"I don't sing because I'm happy; I'm happy because I sing"

Come see me in the ensemble of “Strange Fruit,” an American Opera by composer Chandler Carter and librettist Joan Ross Sorkin. Ticket information can be found at the Harlem School of the Arts website here. Performances are Friday, February 27th, 8 pm and Sunday, March 1st, 2 pm at the HSA’s Gathering Space at 645 St. Nicholas Avenue, New York. Price is $15. To reserve tickets, call: 212 926 4100 x325

“Strange Fruit,” is based on the controversial book of the same name by Lillian Smith, which was in turn inspired by the famous Billie Holiday song (wikipedia article here). It tells the “tragic story of an interracial love affair between a young black woman and a young white man in a small town in Georgia in 1920.” More information about the show and its creative team can be found at the New York City Opera pressroom online here.

Monday night, I had the ultimate pleasure to witness the opening night of “Book of Crazy: Kevin & Johanna Present The DSM-IV in Song”. Before you read any more, know that it’s also performing (Friday the) 13th and the 16th both at 7pm at the Duplex at 61 Christopher Street. I’m actually going again the 13th – my husband will be videotaping it, and I’m happy to see the show for a second time!

I cannot tell you how brilliant the concept of this show is. I heard about snippets over the last few weeks, but it wasn’t until I saw it actualized on stage that I realized what a great idea the DSM-IV-inspired structure is. Part of the brilliance is that it is perfectly chosen to highlight the talents of Johanna Weller-Fahy and Kevin Scott Collins (the one behind the concept). They are good singers, but even better improv comedians. Unless it was directly inspired by an audience interaction, I could not tell what was scripted and what was improved. And the obvious improvs were hilarious. It helped that there were a lot of musical theater friends in the audience on Monday night; Johanna and Kevin bounced off of the Audience in a seemingly effortless manner. Plus, the mental disorders were general enough not to offend or turn people off from the performances.

In fact, the conceptual structure of the DSM-IV allowed for a large range of song choices and reknewed interperetations (all accompanied by Musical Director Eric Sedgwick). It also included the opportunity to sing songs uncommon to Cabaret as well. They all could be reconnected by lyrical theme to specific mental illnesses (is that a PC term?) from the book. In fact, the evening was also a “contest”: audience members who picked the correct mental ailment after each song (the options were handed out as a list within the program) vied for points towards a prize at the end of the evening. I was happy to note that our table split the prize…a gym grab bag full of goodies. 🙂

I’m tempering my enthusiasm to disclose all the song choices; part of the joy of the evening was being surprised by each song as it came out of the humerous banter between Kevin and Johanna. Some songs seemed “obvious” by title (ie. “Crazy” by Willie Nelson), many of the duets highlit the friendly competition between the two singers, others featured the comedic or vocal abilities of them as soloists, and others turned out to be fabulous twists on familiar songs. Props and surprises were put into the mix as well. Oh damn I really can’t reveal the one song that implemented these the most…but I will say that it reminded me that John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote dark songs too.

If you have time Friday and Sunday night, go here, buy discounted tickets ($5 cheaper online than at the door) and purchase 2 drinks at the event for a really, really, really fun show. Lots of laughs, mental illness humor, song, and even dance! I highly recommend this! I encouraged Johanna and Kevin to take this introductory run of their show and take it to other venues, other states, and to develop it even further. I will post video if it is given to me in the near future. It certainly deserves to be seen…no matter how crazy you are.

*UPDATE 2/14/2009: Clips of this very night can be seen at Daniel Maté’s YouTube page:

www.youtube.com/user/danielmatemusic Thank you *

As previously blogged, I went to see the composer showcase of Daniel Maté on Friday. This time, the venue was at the Laurie Beechman Theater. I don’t particularly like the Beech, unless you’re seated in an area where waiters and waitresses aren’t walking in front of you every minute. It’s very distracting; when I saw “What’s the Point?” a few months ago, I sat in the very front row of tables and was undisturbed; this time, I was 1/2 way back from the stage and had to turn my foot away every time a waiter went by with a few plates of food. Highly distracting to say the least, especially when you’re in the mood to pay attention to the music – that’s what you’re there for, right?

Luckily, Daniel Maté’s music and lyrics (as well as his collaborative composers and lyricists) are hard to be distracted from. He has a lovely turn of phrase, especially. Maté himself hosted the evening, and sang a number of songs himself. However, he left most of the singing to a wide range of singers, all of whom were terrific. The night was directed by Rob Heller, with musical direction and piano by Christopher D. Littlefield. Added to the stage on some songs were Eric Day on bass guitar. Of particular note was Donna Lynne Champlin, of Sweeney Todd fame. She sang two of Maté’s songs I have heard previously: “I Don’t Think of You” (comedic looney) and “Three Sisters” (dramatically dark). In both songs, and probably due to the fact that they are so actable in nature, Champlin made strong acting choices – she was a real master class to watch and learn from. The entire room was stunned silent by the end of the final notes of “Three Sisters,” and even the waiters knew to halt movement at that time.

Maté kept the room’s easygoing but brisk pace moving, and even had an audience participation quiz thrown in on the song “I Come in Peace,” about his Canadian struggles getting past the United States border guard. Danny Gardner sang “Ali Abu Jeffrey’s Great Escape,” a dark comedic song that I particularly found funny and politically pointed. Two songs from his upcoming musical The Trouble With Doug: A Modern-Day Metamorphosis were also featured during the second half. This show will be premiered at CAP21 this Spring. A beatboxing vocal – care of Rob Broadhurst – was added to the second to last song, “All I Want,” which complemented the comedic pop sensibilities of singer Jason Tam.

The title song of the event, “Marry Me America” was performed by Maté at the end of the evening, just himself at the piano. The song was a bittersweet love poem to America, characterized as an old, worn out lady yearning for love and change. Frankly, it was a bit uncomfortable for myself, an American, to hear my country described as such by someone looking in from “outside” her borders. But the truth in Maté’s lyrics are poignant, painfully real and relevant. The discomfort gave way to bittersweet acceptance that in this day and age (well, probably in every day and age), the beauty America has can be looked at as somewhat worn and in need of repair and a honeymoon with a handsome Canadian lover with TLC.

Keep an eye and ear out for Daniel Maté and his upcoming shows!

P.S. Of particular musical theater geekiness of note, William Finn (writer of Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) was in the audience, and was referenced by Maté as his teacher and mentor in songwriting. Quite a number of songs, when introduced, were revealed to be influenced by Finn’s instruction and guidance. So, that was…uh…neat!