New Jersey Stage

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review of "Our Town" at George Street Playhouse

By Gary Wien

"This is the way we were in our growing up and in our marrying and in our doctoring and in our living and in our dying."
 Our Town is a play that has been performed hundreds of times on Broadway, in community theaters, and high schools throughout America. The script is undeniably sappy, but in the way that It's a Wonderful Life is sappy; often corny, but still capable of bringing people to tears every time. George Street Playhouse shows the brilliance of Thornton Wilder's 1938 classic with its season-closing production that runs now through May 25, 2014.

Set in 1901 in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire — a town just across the Massachusetts line — the play attempts to document the human experience of daily life, love and marriage, and ultimately death and eternity. That may seem like an awful lot to cover in one play, but it's precisely the point Wilder is trying to make: life moves by so fast that humans just aren't able to understand how precious their time on Earth really is.

Performances of Our Town are led by the Stage Manager — a role that can make or break the play. George Street wisely cast the wonderful Boyd Gaines for this role. Gaines is a four-time Tony Award winner for roles in Gypsy, She Loves Me, The Heidi Chronicles, and Contact (and received a fifth nomination for Journey's End). His voice is soothing, his mannerisms exude a certain confidence and pride in Grover's Corners that makes him part tour guide, part historian; part eyes and ears of the town, and part God admiring his creation. Gaines is excellent in character and out, which is very important since the play often ignores the "fourth wall" and places characters inside the audience. Gaines adds to that element by interacting with the audience at select times, pointing to someone who may have laughed, staring at someone seated nearby, or even saying "bless You" when an audience member sneezes.
The other key characters include Emily Webb (played by Aaron Ballard) and George Gibbs (Pico Alexander) who are seen growing up together and eventually falling in love. George's parents are played by Kati Brazda and Sean Cullen. Emily's parents are played by Kathleen McNenny and Lee Sellars. George's father is the town's doctor while Emily's father runs the local newspaper.

Side characters include a professor who adds some technical history about the townspeople, a paperboy, milk delivery man, policeman, a drunk choir director, and siblings to Emily and George. This production marks the first time that George Street Playhouse has collaborated with the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. In a note from David Saint, George Street's Artistic Director, he explains that the collaboration will allow the theatre to produce large cast classic plays while allowing the most talented graduates to work side-by-side with seasoned professionals from New York. In the case of Our Town, at least 9 cast members are either Mason Gross students or alumni.

In a strange way, the characters in Our Town are mostly equal in value despite the storyline revolving around the lives and love story of Emily and George. There aren't many scene-stealing opportunities; it's as if Thornton Wilder wanted scenes to move bye so quickly that the town people remind the audience of the people in their own town — people they know, to a point; those they see every day or every other day, say hi, and grow old with. Yet, people they don't know very well.

With that in mind, it's remarkable how quickly you feel as though you do know these people. You watch them in their day to day life, living unremarkable lives, yet, once the third act hits and you're placed in a graveyard, you feel a connection to them. It's such a powerful scene that it makes you forgive any saccharine writing beforehand. When you see that graveyard, you realize that real life is full of saccharine-styled moments. Wilder has accurately captured the human experience just as he sought out to do. It's at that moment that one realizes how impressive this play truly is and why it has lasted over 75 years.

The twelve to thirteen year duration of the play is the perfect time-frame to create a snapshot of a town. It's remarkable to think of just how much life takes place within 12-13 years. People are born, people get married, people move away, and people die. The time-frame is just long enough to tell a story that makes you feel compassion for those who have passed away and their loved ones who live on.

There's also something special about the play being set at the beginning of a century. Both the beginning and ending of the 20th century witnessed technological advancements that changed life as we know it. In the case of Our Town, the play begins when people still rode horse and buggy carts throughout town and only dreamed of traveling to far off lands. But, in the span of a few years, automobiles came into play and suddenly a small town didn't seem so small anymore.

As the stage manager says after nine years have passed and its now the summer of 1913, "Gradual changes in Grover's Corner. Horses are getting rarer. Farmers coming into town in Fords. Everybody locks their house doors now at night. Ain't been any burglars in town yet, but everybody's heard about 'em."

It's easy to reflect on the changes we've witnessed at the end of the 20th century with the computer revolution to understand the rapid changes the people in Our Town underwent. Changes like these will undoubtedly always continue, which helps the play remain relevant to every generation.

Theatre-goers used to the beautiful and elaborate sets always found in George Street productions will encounter something completely different with this play. Wilder wanted Our Town to have minimal set design and George Street has truly followed his vision. By stripping the play (other than a few tables and chairs) of scenery, it allows the audience to fill in the gaps with their own personal memories — a process that further helps the audience and characters connect. We imagine what Main Street looks like based on what our own Main Street looked like.

The Director, David Esbjornson, wisely chose to have everything stripped down to its essence. We don't actually see the milk being delivered, but actors pretending to show what it was like to have milk delivered. In an odd way, the less that is shown the more the play (and life) appears to move faster.

Ironically, the first performance of Our Town actually took place less than twenty miles from George Street. On January 22, 1938, the play was first performed at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton — a little less than two weeks prior to its first performance at the Henry Miller Theatre in New York City. Our Town would go on to win the 1938 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

In the original preface to the play, Wilder asked, "What is trivial and what is significant about one person's making a breakfast, engaging in a domestic quarrel, in a 'love scene,' in dying?"

The answer is nothing. This play represents the human experience from the mundane to the highlights and the questions left unanswered. If you've never seen a production of Our Town, come see this one. And if you've only seen it performed within the local high school or community theater, come to George Street and see it the way Thornton Wilder always envisioned it.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson



George Street Playhouse is located at 9 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick, NJ. For more information visit georgestreetplayhouse.org -- By the way, New Brunswick has plenty of excellent restaurants near the theater. I highly recommend Stage Left, which is where I ate before this performance. Wonderful food and a great wine list!



NJ Musician Wants To Live In A Dome

By Gary Wien

My first thought upon hearing that Rich Lynch wanted to live in a dome wasn't that he was crazy, it was what does his wife think? Apparently, the Ringwood, NJ, musician chose the right person to share his life with because Laura (his wife) shares his dream of "embracing a more enlightened way of functioning on a daily basis."
 
According to Lynch, his dream of living in a dome began from a very early age. He claims it originated during the 1967 World's Fair when society was envisioning a bold future of domes and high-tech convenience.

"There's a story in my family that when I was two years old I ruined the vacation to the 1967 World's Fair in Montreal, Quebec," he explains. "I remember seeing the Buckminster Fuller designed pavilion for the United States - a giant 250-foot diameter geodesic dome - and feeling an all consuming need to get closer to it. They tell me I ran off, tripped, and acquired a severe bloody nose that would not stop. I haven't been able to get the idea of living in a dome from out of my mind since!"

Fast forward fifty years and the futuristic present has yet to truly arrive and the idea of living in a dome isn't everyone's idea of domestic bliss. Nevertheless, Lynch hasn't given up on his goal to acquire alternative housing. In fact, he's trying to use music to help him achieve his dream. He recently released a song called "I Want To Live In A Dome" which promotes his vision and aims to raise revenue towards the goal. The song is available on iTunes, Amazon.com , and various digital distributors under the Rich Lynch Band name.

Reaction to the heartland-based song has been good so far. "We modeled the production around the more rockin' tracks on The River by Springsteen," said Lynch. "People seem to like it. A couple said I sounded like Mellencamp so that's a start."

While the idea of building a dome sounds expensive, Lynch says the cost is no more or less than constructing a standard stick home. He plans to build his dream dome in Ringwood, NJ, where he currently lives.

"I like to think outside the box," says Lynch explaining that he's excited for the day he gets to move into a dome home. "These forms are energy efficient, provide a flexible use of space, and have proven to be more disaster resistant than the traditional squares and rectangles that are the staples of our society."

Lynch and his wife both got sucked into the "Under The Dome" series last year on CBS -- a program that helped his dream for a dome to return. Meanwhile, despite long being a part of the New Jersey music scene due to his work on the websites Kweevak.com and Soundpress.net where he's reviewed shows and records and conducted interviews with dozens of artists over the years, one thing that has been missing has been an emphasis on his own music career. Lynch hopes that the vision for the dome might help awaken his musical dreams as well.

"There's a lot on the line for me right now," admits Lynch. "Maybe, I'm having a mid-life crisis, but I'm going for it. And, there's two dreams I'm in pursuit of now - the dome and a career in music. This house is going to have the nicest studio and performance space built in!"

To follow his progress towards his dream, visit http://www.richlynchband.com
 
To purchase his song for $.99 visit:
http://www.amazon.com/Want-Live-Dome-Rich-Lynch/dp/B00J94RBLY
https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/i-want-to-live-in-a-dome/id848463121

The World Is His Oyster

By Gary Wien

Cassandra Wilson, Fatoumata Diawara, Edmar Castaneda, Nina Attal, and Pat Metheny are just some of the artists performing at this year's Jazzkaar festival, the biggest jazz festival of the Baltics held in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. Oh yeah, Bay Head's own James Dalton is also blowing his harp, playing guitar and mandolin, and guesting with some of the biggest names in Estonian music history while the annual festival celebrates its 25th anniversary.
For ten days, the city of Tallin is filled with the sweet sounds of jazz music. The festival even contains a New Orleans-style "Jazz March" through Tallin's Old Town, which James participated in. Check out a photo gallery from the walk and around the city.

"This is a pretty big deal, an honor, actually," said Dalton when asked about what the festival means to him. "Turns out that this is one of the real gems as far as Baltic music events go. For a couple weeks, music is not only showcased all over the capital, but artists, like myself have been shipped all over the country.

"I have been doing a combination entertainment/educational/cultural exchange type thing. It means a lot that I am here. I have been in front of all types from the sophisticated music fan to little public school children to the everyday person on an easy night out."

Touring Europe has become commonplace for James. In fact, one way or another, he's managed to tour most of the world -- including being broadcast on television in China. It's always exciting to hear his tales from the road as so few musicians ever criss-cross the country on tour, much less circle the globe. James says he's toured Europe 12 or 13 times since 1998 to perform music or theatre. He is known as a performer, a storyteller, and a poet, in addition to being a fine musician. He's huffed it around, reaching audiences the hard way: one person at a time, on stages and subway platforms, in living rooms and radio studios. He shares secrets and laughs, and mixes breathtaking vocals with exciting harmonica playing. In my opinion, he's got the best set of pipes New Jersey has produced since Southside Johnny.

This year's European tour for James started off in Tartu, the second largest city in Estonia, where he played at the Feel Good Cafe — ironically, a place he had played at six years ago this very week. He then moved on to the Theatre NO99 Jazz Club in Tallin. "It was unbelievable," said James. "Just really awesome! I played in the city streets for a few days, which was really amazing. I got messages from home -- from New Jersey -- people saw pictures of me playing in the window and playing on the streets and said, ‘This looks awesome!' and they're proud of me. They'd say, ‘This looks like a great place to perform" and I'd say yes."

The next night (Easter no less), things got really interesting. He was at the Marina Pavilion with the Tanel Padar Blues Band which features some of the country's best musicians including members of Ewert and The Two Dragons (which James is a huge fan of), Compromise Blue, the composer √úlo Krigul, and Tanel Padar (as James puts it "the bad boy of Estonian rock himself").

"It was one of the wildest shows I've played in years," said James. "What an all-star band he has. He's so lucky... He's great, but he's so lucky to have so many good players with him."

Check out a photo gallery of James performing in Estonia.

Why does he do it? It's certainly not for fame or fortune. In fact, these little tours cost him a fortune, but they more than pay for themselves with the memories and friendships he makes on the road. His travels also let him learn about other cultures, discover how people everywhere are far more similar than we're lead to believe, and see how music can truly bring everyone together.

"Estonia is a small country, but it's a country with heart," said James. "Everybody's very proud of being Estonian. The reason I like coming to countries of this size is because I'm from New Jersey and New Jersey is a small little place in the United States. For me, I feel more like a New Jersey guy before I feel like an American guy. We're a small little place and we're very proud of who we are and what we do, and we're misunderstood. I feel there are some countries in Europe like Estonia that are misunderstood by the rest of the Europeans and I understand that feeling, so I enjoy it. The people are very warm and creative and interesting.

"For everyone at home I'd say keep believing in yourself... keep stepping up. There's a lot of great things coming to this part of the world and it's because everybody here has something special inside of them."

Follow the world of James Dalton online at http://www.jamesdalton.bandcamp.com and http://www.facebook.com/jamesdaltonmusic



PHOTO: James Dalton at Foorum keskus courtesy of Reijo Ivarsoo.A video of James' surprise visit is linked below. In the video, you can hear clips of James singing "Stand By Me" and his new single, "I Know You Rider" which he released during the tour on indie cards from Bands on a Budget.

http://vimeo.com/92606867 

A Look At Xenia Sky

By Gary Wien

Imagine being asked to write a new song in a matter of minutes now imagine that the song has to be centered around a ridiculous title and you're not only asked to perform it but to do so on live television with millions of people watching. That's the scenario Xenia Sky found herself in last March when she was one of three artists on the Jimmy Fallon Show in a segment entitled, "Battle of the Instant Songwriter". Her mission? To write a song based on the title, "Turtle Sunrise".

That was Xenia's first appearance on national television, but chances are it won't be the last. Xenia (pronounced Zen-ya), is a singer-songwriter from New Jersey that is currently living in New York. She's in the middle of a crazy month that includes releasing a new EP, graduating from college at The New School, and seeing where the road takes her.

The new EP is called "Ghost of Jupiter" and will officially be released on April 15. Production was entirely paid for by a crowd funding campaign at PledgeMusic.com . The campaign was nothing short of a success, raising 150% of its initial goal! Funds raised went into the costs of recording, hiring studio musicians, mixing, and mastering the record.

Seeking a professionally sounding release, Xenia sought out the services of producer Jon Ashley (Band of Horses, Dawes, Azure Rey) because she had been a fan of many of his previous projects. The record was recorded with Ashley at Echo Mountain Recording Studio in Nashville a wonderful studio created in a former church and at Lakehouse Music Studios in Asbury Park, NJ.

"I was so nervous about doing the PledgeMusic campaign," says Xenia. "Doing a campaign is sort of nerve-wracking. It's directly asking people to contribute to what you're doing instead of going through a middle man like a label or distribution. I was really excited that I made it; people were so supportive."

One of those supporters earned the right to hold a house concert from their pledge incentive. Learning they had access to a barn in Shrewsbury, they held the show there. The lineup included two musicians from Xenia's early days as part of the Red Bank songwriting scene - Eric Ginsberg and Lance Scott Greene.

"That scene was very important for me when I was younger," recalls Xenia. "My first performance ever was during an open mic at the Internet Cafe in Red Bank when I was 14. I kept coming back and eventually got a show there."

Xenia remains part of the Jersey Shore music scene despite living in New York. Her connection to the Shore allows her to maintain a following at clubs like The Saint and The Stone Pony, and coffeehouses like Espresso Joe's. The two scenes are so important to her that she made sure to hold a CD release party in each area. On April 4, she held a release party at Rockwood Music Hall (NYC) and on April 11 she's holding one at The Saint (NJ).

While the crowd funding campaign paid for the production, Xenia is on her own with regards to marketing the record and booking shows. She laughs when she thinks of the timing of releasing an EP in the final weeks before graduation. "Good time to release an album, huh," she says. "Right now things are really time consuming, but there's nothing I'd rather be spending my time doing."

And she's definitely working it. She's been doing radio interviews on stations like WBJB and WRSU and was a guest on Danny Coleman's "Rock On Radio show". She's been featured on several blogs and is finding her way into music newspapers. Meanwhile, she's extremely active on social media, often conversing with fans on Twitter throughout the day.

Her songs on the EP showcase an artist willing to experiment. Her poetry background (she's majoring in Literary Studies with a concentration in poetry) is apparent from her lyrics. There are hints of a spiritual outlook and words that seem built upon personal experience. The music is layered with instruments such as pedal steel, rhodes, and cello alongside the more traditional guitar, bass, drums, and synths. The effect is rather ethereal as if you're listening to a dream. Fans of Tori Amos or Kate Bush should definitely check her music out.

She's currently working on getting on a tour with another artist to support the EP, but is already looking forward to the future.

"Hopefully, I'll be recording again soon," she says. "It's really exciting to finish something and then just keep recording, keep writing."

For more information on Xenia, visit http://www.xeniasky.com or follow her on twitter @xeniasky.