stirred stew pot. The scenario is that the incident has sidelined the deputy mayor and his wife on the evening of a party they're hosting to celebrate their tenth anniversary.

Guests gather two by two, bringing their own agendas with them, and  gingerly come to grips with the situation, hiding the truth or rubbing it to the merest nubbin of itself. They also indulge in extraneous gossip and social game-playing that collectively confirm Simon's talent for keeping any number of circus plates spinning in the air.

Leonard Ganz (Parrish Williams) has things pointed out to him by wife Claire (Carrie Schlatter).
Kim Ruse and Clay Mabbitt play the Gormans, a couple of lawyers wrestling with the dubious distinction of  being first on the scene. On Friday, they were wound up to a high pitch of comic stress. When financial advisor Leonard Ganz and his waspish wife Claire arrive, they are already on edge after a traffic accident that turns out to reveal something about the absent hosts.

Parrish Williams, playing a financial adviser with a low annoyance threshold, particularly raised the bar of exasperation and desperate improvisation, and Carrie Schlatter as Claire tossed in some of the gossip stew's more pungent spices.

Marni Lemons bubbled and fretted deliciously as the Cookie Cusack, a celebrity chef plagued by back spasms. Her husband, Ernie (Trevor Fanning), was amusingly adaptable in being pressed into kitchen service while trying to make sense of everything, taking a kind of psychologist's busman's holiday. He has some phone interference from his therapy group, an odd bit of scheduling that nonetheless serves the playwright's purpose of maximizing confusion.

There's even more phone interaction with the personal physician of several of the guests, as well as of the indisposed host.  Eventually, no one wants to answer the phone. Such scenes are unimaginable among today's iPhone-carrying population. I envision younger Civic patrons musing about how strangely people lived back in the day, just as I used to marvel at my father's stories of the iceman coming by to replenish the icebox.

Joanne Kehoe plays a cop trying to get straight answers from frazzled party guests.
The other couple is the quarreling Glenn and Cassie Cooper, striking sparks in the performances of the real-life married couple
Steve and Christine Kruze. In the last act, Joanne Kehoe, assisted by Joe Aiello, burst upon the scene as partner cops trying to get to the bottom of the shenanigans.

Farcical dialogue owes a lot to the ancient formula the Greeks called stycomythia — a technique of rapidly alternating lines that eventually became more at home in comedy than in serious drama. It can be difficult for actors to get the pace right: It must move along quite lively and yet not seem mechanical; the audience must believe characters could actually be saying these things in response to each other. This cast mostly had the back-and-forth down authentically; I felt there were only a few times when I sensed the engine humming along above what was being said.

In two places, when a character reports having "heard an enormous" loud noise, the interruption by another character at the word "enormous" was slow. The dramatic effect of an interrupted line is lost if there's any pause at all before the interruption. These were minor slips, but one of the problems of low comedy is the high demands it places on group technique.

In nearly every respect, the Civic cast spiritedly met those demands so as to keep the distinctive Simon pot simmering. The actors were dressed in wigs (where apt)  by Debbie Williams and formal party wear by Adrienne Conces in order to cavort all the more incongruously on Ryan Koharchik's chic, geometrically well-proportioned set, complete with the farce genre's required multiplicity of doors.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Friday, February 10, 2017

Taking another little piece of your heart: Pop divas' appeal gets dance expansion in an evocative DK program

Dance Kaleidoscope lives up to its name in a particularly focused way with its current show, "Divas." There are choreographic interpretations of a kaleidoscope of female pop vocalists spread over a generously proportioned show.

Seen Thursday night at Indiana Repertory Theatre, "Divas" offers a welcome return visit to the short pieces workshopped at the Indy Fringe Festival last August. Each of the nine was created by a DK dancer in tribute to a different entertainer, as represented by one recorded song. The production's second half presents extended views of Janis Joplin (by artistic director David Hochoy) and Aretha Franklin (by Nicholas Owens), using their recordings of several songs each.

This should be a wildly popular show, if only because  memories of this music are so strong with so many people. I come at these recorded songs with faint familiarity, on the whole, and try to get as much enlightenment about the various styles and attractiveness of these 11 divas through what I see onstage. The attempt worked some of the time Thursday night.

Even so, it can fairly be said that popular art attempts to meet its audience much more than halfway. Its appeal must be immediate and visceral, and marketability is necessarily a value.  No kind of pop artist embodies these requirements better than the star "girl singer."

The problem with taking music that has decisively won over the public and interpreting it through dance is that the connection is already complete, because the pop product has done its job. Avoiding superfluity, the choreographer has to find room within a particular song for some kind of expression that adds beauty and energy to the song, and doesn't just accompany it  — or, even worse, simply recall it pleasurably for its fans, with some visual enhancement.

When I do not know the music, there's a kind of open doorway for me to enter into a dance interpretation of it. That's one advantage of ignorance. But it keeps coming up against the assertiveness of pop vocalism over the past 60 years, which seems to proclaim that everything worth experiencing in a piece of music is RIGHT HERE, and for all time. And so I wonder: "Is all the music has to say already there in what I'm hearing?"

The troupe works hard throughout the program, and there is nothing superfluous about their efforts from a performance standpoint. Energy meets energy: When Janis Joplin proclaims her neediness in "Cry Baby," Hochoy's  dance designs have three couples replicating the emotional struggle vividly.

Jillian Godwin in the Janis Joplin spotlight in DK's "Divas."
Joplin, apart from being a founding member of  "the 27 Club," represented during her short lifetime the perils of taking it to the edge. I like a little more repression in my performing artists, as long as the artistic expression is outstanding; in the Joplin department, for instance, I favor Scott over Janis.

Hochoy addresses Joplin's burning excessiveness, though he ends by celebrating positive effort ("Try Just a Little Bit Harder"). He gives the persona specificity in casting Jillian Godwin as a Janis stand-in, who threads pathos into her characteristic pizazz. She is gloriously costumed by Guy Clark, and presented onstage alone for "Me and Bobby McGee," with its hanging-on-for-dear-life coda, enhanced by Laura Glover's complementary lighting. Two songs set on the company bookend the new work. Especially admirable was the nice flow and contrast of foreground and background in "Move Over."

The ecstatic climax of Timothy June's "Enlightenment."
Owens' "Franklin" presented me immediately with one of those I-can't-get-past-the-music barriers. The choreography was zestfully responsive to the treatment of "You Are My Sunshine," but I find little genuine in this arrangement, which distorts the tune with an aggressiveness that runs counter to the lyrics. Owens' piece hits its stride in a setting for two couples (Caitlin Negron and Stuart Coleman, Emily Dyson and Phillip Crawshaw) of "(You Make Me Feel Like) a Natural Woman." By the time "Respect" came along two songs later, handclaps from the audience welled up, fortunately subsiding in order for an attractive company setting to make its impact. There was a welcome spaciousness in Owens' handling of large numbers of dancers I've sometimes missed in the past.

Renewing acquaintance with the nine short pieces by DK dancers was fun. My impressions from last summer are here. This time around, I found especially beguiling the use of gauzy shawls for the five women in Missy Trulock's "Edge of Seventeen" (Stevie Nicks), their exchanges so mutually supportive in an era when even more rampant misogyny than last summer pollutes the cultural atmosphere: "She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted."

More eloquent than I remembered it was Marte Osiris Madera's "Fragmented Dreams," set to Celine Dion's performance of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." Tenderness without sentimentality ruled in a piece with no extraneous gestures, no
padding just because the tempo was slow. And there was the sparkle of Aleksa Lukasiewicz's dance to "Don't Rain on My Parade," with Barbra Streisand spitting out the lyrics and Stuart Coleman's choreography replicating her vocal jabs and uppercuts. And I can't bear to leave out the sweet little comedy of Timothy June's "Enlightenment," a full-hearted response to Shirley Bassey's "I Am What I Am." Four  costumers were involved in outfitting the dancers in a work of almost cinematic dazzle, with the dancers proving fully up to coming across as comedians.

The first time Janis Joplin appeared on my radar was a half-century ago when I went to see "Monterey Pop." She performed a blues cover that would have been interesting to see a Hochoy treatment of: "Ball and Chain." Though my interest in her proved to be short-lived, I was struck by the balance of reflective lyricism and scorching anguish in Joplin's performance. And as her last notes are swamped in festival applause, the camera focuses in on Mama Cass Elliott, mouthing "Wow!"

In "Divas," there was a similar haunting variety in "Surrender," an almost daring blend of concentration and dispersal of dancers in Mariel Greenlee's choreography to Nina Simone's singing of "Wild Is the Wind." Simone's enveloping phrasing and a huge tone that varies from operatic to gutbucket was mirrored in the delineation of passion — "its unique ability to transport and overwhelm," in the choreographer's words — that "Surrender" sets before us.

I'm not a huge Simone fan (again, that sort of devotion can get in the way if you're trying to focus on dance), but she has a symbolic importance to me that Maya Angelou has for a lot of other people. So, there's that. But there's also a certainty that Greenlee, with striking commitment to her vision, is meeting the audience halfway, but no further. The work thus lets you in, eliciting your own response to the theme rather than imposing one on you. At the same time, you're not having to fill in blanks. Everything is there, thanks to the dancers and the choreographer, ready for you.

In short, when it comes to "Surrender," I'm with Mama Cass: Wow!

[Photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Durable wind quintet from Germany pays a return visit to Ensemble Music concert series

BPWQ: Walter Seyfarth, Andreas Wittmann, Fergus McWilliam, Michael Hasel, and Marion Reinhard.
Anticipation ran high before the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet's return visit to Indianapolis under the auspices of the Ensemble Music Society: Single-ticket sales were three times above normal over the weekend before its concert Wednesday at the Indiana History Center.

The ensemble's local debut was 18 years ago, and, with just one change of personnel since, the BPWQ included Indianapolis on its current U.S. tour — even gracing us with the American premiere of a work it commissioned from the Finnish composer Kalevi Aho.

The quintet had the capacity audience in the palm of its hands from its initial entrance right through the encore, a lighthearted arrangement of old American tunes, chiefly by Stephen Foster.

The concert opened with one of three pieces Wolfgang Mozart wrote late in life for a mechanical device known as a clock organ, after the similarity of its mechanism to a clock's. Its arrangement (by BPWQ flutist Michael Hasel) released the charming piece from its obsolete-contraption imprisonment to flesh-and-blood musicians. The liberation was well worth the effort, given the ensemble's sturdy blend of timbres and the way Hasel had distributed the material among the quintet.

Like the other two pieces Mozart wrote on commission for the device, K. 594 displays the mature composer's deft chromaticism (in the opening Adagio) and the focus on contrapuntal texture (in the Allegro middle section) Mozart explored under the influence of the antiquarian patron and amateur musician Baron van Swieten.

The Organ Fantasy in F minor made (1790) for a smooth appetizer before the main course, Aho's Wind Quintet No. 2 (2014). The expansive piece almost hides its difficulties well: In the first movement, the players negotiated daring leaps of register within a lyrical framework. The second-movement "virtuoso toccata" (in the composer's phrase) moved on a high plateau of perpetual-motion virtuosity,  capped by Hasel's piccolo, which provided a droll ending. Well-coordinated accents punctuated the ceaseless up-and-down lines.

Something more grounded hovered over the slow movement, with its deeper timbres — alto flute, English horn, and clarinet in A make decisive appearances — and thickened sonorities. Here's where Aho's description that "it's almost like a symphony" seemed to apply best. The gathering intensity was welcome, as the piece drifts a little tediously before its "symphonic" episode, topped by a somewhat pompous unison passage. The finale, dancelike with a triple-time swing and brief, cheeky solos, had a competitive aspect that the quintet emphasized with gusto.

All told, the Aho work amounted to a refreshing rethinking of the combination of flute, oboe, horn, bassoon and clarinet (plus appropriate doubling). Gone were the serenade-like, outdoorsy reflections of the genre ably represented by Franz Danzi. Aho offers a release from the ensemble's traditionally attractive but superficial appeal. He both individualizes the instruments in new ways and throws them together in unconventional combinations. The constituents are given a high degree of independence as well.

After intermission came two classics of the genre, drawing upon wind-quintet conventions but full of individualistic personality. Darius Milhaud's suite, La Cheminee du Roi Rene, is derived from a film about an early Renaissance count (not really a king) from the composer's beloved native region, Provence. In seven short movements, the diversions and leisure activities of Rene d'Anjou are portrayed, with a middle movement slyly alluding to the composer himself at home. The BPWQ gave special splendor to the opening procession ("Cortege"), setting up a properly cinematic presentation of aristocratic Provencal life. The hunting song ("Chasse a Valabre") had particular zest; its variety was well delineated and lent an extra dollop of wit.

As for Carl Nielsen's Wind Quintet, op. 43, there's hardly a composition by the Danish composer that is more comfortable with its ambitiousness and is always arresting in its manifold charms. The hearty vigor characteristic of the BPWQ sound was keenly deployed throughout the performance: Andreas Wittmann's assertive but never harsh oboe tone is a key factor. That bold ensemble sound could also be savored in the muscular trilling in the first movement.

The boisterously comic variation for clarinet  and bassoon in the finale was wonderfully set forth by Walter Seyfarth and Marion Reinhard. The variation for solo horn had superb bravura in the playing of Fergus McWilliam. Collectively, the hymn theme was effectively varied between its initial appearance and its luminous concluding statement.

EMS  President John Failey, in his introductory remarks, hinted that positive audience response might lead to a third appearance by this outstanding ensemble in 2019, when it will next tour the US. Such feedback should have no trouble quickly accumulating, based on the way the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet played Wednesday evening.

Monday, February 6, 2017

"Many Thousands Gone": Tweets or People Who Embarrass Him? In this song, both!

Shaking my head in disbelief at Donald Trump's clueless attempt to launch Black History Month last week, I offer him this revision of a song of African-American liberation that unwaveringly expresses his outlook.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Wordsworth meets Zuckerberg: A poetic meditation on the eternal life of social media

Struck by the eerie experience that many of us have had — discovering that deceased friends and acquaintances seem to live on
in a kind of cyberlimbo — I feel compelled to address the situation. Among Facebook's allures, in particular, is the promise of undying significance about everything we have done, even beyond the grave.
William Wordsworth lamented Lucy's death.

In the following verses, I follow William Wordsworth's memorial Lucy poems, submitting them to a partial mash-up while following their structure and rhyme scheme in order to meditate upon this phenomenon.

She dwelt among untrodden ways?
Oh boy, you must be kidding!
She figured death was just a phase;
Online still did her bidding.

Mark Zuckerberg: FB promise of eternal life?
She passed. Her Facebook page survives,
Friends send her birthday wishes.
"What's on your mind?" The question thrives,
Her answers sleep with fishes.

She lived well-known. Friends gave a damn
The day she ceased to be.
Yet still she glows on Instagram,
In Facebook memory.

Her passwords cluster in a file —
Panting, eager, breathless.
O death, where is thy sting, we smile,
When life online seems deathless?

No "check in" comes from her, of course;
Her "likes" no person sees.
She floats above the earthly force
That holds down rocks and trees.

Wherever she's tagged on a page,
She's free from all foreboding.
Each link she clicked on cannot age,
Forever stuck on "loading."

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"All Along the Trump Tower": A hortatory anthem for our times,indicating that the Chief of Staff could hold the Trump regime together

John Nelson, the ISO's fourth music director, returns to the Circle Theatre with a well-designed program

John Nelson, precise in gesture conducting batonless, returns as guest conductor.
At 75, John Nelson has moved into the realm of seasoned maestro — thirty years after he ended a 10-season tenure at the helm of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

This accumulated wisdom showed consistently in the first of two full-length concerts he is conducting this weekend at Hilbert Circle Theatre. It seemed a little odd that the  on-screen program note before the concert — a recent feature of the ISO's Classical Series — described him as "a talented conductor." Faint praise, it seems to me. Usually you call attention to a musician's talent at the start of his career. Nelson brings so much more to the podium at this point.

This was a tidy program, with the fittingness of a well-designed bouquet: Three composers, born within three years of each other in the 1870s, each with a quite distinct voice, were represented by major works.

Two contrasting pieces by Maurice Ravel bookended Friday's concert; the program repeats at 5:30 p.m. today. For the kind of splash Nelson often liked to create during his music directorship, there was Suite No. 2 from Daphnis et Chloe, to conclude. The popular extract is from a ballet whose lush scenario stimulated the French composer's romantic afllatus. At the start, there was the chaste tribute to his French forebears, with the lively yet restrained suite called Le Tombeau de Couperin.

It was hard not to be reminded of the orchestra's playing of the complete ballet as choreographed by David Hochoy with Dance Kaleidoscope in June 2014. Krzysztof Urbanski, Nelson's successor three places down the line, conducted at Clowes Hall. It was one of the great artistic collaborations here in the 21st century so far. Images from that show popped into my head as I listened Friday night.

After the wonderful depiction of dawn that opens the work, this performance represented perfectly the meeting of the title characters. The love theme was given a nice weight at each appearance. The music evoking the woodland god Pan floated aptly, topped by Karen Moratz's flute solo. Moratz sounded like the ideal Ravel flutist, with her cool, authoritative tone and nimble articulation. Brief solos by concertmaster Zach De Pue could hardly have suggested the title couple's ardor more brightly or succinctly.

Some of the rivalry and contentiousness of the full ballet is necessarily eliminated in the suite. DK memories from 2014 quickly flashed into my mental view just before the suite moved rapturously into the celebration of the Bacchantes. With its animating flashes of percussion, this vigorous dance sweeps all before it in a mood of sensuous abandon that races headlong up through the final measure. All that was exuberantly in place Friday night.

In the more restrained Tombeau, the flow and surge in the Prelude were admirable. Dynamics seemed scrupulously adhered to. The rhythmically sprightly Forlane shone, with finely regulated accents; the ending was superb.  The final two movements likewise bore the mark of good communication between podium and players. Menuet was tenderly phrased, and the concluding Rigaudon shimmered with controlled brashness, crowned by fine wind playing.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, who briefly studied with Ravel, achieved one of his most probing and well-constructed evocations of old English music in his Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. For double string orchestra plus string quartet, the piece manages to be as colorful as Ravel, but on its own terms. Textural variety is immense, all of it nicely set forth in this performance. Nelson conveyed to the ISO strings an evident concern for detail. The effect was both exultant and reflective.

During his last season as music director, I remember being impressed by Nelson's depth of commitment to accompanying concerto soloists (apart from one cavil I had about a Mozart performance). It was no accident that the 1987 ISO East Coast tour included guest appearances by flutist Paula Robison (Takemitsu) and pianist Zoltan Kocsis (Bartok) in the same Carnegie Hall program. Nelson likes collaboration, and that was evident again Friday in how he and Stephen Hough worked together in Rachmaninoff's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

The Rhapsody holds up upon repeated hearings; the orchestration is more imaginative than in much of large-scale Rachmaninoff, and the resourcefulness of variation form never fails to enthrall. It's difficult to identify all the excellences in this performance. I liked the soloist's approach to the more relaxed variations, not just the dreamy tune of No. 18.  The martial variations (counting the one in triple time) crackled with energy. The mysterious ones stalked the theme broadly and glumly. The 24th variation moved toward its peroration on the Dies Irae theme with overwhelming effect.

Called back for an encore following this peerless collaboration, Hough offered his arrangement of the folk-pop favorite "Moscow Nights," decorated with brief quotations from the opening of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. A popular ISO guest artist over the years, the pianist surely is building upon that reputation with this engagement.


Friday, February 3, 2017

Ushering in the Valentine's Day season, "Love Letters" series opens at Theatre on the Square

Dan Flahive and Nan Macy opened a series of "Love Letters" performances.
The first time I saw "Love Letters" performed, the play was pretty new. It seems ages ago now, since the conventions of interpersonal communication — when it is not face-to-face — have changed so unalterably. By this measure 1990 was closer to 1940 than 1990 is to today.

This does not make A.R. Gurney's two-character 1988 opus seem dated, but the paradigm shift places it more firmly in an era when letter-writing was common. Long-distance telephoning was expensive, privacy was questionable — you had to answer a phone attached by a cord to a wall socket, kids — stamps were cheap, and cursive was universally taught at school. (Both my parents had beautiful penmanship; mine is a fair representative of its decadence; our sons, whenever they have to take pen in hand, print the letters as they did in first grade.)

As Dan Flahive and Nan Macy made clear in their performance Thursday night at Theatre on the Square, "Love Letters" lives. It may seem to present a bygone generation in amber, but, at the same time, the East Coast WASP establishment class was in its glory. So it's doubly a period piece. There's admirable social history at the core of "Love Letters." More important, there is an interpersonal connection at the heart of it that still lives in the age of texting, snapchatting, email, Instagram and probably some form of cybertelepathy about to be introduced.

Against a red wall lit by tea candles, the actors sit at desks placed side by side. This setting will be replicated by a tantalizing series of other local actors through Valentine's Day.  Playing upper-crust Nutmeg Staters Andy and Melissa, Flahive and Macy kicked things off creditably.

Each actor reads his/her half of the correspondence, dating from the juvenile Andy's acceptance of an invitation to schoolgirl Melissa's birthday party. Especially enjoyable was the choice of reactions each of these actors made as the other was expressively reciting the text of a letter. They gave you the spontaneous connection we all remember having when getting personal mail and balancing our feeling for the correspondent against what that correspondent happened to be saying at that moment.

On Thursday, the  pacing was varied and tone of voice suitable to the characters' stage of life. Nearly a half-century is covered, and what we learn about Andy and Melissa keeps changing, but with admirable psychological consistency. "Love Letters" has in common with other Gurney plays (at least the few I'm familiar with) a knack for creating characters representative of their social class yet still fully formed as individuals.

It was a world of country clubs, established etiquette, and enrollment in private schools without the benefit of public money. Gold-plated higher education was assumed before the fortunate student was disgorged into a presumably eager world. In summer you would go to high-toned camps where fun was filtered through a firm sense of order. Everyone was being groomed to take a place in a society assumed to be more stable than it truly was.

Melissa chafes at some of the choices that are made for her; Andy is more or less comfortable within a world of acceptable, confident adult control. Melissa is a free spirit set adrift ominously too soon by an unstable family, despite the cushion of greater wealth than Andy's. He is headed toward straight-arrow success; she is an artist who can't sustain an artistic vision any better than she can maintain a firm footing in her personal life.

The humor, affection, jealousy, and misunderstandings of this relationship were steadily projected. Andy's initial awkwardness and missteps in this friendship were nicely set out by Flahive within a characterization that emphasized a self-possessed approach to life. Macy, wide-eyed and flamboyant in her portrayal, never failed to hint at the manic-depressive side of her character, while keeping her performance out of the case-study ghetto.

Finally, a word about how the playwright stacks the deck. The male character has the superior hold on life, and part of that comes from his comfort in expressing himself verbally. Melissa's unease with writing makes a nice counterpoint to this. But of course, Gurney almost necessarily throws in his lot with the capable writer of the pair. Andy's lengthy encomium on the beauty of the written letter could almost stand for the durability of the written word itself. But this being theater, naturally the final verdict comes down on the side of the spoken word, well-performed. And on that score, the launch of this lovable shuffling of "Love Letters"  was most impressive.