Thursday, April 30, 2015

Broadway Extravaganza 2014

Hi everyone,

Last fall, I planned a solo Broadway Extravaganza Weekend. At first, I was only going to New York to see Cabaret on my birthday, but when I moved the trip to October, all the stars aligned and descended on Broadway. So, I couldn't help tacking on three more shows. This whirlwind of entertainment brought out my love for theatre in full force. (The 2015 Tony Award nominations were announced this week, so I'm very timely, just seven months after the fact.) Here's the rundown.

The River, Royal Court Theatre Production, Circle on the Square, October 31, 2014

I fell pretty hard for Hugh Jackman after seeing him in his Tony-winning performance as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz in 2004. Who knew Wolverine could be charming, sing, and dance? I next saw him on Broadway in 2009 in A Steady Rain, a gritty drama costarring Daniel Craig. When I read that Hugh Jackman planned to return to Broadway in another drama last year, I bought my ticket without reading much about the plot.

The River, a new one-act play by Jez Butterworth, is about a guy who loves to fish and his two girlfriends. It takes place in the man's cabin, close to where the fishing is good. After the play was over, I heard a few people exclaim how amazing it was, but most of the people around me were bewildered. As we exited the theatre, a lady in front of me turned around and asked anyone who would listen, "Who was the woman with the scratched out face? What did it mean? Do you know?"

This play seemed purposefully confusing to spark this kind of conversation afterward. For example, Hugh Jackman's character (The Man) started one scene with Cush Jumbo (The Woman), who then walked into the bedroom off stage. Then, Laura Donnelly (The Other Woman) came out of the supposed bedroom, continuing the conversation but within a different context. They were actually talking about something else at a different time. Although nothing was ever quite clear, the play was cleverly written and entertaining. During the show, I kept making up scenarios that explained what it all meant. Maybe the first woman represents a new relationship and the other one represents a past one. Maybe he killed one of them, and her scenes are memories. I kept waiting for something sinister to happen that never did.

Cush Jumbo and Hugh Jackman 
The acting in this play made it worth it. Only Hugh Jackman could keep our full attention while talking about fish and fishing or sustaining a lengthy scene alone, preparing a fish dinner in silence – gutting the fish, cutting up veggies, putting everything in a pan and in an oven. (We didn't get to eat it.) I wondered if I'd be bored if an unknown actor was doing the same thing, but this play's other two cast members were unknown to me and yet equally fantastic.  

Someone responded to the frustrated lady's questions with what she thought everything meant, clearing it up for us with an explanation that never occurred to me: Hugh Jackman's character is a sleazy, shallow guy with commitment issues. Have I mentioned that Hugh Jackman is a really great actor?

Cabaret, Roundabout Theatre Company, Studio 54, November 1, 2014

I've seen Bob Fosse's 1972 movie version of Cabaret, starring Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, so many times that I've hesitated seeing it live on stage, directed and performed by other people. This production, however, excited me with director Sam Mendes, co-director and choreographer Rob Marshall, and stars Alan Cumming and Michelle Williams. (This revival was a close copy of the 1998 Broadway production, which also starred Alan Cumming as the Kit Kat Club's emcee.)

Cabaret is based on a book by Christopher Isherwood about the Nazis' rise to power in Berlin in 1931. The story involves Kit Kat Club cabaret singer Sally Bowles (Michelle Williams) and her relationship with a young writer (Bill Heck). In a side story, their landlady and her Jewish beau share a doomed romance. The actors who played these roles, Linda Emond and Danny Berstein, were the only cast members to earn Tony nominations last year, and they deserved them! The best thing about Cabaret, though, is the musical numbers and atmospheric staging that made this show a true cabaret-going experience. I sat in the balcony, where each two seats shared a connected table and lamp that had a red shade with fringe. Ushers, dressed as waiters, walked around offering food and drinks. If you were rich enough for floor seats, you could sit at tables, as if you were really in the Kit Kat Club. Twenty minutes before the show started, dancers roamed on to the stage, stretching, posing, and chatting with audience members. We were all in it!

Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming
Reprising his role, Alan Cumming seems born to play the role of emcee. Before I saw this show, I kept unintentionally hearing that Michelle Williams was just so-so as Sally Bowles. It's not true! First, if you're comparing her to Liza Minnelli, like I did at first, forget it because they're completely different people. If you're putting Michelle Williams's Sally Bowles next to Alan Cumming's over-the-top character that was already dubbed as the reason to see this thing before it even opened, that's not fair. Though I had to get used to Sally Bowles being British and the writer being American (instead of the other way around as it is in the movie version), I thought Michelle Williams had an interesting presence in this mix of characters as well as a great singing voice. (Soon after I saw Cabaret, Emma Stone and Sienna Miller took over the role of Sally Bowles respectively before it closed in March.)

Any story about Nazis is depressing, but the Kit Kat Club will cheer you up with its nightly performances and fantastic live band. You'll get your chance to come to the cabaret when this show tours in 2016. Find more information here.

The Last Ship, Neil Simon Theatre, November 1, 2014, and January 10, 2015

Of all the shows that I saw during this Broadway Extravaganza weekend, The Last Ship was the one I thought about the least. Sting spent at least five years working on developing this musical, a story written by Tony winners John Logan and Brian Yorkey (Red) and based in Sting's hometown and on its working-class citizens. I knew I had to see The Last Ship, and that I'd have a good time, but I didn't expect how much I'd absolutely love everything about it and how delirious and emotional I'd feel by its end.

The story, which takes place in the ship-building town of Wallsend, begins with Gideon (Michael Esper) skipping town to escape his abusive father (Jamie Jackson) and the fate of taking over his job in the shipyards. He leaves behind his girlfriend Meg (Rachel Tucker) but promises to return for her once he's settled. Fifteen years later, he returns when he hears of his father's death, discovers that the shipyards are on the verge of closing down, and finds his girlfriend in new life with another man (Aaron Lazar) and teenage son (Collin Kelly-Sordelet). Encouraged by the town's likable priest Father O'Brien (Fred Applegate), the shipbuilders decide to build one last ship for pride's sake. Although Gideon fought against that way of life, he finds purpose in helping them, gains a sense of community he's missed, and struggles to come to terms with his past.

Sting released an album inspired by The Last Ship, and all of the songs are from this story's characters' points of view. I loved how this show incorporated those songs so seamlessly. The cast members sang them in character, making them entirely their own. (Lucky for us, an original Broadway cast recording is available!) The lyrics swiftly move the story along, and it was exciting to hear them make sense in this context. The show included some new songs I'd never heard before as well as some of Sting's old songs, including "Island of Souls," "All This Time," "Ghost Story," and "When We Dance." (For this show, the lyrics were changed only slightly to fit into the story and they work!) It's true that I love nearly all of Sting's music, but I think these latest songs that he wrote for The Last Ship are his best yet.

Ship-buider solidarity in the rain...  Photo © unknown
The set and staging was impressive and seemed expensive. The stage was wooden but one side of it looked like a dock, and a large basin of water extended off and along the front of the stage to represent the sea. The backdrop included stone with stained glass windows for a church setting, rusted steel with ladders to represent the ship, and metal staircases and balconies on either side for different entrances and exits. Lighting added to the atmosphere, portrayed ocean waves or sunlight flooding the church. The shipbuilders had real equipment too, working on scaffolding and with welding machines. It rained onstage at one point and, at another, the workers literally pulled the ship together, making the stage floor rise up into shape.

Rachel Tucker and Aaron Lazar
I loved that this story involved working-class people. The scenes were mostly either in a bar or in a shipyard, and everybody yelled at each other in a get-over-yourself sort of way. The choreography was unique with tough-guy moves because shipbuilders aren't dancer. (Think of West Side Story!) The cast was fantastic, including my standout favorites Rachel Tucker as Gideon's girlfriend Meg and Fred Applegate as Father O'Brien.

I saw The Last Ship a second time in early January after it was announced that Sting would take over the role of shipyard foreman Jackie White from his friend Jimmy Nail through the end of the show's short run on January 24th. Aside from attracting more theatergoers and singing the songs with his unmistakeable voice, Sting's involvement didn't make much difference to me because he was acting in character. I was so invested in the story, which was solidly written with so many fully realized characters, that I lost him in the crowd sometimes. Being the fanatical Sting fan I am, I'm pretty sure that means that they had a good thing going here. I cried at the end of both performances!

Sting! (with Fred Applegate in the background)
I was sure that The Last Ship was going to win a bunch of Tonys this year, including Best Musical, but I think it closed too soon (due to lack of ticket sales) to get everyone's attention. It received two Tony nominations for Sting (best original score) and Rob Mathes (best orchestrations). I'm sad that The Last Ship has already closed on Broadway, but I'm sure this won't be the end of it. I eagerly await its return to the stage in whatever form it may take.

On The Town, Lyric Theatre, November 2, 2014

I was still so delirious about The Last Ship that I watched On the Town the following day in a blur. On the Town is one of my favorite Gene Kelly movie musicals, which I know by heart. Like the movie musical, this Broadway revival is G-rated and family friendly. On the Town originally hit Broadway in 1944, but the story is universal. It follows three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. They soon fall for three lovely ladies, take them on the town, and have an adventure in the big city. This funny, entertaining show, written by the great Betty Comden and Aldolph Green with wonderful music by Leonard Bernstein, is a classic that I'd never seen on stage.

What I love about this production is that the abstract sets reminded me of the backdrops of my favorite old Warner Brothers cartoons, as did some of the exaggerated performances. Jackie Hoffman as music instructor Madam Dilly and Jackie Hoffman as Lucy Schmeeler, for example, offered some broad, slapstick comedy, making us laugh just the way they walked or reacted to situations. The highlight of this show, of course, was Leonard Bernstein's score and Jerome Robbins inspired dancing (choreographed by Joshua Bergasse). The beautiful Pas de Deux performed by stars Tony Yazbeck as Gabey and Megan Fairchild as Ivy too everyone's breath away.

It was wonderful to see this show with so many others of all ages in the audience, all of us sharing a laugh and mesmerizing moments. I think this show is going to last. This production of On the Town is nominated for four Tony Awards in the musical category: leading actor (for Tony Yasbeck), best director, best choreography, and best revival. Visit the show's official website to learn more and plan a trip to see it.

You can catch the Tonys on Sunday, June 7, 2015, on CBS. Here's a full list of this year's nominees.


Production photo credits: The River – © Sarah Krulwich/New York Times; Cabaret – © Joan Marcus; The Last Ship – first two photo © unknown, photo with Sting © Photo Art; On the Town – © Joan Marcus

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Dynamic Duo: Danny Elfman and Tim Burton

Hi everyone,

Danny Elfman and Tim Burton
© Kevin Winter/Getty Images
If you follow my Johnny Kitties series, you already know how much I love Tim Burton through his collaboration with Johnny Depp, but I think I actually fell in love with Tim Burton first. I've seen all of his movies since the very first one, Pee-wee's Big Adventure, in 1985, and that's when his collaboration with composer Danny Elfman started. At the time, I only knew Danny Elfman as the lead singer of the rock band Oingo Boingo, who performed the title song for the great '80s classic comedy Weird Science. (The video for this song was on MTV often, and who could forget that face and flaming orange hair?)

Pee-wee's Big Adventure marked the start of a 30-year-and-counting creative partnership between these two artists. Tim Burton's films are unmistakably his artistic vision, and Danny Elfman complements them with equally inventive musical scores. They've worked together on 16 film projects so far and, last fall at the Kennedy Center, the National Symphony Orchestra celebrated all of them – except for Big Eyes, which wasn't yet completed at the time – in a multimedia retrospective concert, Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton.

I knew I'd love this concert, but it far exceeded any of my expectations. Can you imagine how my excitement escalated when I opened the playbill and saw this?

For this concert, Danny Elfman created new, shorter arrangements of the scores listed in the program that capture their unique spirit and memorable moments. An introductory medley opened the show as a giant screen above the stage displayed a montage of film clips from Tim Burton's corresponding films. Then, the symphony launched into tributes to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (listen to that film's opening theme here) followed by Pee-wee's Big Adventure. (This music makes me so happy! Listen here. This project was not only the first movie Tim Burton ever directed but also the first film score Danny Elfman ever wrote.) In addition to film clips, the screen displayed several of Tim Burton's film-inspired artwork during each piece. We saw how his weird, wonderful paintings translated into each movie. Tim Burton supervised the development of this concert, choosing which film scenes and artwork to show during each suite. Through much of each piece, though, the screen displayed a gray and black squiggly-patterned drawing that Tim Burton created specifically for use during this concert. He wanted the audience to focus more on his friend's music than his films.

At the end of Danny Elfman's exuberant, joyous concoction for Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, we were in stunned silence for at least 10 seconds before slowly remembering to clap. Our conductor John Mauceri turned around to face us and said, "Clearly, we've mesmerized you..."

It was true! The music, artwork, and artistry created such an intoxicating, immersive experience. We were dazed.

I was surprised by how emotional I became during this concert. I grew up watching all of these movies, making trips to the theaters to see them when they were first released. It hit me that these two have been in my life since I was 11. They saved the haunting theme for Edward Scissorhands, which may be Danny Elfman's most recognized and imitated work, for last because everyone loves it most. Hearing it live with a full choir, courtesy of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, nearly made me cry. But I got distracted by someone two rows ahead of me who was already wiping away her tears.

Sandy Cameron photo © Juan Ocampo/
Nokia Theatre L.A. Live/Bernstein Associates
Then, the Edward Scissorhands suite shifted into happier haircut mode. Violinist Sandy Cameron, with wild hair, dark eyes, and a black leather and lace outfit (no doubt inspired by Edward's look), suddenly got my attention on stage. She played speedily, writhing with the melody like a snake during her electrifying solo. Everyone cheered as she bowed dramatically when finished (and the piece wasn't even over yet). Watch out for her; she's going places... It was clear during this concert that all the musicians had fun performing this music. The emotion and whimsy is infectious!

As if we weren't delirious enough, the show offered an encore with Alice in Wonderland, featuring 12-year-old soloist Thomas Lynch. (Listen here for Danny Elfman's "Alice's Theme.") This light, exciting piece just whet our appetites for what's to come; Alice Through the Looking Glass, Danny Elfman's upcoming film score project that continues Alice's story, is due in theaters next year. Although Tim Burton is not directing this time around, you'll recognize other familiar faces. Are you pacing the floors like I am?

Well, you don't need to be familiar with Danny Elfman or Tim Burton to enjoy this exhilarating show. I took someone with me who didn't know who they were. "That makes me even more excited about you coming with me," I told her. "You don't need to have seen all the movies to enjoy the music. Danny Elfman is different; the music is interesting enough on its own. I think you'll like it!" As predicted, she came out of it a fan – yay! If you're still not quite convinced, this trailer will give you an idea of the awesomeness that awaits you....

Danny Elfman's Music from the Films of Tim Burton video trailer:

Check out this unforgettable multimedia concert if it stops by your town! In addition to various spots around the country, it will play July 2-12, 2015, during New York's Lincoln Center Festival. Enjoy!


Sunday, April 26, 2015

Finding Neverland and The Real Thing

Hi everyone,

I made two special trips last year to catch some new shows. They were well worth it, so here's the rundown. 

Finding Neverland, American Repertory Theater, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 12, 2014

Finding Neverland, a new musical based on the 2004 film of the same name, follows author J.M. Barrie (played by Jeremy Jordan) as he becomes inspired by his friendship with Silvia Llewelyn Davies and her four sons to write his next play, Peter Pan. It took me about a half an hour to realize that I was comparing everything in this musical to the movie, one of my all-time favorites starring my favorite actor in the lead role. So, try not to do that when you see this production because it's a very different experience. 

For me, the best thing about Finding Neverland, the musical, is how it showcases the creative process at work. During the musical number called "Circus in my Mind," for example, Mr. Barrie fails to repress his own dark thoughts, out of which comes the character Captain Hook. Inventive choreography by Mia Michaels represents both reality and whimsical fantasy to show the duality and spirit of the writer's task. Directed by Diane Paulus, this show offered a talented cast and creative staging that captured the imagination. 

True, Johnny Depp is not here, but you should see this version of Finding Neverland anyway. The show moved to Broadway this year with stars Matthew Morrison and Kelsey Grammer, and it's still magical.

The Real Thing, Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, New York, New York, October 17, 2014

I couldn't miss my chance to see one of my favorite actors in person last year when Ewan McGregor made his Broadway debut in Tom Stoppard's 1982 play The Real Thing. He was amazing (and made me weak in the knees), but so were his costars Cynthia Nixon, Josh Hamilton, and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who is a scene stealer with her own brand of awesomeness). Tom Stoppard's clever dialogue was so quickly delivered sometimes that I left the theatre wanting to read through and think about this play a bit longer. That's a sign of a good piece of work, right? 

Aside from the stellar cast, I liked how music was incorporated into this story. Both acts began with the characters singing a song, and the first act ended with Ewan McGregor using a record player, the sound of which began normally but then amplified on speakers to close out the scene. I was also impressed by this show's innovative set. With an added bookshelf or two, some lighting changes, and new sounds, it successfully transported us among different homes and train rides out of town.

This story revolves around the relationships of two married couples, Charlotte and Henry (played by Cynthia Nixon and Ewan McGregor) and Annie and Max (played by Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton). At the start, it's revealed that Annie and Max are having an affair. They divorce their spouses, marry each other, and create a new life together. Two years later, however, Henry begins to wonder whether Annie is being faithful and if their happy ending is really all they expected. Love is complicated!  

This revival of The Real Thing had a limited 4-month engagement on Broadway. Here's information about it to give you a taste. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Savion Glover

Hi everyone,

If you think you're not a fan of tap dancing, Savion Glover will change your mind. I first became aware of Savion Glover in the late '80s and '90s when he showed up dancing in Coke commercials. He became more well known after meeting mentor Gregory Hines and winning a Tony for his choreography for the Broadway show Bring In 'Da Noise, Bring In 'Da Funk. You can even find him in some films like Tap, costarring Gregory Hines, and Bamboozled, directed by Spike Lee. If you want to hear more about his life and work, check out this video, in which he talks about his start and mission.

Savion Glover dances like no one else and to see him perform in person is always an unforgettable experience. By now, I've seen him a few times in the D.C. area. He once performed at Howard Theatre with jazz pianist McCoy Tyner accompanying him. After Trayvon Martin was killed, Savion Glover provided an intense, emotional performance at Warner Theatre that commented solely on that tragic event. Most recently, I saw him in two equally amazing, entirely different shows.

Savion Glover, Howard Theatre, Washington, D.C., August 23, 2014

Yeah, I was this close.
For this general admission show, I arrived about an hour ahead of time. Those of us who were early and waited in line in the lobby for the doors to open were treated to hearing Savion Glover practice his routines up to two minutes before the doors opened. 

Because I arrived so early, my seat was in the front row, center, flush with the stage. I'd never been so close, looking up at the dancer as he stares into space and sweats like an athlete. Savion Glover gets in the zone! When he first came out, he picked up a microphone to welcome us but instead started to dance. He continued for at least 20 minutes, holding on to that microphone. When he finally stopped, he greeted us with, "I guess I should say something now." 

During another piece, he and the drummer battled. The drummer played increasingly complicated beats and Savion Glover repeated them perfectly through tap. Another tapper, Marshall Davis, Jr., joined him once in a while during this show, but for the most part, Savion Glover danced solo.

I shared my table with some friendly fellow fans who somehow talked their way into meeting and getting photos with the man! Can you believe I was in with that cool crowd?

STePz, Strathmore, Bethesda, Maryland, February 6, 2015

Six months later, on February 6, 2015, Savion Glover performed at Strathmore in Bethesda, Maryland. For this show, titled STePz, my seat was about six rows from the stage. While the other show seemed more improvised, this show felt slick and polished. Set to a variety of recorded music, each piece covered different dance styles, such as jazz, tango, and ballet, and nodded important moments in dance history, including tributes to Bill Robinson and Michael Jackson.

Photo © Lois Greenfield
Compared to the previous show, this one more prominently featured other tappers Marshall Davis, Jr., Lisa LaTouche, Robyn Watson, and Sarah Savelli and group performances, some of which didn't even include Savion Glover at all.

Toward the back of the stage, a center platform with three steps leading up to it was flanked by two pyramid-style steps on either side. In one piece, Savion Glover and Marshall Davis, Jr., took on the pyramid steps, having a conversation through their taps. In another piece, the ladies saluted Broadway and jazz in glittery costumes with a routine featuring the stairs. Savion Glover shined during his solo tribute to Bill Robinson, during which he mimicked the hoofer's signature dance moves and walk. During another piece, he and the other dancers stood in a line spanning the stage while dialogue played on the stereo, he tapped with one foot at warp speed without moving the rest of his body. (It wasn't until at least half way through that I realized who was doing the tapping.) The show culminated with the entire group dancing to Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke" in a routine that ended with all of them in a super-hero pose – one arm stretched high, punching the air and striving for higher ground.  

I can pick more adjectives, like spectacular, exhilarating, magical, and awesome, but you have to see this guy for yourself. While video can barely capture the energy in the room when experiencing Savion Glover in person, here's a taste of STePz:

YouTube video, © Savion Glover Productions, Savion Glover's STePz:

What are you waiting for? Go see Savion Glover when you can! He'll change your life for the better.


Friday, April 10, 2015

2014 New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival

Hi everyone,

Last year, an email from The Kennedy Center caught my eye. It advertised an upcoming National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) performance that included music from Leonard Bernstein's On the Town and On the Waterfront, complete with dancers. On the Town is one of my favorite Gene Kelly movie musicals about three sailors on 24-hour leave in New York City. This performance was one of three that comprised the Kennedy Center's two-week New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival. By the end of the night, I had decided to attend all three of the New Moves performances. Here's how they went.

NSO Concert #1. William Shuman, Marc Neikrug, and Leonard Bernstein (May 8, 2014)
For this performance, I got a cheap seat in the front row of the first tier's right-side balcony and had to lean forward to see more of the stage. I couldn't see some of the performers because of the extreme angle of my seat. Note to self: next time, pick a seat on the floor in the center for a straight-on, full view.

My first surprise of the night was that the dancers only performed during selected pieces of the choreographers' choosing. The first half of this show was music only.

William Schuman's "New England Triptych" was a collection of interesting sounds without much melody. It used lots of horns, making it seem very patriotic at times. I liked parts of it, particularly the second movement but, as a whole, it was too modern for my taste. The next piece, "Bassoon Concerto" by Marc Neikrug, had more promise from what I read in the program notes: The composer tried to steer the instrument away from its comical reputation, it explained. Soloist Sue Heineman was great at playing the bassoon, but I still couldn't take its sound very seriously. The bassoon makes me think of cartoons.

The second half included the music I came for and the dancing. The three dance episodes chosen from On The Town were randomly selected from the Broadway show. Although not the same as the movie that I know so well, I recognized and was excited by the music they played.

My second surprise was that the dancing was nothing like Gene Kelly's choreography, a revelation that disappointed, confused, and pleased me all at once. As in the musical, six dancers (from Keigwin and Company) – three girls and three boys – portrayed the sailers and their newfound girlfriends, but that's where the similarities ended. The barefoot dancers were full of New York energy and used the entire length of the 16-foot-by-80-foot extension of the stage in front of the orchestra. It was real-life Cinemascope. (This is where my skewed view became problematic.) I liked the On the Waterfront dance even better, probably because I was less familiar with the music and had no dance routines already memorized.

My third surprise came after the show ended. The performance I chose to attend was followed by a free "After Words" session, a discussion and question-and-answer opportunity moderated by NSO Director of Artistic Planning Nigel Boon with the guest conductor Tom Wilkins, composer Marc Neikrug, bassoon soloist Sue Heinman, choreographer Larry Keigwin, and Kennedy Center Director of Dance Programming Meg Booth.

Learning from choreographer Larry Keigwin (who choreographed Broadway's If/Then) that the Bernstein family and trust forbid copying of any of On the Town's original Broadway show or movie musical choreography made me appreciate his work more. "It was freeing, in a way," Mr. Keigwin said of the restriction. The biggest challenge, however, was rehearsing in a 30-foot long New York studio for a performance in an 80-foot long space. "But I had the dancers go through it five times when they got here," he shrugged. Discussions with such creative people always inspires me, so I made a point to attend the festival's next two performances, including the "After Words" for each.

NSO Concert #2: George Gershwin, Samuel Barber, James Oliverio, and Duke Ellington (May 13, 2014)
Another reason I decided to attend the remaining two performances was that the lineup of this second concert sounded even better than the first. The promise to play selections for orchestra from George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and a few others tunes by Duke Ellington was enough to convince me. This time, I bought a pricier ticket for a better view on the ground floor in the center section, about 10 feet from the stage.

The only music I recognized at this concert was George Gershwin's, but I liked everything I heard. The excerpts from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess had me singing the songs in my head. Next, Samuel Barber's "Souvenirs" was a series of pieces that explored dance styles, including the waltz, tango, and two-step. I wanted to see dancers with it, but that's not what the choreographer chose.

The final piece of the first half of the show was Timpani Concerto No. 1, "The Olympian," featuring NSO's principal timpanist Juavon Gilliam. Through this concerto, composer James Oliverio wanted to create a piece where the timpani deserved a place in the front as virtuoso soloist. "I wanted to stretch the instrument," he said. So, those giant drums that typically stay in the back of the orchestra were now spotlighted up front. The hardest thing for the musician was finding all the drums he needed to perform the piece; some were his, some were borrowed, and some belonged to the NSO.

Perched on a swivel chair, Mr. Gilliam was surrounded by eight drums of different sizes. He maneuvered in his chair as if it were an amusement park ride, constantly hitting pedals with his feet and tuning the instruments while he banged on them, sometimes to carry the melody of the piece. It was a sight to see from 10 feet away, a great showcase for an instrument that's usually relegated to the back and only assigned a few notes during high-impact moments. Mr. Gilliam practiced this piece for months in the Kennedy Center basement. He even brought in a TV so that he could catch some basketball games while he worked, yet he downplayed how effortless his performance seemed: "I'm just trying to hit the right notes at the right time."

The second half of the show was all about Duke Ellington. "Giggling Rapids" from The River was a wonderful, fast-paced whirl of a song, after which guest conductor Tom Wilkins – who conducted all three of these concerts – turned to us to let us know when we could start clapping, "That's all we got," he nodded. (This conductor, from Nebraska, was cool! You could tell because he wore black socks with bright, wiry vertical stripes. He told us that he'd wanted to be a conductor since he was 8 years old.)

Two pieces from Three Black Kings followed, "King of the Magi" and "Martin Luther King." While unfamiliar to me, they were unmistakably Duke Ellington's. The final piece, called "Harlem," included dancers from the New Ballet Ensemble in Tennessee. The New Ballet Ensemble is a youth development program that provides arts education after school and beyond for kids who can't afford it. The nine dancers representing the company on stage were of all ages. Inspired by a New York performance she saw of Martha Graham's dance for "Appalachian Spring," choreographer Katie Smythe had the performers portray different personalities through dance styles to paint a diverse portrait of the Harlem scene. She gave the dancers some leeway to improvise at times and noted that using live music makes all the difference. "It gets in your blood and your bones and your heart and the goosebumps on the top of your head," she explained. "You can't do that with recorded music."

No one in the room could help being inspired and humbled by the New Ballet Company's mission and exhilarated by the joy and exuberance of these dancers and the music. Not only was this my favorite concert of the three, but this was my favorite performance. When planning the evening's program, conductor Tom Wilkins said that he and NSO Artistic Director Nigel Boon knew they found a combination of pieces that worked really well together: "We were walking out of the building last week going, 'We're geniuses!'"

NSO Concert #3. Michael Daugherty, George Walker, Aaron Copland, and John Adams (May 16, 2014)
This concert was the great unknown. I was unfamiliar with the composers, but I bought a ticket anyway, confident that they wouldn't let me down. This time, the Kennedy Center emailed me a coupon to access the most expensive seats in the house at a cheap-seat price. I'll take it!

Michael Daugherty's "Red Cape Tango" from Metropolis Symphony was the first and my favorite piece, capturing the comic-book death of Superman. I could see it happen thorough the dramatic sweeping sounds, complete with church-bell chimes. "Sinfonia No. 4 (Strands)" by George Walker is modern and a little frantic. "Appalachian Spring" by Aaron Copland, which is probably the most popular piece of the bunch, easily sparks the imagery its title suggests.

All three of these pieces have been paired previously, and some famously, with choreography. So, choreographer Jessica Lang chose to work with her dancers on John Adams's "Violin Concerto," which had no such familiar connections. Her modern, unique creation began in the chorister seats above the stage. The nine dancers moved among the rows, sometimes in unison and other times not, at a slow pace while violin soloist Leila Josefowicz frantically played her instrument as if it were a race to the finish. She told us later that she's played the concerto so many times now that people have started asking her why she continues to revisit it. "If we said that about Beethoven of Brahms," she countered, "we'd never have any performances." Well played.

The dancers made their way down to the stage after the first, 15-minute-long movement, continuing with random sculptural moves that only dancers can achieve. It was so impressive that many of us, mesmerized by the performers in front of us, lost track of the music.

During the "After Words" discussion, some audience members complained that the dancers, while amazing, distracted them from the music and musicians. But composer Tom Wilkins advised, "Don't cheat yourself out of a new experience just because you like one more than the other. Just treat it like dessert." One audience member had another solution, "Come back tomorrow and see it again." I was all for that idea.

The goal of the New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival was to mix things up. While sharing the diversity of American music, it brought the performing arts of music and dance together. The festival erased categorical lines and instead embraced connection and collaboration. One audience member summed up our enthusiasm about this experiment well: "I'm excited that the Kennedy Center is fusing the communities, taking time out of your normal schedule – normal for the Kennedy Center – and painting a door for that child..."

Just inspiring one person to think outside the box would make this festival a success, but I can attest that it inspired many. Here's to the next New Moves: Symphony + Dance Festival, whenever that may be. See you there.


Credits: NSO Concert #1 dance photos © Kyle Manfredi; photo of Juavon Gilliam courtesy of Kennedy Center; NSO Concert #2 photo © Scott Suchman; NSO Concert #3 photo © Takao Komaru 

Friday, April 03, 2015

See You at 930!

Hi everyone,

After a long winter, springtime makes me itchy to get outdoors. As luck would have it, 930 club offered me some enticing options last year. 930 is a small, no frills, standing-room-only venue that holds about 800 people. Sometimes I arrive really early to ensure a front-row spot by the stage. Other times (and more often these days), I arrive really early and head upstairs to the balcony, where 1) there's a railing to lean against and 2) the sound seems clearer. These things and comfortable shoes are important.  I usually forget that I've lost feeling in my feet because 930 shows are usually great. Here are a couple from last May.

The Both, May 2, 2014

I didn't know about this band until Jimmy Fallon told me. Flipping channels one night, I checked the late shows before heading to bed. Aimee Mann, whom I've loved since her Til Tuesday days in the '80s, was on The Tonight Show with some guy I didn't recognize. After their performance, Jimmy Fallon said that, from there, they – The Both – were headed to Washington, DC. Excited, I investigated and planned to go. Thanks, Jimmy!

I've seen Aimee Mann a few times on her own. We must have similar tastes because I always like her opening acts. For this concert, it was Nick Diamonds of the band Islands. This guy also has good taste: he covered "Are You Sleeping" from Harry Nilsson's The Point, one of my favorite albums as a kid, and flooded me with childhood memories. 

The Both tour supports the band's self-titled debut album. The second half of The Both is Ted Leo. I didn't know him, but lots of people at the concert did. Like the Sting and Paul Simon shows, there were distinct groups of Aimee fans and Ted fans in the audience. One of my friends who had already seen them on tour warned me that it wouldn't be like an Aimee Mann show. It wasn't; The Both is rockier. Aside from songs from their new album, though, they sang a couple of their solo songs for us too. 

I had a lot of room around me, leaning against the balcony railing. People on both sides were sitting behind me more toward the wall and never closed in toward the front. As I scanned the crowd below, my good fortune was spotted by a group of talkers who were all Aimee fans, ventured upstairs, and surrounded me. After every song, they gushed about how wonderful she sounded, how beautiful she looked, and declared their undying love. Then they left in the middle of the show to meet up with someone they'd been texting for drinks somewhere else. Right after they left the building, Aimee sang "Save Me," her Oscar-winning song from the film Magnolia, and a part of me was glad they missed it. (The rest of me was bewildered by them leaving.)   

Ted and Aimee make a complementary pair, and the best part of this show for me was actually all of their talking. Apparently, Ted and Aimee have been friends for years – and you can tell, watching them together on stage. It was like listening in on a long chatty phone call. I'd never heard Aimee Mann talk so much. At the start of our show, she mentioned their San Francisco show, where they talked for 25 minutes before realizing they hadn't played any songs yet. She said that wouldn't happen tonight because her brother was in the audience and warned her that he'd probably have to leave early. ("He has kids," she explained.) So, they got started pretty quickly. Throughout the concert, they hit a bunch of interesting topics, like bathroom graffiti and Ted's secret fanaticism for The Hobbit. (He even sang part of a song from a TV cartoon version of the story.)

During the encore, Aimee got heckled by a feisty group who wanted her to play one of her own songs (which I didn't know) called "Red Vines." She politely refused the request because, at The Both shows, she and Ted made a pact to sing every song together, and Ted didn't know this song. "I'm not doing this to be mean, but we're not doing the song," she said. They kept yelling for it, and Ted walked over to Aimee and whispered something in her ear: "Ted's telling me to give in to peer pressure," she reported.

Although she still didn't want to play it alone, she got frustrated by the drunken yelling and bargained, "I will sing the song if you just stop yelling. You can't yell again for the rest of the night – no noise!" (When they broke this rule later, she stopped them short.) I couldn't believe that she put up with these obnoxious fans, and I considered protesting accommodating their demands. Ted broke the tension by saying he could try to play the song; then, she was happy to do it.

It turned out to be wonderful because Ted Leo really didn't know the song at all. We witnessed a first rehearsal. He borrowed a cell phone from the sound guy to find the lyrics, and they started to play "Red Vines." Aimee suggested that she could start the song, and he could come in after the first verse. At the end of the first verse, though, she said, "You look like you need your reading glasses." They were in his dressing room, but someone in the audience saved the day. "Oh my God!" Aimee exclaimed, "Someone just threw you their reading glasses!" He put them on, gave us the thumbs up, and they started again. In the end, he mostly stumbled through backing vocals by watching what she was singing. As soon as the song was over, Aimee threw her head back laughing and we all cheered at the effort. What great performers under pressure!

Here's a song from The Both called "Milwaukee," which captures their goofiness and guitars.

You Tube video: "Milwaukee" by The Both (© The Both)

Elbow, 930 club, Washington, DC, May 11, 2014

Elbow is a British band from Manchester that I heard during a fashion show that I watched online. Halfway through it, I realized I wasn't paying attention to the fashion but the music being played in the background. Shortly after that, Elbow showed up in DC at 930 while on tour  supporting their hit album (the one I heard during the fashion show) called The Seldom Seen Kid. Their popular songs from that album include "Grounds for Divorce" and "One Day Like This." A friend, who had never heard of them before, looked them up and joined me then based on what she heard online. Still devoted fans, we saw them again when they returned.   

Aside from writing great songs, Elbow is sincerely friendly, which I always appreciate from performers. Our concert was the first stop on their new tour, supporting their latest album, The Take Off and Landing of Everything. They dedicated a song to 930's staff because, lead singer Guy Garvey said, everyone they've worked with at the club is nice, and playing this venue is always a highlight for them. He also mentioned two friends in the audience, Lois and Dennis, who'd been championing Elbow since the beginning. He pointed them out, in a special balcony spot above the stage. It's refreshing to see nice people make it as successful rock stars.

I love that Elbow uses strings and horns in their alt-rock songs. They always offer interesting melodies, surprising sounds, and wonderful harmonies. Guy Garvey's voice sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel, but Elbow have their own fantastic sound. I liked their new songs immediately but was apparently late to this party. Everyone around us already knew all the lyrics and sang along. By the end of the concert, this behavior was the norm, and the crowd drowned out Guy Garvey's voice at times. After the show was over, my friend shook her head, "Man, they have some crowd-pleasing songs." That's the truth.

Here's a video for "New York Morning," which is on their latest album and features Lois and Dennis! See how nice Elbow is?

You Tube video, "New York Morning" by Elbow (© Elbow)

Catch these bands on tour when you can. They rock!


Credits: The Both band photo © Christian Lantry, album cover: SuperEgo Records; Elbow band photo © Tom Sheehan,  album cover: Fiction/Concord  

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

2014 Rainforest Fund Benefit Concert

Hi everyone,

Last April, I attended the biennial concert benefiting the Rainforest Fund, a charity founded by Sting and his wife Trudie Styler to protect the forests and the people who live there. When I moved from Ohio to D.C. in 2001, I discovered that tickets to these concerts were relatively affordable ($150 and beyond), and New York was easy to get to by bus or train. Being a devoted Sting fan, I had to go, and I've been hooked ever since!

Always performed in Carnegie Hall, one of New York's most beautiful landmarks, these concerts guarantee a unique, unforgettable experience. You can read about the 2012 concert here. While some concerts have boasted better lineups than others (for my taste, anyway), I always leave with the same exhilarated feeling that only good music brings the soul.

This year, I assumed that extra special planning would be in the works to acknowledge the charity's 25th year. Instead, tickets went on sale with no prior announcement from Sting or Trudie and no clues about who would perform. Luckily, I Googled to find the concert's date, which was listed on a random website. Then, I just kept checking Carnegie Hall's April calendar, waiting for the event to show up. When it did, I bought my ticket without knowing who was going to be there. I assumed Sting was locked into showing up, and that was good enough for me. Also, I've attended this concert enough times to know I wouldn't be disappointed. I felt good about this leap of faith.

A while after the tickets went on sale, a list of some of the scheduled performers was released like an afterthought. Sting and Trudie Styler began showing up on TV and Facebook only about a week in advance, encouraging people to attend the concert. Despite this seemingly lax marketing effort, the show was very well attended and went on with the level of quality I expect from Trudie Styler and company. Here's a rundown on what happened.

The stage is set.
The stage seemed crowded with instruments and equipment this year. The 2014 Rainforest Fund All-Star Players, directed as usual by drummer Narada Michael Walden, included members of the St. Luke's Orchestra (conducted by Charles Floyd) and at least 15 other musicians and seven backup singers.

Thinking back, what threw me off was not the number of people on stage but an unexpected piece of furniture. What I thought was a white upright piano turned out to be a bar, complete with stools. Maybe this is an upgrade from the rows of folding chairs, where the performers could sit onstage to watch their friends singing, I thought. We were apparently in for a party.

Enjoy a view from the top – if you can.
Typically, I get a seat in the cheap section. By "cheap" I mean the $150 to $175 range, which is the top balcony. You know it's the cheap section when you climb five flights of stairs, are told to go out an exit door to climb three or so more, and then receive a final warning that the level you're currently standing on – which is not yet your destination – is the last level that has a bathroom. Despite the height (and maybe because of it), you still get a grand view of the stage (see my vantage point at right). Some years, I've bought more expensive seats in different sections of the hall only to discovered that my cheaper seat is not much different and sometimes better.

The down side to this section is that I've always been surrounded by people who don't pay the performers or the venue the proper respect I feel they deserve. Some people are dressed in jeans, most are using their cell phones or are not paying attention in other annoying ways, and a few leave before the show is over. This year, I was stuck between two women who enjoyed the show, as far as I could tell. But the one on my left didn't return after the intermission, and a woman on my right kept borrowing my binoculars and asking me who each performer was – despite the detailed-with-performer-photos program we were all given and the introductions made before every performance. At times, they distracted me from fully focusing on the show, but I'll do my best to describe it.

It's Showtime!
Each concert usually has a theme, like Motown, The Beatles, or movie songs. This year, they seemed to choose whatever song they considered to be a classic - be it show tunes, Nirvana, opera, rock, or something else. This show had a little bit of everything for everyone. Luckily, the performers have good taste. Here's what happened:
  • The white bar was there for a reason! Kevin Spacey served as bartender with Sting as his customer. They sang What a Swell Party as a duet until James Taylor stumbled onto the stage wearing a lampshade on his head. All three of them topped it off as best they could in their drunken state. Kevin even did a little soft shoe. My ticket was worth it already.
Sting stuck around as the bar was pushed off stage and everyone else left. He reintroduced Kevin Spacey as "President Underwood," his character on the Netflix series House of Cards. When the initial list of concert performers was finally released, I was most excited to see Kevin Spacey's name. I assumed that he'd just make a speech, but I don't know why I stopped there since I know he can do so much more!
  • Taking over as emcee, Kevin Spacey talked about the concert and the cause behind it. Then he said, "But, first, the Johnny Carson impression." Aside from the phenomenal acting and apparent tap dancing skills, he does impressions that always make me laugh. He told some jokes as Johnny Carson, including that he ran into Christopher Walken at Carnegie Hall, who advised [in Christopher Walken's voice], "Prac-tice, prac-tice, prac-tice..." Did I mention he sings really well too? Did you all see him as Bobby Darin in Beyond the Sea? As he belted out That's Life, I think Sinatra was in the room and, at the end, everyone cheered like it too.  
After the song, Kevin Spacey continued, "Sting introduced me as Underwood. Let me just say this [in Bill Clinton's voice], 'I love that House of Cards. I don't know how accurate it is. You could never get an education bill passed that fast." He then introduced Renee Fleming, who sang two opera pieces.
  • O Mio Babbino Caro is an aria about a girl who threatens her dad that she'll jump off a bridge if he forbids her to marry the boy she loves. (Look it up; you'll recognize the melody.)  
  • La Ci Darem La Mano is from Don Giovanni, which she was currently performing at the New York's Metropolitan Opera House. For this piece, three microphones were set up, and she said that she was looking for someone to perform the song with her. Behind her, all the members of the horn section volunteered, wearing period-style hats adorned with neon-colored feathers along the rims. "Those hats are the correct period, but I'm not sure about the fringe," she said. "I don't know what kind of Don Giovanni that would be." Luckily, someone else came trotting out to save the day: "Oh! Oh, here comes Sting. Okay!" He held a rose while they sang in Italian. Mid song, Kevin Spacey walked out, holding a sunflower and began competing for her affections, despite Sting's dismay and attempts to wave him off. They all sang together, but at the end, Oscar Isaac showed up with an entire bouquet of flowers and stole her away. They walked off stage, leaving Sting and Kevin Spacey sulking.

  • Kevin Spacey, then introduced James Taylor, who sat on a stool with his guitar. When James Taylor didn't attend the 2012 concert, I really missed him. Since attending these concerts, I've fallen for his voice, his sense of humor, and his calm, thoughtful demeanor. The acoustics of Carnegie Hall are perfect for him. He told us that he'd been to all but two of these concerts. "Every year, it stretches me to do something outside my comfort zone, which is a good thing, I think. This next song is definitely smack dab in the middle of my comfort zone. I think I've done it thee times on this stage." To everyone's supreme joy, he performed his classic Fire and Rain.  
  • Next, James Taylor introduced Chris Botti, who played his trumpet with violinist Caroline Campbell  for a great song called Sketches of Spain, which I'd never heard before. I was unfamiliar with the violinist, but I  first heard of Chris Botti when he joined Sting's band years ago. Since then, he's continued solo and been busy; he explained the rise in his popularity in an interview once, saying, "Be friends with Sting." The most memorable moment of this performance for me was when he played a single note on his trumpet for a ridiculous length of time. I'm convinced that he and Sting must do yoga together to get their exhales to extend that far.
  • Sting came out next and sang When We Dance, which is one of my all-time favorite Sting songs. He had changed outfits from a gray fitted shirt with a black flower pattern on it, white cream jacket, and black pants to a black three-piece suit. Two ballet dancers, Alessandra Ferri and Herman Cornejo, swayed and twirled next to him as he sang. They were so moving to watch, set to this beautiful melody and lyrics. They must really be in love, I thought. When the song ended, I came back down to Earth and realized it was more likely that they were just excellent, convincing dancers. 
  • Dionne Warwick was next with two songs, Walk On By and Anyone Who Had a Heart. I was unfamiliar with and really liked the latter song. She was one of the "big names" for this year's concert, but I felt indifferent about the idea of seeing her. Of course, she sounded wonderful. She even reminded me of Whitney Houston in the way she talked with the audience. She also looked fantastic with snow white hair a sheer blousey green pattern shirt that was tied in front and long in back, black trousers, and kitten heels. I'm all about the outfits. 
Kevin Spacey returned to check on us: "Are you having a good night?" Yes, thank you. He apparently forgave Oscar Isaac for stealing away Renee Fleming and brought him back to the stage.
  • You probably know Oscar Isaac best from the Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis, in which he played a struggling folk singer. He really plays guitar and was accompanied here by more guitarists and little bit of drums. He sang Young Turks, and everyone around me sang along. Sting joined in our enthusiasm, exclaiming afterward, "I love that song!"
  • When Oscar left the stage, Sting continued, "The sign of an important song is one that conjures up a time in your life." He reminisced about starting out with The Police, driving a station wagon across the U.S., staying in sketchy hotels, and struggling to make it as a musician. "This song," he said, "brings that all into focus. He started playing  his acoustic guitar and singing Paul Simon's "America" He tells his same story while performing this song on tour with Paul Simon, but it's still just as effective. As he started to play and everyone recognize it, an audible "Awww..." filled the room. It sounded beautiful in Carnegie Hall and might be my favorite performance of the night. 
  • As that song finished up, Stephen Stills walked out playing his electric guitar to drown out the moment and blast into another with For What It's Worth. Toward the end, other performers joined in, singing along, including Sting, Patti Scafia, James Taylor, Kevin Spacey, Dionne Warwick, Joe Sumner, and Trudie Styler. During this song, the woman to my left swayed in her seat, singing along word-for-word, to her own tune, in her own way, directly in my ear. It was kind of a bummer, because I too love that song and wished I could better hear Stephen Stills singing it. 
Here are some things to ponder during intermission (and beyond).
Sting's wife Trudie Styler, who produces this event, makes a speech at every concert. This time, she noted that the fund has raised $35 million so far, the vast majority of which comes from these Carnegie Hall concerts. She said she's is always asked why she and Sting work on this charity, and her response is two words: people and planet. "This is not the Wild West," she says of the land being destroyed. "This not ours for the taking." She gave examples of global warming, extreme weather, fires, and natural disasters, explaining that it's all connected. "There is only one [planet]. We have to change." This statistic surprised me: Fourteen companies are responsible for two-thirds of carbon emissions. She stressed that they have to change. Trudie Styler is a passionate, impressive speaker, and I'm always inspired after listening to her.
Next, she introduced another good speaker, Bill Clinton! Everyone broke the rules and got out their cell phones immediately to snap photos. He said, "I'm here to tell you that the break is on its way." The woman to my right, noticing the heightened excitement upon this man's appearance, asked me who he was. (I swear!) "Every tree in every rainforest is better left standing than cut down," he reminded us. He thanked all of the performers, naming a few, and then said, "I know Kevin Spacey came out here to make fun of me." Kevin Spacey was behind him. They hugged and kept their arms around each other as he continued speaking, sharing that they went to Africa together once and people couldn't tell who was talking. "I've always admired you and wished I could be in your line of work," he told Kevin. "Dammit if you didn't get into mine!" Bill's so smooth.

Stephen Stills returned to end the first half of the show performing the instrumental Amazonia as a we watched a video on a wall-mounted screen behind him, showing the work of the Rainforest Fund and the people it helps. I thought this whole presentation was quite well done and effective. I thought about it well into our intermission and after the show, and I hope the rest of the audience did too.

They're Back!
  • Opening the second half, Lisa Fischer (longtime backup singer for The Rolling Stones who was in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet From Stardom) and newcomer Ivy Levan kicked off the second half of the concert with powerful performances of two Rolling Stone songs, Start Me Up and Jumping Jack Flash. Sometimes, Lisa Fischer's voice overpowered Ivy Levan's. Their performance together was fantastic, but if they were competing on The Voice, the winner is clear. I fantasized about Mick and Keith interrupting them, but that didn't happen. 
  • Next, Sting's daughter Eliot Sumner appeared as if she just woke on up on street corner and forgot to shower.  (She's so talented and I love her. I only mention this because the last time I saw her at this concert a few years ago, she was very glam. Apparently, this is her new look. Of course, the woman next to me asked who she was, and I explained it was Sting's daughter. She exclaimed, "That's a girl?") She sang Born to Be Wild, which was good but I wished she had performed a quieter song that fit her voice better. The last time I saw her at this concert, she sang an amazing song of her own called, "Bohemian Love" on acoustic guitar. Everyone was so attentive, you could have heard a pin drop – until she was finished, when we erupted in cheers because we all knew a star had just been born! For me, the bar was set high for this appearance.
  • Her older brother, Joe Sumner, came out next to perform Smells Like Teen Spirit. He also performed at this concert before, the same one where Eliot Sumner looked glamorous and blew everyone aways with her song. Back then, he was the grungy one with long hair. I saw him again shortly after that, opening for Sting with his band Fiction Plane. Now, at this concert, he looked like a businessman. The siblings have  apparently swapped stylists. Joe Sumner is a good screamer, so this song was a good fit for him. I remember reading that Nirvana is a big influence on his music, so I wasn't surprised by this choice. They both must have just picked a favorite song.
  • Sting returned and introduced a friend of 25 years, Patti Scafia (Bruce Springsteen's wife). They sang a lovely rendition of Stand By Me, during the middle of which they slow danced. And, as they finished, Sting knelt on one knee, holding her hand. It was a sweet performance, and I liked Patti Scafia's unique voice, which I don't think I've noticed before.
  • Next, James Taylor appeared, but I didn't recognize him at first. He changed from his typical suit attire into a casual jacket with khakis  and a pageboy hat. He looked like he just stepped out of Newsies. He sang How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), to which everyone in the room swayed, including Sting and Trudie Styler who were watching from behind a partition that shielded the backstage entrance. Awww, she gave Sting a quick kiss during this song. (These are the kinds of things you can see from these seats.) 
  • Next, Paul Simon sang Graceland and The Boxer. For "The Boxer," Sting sang backing vocals, as they do on their current joint tour. I love the harmonies they do on this song. This song showcases how their voices are a perfect combination. I always think of Paul Simon as a funny guy because I remember always seeing him on Saturday Night Live. Here, though, he told some bad jokes that I didn't get. Sting just shook his head at them, and Paul explained that only people in the Amazon, with their dry sense of humor, would understand them. Paul did say some nice things, though, about the work that Sting and Trudie have done for the Rainforest Fund. He got everyone to give Sting a standing ovation for their efforts. I'm all for that, of course.   
  • Sting spoke to get the show moving again. "You know, when Artie would sing, he'd send Paul off the stage. Well, tonight, Paul, I'm not going to send you off the stage. I want you to stand right there while I sing your song." Everyone laughed, and together they sang Bridge Over Troubled Water, as they have on their tour. At one point during the song, Sting held the note for "I will ease your mind...." for so long that the audience began clapping and cheering before he was finished. (I'm telling you, it's the yoga!) When they finished the song, Sting pointed at Paul and exclaimed, "He wrote that!" Everyone cheered and they hugged. 
  • Stephen Stills closed the show with another perfect song, "Love The One Your With," for which everyone joined him on stage, played, and sang along. Our hosts, Sting (shaking maracas) and Trudie, were the last ones out.

Good night!
As anticipated, we were all exhilarated by this one-of-a-kind show. When I met a friend for lunch the next day, still delirious from the night before, I described the show as a motley group of people who played their favorite or best-known songs. A while into my incoherent ramblings, my friend interrupted and said, "So, who else was there because so far you've only mentioned Dionne Warwick..." Hopefully, I did a better job here. 

Visit the Rainforest Fund to learn more about this great charity!


Image credits: Rainforest Fund logo and concert save-the-date ad © Rainforest Fund; all concert photos © Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images