Revisiting Lenny at 30

The Philadelphia Orchestra
Verizon Hall, March 17, 2018
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano
Leonard Bernstein: Symphony No. 2 for piano and orchestra
Robert Schumann: Symphony No. 4
Richard Strauss: Don Juan


Canadian pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet (photo courtesy Philadelphia Orchestra)

Yannick Nézet Séguin continued the season long centenary tribute to Leonard Bernstein with a bit of a rarity for the Philadelphia Orchestra with Bernstein’s Symphony no. 2, The Age of Anxiety and two repertory favorites that Yannick clearly loves conducting.

Canadian pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet was soloist for Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, for piano and orchestra, composed in 1949, Lenny himself at the keyboard in its premiere performance. Inspired by W.H. Auden’s poem ‘The Age of Anxiety’ Bernstein orchestrating a late night intellectual jam session of urban denizens out of an Edward Hopper painting. Lenny has a lot of compositional jumping off points and it has both an adventurous and derivative orchestral narrative.

Thibaudet strode on the Verizon Stage all smiles, dressed in an Elvisy copper shark-skin jacket that matched his relaxed charm. The score was in front of him, but he was playing chunks of it from memory, but at several points leaning intensely into the charts. Meanwhile his engagement with the orchestra impressed as he powered through Bernstein’s stylistic complexities. A less focused performance by the orchestra would have exposed the symphony’s pastiche quality.

The weakest elements are Bernstein’s foray into jazz chromatic flights ala jazz innovator Thelonious Monk. Bernstein hedges his bets, careening to more conservative stride piano vamps. Meanwhile, there are Copland-esque symphonic progressions, but more interesting is thematic peeks into Bernstein’s oeuvre- passages that are prescient to his MASS, and there are some cinematic sonic waves foreshadowing his soon to be composed score to the film On the Waterfront, and certainly brazen urban sensibility that fuels West Side Story.

Of course Bernstein’s crowded keyboard runs, hand over hand dexterity and note clusters that accelerate to a point that they seem to be crashing like waves in the concert hall. Thibaudet brought all of the technical drama of those passages, without pounding, and most admirable delicacy enough that during the largo passages- lucid, as a resolve, not merely sonic contrast.And it is also concerto for orchestra and Lenny uses everyone. Stunning harp counterpoints by principal Elizabeth Hainen and soaring woodwinds led by oboist Peter Smith.

Nezet Seguin has expressed musical love for the works of both Robert Schumann and Richard Strauss, he has conducted and recorded their repertoire with many orchestras around the world.  The Philadelphians brought the 4th to its full dimension in this performance from the subtlest distant echoes of baroque forms to its full throated lush salon symphonics that hint at modernism.

The closer was Strauss’s one-acter Don Juan that YNS delivers like a walk in the park brassy showpiece, but every detail is present. The lush salon orchestral mise-en-scene. Jennifer Montone, exquisite leads with the supporting hornists in the codas blazing heralds.



BalletX dances for Spring

It still might be cold outside but BalletX dancers are already burning the floor at the Wilma Theater in an otherwise chilly Philly. Where else but BalletX can you hear the sizzling mambo of Tito Puente, Marvin Gaye’s ultimate 70s dance groove “Got to Give It Up” and the classical fire of live musicians from the Curtis Institute performing onstage with the dancers.

Opening the concert is choreographer Darrell Grande Moultrie ‘Vivir’ scored to Latin jazz and salsa music that he loved hearing growing up in Spanish Harlem. From the driving acoustic guitar of Rodrigo y Gabriela to the sultriest orchestrals by Tito Puente, Grand Moultrie fusion of ballet pointe work and salsa.

(All photos by Bill Hebert)

Gary Jeter 'Vivre'

Gary W. Jeter in Gran Moultrie’s ‘Vivir’

Dancers fly on and offstage, joining each other in pulsing ensemble configurations, trio and duets. Gary Jeter remains onstage and dancing a soul searching solo to Bebo B. Cigala’s bittersweet ballade Eu Sei Que Vou Te Amar. Gary Jeter and Francesca Forcella frequent partners lead the sensual, fluid motion duets

Matt Neenan’s premiered ‘Increasing’ in 2014 at Vail International Dance Festival with the company joined by New York City Ballet guest stars Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild. The ballet looks just as good in its Philadelphia premier with the BX roster dancing those solo sections and joined by the stellar musicians from the Curtis Institute of Music on stage with them performing Schubert’s String Quintet C Major.

In flamenco it is called duende and the synergy when dancers are in the direct zone of live musicians, and the ballet is exemplar of the potential of that dynamic as well.  Neenan’s choreography so inspired by the propulsion and introspection of Schubert’s chamber music, more than any implied narrative. The ensemble in quicksilver configurations that flock and scatter. Neenan punctuating with aerial variations and liberated pointe work.

BX Increasing 2

Jenny Winton & Zachary Kapeluck  Neenan’s ‘Increasing’

Caili Quan’s mach speed pirouette entrance with her arms sculpted close to her sides. Quan and Skyler Lubin in a jaunty balletic unison duet and Richard Walters and Roderick Phifer in their own mirroring duet. The push-pulls of the violin interplays of Eunic Kim and Piotr Filochowski as hypnotic as the dancing. And this is a Neenan signature to keep the music an equal element on the dance stage.

Flash dance partnering spring from the taut string dialogue between the violins, then another dancer may fly on and pick up the undercurrent bassline by cellists Glenn Fischbach and Branson Yeast, or the counterpoint of violist Yoshihika Nakano. Kudos to former Pennsylvania Ballet II and Joffrey dancer Jenny Winton for subbing for company member Chloe Perkes who is recovering from an injury.

Roderick Phifer 'Boogeyman'

Roderick Phifer in McIntyre’s ‘Boogeyman’

Trey McIntire scored a huge hit “Big Ones” set to a song cycle by the late R&B singer Amy Winehouse, but as cleverly idiosyncratic his choreography was, it didn’t emotionally connect to the music in key ways. McIntyre’s “Boogeyman” does. There is an esprit, wit and a floating narrative of a young man expressing himself via the music to 70s pop hits. Roderick Phifer is alone in his bedroom plugged into his bulky headphones (I know, who would have guessed that they would be back) that turns into a witty, joyous, bittersweet drama of a breakup between enacted by dancers Roderick Phifer and Andrea Yorka.
Phifer has period headphones on hunched over and start some unhooked moves to one of the club megahits starting with Gaye’s ‘Got to Give it Up.

BX Increasing

‘Boogeyman’ BXers

Phifer explodes into full on funk moves punctuated with vaults and somersaults over his bed. A quartet of partiers saunter on, they are dressed in 70s show drag and McIntyre revives Soul Train dance line moves with witty samplings of proto-break, robotic and wave choreo and who can forget those deep plié gyrations. As they funk down the line, Andrea Yorita and Phifer circle a phonebooth that might be the scene of their breakup. off and Andrea Yorita is in a state of catatonia in the bed but starts to express the angst sung out by Leo Sayer’s heartbreaker ‘Alone Again Naturally.’ Later Phifer and Yorita dance their fated lover’s tale to Stevie Wonder’s soul search lovers’ ballade ‘Never Dreamed You’d Leave Me In Summer.’ Earth, Wind and Fire’s ‘September’ party on luster  is McIntyre’s liberated dancing that soars in the bodies of this ensemble.



Cristan Macelaru & Philadelphia Orchestra with composer Jennifer Higdon

The Philadelphia Orchestra & soloists with composer Jennifer Higdon take a bow after the premiere of Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto (photo: Phila.Orch)

Cristian Măcelaru finished his three-year tenure as Conductor- in -residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra but he is frequently back on the podium, last month subbing for Yannick Nezet-Seguin in one of the four performances with violinist Joshua Bell.

Măcelaru often interacts with the audience and introduces the playlist, but on the night he subbed for Nezet-Seguin, he launched into an erratically paced performance of Beethoven’s Leonore overture, distinctly underpowered in the first half, but seemed to ignite midway through by way of the impeccable artistry Jeffrey Khaner’s flute lines.

Everyone was on the same page for Joshua Bell’s solid performance of Henryk Wienlawski’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Indeed, Bell’s focus and energy with The Philadelphians seems to bloom more each time he returns, he is never the ‘star’ in his own zone. Bell has performed this concerto through his career and his interpretive technical artistry has, admirably both authority and immediacy. The lengthy orchestral intro sharp and warm for Bell’s silvery tone in the opening passages.

Wienlawski composed in the 1862 is fascinating in its invention and its decoratively virtuosic passages, which Bell nails.  But to this ear, the second movement is much more musically interesting, especially with Bell’s expressive and subtle phrasing. Măcelaru’s closed the program with Anton Dvorak’s 8th Symphony, switching up the program from Nezet-Seguin’s programming from Shostakovich’s ‘Leningrad’ Symphony.

Anton Dvorak’s 9th (New World) Symphony, is a concert hall favorite, but his other symphonies, particularly the composer’s 8th Symphony is just as compelling and Măcelaru detailing bring it to full power and dimension, Măcelaru accenting Dvorak ‘s modernist progressions, and thrilling sonic accelerations.

Măcelaru is particularly expert with orchestral dance music of Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Marosszek, with its vivid folkloric eloquence at the center of the piece and it was the rousing opener for the Philadelphians the following week, the centerpiece being the premiere by Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Low Brass.

Higdon’s Low Brass Concerto (in one movement) has a distinctly nebulous opening with almost subdued solo lines by Nitzan Haroz and Matthew Vaughn (trombones), Blair Bollinger (bass trombone and Carol Jantsch (tuba).  Higdon typically likes to reveal the musician’s strengths and build the energy  between the strings, winds, percussion and other brass instruments, then Higdon just busts this piece open. It is no surprise that it had so many voicings beside fanfares.

the soloist’s ascendant note passages build dramatic, sustained trombone lines that suddenly riff with staccato dialogue that utterly thrill as the orchestra surges and surfs around them. The polyrhythmic counterpoint of the strings, percussion and another woodwind surfing in and out of the string counterpoint.  This piece has power and brassy poetry.  Higdon received a thunderous ovation as she was coaxed onstage to take a bow with the soloists.

Also on this program, Beethoven’s 8th symphony and Brahms’ Hungarian Dances,   especially interesting to hear how distinctly different the strings are- full, warm and dramatic in both, but in such different ways.

August poem


     Serō^               {fr Days of Mercury}


Wind tide
scarred sometimes
By dust spikes
trajectories exhaled
in coarse flight bolted
bloodier feral heart
scape unlocks
as waters trisect
frieze northward
to an invisible gorge
geo quantum
finally along the promontory

at vanishing point
It is all over for now
Iron eyes obliterating
light years
cataloguing the isles of the dead
Hermes  ignites
winged temples to
eclipse the
eternal outlier
blood Venus
unguarded in the
ice basilica
its innards collapsed into
the fevered expanse
a tether
a theory
a twitch
that recalls
but Mercury still dreams
With the
Reconvened in mighty silence
It is all water music
heard inside
energy concussed
hovers at azimuth
sometimes a dusk reveals
that all his missions had
been vaporized as
Mercury enters the cobalt fury of Olympus


& poetries

Chet plays the Mercury L

Before the rain
Tore off
some baleful heart
in private pictures
Of sordid songs
beat to alley footfalls
other shadows
that quit the sounds
in the stolen cornet
A dreamer’s dream
of lost memories
In abandon hotels
hand on that shattered

sepia note cards
lipsticks bleeds/one onyx cufflink
silver clips/crushed flasks
discarded jacks/lovers under

blue smoke
faced away

prenatal twins

clutching cold promises
night sweats
in whispers
through a calypso coma

dreams back

Driving red ’55 Alfa

your blonde hair &

silver scarf  catching wind tide
against my neck
& you made me sing’Where or When’
& you cradle my horn/like it was our boy

in your arms & laugh

& kick your shoes out
the window to feel
your arch
to the wind, and my

toes curl around the gas petal

that day somehow became nothing/yes, I pissed you off bad

over the fucking moon bad/cue

thegaddamnmusic, the end.


You can’t chase him down
in that torn door
To that empty hall
that lullaby street
our condemned psalm
of sexless escape
shadow in shadow bleu
let the puddles bust open
onto that pocked room
Lapel against the mangled collar
Clinging to fevered hair.
Then he shoots the stars
into that vanquished nirvana

pictures of godless eyes
Of mercury wings
On the wounded heart
Crouched over blue scorched notes
Ash, smack, whiskey, burn, whiskey, more

just whiskey Chet
honey notes flowing’

all over the bed
smothering my trumpet



the cast of A Year of Frog & Toad (photo: Mark Garvin)

A Year With Frog and Toad

Arden Children’s Theatre
40 N. 2nd St. Philadelphia PA
Through Jan 29

What a perfect winter of collective discontent to spend “A Year With Frog and Toad” those best buddies hanging out in their cabins on the pond in director Whit MacLaughlin’s altogether magical staging at the Arden Theater- in its 3rd revival since 2004, it is perhaps the most beloved show in the stellar Children’s Theatre series. This is a too much fun-for- all-ages musical based on the popular children’s stories by Arnold Lobel, with music by composer Robert Reale and lyricist Willie Reale. And if that’s not enough, its original stars Jeff Coon as always dapper, optimistic Frog and Ben Dibble as charmingly fretful Toad, are also back.

The show in fact is all about loyalty, friendship, diversity and individualism. Arden was full of kids and parents on Dec. 23, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa’s eves, and this audience was not only in a festive mood, but completely captivated by the actors, music and stagecraft of this show.

Dibble and Coon, both fine singers-actors, are also great movers, ready to careen down a snowy bank, or leap around in toady manner or leap frog into a soft shoe for their duet “He’ll Never Know.” They are joined by songbirds, Leigha Kato,Elexis Morton and Steve Pacek, who swoop in to sing about the four seasons, wake up Frog & Toad from their hibernation with some intoxicating three part harmony and this talented trio also double as other forest characters throughout the play.

A favorite with this crowd is a country ditty sung by Pacek as Snail with the tag line “I’m the snail with the mail” pumping his arms furiously, but his feet are still slo-mo, drew peals of laughter as he inches on. Later, Pacek is also a golden voice belter on the showstopper “I’m Coming Out of My Shell.”

“Getta Load of Toad” is a snappy tune about body image sung when everybody finds out that Toad thinks he looks funny in a bathing suit. Turtle (Morton), Lizard (Pacek) and Mouse (Kato) tease him, all in fun, until he gets out of the water and flaunts his body, warts and all.

MacLaughlin knows how to conjure stage magic for kids, with authentic stagecraft that time and again, proves that young audiences give something to young audience that they don’t get anywhere else, especially on tv or at blockbuster movies. Who cares about stale popcorn when Toad is baking and singing about eating as many ‘Cookies, cookies, cookies’ as you want.

The score is a mix of traditional American orchestrals, Charleston swings, and some show-stopping looney tunes and given a rich sound by conductor/pianist Amanda Morton, Mike Reilly (percussion), Dan Perelstein (bass), Spiff Wiegand (banjo/ guitar).

MacLaughlin is a proponent of inventive physical theater that engages kids of all ages. It is especially fluid in tandem with choreographer Lee Ann Eztold dancey character movement. Richard St. Clair’s witty costume designs keep giving the birds in smart cutaways with feathery vests and all us kids were loving Snail’s bedroll and Turtle’s cushy shell. Precision lighting designs by Thom Weaver casting the visual poetry of the seasons on Donald Eastman’s storybook set featuring Frog and Toad’s neighboring cabins on the pond.

How encouraging it is to hear young audience members, inundated with overblown effects and assaulting wall-to-wall media to be completely captivated by real stagecraft and natural singing voices.

After the performance the cast sat onstage and answered questions about the show. When you hear the kids ask questions to the cast, they are interested in how the houses move, how the lights work, how long it takes to rehearse, why the actors moved a certain way portraying different characters and other penetrating questions, this is exciting theater. And who can’t love the fact that the productions are not only affordable for families, its community outreach program arranges for thousands of underprivileged kids will get to experience the Arden’s Children Theatre series for free.


Cracking the Nutcrackers

Russian expat George Balanchine choreographed The Nutcracker for New York City Ballet in 1954. Balanchine danced several roles in the ballet at the Maryinsky Theater created by Lev Ivanov’s 1892. He streamlined the story with a mix of neoclassic balletics and pantomime dance for American audiences. The Balanchine artistic trust only permits certain companies permission to dance Balanchine’s Nutcracker and there are plenty of other interpretations that re-imagining the story, some sticking closer to the ballet’s Russian origins.

When The Moscow Ballet’s ‘Great Russian Nutcracker’ swung into Philly for two nights at the Annenberg Center in Philly just nights after the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Balanchine production opened, I thought it would be interesting to compare the choreographic templates, lineage and impact on contemporary audiences.


PB principal Alexander Peters leads the Candy Canes


PB Principals Ian Hussey & Amy Aldridge as Sugar Plum & her Cavalier


PB Corp de Ballet in Snowflake scene


MoscowBallet Arabian Variation Sergey Chumakov & Elena Pretrachenko


MB’s Harlequin scene

Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker

Academy of Music, Dec. 9-31

Pennsylvania Ballet Artistic Director Angel Corella continues to sharpen the company’s production of George Balanchine’s Nutcracker and since the Balanchine trust keeps tight reins on the few companies that are licensed to perform Mr. B’s, PAB’s attention to the smallest details make all of the difference, dusting off ACT I of ballet, which is can drag on if not fueled with enough performance energy.

Child dancers Claire Smith and Rowan Duffy as siblings Marie and Fritz, Both young dancers have natural stage presence and are strong dancer-actors, a key element in focusing the opening scenes. And this energy extends to all of the children at the Holiday party, which can often look like seasonal pageantry.

Corella is making sure that both the children and adult dancers are defining characters in their pedestrian and gestural movement.

PAB’s new dance master Charles Askgard portrays Herr Drosselmeir, and is a study of detailed pantomime dance. Even Balanchine’s lumbering mouse battle moves swiftly along.

The Act I solos commence when Drosselmeir animates the Harlequin dolls in their cute pointe patterns, but Balanchine saves the fireworks for the toy soldier solo, a precision dance, with precision flatfooted jumps and limb moving in sharp opposite angles- In this performance danced by Peter Weil with haunted eyes executing the drill steps.

After the faux mouse battle, Marie and the Nutcracker Prince are transported to the snowy forest where Snowflakes perform vintage Balanchine choreography full of geometric configurations and requiring tight esprit de corps. At this performance the corps’ ensemble had the pulse but veered off with some blurry unison pacing and scrambled transitions.

Amy Aldridge as the Sugar Plum Fairy among the little angel gliding over the floor to open Act two and Aldridge who has danced this role many times and this performance can be counted as among her most radiant performances.

In the Act II divertissment Lillian DiPiazza smolders as Coffee in the Arabian Dance and Jermel Johnson slices through the air with saber leg splits for Tea. Alexander Peters and his battalion of Candy Canes getting through those hoops with jaunty flair. Making the most of their flash tarantella in the Spanish Dance are newcomers Sterling Baca and Nayara Lopes.

But it was Dayesi Torriente dancing the lead in Marzapan Shepardess that stood out. This is a deceptively simple looking mid-tempo choreography, is actually very tricky and easily scuttled. Balanchine’s counterpoint patterning can loose technical clarity and merely look pretty. In this performance Torriente commanded with thrilling artistry and her Shepardesses- Adrianna deSvastich, Jacqueline Callahan, Yuka Iseda and Ana Calderan, were completely in sync.

The corp de ballet looked sharper than in the Snowflake scene, with precision and attack in Dewdrop Flowers dance. Principal Mayara Pineiro set the highest mark with her fiery lead solo. Pineiro can just hang on point arabesque and her transition steps flawless entrances and exits to diamond centered turns, airy jetes and luminous pointe work.

The finale pas de deux is all Balanchine fireworks and tests the mettle of even the most technically proficient dancers. Aldridge not missing a moment to thrill with her solid technical prowess from every angle. Aldridge and principal dancer Ian Hussey as her Cavalier with palpable chemistry throughout highlighted by their consistent fluency Balanchine’s difficult lift sequences. Hussey’s solos highlighted with centered turns and solid tours en l’air.

It can’t be understated how vibrant conductor Beatrice Jona Affron’s tempos, detailing and orchestral thrust of Tchaikovsky score are key. In Act I, among the outstanding soloists are Luigi Mazzocchi’s violin solo just engulfing the Academy and harpist Mindy Cutcher floating gorgeously crystal strings first as the first snowflake piques on the floor.

Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker

Annenberg Center, Philadelphia

Dec. 12-13

The Moscow Ballet version of the Nutcracker is a more classic Russian version, without doubt and is a choreographic update by the directors after Imperial Ballet period versions by Russian choreographic masters Vaganova, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.

At the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker, you pick up right away that the story is much different, with Uncle Drosselmeyer, in a wonderfully danseur lead character part performed by Maksim Bernadskyl. Uncle is Christmas Eve magician who conjures the young girl Masha’s Nutcracker dream escorts us through the whole ballet.

Drosselmeyer Anastasiya Terada is hypnotic in her mechanical moves in a multi-colored ribbon tutu ‘Kissy Doll’ and Konstantin Vinovoy’s Harlequin (the prototype for Balanchine’s Soldier) equally spellbinding. Not transcribed by Balanchine are the Moor Dolls.

Where Balanchine leans heavily on just pantomime and gestural acting to carry Act I, here there is much more dancing including a waltz for the adults, and an officer saber dance.

The Nutcracker Doll & Prince is danced by Mykhailo Syniavskyl throughout (Balanchine turned it into a mostly pantomime role for a young male dancer).

The mice battle is a much more interesting scene, than Balanchine’s limp and comedic version. Here Sergyl Merzlyakov is not a fat cartoon rat, but a scary Rat King in red and black dyed tights stylishly sinister headpiece. The fight choreography has Merzlyakov slicing through the air or in thrilling sword dances with Nutcracker Prince.

Elena Petrichenko and Sergey Chumakov were flash dancing ‘Moor Dolls’ in the first act, but they emerge as virtuoso dance – acrobats to open Act 2 as the Dove of Peace, each with a majestic wing and they cleave together in a series of lifts that keep moving to various symbolic and sculpted positions. Later, the couple appears in an even more dramatic tableau in the Arabian Dance (a lengthier transcription of the Arabian music from Tchaikovsky’s score.)

Balanchine made this a solo dance and one of the highlights of his version for a smoldering solo for a principal ballerina. This has an equally entrancing quality and these two make the most of it.

Balanchine was skimpy on his version of The Spanish Dance even though he has four couples animated in a stylized tarantella, with fancier footwork for the leads pair. Moscow Ballet’s duet for Boris Yastrub and Olga Aru is more interesting in its variation; this couple has wonderful presence and flair in this dance, though their technique flagged.

Moscow Ballet’s ‘Chinese Variation’ (Tea) is much more developed than Balanchine’s flash dance version with glittering repeated phrases. MB’s is much more a character dance, however un-pc with ‘Orientalism.’ Juliya Verian and (stealing the show again) Sergyl Merziyakov’s playful patterns transition steps to technically dazzling double tempo grand pirouette and razor sharp aerial splits.

The reverse is true in The Snowflake ensemble dance at the end of Act I, Moscow’s Snowflakes are exemplar of Russian ballet decorousness, whereas in Balanchine’s turns the heat way up for the Snowflake scene to cap off Act I.

Moscow Ballet’s ‘Russian Variation’ is an expanded Czardas dance with Anton Romashkevych and Anna Bogatyr in traditional Ukrainian dress exuberant in high stepping patterns. Romashkevych in robust barrel rolls and Cossack plies, around Bogatyr, who is twirling like a top. Balanchine turned this into the Candy Canes hoop dance, which is just as effective as a scene, but doesn’t have this folkloric flavor.

Mykhilo Syniavskyi and Veronika Hordina have great chemistry and refinement in the central pas deux that define their characters and unfolds in dramatic finales for both acts.

So Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker has a lot to offer in contrast to Balanchine’s distillation of Russian aesthetics. Even with techniques among this large cast erratic, particularly in the corp de ballet scenes, it should be noted that dance schools and companies in Russia have gone through drastic reduction of state sponsorship over the last 20 years and that is a classic Russian story for another cold winter’s dance night.



{photo: Thibaut Baron}

Seuls survivor
Wilma Theater
Broad & Spruce Sts. Philadelphia
Nov. 29-Dec. 11

In “Seuls” writer Harwan is so preoccupied with his 15,000 page thesis on theater and director Robert Lepage that he barely notices the odd things that are happening in his dingy hotel room- an old phone rings without being plugged in and the shadows move around on its own volition and there is even a little inside snowing. Meanwhile, Harwan is beating back loneliness of a recent breakup, arguing with his family over the phone and loosing his cool trying to track down Lepage for a vital interview. These are the peripheral plot points of in Seuls, Wajdi Mouawad’s 2008 tour de force “Seuls” currently in a limited run at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia.

Mouawad is a prolific Lebanese-Canadian playwright, actor and famed director directs himself in the play, which he performs in French with English subtitles, except when he speaks Arabic, in lines that are not translated. Mouawad’s play “Scorched” (staged at the Wilma Theater in 2009, to wide acclaim) a political drama with themes of refugee exiles and émigrés that is both timely and universal. Mouawad explores these themes in Seuls. Harwan’s father moved his family from war torn Lebanon to Canada, Harwan grapples with what was left behind and what it might mean now in various aspects of his life in his adoptive country. Seul is French meaning alone, so pluralizing it suggests that there may be more than one puzzle to solve.

Harwan cancels a visit with his father over the phone and the conversation devolves into a bitter family fight. Meanwhile Lepage is unreachable by phone and is rehearsing a new play in Russia. Harwan books a flight and at the airport he has to take a visa photo. But he receives a fateful phone call in the picture kiosk from his sister Layla that their father has had a stroke and is in a coma. Harwan goes to him and recalls places, events and images from his childhood and pivotal moments in their relationship that dredges up bitterness and the intractable bonds between father and son.

Flash forward to Europe where he has just found out that Lepage is back in Canada. Harwan takes the news well, but starts to unravel when he realizes that, on top of being stranded again, he has luggage filled with paint canisters. Meanwhile that corded phone is also in the room and it is ringing again, his sister Layla is leaving him a message about their dad on that phone that phone rings without being plugged in.

Mouawad is a consummate actor, believable in every moment over the course of two unpaused hours. Seuls will not be for everyone, as impressive this work is, it doesn’t escape a level of theatrical tedium- There are allusions to Lepage’s work and business wrangling with a publisher that strikes as filler, and way to much business with phones, computers and mobiles that hit the same notes of verisimilitude. In this ‘sixth sense’ moment, Mouawad unleashes a long visually arresting denouement.

Fortunately the play’s artistic designs rescue some of any static theatrical rhythms, chief among them Dominique Daviet’s masterful film projections in tandem with lighting design by Éric Champoux and equally compelling soundscape and original music by Michel Maurer and Michael Jon Fink. The arresting designs framed in Emmanuel Clolus’ stark set prove to be a most poetic visual template for Mouawad’s unforgettable and transformational finale.


the-unknown-kerouac-coverRediscovering Kerouac

The Library of America’s definitive collections of Jack Kerouac’s writing continue to reveal the full impact of his work on the American literary landscape. In 2012 they published a complete collection of his poetry and have followed up with “The Unknown Kerouac” a volume of previously unpublished private journals and newly translated stories written originally in French-Canadian patios, Kerouac’s first language.

By the 60s Kerouac was decidedly out of the spotlight and admitting his disdain for the “On The Road” myths that clung to him, as well as his image as the leader of the glamorous Beat generation writers. He was much more concerned about being judged on the merits of his entire literary legacy.

“The Unknown Kerouac” goes a long way in revealing the full scope of Kerouac’s artistic ambitions. Editor Todd Tietchen deftly introduces each story in context of Kerouac’s life, and details how some of these early writings anticipate his later, more famous books. Jean-Christophe Cloutier, in his introduction, explains the precision and artistry of translating the patios manuscripts.

Born Jean-Louis Kérouac in Lowell, Massachusetts in 1922, Kerouac was the second son Joseph Alcide Leon Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Levesque. His parents spoke French at home and Jack did not learn any English until he was five. Kerouac’s brother Gerald died at age ten, and the author wrote about their immutable bond in ‘Visions of Gerald.’

Jean-Louis was a star student and athlete in high school and entered Columbia in 1940, excelling in French and literature courses. He was sidelined in a football accident and a year later he was in US Navy boot camp at Newport, disastrously it turned out, sent psychiatric observation for repeated “insubordination.” During the 40s in New York, Kerouac becomes friends Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, John Holmes, Lucien Carr and other writers and poets of the so called ‘Beat Generation.’

Kerouac’s “Journal 1951″ written during his time at a Veteran’s hospital and a trove of personal he personal journals, full of full of confessionals, poems and musings and is his blueprint for the kind of American writer he wanted to be. His literary heroes included Dostoyevsky, Melville and especially Marcel Proust. Among other things, he formulates his theories of his so called ‘spontaneous’ aesthetic, inspired in part by jazz improvisation.

This volume includes the first time English translations of Kerouac’s novellas ” The Night is My Woman” (‘La Nuit est ma femme’) and “Old Bull in the Bowery” (‘Sur le chemin’). ‘Night’is exemplar of Kerouac sensualist atmospherics and visceral dialogue. “Bull” is his 1952 memoir of the “escapade of mistakes” as it recounts Kerouac and Neal Cassady as kids in 1935 along for the ride with male relatives on a desperate trip in New York. This surreal retelling stylistically is, Kerouac writes Cassady “the solution” to the Road plots.

The altogether astounding “Memory Babe,” written in 1957, is his verite memoir of his family life in Lowell, written in 1957, he summons the 13- year old Kerouac’s “Versailles of the child mind.” Tietchen rightly cites the memoir as part of Kerouac’s “comprehensive literary ethnography” of French-Canadian life of that era “mapping and preserving a lost world.”

“I Wish I Were You” is a noir portrait of his New York contemporaries in the 40s was published posthumously in 2008. It is his first portrait of what Kerouac’s “found” generation of New York Bohemia. Startling in its psychosexual frankness, Kerouac rewrote the 40s version he co-authored with William Burroughs.

This new collection is an essential volume for Kerouac fans, for those who have only read his most famous book; this volume is a chance to rediscover a brilliant writer before, during and after that mythic trip On the Road.

Todd Tietchen, editor, Jean-Christophe Cloutier, translator


RIZZO  by Bruce Graham

directed by Joe Canuso


Theater Exile & Philadelphia Theatre Company

Suzanne Roberts Theatre, extended through Oct. 23

“Love me or hate me… you will never forget me.” So promised legendary Philly mayor Frank Rizzo used at a climatic end line Bruce Graham’s bio-play Rizzo.  Indeed, Rizzo’s rep lives on. At the 2016 Dem Convention in Philadelphia, members of Black Lives Matter placed a KKK hood over the Rizzo statue near City Hall to remind all what Rizzo represented to Philly’s African American population.

Rizzo premiered last year at Theater Exile and the revival with the same cast co-presented at The Roberts Theater by Philadelphia Theater Company.  The Mummers were in the lobby posing with former mayor Ed Rendell, who recounted a few stories about being DA under Rizzo before the play.

As police chief Rizzo was a flashpoint of racial and minority divides and his police state tactics continued when he became mayor.  White majority voters of the time elected him twice to ‘clean up the city’ and shut down crime, despite his own infamous scandals, like his lie-detector stunt which proved he lied, his flagrant cronyism and other abuses of office.

Graham’s explores the dualities of Rizzo’s character as well as the good, bad and ugly of Rizzo’s political life.  RIZZO debuted at Theater Exile last, directed by Joe Canuso and starring Scott Greer as Frank and Damon Bonetti as a political writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer who covered Rizzo’s years in office.

The story is told in flashback as Rizzo is mounting his 3rd term bid for office. Rizzo tries is muscling a police officer to swear an affidavit that he saw his opponent Ron Castille drunk and out of control. The highs and lows of his career are depicted in flashbacks about his life growing up in South Philly, becoming a beat cop, then police commissioner, and then twice mayor.

‘The showdowns in black neighborhoods, his routine raids on gay bars and hauling in “faggots” in Center City.  He calls on unions to shut down the Philadelphia Inquirer to prevent papers getting out an unflattering story. His enemies list and his publicity stunts to a lie detector test and Rizzo is exposed. Meanwhile, his affability in many neighborhoods and his personal touch out of the public arena, kept him in power.

Graham covers these episodes, many of them ‘told’ rather than ‘shown’, some with more fluency and dramatic fire than others, more consistently interesting is the private man. Graham builds a portrait of Rizzo as not just political myopic, but a man of uncontrolled impulses, private doubts and not to mention an untamable mouth.

One of the strongest scenes is the newly appointed Police commissioner being dressed down by his father, a beat cop, for using bullying tactics, including striking a “hooker” and giving her stitches.   And all too brief scenes with his wife Carmela.  His chess game with the reporter, also in clipped scenes, is eclipsed by big events.  So Graham constructs an erratic theatrical arc. But, they don’t overshadow the play’s many strengths, starting with a great cast.

Director Canuso keeps everything moving with invention and but Graham’s over use of characters describing action, rather than dialogue scenes, but the cast ably glides through some heavy handed monologues.

Damon Bonetti, in a largely narrating role, until the second act, brings wit and naturalism to this old –style nice guy reporter who still keeps digging until he has the real story.   Amanda Schoonover plays all the women’s roles, most impressive in her instant range from the protective Carmela Rizzo to Shelly Yanoff who took Rizzo on by gathering petitions for an election recall of his win.

All of the supporting players Steven Wright, Robert DaPonte, Paul L. Nolan, William Rahill juggling also juggling multiple roles with ensemble ease.  Wright a standout in his wry portrait of black civic leader Cecile B. Moore who goes head to head with Rizzo over the strife he causes in North Philly.

But the night belongs to Scott Greer, a fine musical theater actor, a five time Barrymore Award winner adds another portrait of flawless performances of a complex man.  His Frank accent perfect, without trying to imitate Rizzo, and embodies the image and conveys the inner turmoil of his many masks.