Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Vulnerable Detective: Sweden's "Wallander" Series

photo of author Henning Mankell from, site of the Swedish consulate

(reflections on two novels by Henning Mankell: THE MAN WHO SMILED (1994), trans. from Swedish by Laurie Thompson, and FIREWALL (2002), trans. by Ebba Segerberg. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard editions.)

In FIREWALL, the most recent of the novels by Henning Mankell that I've read, the title is ironic: In Mankell's world, which includes Sweden, Africa, and the USA, there is no firewall against the predators who use the internet, or international corporations to feed their appetites for domination.

Even being off the I.T. grid is no protection for detective Kurt Wallander. He can't open his own email, but his adversaries are watching him via internet, phone taps, and turncoats in his own police office.

Beneath all this, Wallander is insecure in himself. He is stalked in all these novels by age and its attendant infirmities, father's disapproval echoing even after death, loneliness, bleak prospects for retirement income, and the suspicion near - certainty that he is pursuing the wrong leads in his latest investigation.

There really is very little mystery in any of these novels. As with ONE STEP BEHIND (reviewed in June 2009), we have a pretty clear idea early on of what's up and who's doing it. Our sympathy is with Wallander as we root for him to figure out what we already know.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

MUSIC MAN: Musical Comedy Tears Me to Pieces

(pictured, l-r: Alex Hawk, Ryan Selvaggio, Phil Feiner, Patrick McPherson, Colin Shirley, Max Vanderlip, Steven Touchton)
See video

(reflections on THE MUSIC MAN, with book, music and lyrics by Meredith Willson, based on a story by Willson and Franklin Lacey. Performed by students where I teach, at the Walker School, Marietta GA. Directed by my colleague Katie Arjona.)

Settling in my seat to see this high school production of a familiar show, I expected charm and chuckles; but I didn't expect to get choked up with emotion. How did that happen?

Full disclosure: At least some of my reaction must have come from having taught many of these kids when they were in Middle School. Like the proud parents depicted in the show itself, I spent the whole evening thinking, "That's my Steven! That's my Megan! That's my (fill in the blank)!" But I've been watching my alumni in other people's shows for decades, and haven't choked up at happy musical comedies before.

Megan Hilburn, Steven Touchton, and Kiwi Lanier

The moment that softened me up was when Steven Touchton, as "Professor" Harold Hill, examined a paper that Marian the Librarian (Megan Hilburn) handed to him. He realizes that she has seen through his false persona from the start, and that she has possessed the information to have him thrown out of town -- and yet, she didn't use it.

Why didn't she? When Marian asks the townspeople to remember what the town was like before he arrived, we know what she means: Snooty Mrs. Shin (played with abandon by Kiwi Lanier) and her gossips have broadened their minds; the squabbling school board men have become the picture of good-natured harmony as a barber shop quartet (Ryan Selvaggio, Chris Branham, Ryan Brush, and Kyle Kimrey).

But what strikes closer to home are a couple of cases where "Professor" Harold Hill has done what every parent and teacher and coach hopes to do. He rescues the rascally Tommy Djilas (Patrick McPherson) from arrest, and nourishes the boy's natural talents for handiwork and leadership. He also hands the Mayor's daughter to the boy along with some pocket change, so that he can escort her home by way of the candy shop. Later, when the boy is humiliated by the Mayor (played with imperious fastidiousness by Jordan Perry), Harold Hill predicts that the Mayor will one day stand first in line to shake Tommy's hand.

The other case is the boy Winthrop (George Litchfield), afflicted with a lisp, who is afraid to speak when we first see him. Encouraged by Hill's attention and by the dream of being a musician, Winthrop grows self-confident.

These stories all dovetail in the arc of the main plot: con artist Boy meets upstanding Girl, and Girl rejects Boy -- until she observes the effect that he has on her little brother Winthrop, on Tommy, and, not least of all, on Marian herself. "There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing... 'til there was you," she sings, in the show's best - known love song.

When she hands Hill that paper, she effects a change in him. His affable confidant Marcellus (payed by big voiced Schuyler Richardson) urges him to escape with his ill-gotten money, but Hill won't. He admits, "For the first time in my life, I've got my foot caught in the door."

The creators of the play make little Winthrop the one to confront Hill with his lies. Stricken by the boy's disillusionment, Hill swears to tell Winthrop the truth from now on, and does: Yes, I've lied to you. But, yes, I do truly believe in you.

When a certain traveling anvil salesman (Phil Feiner) exposes the scam, and Hill stands in hand cuffs beside Constable Locke (played sternly by Max Vanderlip), it's Tommy Djilas who leads Winthrop and the band to his rescue. True to Hill's prediction, the Mayor grasps Tommy's hand at the show's very end.

So, seeing the story of a "Professor" who teaches the townspeople to disregard limits imposed on them by others' opinions, any parent, coach or teacher has to feel inspired. That's where the emotion came from.

Had the show been less than thoroughly imagined and produced, those deficits would have distracted from the story.

But the set itself inspired confidence. The backdrop that spanned the proscenium, bearing a meticulously rendered small town street in gentle pastel colors, would've sufficed for a set. But designer Bill Schreiner stretched the stage with a hundred platforms that extended nearly to the dimensions of a basketball court. The two - story home of "Marian the librarian" occupied the upstage left corner, with practical door. It split open at the corner to reveal her parlor, complete with actual piano. Portable lampposts with red, white and blue bunting helped to define spaces. The crowning piece of whimsical stagecraft was the somewhat distended gazebo built to house the straw-hatted, bow-tied band.

See video

That band, conducted by instructor Todd Motter in Sousa regalia, gave a full sound, with Willson's counter-melodies rising up clearly through the mix to support the familiar tunes. The big tunes were impressive enough, but the band also played more subtle accompaniment for the rhythmic patter that sets this score apart. Especially notable was the way that senior percussionist Bas de Vuyst kept the train scene chugging on its track, and also the off-beat chords and fills from the band that punctuate Willson's masterpiece of double-talking flim-flam, "Ya Got Trouble."

"Trouble" displayed the charm and musicality of leading man Steven Touchton. He missed not a beat as he built this proto-rap song gradually from its innocuous start to "mass 'steria" at the end.

As director and choreographer, Katie Arjona staged "Trouble" to blur the lines between acting and dancing. It was a wonder to see the people strolling by, going about their business, coalescing into a congregation in a giant gospel number. In "Marian the Librarian," Ms. Arjona used the books, the benches, the rolling carts, and even the date stamper to draw all the teens in town into an energetic dance with high kicks and even a hand stand -- always pausing instantly whenever the librarian turns around. Meanwhile, the band plays an insinuating little figure in the bass, and Touchton keeps his pitch and his cool as he sustains the first syllable of the name of the librarian "Marian."

Megan Hilburn played Marian with wry humor and a soaring soprano voice. Claire Golden was a warm and jovial presence as Marian's mother, and young George Litchfield made believable Winthrop's metamorphosis from timid to exuberant.

The chorus of singers and dancers were remarkable in many ways. First, they sang in tune and danced mostly in sync throughout. Then, every one of them was in character at every point of the show. Seated at the far end of the auditorium, I was one of the few who could see the faces of Patrick McPherson and Caroline Connell at their stage right table during the Library number, and they seemed wholly absorbed in each other, in the moment.

Finally, I have to remember what this school was like just ten years ago. Students from middle school on up expressed open scorn for musicals. Few girls and no boys sang music of any sort: music was just something they bought. I feared for awhile that everything I've ever loved in music and musical theatre was doomed. So if I choke up, it's partly because I've witnessed a rebirth of something I love.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Athletics, Aesthetics in Music: Rite and a Doo Wop Marathon

(reflections on two performances at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta during the past week: "Avenue X" with book and lyrics by John Jiler and Music by Ray Leslee, performed by the Alliance Theater, and "The Rite of Spring" by Igor Stravinsky, performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Robert Spano.)

Photo by Greg Mooney | Pasquale (Nick Spangler), Milton (J.D. Goldblatt) and Rosco (Lawrence Clayton) in the a cappella musical Avenue X, Jan. 13 – Feb. 7, 2010 on the Alliance Stage.

For two hours, eight actors perform a cappella music with hardly any dialogue to speak of. We watch and listen in a state of wonder and excitement in the moment. What voices! What mastery! What stamina! Athletics added to the aesthetics.

The plot is Romeo and Juliet, more or less, only it's a talent show and not marriage that joins the star-crossed buddies. One's of Italian descent, and his ilk see their Bronx neighborhood and their kind of music in decline; the other is black, his family having just moved up from Harlem. Each escapes the oppressive realities of his neighborhood into the comforting echoes of the sewer under the street, and they harmonize before they meet. It's clear from the way that "Milton" embroiders his soulful melismas over "Pasquale's" tenor lines that the two are destined to be friends.

But it's the musical numbers that sustain our interest. Besides doo - wop, the story gives us occasions to hear other kinds of a cappella singing. There's a pastiche of schmaltzy Italian pop songs of the early 1900s, accompanied by a band of vocals. There's Roman Catholic chanting, with the word "Gloria" tipping on the edge of the old doo - wop song of the same name. There's soul train singing.

Next door, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra played a program of luminous and dreamy works by Vaughan Williams (Fantasia on Tallis) and Golijov (film music from YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH). But after intermission, it was time for Stravinsky's biggest hit, which I've often heard and never seen live. We see the conductor's irregular beats with the right hand, sudden accents cued with the left. We see the string players growing red, lunging forward to turn pages, trembling their bows, beating the strings, plucking and, at odd moments, sawing their instruments with savageness. I couldn't see the woodwinds and brass, but I know that they were playing at the outer edges of their instruments' ranges. The drummers at the back were pounding furiously, as hard as they could.
Maidens cut down in the full bloom of ancient Russian springtime? Teenage boys longing to get out of the Bronx? Sure, sure, whatever. Heard live, the focused energy and virtuosity of the performers added pleasure to what the composers had conceived; and it strikes me that the composers probably knew what they would be forcing their performers to do.