Sunday, November 20, 2016

Stellar Strauss

Klein floors at the WSO

By Lily Olason

This afternoon, the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra unveiled their second show of the season. On the marquee:  Beethoven’s Pastorale.

Maestro Yaniv Attar noted that because Beethoven’s work is so reliant on the oboe, the program had to pair it with Strauss’ iconic homage to the instrument, Oboe Concerto in D Major. To give this work life, the WSO welcomed renowned oboist Alex Klein.

Klein has an incredible story of strength and resolve: after a virtuosic childhood catapulted him into several professional Brazilian orchestras, he studied at the Oberlin Conservatory and became principal oboe of the Chicago Symphony by age 30. Nine years later, a neurological disorder put his career on hold. This June, however, he returned to the group and resumed his place as principal.

Klein’s work on this piece was nothing short of operatic. His remarkably pure tone swelled through Strauss’ demanding intervals, sprinkling sugar over complex and infinite ups-and-downs. The balance between strings and solo was precise, and Klein’s conversation with flute, clarinet, oboe, and bassoon joyously jig-sawed. His pauses, holds, and stops left us in suspension, stranded in space—only to be picked up again by the next vibrating measure. Scales where furiously, determinedly, attended to; lulling lengths were drawn with a soft brush. Throughout, tranquility threaded, and as technically demanding as the work was, Klein guided it masterfully. The audience was left in silent awe— until the standing ovation.

After intermission, the Orchestra took on Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 “Pastorale” (or, “Beethoven’s Sixth” for short). To Attar, this is the composer’s most melodically compelling work: the five-movement megalith gorgeously mirrors nature. Hopping, skipping, jumping clarinet, oboe, flute, and bassoon tied together and apart to form refractions of spring and summer; horn shimmered and guided passages to valiant heights, while trumpet cut through to blazing, fiery crescendos. A hush, then massive storminess erupted, playing to this Orchestra’s strengths: they can carry the massive and demanding as easily as the soft, the sweet.

Each measure sharply attended and translated with raw beauty, the dynamic, whirring movements flew by.  This is something you notice again and again at the WSO: there is a care, a place, for every note.

This afternoon’s concert was a beauty. But that should come as no surprise.

The next gig is the WSO’s annual Holiday Concert on December 4th,  featuring the Bellingham and Whatcom Chorales. The show also includes a screening of the perennial holiday favorite, The Snowman. Kids are encouraged to wear their finest PJ-attire—hot cocoa and marshmallows will be the intermission’s nosh. Visit the WSO’s website for more information and to buy tickets.

Don’t miss out!

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Blazing good show

Weed works wonders at FKP

By Lily Olason

Free Key Productions tags its newest baby, Seeds of Change, with “It’s 4:20. Do you know where your best buds are?” In this case, it's the Mount Baker Theatre. Veteran Bellingham thespian Christopher Key leads a lightning cast to comedic perfection in this tale of love, loss, and herbal remedy.

The show pits three squeaky-clean, perennially moralistic Nazarene minister’s daughters against mystery seeds from Idaho. Sister Joy—suffering from Alzheimer’s and new to a national gardener’s seed exchange—is exuberant at the proposition: she can make anything that will grow, grow. And boy, does she. The plants flower into an enormous, odoriferous grow-op on the terrace of her retirement community apartment.

Craig Rickett’s script drips with humor and the writing is organic and absorbing. Key’s cast is tightknit, fiery, and quick on their feet; watching them ricochet this dialog back and forth is a dream.

Photo credit - Jessica Drake

Judith Owens-Lancaster gives a riotous performance as Joy. Her humor is dead-on—whether singing Hallelujah Chorus after a rapturous experience with a “special” brownie, to tirades on Bill Clinton and “wine-swilling Catholics.“ Her interactions with Kit Vonnegut, who plays the newcomer down the hall, are cut-up and how her sisters deal with it all, equally golden.

Photo credit - Jessica Drake

Chastity is given great life by Tonja Myers. Keeping a church mission afloat, corralling an ex-convict cook (Glen Nelson Bristow), reminding her sister who the newcomer down the hall is, and tracing excerpts from The Joy of Sex, Myers magnificently makes the role with equally droll humor and glassine delivery. Best example? Her prison-related breakdown at the end of Act I.

Photo credit - Jessica Drake

Faith is played with a sharp and lovely charm by Karen Edland. Sick of cloistering in near-Nazarene nunnery, she finds love down the hall with new neighbor, Patrick. Watching her devolve (evolve?) from the moral high ground to the much-more-fun, wine drinking, swearing, promiscuous middle is a riot because she’s such an endearing performer.

Photo credit - Beth Vonnegut

Kit Vonnegut plays ex-cop and newcomer down the hall, Patrick, perfectly. He can put Boy Scouts in a headlock and woo women with wit in a snap of the fingers; his timing is spot-on and the rapport with Edland, Myers, and Owens-Lancaster diverse and hilariously surprising. Oh, and he dubs the incessant helicopter buzzing around the complex as an envoy of the DEA, sending the cast into mass

Photo credit - Jessica Drake

TJ Anderson plays the best future-Eagle-Scout you’ll ever see. His eager demeanor is lovingly Labradorean and his delivery and timing razor sharp. Don’t let the Scout uniform fool you: his chops are hewn from steel.

Photo credit - Jessica Drake

Glen Nelson Bristow is Reggie, the ex-convict cook who harvests the ensuing buds and makes an ironic profit for the mission. Bristow plays the role like old-timey gangster, and his delivery is consistently hilarious. Interactions with Anderson are a hoot and he plays the character arc with a magnificent refinement.

Bottom line: Seeds of Change is a side-splitter.  The cast is a gifted, perceptive constellation of comedians and that makes for a beautiful, engrossing show.

Catch it while you can! It plays Saturday the 5th and Sunday the 6th at 2:00 and 7:30 at the Mount Baker’s Walton Theatre. Visit Free Key Productions for more info and the Mount Baker Theatre's website to buy tickets online. PSA: though it's decidedly non-kid friendly, the adults will whoop it up. Don't forget to fall back on Sunday!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

It was a very good year

Porter and the WSO play Tchaikovsky ‘78

By Lily Olason

This afternoon, the forty-first season of the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra kicked off to the rapturous tune of Tchaikovsky. In fact, it was “All Tchaikovsky.” Maestro Yaniv Attar selected, for the first and second halves of the show, two of the composer’s greatest works: Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35 featuring nineteen-year-old soloist Simone Porter, and Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op 36.

Both written in 1878 (Attar: “a good year for him”), the works exhibit the breadth of Tchaikovsky’s prolific range—the swelling, orbital highs of Violin Concerto contrast in sharp relief with the pulsing, punctuating passages of Symphony No. 4.

Attar described Violin Concerto as “inhumane” to the soloist and I have to agree. The sheer volume of notes compounds on itself, their paths intersecting above and below and across, pin-balling around the neck, floating, then suddenly opaque. In his program notes, Dr. Ryan Dudenbostel recounts Leopold Auer (the violinist for whom the solo was written) denouncing the piece as “unplayable,” along with a stream of bad receptions and ill-executed performances that sent the piece into relative obscurity. Fortunately for us, its notoriety has since picked up.

In her precision, Ms. Porter tests the knowledge of adjectives—the closest ones that come to mind are “phenomenal,” “electrifying,” “jaw-dropping,” and “superb.” Throughout, stratospheric passages melted into softness, Porter’s spherical tone sending notes dissipating gently into the ether before arriving on the next measure. And after rests, entrances were feathers dropping into water, concentric rings drifting out across the theater; one moment it was explosive, rapid, the next weightless, calm. With her tireless, gorgeous accuracy, Porter faithfully, creatively, translated the ink for us.

Three movements later, naturally, came the standing O.  

After intermission, Attar gave a brief introduction to Symphony No. 4. Heavily influenced by Beethoven, Tchaikovsky incorporated flavor of the famous “fates” motif from his Fifth Symphony into his own work. A resounding, rhythmic return threads throughout the piece as it wends through movements soft and big.

The orchestra did marvelous work interpreting the chaotic and the tranquil, the forceful and the light in this master of the western repertoire. The enormous, four-movement piece showcased the gifts this orchestra has-- immense, thundering percussion, cutting, fearless brass, the collaboration of melody and counterpoint and the wonderful interpretation of microscopic, Tchaikovsky-ian embellishments. Folding impeccable solos (flute and oboe especially) and the technically demanding into the detailed tapestry of this work, the WSO reminded us once again why they are as fantastically good as they are and how lucky we are to have them.

 The WSO’s next gig is November 20th, featuring oboist Alex Klein and Beethoven’s Pastorale.  Visit the WSO’s website to learn more and to purchase tickets. Don’t miss out—if today was any indication, this season’s going to rock.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Vote early and often

Henderson/Bray 2016!
by Christopher Key

Politics, it is said, is not a game for gentlemen.  It’s certainly true of our current election cycle, regardless of whom you support.  Scott Henderson and Martin Bray are gentlemen of the highest caliber and have put their reputations at risk with their latest opus “Broadway Takes On Politics,” opening Thursday at The Firehouse Performing Arts Center in Fairhaven.  Fear not.  They put politics through the grinder of American Musical Theatre and the only winner is the audience.

“When we started writing this last March,” Henderson said by way of introduction, “we had no idea what this election year was going to be like.”  That deadpan bit of humor immediately got a round of applause from the audience and he needed to say no more.

Some of us remember a kinder, gentler America.  And then we remember a politician, or at least his writer, came up with that.  Broadway has always been a large part of that rose-tinted vision and a few rousing choruses help heal the current pain.

Applying the balm are six of Bellingham’s best polit…umm…actors.  It’s become difficult to tell the difference since the B-movie President, but actors only lie when they’re getting paid to do so.  Pay Scott, Martin, Martha Benedict, Paul Henderson II, Akilah Williams and Jenny Woods with your laughter and applause.  And I promise you…oh, hell…go see for yourself.

In collaboration with the Bellingham Music Club, Henderson has become Bellingham’s Broadway Impresario.  The former CEO of the Whatcom Symphony seems to have a bottomless well of imagination from which he slakes our thirst for singin’, dancin’, actin’ and occasionally all three at the same time.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

His henchman, Martin Bray, helps write and contributes some memorable choreography.  Bray is what’s known in the trade as a “hoofer,” an old-school song-and-dance man.  I could watch him dance forever.  The occasional mad glint in his eye is the result of having taught kindergarten for 34 years.  And lived!

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Narrating the evening is the inimitable, the hostess with the mostess, Martha Benedict.  She exudes showbiz glamour the way politicians exude slime.  Naturally.  That smoky voice and brassy presence have highlighted all of these revues and remind us of something politicians will never have.  Magic.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Paul Henderson II must be something special or I wouldn’t have cast him in so many of my shows.  He’s a five-tool actor.  He can act, sing, dance…I forget what the other two are, but he can do them.  If we didn’t have Hendu around, we’d have to invent him.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

A while back on Facebook, I quoted that old baseball saw “It ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.”  Akilah Williams, whose wit is as dazzling as her voice, immediately responded, “You got something against fat ladies singing?”  “No ma’am,” I said and slunk off into cyberspace.  Not everyone gets that kind of respect from me.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

What would a political revue be without the All-American Girl?  I suspect Jenny Woods may be getting tired of that image, but I swear Norman Rockwell painted her.  Long blonde hair, innocent (relatively) blue eyes and she takes her pom-poms to bed every night.  Woods is a very smart performer, and milks it for all it’s worth.  Hey, it worked for Marilyn.

If you’ve been around long enough to remember Mamie Eisenhower, you’ll know costumer Genny Cohn stole that hat from the Smithsonian.  Tanner Hanson pushes the photons and nobody does it better.

“Broadway Takes On Politics” plays October 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m.; October 8 at 3:00 and 7:30 p.m. and The Firehouse couldn’t be a more perfect venue.  They are very close to sold out in this small house, so get your tickets at Brown Paper Tickets or Village Books.  If you wait until you get to the door, you’ll be sorrier than when you voted for Ralph Nader.

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Friday, September 23, 2016

The eyes have it

BTG opens 88th on the road
by Christopher Key

When you’re 88 years old, you can be excused if you need a bit of work.  The Bellingham Theatre Guild’s building is 114 years old and it’s getting a lot of work.  Does anyone remember how long the BTG has been talking about putting in an elevator?  I recently had the chance to talk to Monta Wagar, who has been around the BTG since God was in short pants, and she guessed at least 40 years.  Well, the dream is finally coming true, but the building is in intensive care and the opening show of the 88th season takes place on the road.

Yes, I know, you want read about the show, but I have to explain why it’s taking place at Whatcom Community College’s Heiner Center instead of the hallowed halls of H Street.  Good Lord willin’ and the crick don’t rise, the shiny new elevator and the massive new foundation will be ready for the holiday show.  Meanwhile, WCC was gracious enough to host the opening show and most of the proceeds are going to support the work of the YWCA.  Which brings us to the subject of women, which is what Love, Loss and What I Wore is all about.

Given how elaborate a BTG show usually is, director Les Campbell made a wise choice by presenting this show as an enhanced staged reading.  And the stage at the Heiner Center is perfect for that kind of minimalist approach.  The script, by two of the funniest women who ever lived, Nora and Delia Ephron, also works well in this format.  So you have five women sitting before mikes for most of the show.  But what women they are! 

Photo credit - David Cohn

Deb Currier, Mish Criz, Kari Severns, Cary Thomas and Beth Wallace could do a staged reading of Pilgrim’s Progress and make it both fascinating and funny.  When they take on an Ephron script, they achieve escape velocity.  Not all actors are capable of doing a staged reading.  You have your voice and your face and that’s it.  These actors all have fabulous voices, but I was watching their eyes.  They know how to work it.  Those eyes can be innocent, flirtatious, salacious, mendacious, furious, weeping or laughing.  Or any combination of the above.  But they often speak louder than the words and that’s consummate talent.

I don’t always agree with the play selection committee at the BTG, but they did it right with this one.  A perfect choice to open the season, a perfect choice for a show that is not in the usual place and a perfect showcase for some of Bellingham’s best.  They dish on everything from training bras to tampons.  The women in the audience were howling and the men were laughing nervously.  It’s OK, guys.  This is not a feminist show, it’s a humanist show.  But it will make you squirm on occasion and that’s what good theatre does.

A staged reading does not demand as much technical wizardry as a full production, but WCC’s resident magician, Russ Nelson, deserves a bow for the flawless sound and subtle lighting effects.

Love, Loss and What I Wore plays through October 2 and there are no stairs to climb at Heiner.  See the BTG website for precise dates and time.  While you’re there, you can score tickets or you can call (360) 733-1811.  This show is festival seating and you’d better get after it because opening night was sold out.

Listen to your Mother!

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Friday, September 9, 2016

Double Shot

Opera Popolare does twice the magic

By Lily Olason

The mission of Opera Popolare is “to give opera to the people.” I like this idea.

Last night, the selection was Opera Latte, all focused on—to the great excitement of this Northwesterner—coffee. Split between two works, “La Serva Padrona (Mistress Maid)” and “Coffee Cantata,” the performance showcases some fierce talent, glassine vocals, and the import of a certain caffeinated beverage.

In Pergolesi’s “La Serva Padrona,” a once-orphaned maid raised by a benevolent doctor orchestrates a plan to marry him. Wendy Donaghy plays the scheming and lackadaisical employee, Zerbina, with humor and charm. Oh, and she sings like a bird. Her vibrato is clear as glass, trills fall in splendidly even measure, and she leaps into the highest high notes with ease and accuracy.

Photo credit - Celie Thomas

Her potential husband and boss, Dr. Pandolfo, is played by John Poppke. Poppke has an operatic command of character and voice—his well done, guy-in-charge-of-stuff air is complimented by a baritone that oscillates from soft and sweet to strong.  

Meanwhile, Christopher Key plays mute, drink-loving servant Scapin with a fierce kick of old-Hollywood humor. He crashes, dances, dashes in and out of the audience, on the stage, into tables. He’s survived collisions with all the furniture on stage and still manages to stay upright for the rest of it. Also note his A+ Bulgarian soldier.

In “Coffee Cantata,” Lizzie (Caitlin Hill) and dad Schlendrian (Tristan Wine) work out their parent vs. teen troubles to the sonorous setting of J.S. Bach. Teen Lizzie suffers from both a consuming caffeine and habit: box after box of coffee accouterment arrives at the front door (thanks to narrator Lesley Rigg), and an infinite stream of coffee fills her rotating collection of mugs. Dad commands, begs, bribes her to stop. The deal? A husband. It’s all very baroque.

Photo credit - Christopher Key

Except, Lizzie writes into her marriage contract that her groom-to-be has to let her brew the stuff as she pleases.

Hill has the kind of voice that shines silver and her scaling, stratospheric range rings the room round. It’s crystalline and gorgeous and full; a treat. Dad Wine anchors with a booming and beautiful baritone, balancing with Hill in song, even-keeled, as each climb dizzying, vibrant heights.

Wearing several other hats including stage and musical direction, Rob Viens leads the orchestra on keyboards and conducting.  The music, supplied by Laura Barnes and John Tilley on violin, Jane Perkins on viola, and Adrienne Syverston on cello, is incredibly well executed and lays an unshakeable foundation for the work.

Of course, this kind of show can’t be done without a magnificent behind-the-scenes team. Ann Balfour, resident props and stage management hero, was seen adjusting the set at intermission with speed, skill, and precision. Celie Thomas is the producer, and the production was excellent.

Opera Popolare tells us something important about opera: anyone, everyone, can love it. This is one of many lovely things about living here—the arts are for all. You just have to come to a show.

Opera Latte runs Friday the ninth through Sunday the eleventh in the Walton Theatre at the Mount Baker Theatre. There are evening performances at 7:30 on Friday and Saturday, and matinees at 3 on Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $15, and you can buy them on the Mount Baker Theatre website. You can also find more info on the Opera Popolare site.

Don't miss out!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Anyone for time travel?

Mind-blowing Pericles at Bard
by Christopher Key

OK, so there are two must-see productions at Bard on the Beach this year and the second one is also on the Howard Family Stage.  If the name of Pericles director Lois Anderson seems familiar, it’s because she’s been an onstage favorite for years.  Anderson also knows how to make an entrance as a director and her first effort is going to be tough to top.

The sheer amount of work Anderson put in on this adaptation is evident in her Director’s Notes wherein she cites everyone from Joseph Campbell to Euripedes to George Lucas.  Another indication of hard work and attention to detail is how much time she and the techies must have spent together.

How often have you heard an audience at a Shakespeare festival spontaneously break into applause at some wizardly feat of stage magic?  It happened several times on opening night and that means the backstage geniuses get first billing.

Photo credit - David Blue

Anderson not only borrows a speech from Euripedes, but much of the classical Greek dramatic form.  That demands some vocal acrobatics from the actors and Alison Matthews coaches them very well.  There are ghostly presences whose statuesque appearance is thanks to an unnamed makeup artist and Marie Le Bihan, in charge of wig construction.

This production is marvelously mystical, somewhat reminiscent of The Tempest and time is somewhat fluid as we travel forward and back.  That required a lot of creativity from Costume Designer Carmen Alatorre and it shows in every stitch.

I’ve never been able to discern very clearly the fine line between choreography and movement.  But I know it when I see it and the atmospheric movement in this play springs from the fertile imagination of Wendy Gorling.

None of this would work without close attention to scenic design.  Amir Ofek delivers a set that you’ll want to explore carefully before the show begins in order to appreciate the attention to detail.  Tip of the fedora to Indiana Jones.

Photo credit - David Blue

Even though the oft-underappreciated backstage barbarians steal this one, there are also some actors who contribute mightily and endure some serious staging challenges.  The title role is played Kaymar Pazandeh who runs away with Rookie of the Year honors.  

Photo credit - David Blue

David Warburton is appropriately Obi-wan Kenobish as Cerimon, a healer and tour guide on the side. 

Photo credit - David Blue

Pericles' long-lost daughter Marina is portrayed by Luisa Jojic, who spreads purity and innocence like an STD.  She even has weird hair like Princess Leia.

One of the reasons the Douglas Campbell Theatre occupies a special place in my heart is because that’s where I get to see those rarely-produced, non-canonical works.  Thanks to an informative Bard program, I now know that scholars consider the first nine scenes of Pericles to have been written by George Wilkins while ‘ol Bill is responsible for the rest.  Lay that one on ‘em at Trivia Tuesday!  All of the Bard shows live up to their rep, but Pericles is the cherry on top of this sundae of a season.

Pericles plays in repertory with Othello under the Bard on the Beach tents at Vancouver, BC’s, lovely Vanier Park.  The drive and the border hassles are all worth it and you can see the schedule and score tickets at the Bard website.

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