FREE SPEECH ZONE | Retrospective: Notes on six remarkable performances from the past year — including jazz, a DFL banquet, skydiving and a funeral

The most useful and popular of our theater, music and film critics arguably see and reflect on too much stuff too frequently.  A reviewer’s fatigue-fogged lens and carpal tunnel syndrome can both mug a great play or canonize a pile of digital kitsch on an IMAX screen.  As a suburban cul-de-sac dweller, I don’t see much and am not vulnerable to these trap doors.  Because some of the few live performances I have seen are very notable but have slipped through cracks, I here provide, for your consideration dear possums, my 2012 list of memorable performances including a one act play, a DFL banquet, a funeral service, music ensembles and a video.

 

ZEITGEIST / NIRMALA RAJASEKAR, 2/11/12, St. Paul

The new music ensemble, Zeitgeist, regularly teams up with other inventing and accomplished musicians in their Lower Town, Saint Paul performing space, Studio Z.  On the recommendation of my colleague and Zeitgeist Board Member Craig Sinard, my wife Carol and I attended a Zeitgeist concert-seminar of sorts in February featuring composer Nirmala Rajasekar.  Rajasekar is an internationally acclaimed virtuoso and teacher of a 7-string, plucked, South Indian, classical instrument called a Saraswati veena. 

We arrived a bit late, which in Minnesota – home of the crowded back pews – means that the tardy get the front row seats.  Such was the case that evening.  We quietly maneuvered into forward positions about seven feet from Ms. Rajasekar who was positioned cross-legged on the floor with the large, lute-like instrument.  A menagerie of instruments and Zeitgeistians Heather Barringer and Patti MCudd (percussion), Pat O’Keefe (woodwinds) and Shannon Wettstein (piano) fanned out behind her.

The ensemble’s sound was at once exotic, tropical, familiar and fun.  The veena family of instruments, we learned, is counterpart to the sitar of Northern India, but evolved from a South India Carnatic tradition with distinct rhythms and human voice-like harmonics and tones.  The veena played by Ms. Rajasekar has a large, carved wood resonator - a large bowl set on the floor against her right thigh, that tapers into a hollow, 4-foot long neck.  The neck supports a 24-fret, fingering board and a smaller gourd-shaped resonator that rests on top of the left thigh.  An ornate, down-curving tuning box culminating in a dragon’s head, and a rank of 4 main strings and a rank of 3 “drone” strings stretched over their respective bridges complete the instrument. 

The Saraswati veena, we learned, is named after the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts and science.  Hearing the waves of ethereal, pulsing, darting and swooping music above sustained harmonically rich chords produced by Ms. Rajasekar - and at one point her daughter Shruthi, e goddess must be very pleased.  A mere mortal like myself was mesmerized.  When jamming with improvising marimbas, drums, blocks, chimes, saxophone and piano the experience became illuminating, liberating and spiritual.  The experience was nourished by both east and west and was something new.  I rank my visit to the jewel box of Studio Z with the hour I spent absorbing, from only 15 paces, Leonard Bernstein rehearsing the New York Philharmonic one summer afternoon on the southwest flank of the Great Lawn in Central Park.

Video: Nirmala Rejasekar ensemble on TPT's Minnesota Original -                   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nziy-dBBJn0

 

LORIA PARKER, 4/26/12, New York

My good friend Peter Brownscomb and I had cabbed it from the East Village to 69th Street and Lexington Avenue to find a recital hall perched inside Hunter College, There we would find Loria Parker, another long time friend, who we hadn’t seen in years.  Loria had the title role in a one-act musical sponsored by the Ziegfeld Society, a non-profit group working to put fading Broadway traditions back on the boards.

 “America’s Funny Girl  - Fanny Brice,” crafted by Society President Mark York was premiering in the austere setting of the Lang Recital Hall that none-the-less was filling up with what appeared to be long-retired showgirls, cane-in-hand gents, Yiddish theater patrons, and friends of the cast.  The chatter of elderly, opinionated New Yorkers produced a wondrous, concerto of gab one cannot get in Minnesota – where I’ve spent the last two decades -- not even on Seinfeld reruns.

Back-story:  In the 1980’s Loria Parker and I had intersected in Manhattan’s cabaret circuit. At the time I was producing show bizzy, Phantom Agent segments for WNEW-TV’s PM Magazine.  I became friends with her father, the sly and vinegary effervescent, comedy writer, Coleman Jacoby (Bilko, Hope, Gleason) and her stepmother, Gaby Monet, an Oscar winning, documentary producer (HBO and Concepts Unlimited).

I hadn’t heard Loria perform since a gig at Jan Wallman’s Cabaret about 1988.  That show featured one of her father’s songs and, on opening night, her presentation of a Hebrew National Salami to TV legend, Steve Allen – a recurring bit from his 1950’s run on The Tonight Show.  Steve and Coleman, both Friars Club elders, loved the tribute.  Loria’s strong, rounded alto, expressive personality, timing, and easy command of her dad’s bouncy lyrics and Sondheim’s tongue-twisting angst were remarkable.   This level of talent in 1978 had won Loria (as Catherine Jacoby) a singing role as Fanny Brice in the made-for-TV movie, “Ziegfeld:  The Man and His Women.”   It is my understanding that Loria and Barbra Streisand are the only actresses to portray Brice in major films.  

Mark York heard of the film, located Loria, cast her in the title role and recruited her husband Gerry Janssen (a retired vocal coach) to operate the spotlight.  By long distance phone before the show, Loria confessed to me that she hadn’t been on stage in years; explaining that she had been building an image consulting firm, reviewing plays for the web publication TheaterScene.net and caring for family members.  The Canary, in other words, had the jitters.  

But the personable flare that had won her bouquets in cabaret and regional theater were in full bloom at Hunter.  For sure, the audience came pre-loaded with affection; they were, after all, informed society members.  Fanny had been the Ziegfeld Follies’ biggest star.  Some, I figured, had heard Brice on the NBC Radio series “The Baby Snooks Show.”  Snooks – an impish, four-year old brat, who bested all grownups, had become Brice’s signature character in spite of decades of star turns on vaudeville and Broadway stages. 

Projecting the charismatic and comic flash of the seasoned trooper that Fanny Brice must have been in 1950, near the end of her still active life and the time frame of the play, Loria Parker delivered the full package.  She was ably supported by Jeffrey Scott Stevens and Jeff Dickamore in multiple roles including a butler, a stage manager, Eddie Cantor, Irving Berlin and Nick Arnstein – foils that served as brackets for Parker’s singing and York’s piano accompaniment for such Brice standards as “My Man,” “Second Hand Rose,” and “More Than You Know.”

Although York builds his play on a fictional encounter between Brice and a college newspaper reporter – one with a gnat’s grasp of show biz history, he respects the factual record of the beloved comedienne’s life and garnishes the libretto with her actual words.

 For example, the reporter asks Fanny what it’s like to be an overnight success with the Baby Snooks character.  Parker, as Fanny, quips,

"Listen kid, I've done everything in the theater except marry the property man.
 I've been a soubrette in burlesque,
 I’ve acted for Belasco and I've laid them out in the aisles at the Palace.
 I've doubled as an alligator and I've worked for Ziegfeld and the Schubert,
 and I've been joined in the holy bonds to Billy Rose.
 I’ve painted the house boards, I've sold tickets AND I've been fired by George M. Cohan."

1n 1950, Snooks, was into her 14th season on network radio. 

Loria Parker’s gorgeous-to-comic chameleon appeal is natural; she and Fanny Brice seem to be cut from the same cloth.  Mark York’s “America’s Funny Girl: Fanny Brice” with Miss Parker, as of this writing, has only been presented twice, but could be adapted as a nostalgia-lit revue for dinner, cruise and resort theaters and - mostly as is - for universities, theatrical clubs and music festivals.  Both options would certainly serve the Ziegfeld Society’s commendable mission and draw audiences.  That became clear at Hunter College when the cast was mobbed after the bows.

Fanny Brice, writing for the November 21, 1923 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, said that she had learned that, “An audience reflects an actor's attitude as faithfully as a mirror. If he is re-laxed and sure of himself his audience gives him its heart.”  That possums, is what I saw in Loria Parker. 

 

DEBBIE DUNCAN, 5/18/12, Saint Paul

On a Saturday night in May, I walked down the steps to the basement redoubt of Twin Cities jazz; the Artists’ Quarter in downtown Saint Paul.  In Eden Prairie, my cultural life is informed by Caribou Coffee meet-ups and our two cell phoning, social networking and texting teenagers.  Our adopted town, as celebrated as it is by civic boosters and national magazines, ain’t New York or even Hopkins.

I had fled to the Artists’ Quarter not knowing one lick about Twin Town’s jazz scene, staked a claim at a small table with an electric candle and nursed a glass of ginless tonic water waiting for something to happen.  One by one,  a three laid back gents began a start-and-wait sequence of setting up music stands, tuning instruments, checking the audio, sorting charts, lifting a beer, and re-tuning the instruments – a bass guitar, piano and drums.  I recall, not knowing when the actual set began but do recall that we subterranean were soon swimming in the coolest sounds I had heard since my Modern Jazz Quartet LP got needle-scratched in 1974.  Thirty minutes later, Debbie Duncan was serving fresh-squeezed orange juice.  Wow!   The Great American songbook with rhythms and nuance from soft to bold with flights of crazy/sane, escalating scat.  I figured that the Artists’ Quarter was actually heaven and that the guy taking tickets at the door was St. Peter.  My take on the joint was confirmed by the fact that the other customers were not gabbing away during the music; they were listening.    

Duncan nailed “I thought About You” and other standards one only hears these days on “Jazz88 Radio,” YouTube or internet radio.  But that’s jazz through plastic straws.  Jazz is about live and close up; something I eloquently learned as a young buckaroo in the presence of Stan Kenton, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, Dave Brubeck, Count Basie and Miriam Makeba.

During an interlude, Duncan confesses affection for Rogers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song.”  I was surprised and curious.  How could the dated Broadway and movie musical about Chinese immigrants in San Francisco with songs like “I Enjoy Being a Girl” and “Chop Suey” written by two white guys in New York, inspire a black jazz vocalist from Detroit who on this particular evening is the coolest babe in heaven?  Duncan answers saying that she finds personal resonance with the story of a young woman struggling to keep her aspirations from being muted by … life.  She begins singing one of the show’s irresistible melodies - perhaps “Love Look Away” - I cannot recall, but I do remember that any lingering Hollywood kitsch was cleansed away by Duncan’s interpretation.

During a break, I learn from a wag at the bar that Miss Duncan is arguably the most celebrated jazz singer in Minnesota; she plays the Dakota and clubs around the country. One of those turns out to have been Don’t Tell Mama, a New York theater district bistro  where I had also sipped tonics.  I flashed back to a late night, Jenifer Lewis revue  and sharing a table with Cleo Lane and Betty Buckley.  Both were starring in The Mystery of Edwin Drood (Best Musical Tony).  Lane was a jazz legend and Buckley, as Grizabella in Cats, had brought Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s must popular show tune, “Memory”, to Broadway.  I glanced at Duncan across the bar chatting with fans.  I hoist my glass in a silent toast.

 

BEN WAGNER / NANCY NELSON, 7/14/12, Eden Prairie, MN

One of my missions with Democrats has been to inject levity, laughs and reality into the sanctimonious temperatures of our meetings.  We reward any mumbling or blow-horning pol who ladles out politically correct puffery and progressive clichés with rounds of applause and book him/her to keynote a fundraiser.  In Minnesota, the only DFL (Democrat) rhetorical stars I can think of are Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Ryback, State Senator Tom Bakk, and representatives Paul Thissen, Steve Simon, and Tom Rukavina (retired).  There’s not a female DFLer who makes my cut except U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar but only when she’s trading impromptu quips with her dad Jim.

This sorry situation has motivated me to twice recruit AM 950 Radio’s Nancy Nelson to host DFL Senate District 48’s golf tournament banquet.  Having anchored thousands of radio and television shows and conducted thousands of interviews, Nancy can make the wonkiest official, most bumbling do-gooder or most programmed candidate feel like the most articulate and interesting person in the world.  Give Nancy a wireless hand mic and a room of liberals to roam among and you’ve got yourself a show - one that is fast-paced, provides facts, perspective, confessions, laughs and applause.

With Nancy, we Democrats no longer need to hear our candidates or their spin meisters repeat what they’ve already told us ten times before – especially during a banquet.  Stump speeches have been banned from Eden Wood, the conference venue for our events.

For this summer’s banquet, I secretly planted professional singer/actor Ben Wagner and top drawer, piano man Dan Oie among the diners.  We had devised a surprise for both the crowd and Nancy.  Wagner, seated at a dinner table, responded to my taking mock umbrage at the podium that DFL Senate District 48 (Eden Prairie and half of Minnetonka) had only endorsed female candidates to run for the State Legislature.  “Where are the men candidates?  Where is the gender balance?”  I pleaded.  “What about our rights and my needs?”  The sheep muffled themselves in disbelief.  I pleaded again.  Wagner stood up from his table with a reasoned, contrary answer that quickly drifted into a Broadway-sparkling rendition of  “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.”  As the handsome and charming 20-something tenor (think Josh Groban) progressed through an Irving Berlin lyric that these days would offend any alert feminist, smiles and soft laughter began to replace the silence.

I have an ear for music,

And I have an eye for a maid,

I like a pretty girlie with

Each pretty tune that’s played,

They go together

Like sunny weather

Goes with the month of May!

I’ve studied girls and music,

So I’m qualified to say:

 

A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,

That haunts you night and day,

Just like a strain, Of a haunting refrain …

The flock began swaying and singing along to stanzas with re-written lyrics praising candidates Tori Hill, Laurie McKendry and Yvonne Selcer with an aside to congressional candidate Brian Barnes. We laughed and sang full-throated -  a bit off key - and applauded ourselves.

Ben and Dan then segued into Cole Porter’s  “You’re the Top” to Nancy as a surprise set-up to her part of the program.  Rolling with the fun, Nelson caught the pass and led an unscheduled, enthusiastic rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Had Mark York not warmed-up his Ziegfeld Society audience at Hunter College in New York with “A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody” to set up my friend Loria’s entrance, I would not have thought to do same with a group of tired and grim Democrats in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.   I here argue that if these gambits had not sparkled, Republicans would have retained control of the Minnesota Legislature and Romney would be president.  I am stickin’ to my spin.

 

AMY STRATE, SKYDIVE, 10/28/12, Baldwin, Wisc.

I did not drive to Baldwin, Wisconsin with my 19-year old daughter Amy and her friend Lanie to see them skydive from a twin prop plane 13,000 feet overhead.    Neither set of parents did.  After parental deliberations; combing the skydive vender’s website; checking its references, certifications, safety records and videos; determining if the two girls knew what they were actually about to do, we let them go.

Amy and Lanie would drive themselves easterly through the metro area to Wisconsin farm country and the rural airstrip, office and hangar operated by Skydive Twin Cities.  They’d be excited, a bit apprehensive, buy their tickets, get trained for the jump and provide themselves with their own adventure - one they would speak of for the rest of their lives and earn them instant bragging rights in the texting and social media realms that had grown up with them.  A tag-along dad or mom would have diminished the day.

We got two cell phone calls from Amy.  The first announced their arrival at the Skydive Twin Cities airstrip; the second one, about 90 minutes later, an excited confirmation that each had made the jump:  It was “awesome,” “fun,” “awesome” and “I’m going again,  but not today.”  Ninety minutes later, both were back in Eden Prairie with DVDs of their jumps.

We saw Amy’s skydive video at home.

Each girl, belted to a professional skydiver, was photographed by another skydiver falling backwards and face-up with a video cam mounted on his helmet.  Free falling 120 miles per hour for a little less than a minute before the rip cord was pulled for a curving parachute glide to the grassy landing zone was exhilarating for Amy and then for the stay-at-home parents.

I saw in my daughter’s face from take off to landing, the joy and thrill of adventure, exploration, self-confidence and reasonable risk.  At a hundred and twenty miles per hour, I saw mental snapshots of the six-year old kid who tapped out “Chopsticks” on an upright piano; grew into the melodic parts of “Midsummer Vigil” on the violin and then banged out “Crazy Train,” on an over-amplified bass guitar.  

I’ve produced hundreds and hundreds of professional videos but this one of my kid, one that I’ve had nothing to do with, is tops.  When I need a kick-start, I look at it again.  I see the kid who fought severe pain for a full year; who has performed throughout the Twin Cities with School of Rock Music and school chum bands – loud and very good.  I see a kid who cuts a French curve and rides a rail with a snowboard and teaches other kids to do same.  I see a young woman who drives a sporty Mitsubishi Eclipse, owns her own automotive tools, does oil changes and is looking at colleges.

As my age set enters its second decade of cruise ship buffets and golf resort massages, my wife and I look forward to another summer of teen parties in the back yard and, for me, a water slide park or two and drive-in cheeseburgers, fires, and chocolate malts.  Our son Alex is 17. 

 Amy’s Jump video -  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ddQMtzCe8Ec

 

KENNETH WILKENS FUNERAL, 12/14/12, Northfield, MN

 My colleague, Doug Lind, invited me to accompany him to Northfield, Minnesota on December 14th for the funeral of Kenneth Wilkins.  From 1961-1965 Doug was a member of the Saint Olaf College debate team.  Dr. Wilkens, a professor of Speech, was also the debate coach.  For a semester, I was a third string debater on the same team, but was not wired in a way that suggested promise.

Although Doug and I had not known one another as college students, we discovered 55 years later that we both appreciated what Dr. Wilkens and the college in general stood for.  We’ve each benefited professionally and personally from the teachings and high standards set by Dr. Wilkens and his Speech Department colleagues.  We learned how to research, organize note cards, structure an argument, detect bull hockey, mount a rebuttal, inject gravitas with a silent pause and be THE nice guy in the arena.  

In September 2011, with most of the oratory tools we had acquired at St. Olaf, we teamed-up for the first time ever to respond to the racism and paranoia that had emerged with the redrawing of Eden Prairie’s school boundaries.  Our few public discussions and video projects were intended to shine light on an issue that community newspapers and leaders were avoiding.

St. John’s Lutheran Church stands eight blocks east of Old Main, the building where Kenneth Wilkens had lectured and coached when Doug and I were students. And although I am certain, the good professor would have remembered a protégé like Doug, I was among the hundreds of his students who had not earned that status.  I sensed, however, that it was appropriate that I attend and, like Doug, looked forward to possibly re-meeting others from those days.

We arrived early and surveyed the arriving mourners.  Doug thought he recognized long-retired coaches Tom Porter (football and hockey) and Bob Gelle (basketball) but that was all.  We were strangers in a gathering of our own tribe.

The Lutheran hymns and liturgy made for a familiar and reflective memorial service, but eulogists Marie Gery, Karen Peterson-Wilson and Jane Rae Wilkens made it poignant.  Two colleagues and a daughter of our former professor who had known him over the full arc of his adult life, spoke of Kenneth Wilkens with grace and affection and with anecdotal and poetic references that were arranged with order and clarity.  They were painting with well-chosen word colors, three portraits of the life of a good man. 

Doug has since reminded me that Dr. Wilkens was fond of referring to Quintilian, a master Roman rhetorician and teacher during the first century.  “Oratory is a good man speaking well.”  Such was the case for three women that afternoon in St. John’s Church.

Jeff Strate lives in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.  He produces the cable TV and Internet political affairs show Democratic Visions and removes snow from his driveway with a shovel.

 


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CORRECTION 4/26/2013: Sentence corrected to: St. John’s Lutheran Church stands eight blocks east of Old Main, the building where Kenneth Wilkens had lectured and coached when Doug and I were students.

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    Jeff Strate