Archive for Theater

The Legacy of Icons…

It’s easy in the later stages of life to look back at memorable events, performances, and personalities encountered on our journey and lament the loss of those who still seem very much alive because of the way they and their art affected us.

Last week M and I spent an evening with Sam Shepard at the Seattle Rep and he was very much alive during a performance of True West, his rollicking roller coaster ride of a play where the audience is pulled into the action as two very different brothers trash each other and their mother’s home on the stage in front of them. read more

The Man Who Thought He Was President…

Suspend your disbelief–probably a good idea in today’s political environment–but in this instance it’s to recommend a highly imaginative and delightful film called Yesterday.

Director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Trainspotting, 127 Hours) and screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually) have made a movie with a suspend your disbelief premise—due to a Y2K-like electrical event the earth experiences a 12 second blackout during which a struggling singer-songwriter on a bike is hit by a bus. But wait, that’s not the premise. read more

Remembering Romeo & Juliet…

On June 17, 1961 a 23-year-old dancer broke free of his Russian security detail, dashed through the immigration barrier at a Paris airport and asked the French for political asylum. Rudolf Nureyev wasn’t yet famous outside the world of Russian ballet, but in that world he was known as a White Crow – belaya vorona– Russian idiom for a person who is different from his surroundings, who doesn’t ‘fit’ within cultural circles, and goes against the stream. 

In 2018, a film entitled The White Crow was released without much fanfare. Written by David Hare (The Reader and The Hours) and directed by Ralph Fiennes, it chronicles Nureyev’s life up to and including his 1961 defection in Paris. It’s a mystery that the film didn’t register with the critics. It’s dramatic, true to its facts, suspenseful, and audiences loved it. Even if you’re not a fan of ballet it’s worth seeing. This is first class drama – both the life and film story. read more

Two Degrees of Separation…

I didn’t know Albert Finney, but when he died two days ago, I felt the loss personally. I’d admired him as an actor since first seeing him as the randy Tom Jones (1963) and again as Audrey Hepburn’s husband in Two for the Road (above) in 1967. He was nominated for an Oscar five times, but never took one home. He was an actor’s actor, but it wasn’t his acting chops that made me feel his loss.

Finney and I were only a year apart in age. Wikipedia doesn’t mention it, but I know he was an avid horse racing fan who followed the ponies from Saratoga to the Triple Crown and on to Santa Anita in the fall. In a tangential way, it was his interest in racing that provided our connection.

Mr. Finney was friends with Karen and Mickey Taylor. Two friends of mine. Two degrees of separation. The Taylors purchased Seattle Slew for $17,500 in 1975. Slew went on to win the Triple Crown and made the Taylors very wealthy. I knew them because they were customers of mine at Piccolo, the little Italian café my wife, Abby, and I owned.

Running a small restaurant is a labor of love – especially in a seasonal resort like Sun Valley. I made the pasta and bread. Abby ran the kitchen. Our small operation was either wildly busy or empty depending on the season. Christmas holidays were especially chaotic, and one Christmas week Mickey and Karen stopped in for lunch. The café seated 44 but there were probably 50 eating lunch on that particular day. Abby and the kitchen staff were cranking out the pasta dishes and I was up front seating customers, making espresso drinks, and busing tables.

At a particularly chaotic moment, with all the tables finishing at once, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see a grinning Albert Finney. “Hello, Jack. I’m Albert. It looks like you could use some help. Let me give you a hand cleaning up these tables.” I was nonplussed. I didn’t even realize he was in the restaurant, but for the next 30 minutes Albert Finney and I were the busboys at Piccolo. He couldn’t have been nicer or more natural, and that’s the reason I was personally touched when I heard of his passing on Thursday.

Sun Valley was founded by Averill Harriman in 1936 and always had celebrity appeal, but it was years behind Aspen and Vail in becoming a “scene.” When Abby and I moved there in 70’s it was very sleepy. In 1987 when we opened the restaurant it was becoming more popular but still a one-story, log cabin kind of town and quiet escape for some celebrities. Jamie Lee Curtis used to bring us loaves of bread from the La Brea Bakery in LA, and Edie Baskin (Baskin & Robbins/SNL writer) brought us fresh mozzarella from Dean and DeLuca in New York.

Piccolo was a place celebrities with a local connection could come for a dish of pasta and not be bothered. Carole King, Scott Glenn, Adam West, and Jack Hemingway were lunch regulars while Jamie Lee and husband Christopher Guest, Brooke Shields, and Peter Cetera were often there for dinner. It was a few years later that the one-story log cabins were replaced with two-story banks, galleries, and glitzy boutiques. Change is a given, but I feel fortunate to have been part of it before the change.

Albert Finney’s passing reminds me of those times. I left Ketchum after 25 years. Piccolo has closed its doors and I’ve lost touch with Karen and Mickey. Even so, Abby and all three of my children are there and it remains a special place for me. Tomorrow I’m planning to settle in with a cocktail and watch a couple of Albert’s films – maybe Murder on the Orient Express or Annie – just to keep this memory fresh. My day busing tables with him is the perfect reminder that in this time of megalomania even a rich and famous celebrity can be modest, friendly, and helpful.

RIP Albert Finney (1936 – 2019)

The Trump Antidote…

I’m not easily upset or given to anxiety, but several recent high blood pressure readings on routine doctor visits raised a little concern at home. The readings particularly alarmed Marilynn, who is always surprised to hear that my blood pressure and cholesterol are lower than the average bear’s in spite of my affection for mayonnaise, eggs, butter, and sugar. So, in the interest of domestic peace, I caved and agreed to have it checked out.

I secretly hoped that the visit would be like the one to the car mechanic where, after an exhaustive inspection, the technician shakes his head, declares the problem non-existent, and hands me a bill for the labor. It turns out, luckily, that my suspicions were right; my doctor took three readings in the 120/70 range, smiled knowingly, and sent me home…with a bill for services.

In retrospect, my own diagnosis is “transient Donald Trump effect.” Hours spent listening to MSNBC tweet storm after tweet storm. After a while my muscles tense, my blood pressure rises, and I begin to shout at the TV. Not a blood pressure problem – just a form of global political stress. I’m sure I’m not alone, but if I’m going to survive the next two years I need to divine a coping strategy.

So, reassured that BP is not the problem, Marilynn and I began thinking of a survival strategy. Our first act was to acknowledge that our preference for dark little art films probably wasn’t increasing our joy and feeling of well-being. In the past few weeks we’ve seen Black Klansman, Collete, Can You Ever Forgive Me, The Wife, and Roma. None of them have you leaving the theater with a smile on your face. We need to let our affection for these dark, arty films slide for the time being. On Christmas Day we substituted Mary Poppins Returns.

I was skeptical but willing to try. Would this just be saccharine eye/ear candy? Those of you who know me will understand. I’m not a fan of animated films (there is animation). I’m not attracted to special effects where people fly (Mary flies). And, feel good films made primarily for children (this is one of those) are not in my wheelhouse. So, Mary Poppins Returns looked like a serious test of our new strategy. Surprisingly, it passed with flying colors (no pun intended) thanks to Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda, and I really did leave the theater smiling.

I’ve grown to love modern technology. Almost everything has a digital analog these days, and with TiVo and Roku there are so many options from Amazon Prime Video, Netflix, YouTube, Pandora and others. When I was learning how to use a computer (remember MS-DOS?) one of my motivations was knowing that if I mastered the basics, I could access the New York Public Library’s reference section. Imagine… Today, MS-DOS is ancient history and so are Internet Explorer, Alta Vista, Yahoo and the other early search engines. Today, it’s all about Google and research is as close as your next key stroke. My daughter writes for national publications from her Hailey, Idaho home and my wife manages a senior health care consultancy from Saigon, Berlin, Paris, and Rome – wherever we happen to be – with her MacBook Pro.

So, after seeing Mary Poppins Returns, we came home and pulled up YouTube on our living room TV and watched parts of the original Julie Andrews/Dick Van Dyke version, saw interviews with the actors, songwriters, screenwriters, and directors of both versions, and… it sounds pretentious, but also talked about the relevance of Mary Poppins to what’s going on in the world today.

Think about the films–both Mary Poppins’ versions. They’re about young families with small children. The Banks families – Jr. and Sr. They’re both struggling financially. In Returns the young mother dies. The distraught husband, a teller at the bank that holds the deed, neglects to make a house payment (the wife’s job) and they fall behind on their mortgage. The evil bankers, pretending to help, foreclose. In the first film the father, is fired by Mr. Dawes, the evil banker, but dies laughing at one of Mr. Banks’ Sr.’s jokes. I won’t give away the ending of the new film, but it’s equally satisfying.

So, how far do we have to go to find real life parallels? Not so far, it turns out. Trump’s Secretary of the Treasury made a fortune foreclosing on sub-prime mortgages sold to vulnerable people who shouldn’t have been given mortgages in the first place. In November, Munchkin and his thin-skinned trophy wife were making news at the US Mint while simultaneously disparaging the poor unfortunates who are unable to afford the luxe items she lives for. Indulge me while I imagine the Munchkins dying of laughter on their way to the bank. Life imitates art?

So… the strategy is working. My blood pressure is down and I’m having so much fun I’ve forgotten about Donald J. Trump. I’m reminded of Norman Cousins’ book Anatomy of an Illness in which Cousins, afflicted with a life-threatening disease, initiated a revolution in patient care by adopting the innovative theory that humor can marshal the body’s natural resources to combat disease. Thank you, Mr. Cousins; you and Mary Poppins have me smiling again. We’re on a roll.

Marilynn is lifelong fan of musical theater and she has brought me along in the last few years. They’re seductive and habit-forming. Two weeks ago, we saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, another feel good, smile generating musical – this one with an immigrant theme. How timely. These feel-good entertainments are charged with deeper meanings. Who knew?

At the end of Mary Poppins Returns, Mary flies away, and and as we left the theater we reminisced about how other musicals had also made us feel good. We remembered seeing Singing in the Rain for the first time and after checking out the Mary Poppins stuff on YouTube, we went to Amazon Prime and put Singing in the Rain on our watchlist. I suppose it’s the time we live in, but in these perilous times it’s easy to find secret messages in these feel-good movies.

Singing in the Rain is about how technology changed the film industry. It’s hard to find a more current topic. In the musical, the story line is about the transition from silent films to talkies. The star, Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), loses her star role because of her shrill voice and Queens accent while Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) becomes a star because she can sing, dance – and talk. No lip synching (yes, lip-synching is what brings Lina down). Think Milli Vanilli, Ashlee Simpson, and Victoria Beckham.

And, if you think it’s a stretch to see Singing in the Rain as political, check out how the Sunshine State News (Florida rag) uses it vis a vis today’s news.

In any event, I think we’re on to something. It’s important to find some balance in our lives and coping strategies to deal with both disease and Donald Trump. Trump will be gone soon enough, relatively speaking, but if we’re not in good health it won’t matter. Find your own survival strategy. For now, finding things that make me smile and take me briefly away from Oval Office tweet storms, is my strategy. To die laughing isn’t a bad end is it Mr. Banks?