Tag Archives: Carnegie Hall

Once upon a concert

“Guess what Lizabeth is doing this evening?” My husband greeted me with the question after I got home from a day spent at the Arizona Humanities Festival in downtown Phoenix. Earlier in the week, our youngest daughter lamented being bored. “She lives in Manhattan,” James mused at the time, “and she can’t find anything to do.”

Of course, there’s always something happening in New York City. The trick is making it in Manhattan on a college student’s budget, and Lizabeth has long been mindful of the fact that money doesn’t grow on trees. She called home while I was out to ask about getting tickets for the nosebleed section of a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Lizabeth called home after the concert too, eager to talk with us about her adventure. This was about 10:30pm our time, one of many clues that Lizabeth is adapting to life in the “city that never sleeps.”

She’d jumped a subway to make the trek from her university near the World Trade Center to the 59th Street/Columbus Street station – putting her near Columbus Circle, where big names in protest music had performed “We Shall Overcome” for “Occupy Wall Street” demonstrators just a day before.

When I mentioned Pete Seeger’s participation in the march to Columbus Circle, Lizabeth noted that she’d seen Seeger-related materials while exploring some exhibits before taking her seat for the show. Seems one of Seeger’s most famous solo concerts took place at Carnegie Hall exactly thirty years to the day before Lizabeth, our youngest, was born.

Her favorite finds at the Rose Museum and Archive included a baton used by conductor Leonard Bernstein, a scarf worn by dancer Isadora Duncan and eyeglasses worn by singer Ella Fitzgerald. Also a signed photo of George Gershwin, a record signed by Judy Garland, a program signed by Luciano Pavarotti and a program signed by all four Beatles. 

Liz was thrilled to meet Audra McDonald in NYC

Lizabeth was at Carnegie Hall that evening to hear Audra McDonald, who’ll perform the role of Bess in “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” which begins previews at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Dec. 17. Somehow we’d missed her performance at last year’s “ARTrageous” event at Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts.

I love talking with Lizabeth after she’s experienced a performance. She observes and describes them with what I’ve always considered a writer’s eye, though it’s clearly part of the acting craft as well – something Lizabeth is studying at Pace University. She started by telling me about McDonald’s stunning midnight blue gown, and shared that catching her first glimpse of McDonald on stage brought tears to her eyes.

Lizabeth started voice lessons several years ago, studying first with Toby Yatso – one of her beloved theater teachers at Arizona School for the Arts. He’d encouraged her to listen to McDonald’s recordings, and shared his love along the way for all things Audra. The majesty of her first Carnegie Hall experience left Lizabeth remembering Yatso, one of many teachers who helped her make all those dreams of studying acting in New York a reality.

Lizabeth stayed after the show for an hour or so, waiting by the stage door to tell McDonald how much she enjoyed the performance — eager to tell her about Yatso’s devotion to her work and the way she’d felt moved by that evening’s performance.

But a group of women, “groupies” in a not-so-lovely sense of the word, pushed their way past others waiting patiently in line — only to position themselves directly in front of the stage door, “practically jumping on McDonald” as she exited with her young daughter after the show.

Lizabeth was hoping to chat briefly with McDonald, but decided by the time they met, that keeping it brief would be best. She asked for two autographs — one for Yatso and another for herself — and accepted when McDonald graciously offered to pose with her for a photo. Lizabeth told me she thought it better to let McDonald’s daughter get home to bed than to keep her any longer.

Lizabeth thanked McDonald for making time to meet and greet the folks who’d come to hear her sing that evening, then hopped a subway back to her dorm — where foot blisters from all that NYC walking got bandaged as a proud mama relished telephone time with a daughter making all kinds of strides in the world.

– Lynn

Note: Click here to enjoy a recent NPR interview with Audra McDonald, here to read a review of the concert written by Stephen Holden of The New York Times and here to visit McDonald’s Facebook page. Click here to learn more about this year’s “ARTrageous” event in Scottsdale.

Coming up: Local stage offerings from Shakespeare to Disney

So what if she can’t sing?

Phoenix Theatre had a good crowd for Sunday evening’s performance of “Glorious,” a play based on the true story of a woman named Florence Foster Jenkins whose massacre of musical stylings during the early- to mid-1900s led her, and a loyal band of friends, marching triumphantly all the way to a sold-out vocal performance at Carnegie Hall.

It’s not surprising since the reviews of “Glorious” have been justifiably good, and I’ve never really seen anything but a full house at this venue. Phoenix Theatre has their own band of followers whose loyalty is consistently earned with brilliant show selections and bold performances.

I was there as part of parent night for Arizona School for the Arts, a charter school whose theater students (including my youngest daughter) benefit from training with the theater’s artists and other professionals.

“Glorious” doesn’t make my list of favorite works, but that has nothing to do with the Phoenix Theatre production. I left glad I’d experienced it, in no small measure because of their casting choices. Each of the six actors made their roles sing (singing, of course, is a relative term given the subject matter of this piece). When I say sing here, I mean it in a good way, not a garish one.

There’s no room for error when there are only six of you (plus one stuffed animal prone to perilous poses) on a small stage with just a handful of set pieces and props—velvety drapes in seafoam green, a shiny black piano, a couch coupled with a chair, vases brimming with flowers and a tea cart that does double duty when it’s time to wheel the dead dog to his grave.

I was most intrigued by the couch. It reminded me of a near-contemporary of Jenkins (1868-1944)—the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939). As written, this piece is a sweet and charming look at our “sometimes follies, but ever friends” lives. I wanted it to be so much more.

We see Jenkins’ intimate circle of companions—an out-of-work actor, an effusive and flamboyant friend, and a naughty-in-ways-she-never-suspects piano player—support her unfailingly at every turn. It’s endearing. But something is missing: the why.

We discover the motive behind Jenkins’ unflinching loyalty to music and its muse. Simply put—father issues. But we never learn why Jenkins commands such loyalty from others. It appears to be something much more than her wealth. But what then?

Her childlike spirit? Her optimism? Her dedication to her art? I felt myself wanting to know much more about the people in her life—how they got there and why they stayed. And I got to wondering whether there isn’t a little bit of Jenkins in us all.

If circumstances allowed you to follow your dreams unfettered, would you do it? At what point would naysayers nix your plans? Would you inspire others to take the journey with you, as did Jenkins—or simply brave it alone?

Would you want your friends to behave any differently than Jenkins’ friends? Would you really want to be told that the gifts you see in yourself are mere figments of your imagination?

Would you listen to the voice in your own head or the voices of others?

This is precisely the choice Jenkins has to make when a critic makes her way onstage during Jenkins’ Carnegie Hall concert and suggests with little tact that talent will never trespass on the stage so long as Jenkins sings upon it.

I enjoyed my journey from Jenkins’ parlor at home to that final concert she gave just one month and one day before her death. Along the way, there was a happy parade of lighthearted one-liners with lovely laughter and a testament to the power of authenticity to attract and engage others.

Jenkins’ pianist, Cosme McMoon, might have had bigger dreams most nights he accompanied her. But at the end of the night, he never regretted being there.

–Lynn

Note: Phoenix Theatre presents “Glorious” through Jan. 24th. To order tickets, call 602-254-2151.

Ring in a glorious new year

For days the airwaves have been full of year and century in review perspectives. I never thought I’d say this, but I’m practically pining for some of those American Idol misfits. I’m tired of Tiger’s trysts, Blogojevich’s banter and Sanford’s shenanigans. I miss the good old days, when William Hung sang She Bangs, when Sanjaya Malakar sported a mohawk, when Nicole Tieri gave us “scooter girl.”

I could hold out for the premiere of American Idol’s ninth season, coming to Fox television Jan. 12th and 13th, but I just can’t wait that long to get my idol fix. Instead, I’ll be enjoying opening night of Phoenix Theatre’s production of Glorious, a musical about a “wanna-be” idol from a bygone era whose self-certainty might rival that of Adam Lambert, runner up for American Idol’s eighth season.

Glorious recounts the musical misadventures of wealthy American widow and socialite Florence Foster Jenkins, who lived from 1868 to 1944. It’ll be a refreshing change from media too mesmerized by the pseudo-celebrities of our own day and age, whose only claim to fame is fame. After speaking with Glorious cast member Toby Yatso, who plays Jenkins’ pianist Cosme McMoon, I expect to discover something infinitely more complex in Jenkins than in the subjects of so many of our modern day tell-alls.

Yatso, by the way, was recently honored with a 2008-2009 AriZoni Award for best principal actor in a musical with a contracted theater for his portrayal of Leo Bloom in Phoenix Theatre’s production of The Producers. I don’t yet have a full roster of the cast for Glorious, but knowing Phoenix Theatre, there’s not a mediocre one in the bunch. If I recorded here all the accolades and awards they’ve received through the years, you’d be reading well into 2011. (It’s enough for me to know that neither Carrie Prejean nor Kanye West will be anywhere in sight on opening night.)

If you attended the late night version of Phoenix Theatre’s production of The 35th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (sponsored by Echo Magazine), you know that a naughty word or two can sometimes slip into one of their productions. (In all fairness, however, they make it well known when profanity might be paramount.) Yet Glorious, quips Yatso, is almost annoyingly devoid of innuendo.

The good news, of course, is that Glorious is appropriate for audiences of all ages. Imagine the conversations that might result from three generations in one family seeing the show together. The piece is full of World War II references—and I can’t imagine a better bridge for older generations sharing reflections with younger ones who might otherwise never discuss this period in our nation’s history.

Yatso notes that although Glorious is set in the 1940s, “the story is so current.” Like today’s “reality show culture,” Glorious makes us wonder what it really takes to be a star. Is it talent? Is it chutzpah? Does it really matter? In the absence of talent, does something else give a person star quality—and is that okay? Apparently Jenkins was devoid of talent but drowning in ego. How then, you might wonder, does she make it all the way to Carnegie Hall?

Ours is a culture, reflects Yatso, that can’t look away from a human train wreck. We know it’s wrong, but something compels us nonetheless. Candidates for a modern day train wreck award might include Kate and Jon Gosselin, Nadya Suleman, or Richard and Mayumi Heene. (The fact that you may not recognize these folks without their media monikers is further proof of their depersonalization as they lay on our tracks.) “Jenkins,” says Yatso, “is one of these people but in the 30s and 40s.”

Still, Yatso’s admiration for Jenkins seems strong. He describes her as a philanthropist, influential in New York society circles, who did about as many things as a woman could do during that era. “She was just such a robust woman,” he says. The complexity of her character, and Yatso’s enthusiasm for it, leave me genuinely intrigued. A show like this—so off our everyday radar yet so steeped in the issues of our day—doesn’t come around that often.

It sounds like a glorious way to ring in the New Year…

–Lynn

Note: If you have art-related topics you’d like to see covered here, please comment below with your ideas and suggestions. Thanks!