December 22, 2010

Review: Junie B. Jones

December 5, 2010

And now, we take a break from the grown-up stuff to have an day of family fun. On this afternoon, an event in The Paramount Theatre's Play Time Series was to unfold. Famed children's literature character Junie P. Jones was to come alive on stage in a holiday tale called "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!" It was to be the first collaboration between this theatre and the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. The heck with Batman and Robin; UT and The Paramount were sounding like the new dynamic duo!

But first...

Next door at The State Theatre, there were activities galore for Play Time subscribers and donors. An event provided by Theatre Action Project before the Junie show, it was a real kid haven. We're talking a craft mecca in there: candy cane reindeer, Christmas tree cut-outs, ornaments, popsicle stick sculptures, and of course... glitter! The place was filled with happy kiddos and helpful adults. Seeing all of the little imaginations at work was thrilling. For them, the possibilities were endless.

For the half hour or so that I was there, nothing was more fun than to see all of the little ones working as diligently as Santa's elves on their various projects. I hope you brought the big purse, Mommy, because it was getting stuffed with handfuls of crafts. Granted, because the childrens' hands were smaller, they were tiny handfuls. But soon, it was time to put away the glue and pipe cleaners. On to The Paramount next door. It's nearly showtime!

As I walked in, one thing was certain: I've rarely felt taller in my life. The young 'uns were abundant, but best of all everything was catered to them. The snack bars eschewed the regular menu of tasty adult beverages for more kid-friendly fare. For me, that meant I actually felt guilt drinking my traditional Dr Pepper. Discretely carrying my soda into the auditorium, I noticed ushers were giving programs to every youngster that walked by. "Wait a tic! Where's mine?" I thought to myself. Once I finally held one in my hands, I saw why the youngsters got the royal treatment. You see, the programs were also activity books. Inside were elementary lessons about set design, costumes, and even lighting. Each was accompanied by cute little activities and games. Neat-O, right!? Alas, I felt like an adult at a restaurant browsing the children's menu (you know, the kind that come with crayons for the word searches), and promptly gave my program to an eager grade-schooler.

I took my seat (again feeling tall with all of the smaller bodies occupying seats around me), and soon the lights went down.

And it was a fantastic show. The vibe was fun and festive, and the bright lights, vibrant colors, and animated performances yielded all the appropriate ooohs and ahhhs. The audience was eagerly playing to the beat of the story, ready for every silly gag and pratfall that appeared on stage. Junie and her gang were playful, funny, and identifiable (regardless of your age).

One thing I noticed, however, was the exemplary behavior I witnessed during the show. I never heard one crying toddler, one spilled snack, one fidgety child or any unnecessary talking. Every kid within range was transfixed at the spectacle before them. Of course, during the intermission and after the show the whole place was a chatter, but during the act all were respectful and mesmerized. Any old timer who laments the days of well-behaved kids should've been there that afternoon. It warmed he heart to witness children having fun without having a wiimote strapped to their hand or planted in front of a television.

The magic was a testament to a successful collaboration. The performers did an admirable job recapturing the wonder of youth, and the theatre transformed its historic venue into a playground for the imagination. All in all, it was a smashing success in bringing smiles to hundreds of little faces.

Yep, the tiny ones ate it up, but so did (at least) one adult. Perhaps that afternoon I was just an overgrown kid myself, but giving in to the festivities, I had a great time too. And judging by the smiles around me on older faces, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only grown up who had a blast. It's not everyday you can indulge the inner child and just let go, but the day's merriment warmed everyone's heart long after the curtain fell.

December 20, 2010

Review: Ira Glass

December 4, 2010

Oh yeah. This was an event that had been one of the most eagerly anticipated of the season. A show that sold out rather quickly, and had a promise of being something special. Truth be told, although I was familiar with his radio work, I had no idea how an Ira Glass show would be. Would it unfold like an episode of "This American Life," his show on NPR (National Public Radio)? The possibilities swirled in my head, but all that stopped once I entered the doors of The Paramount.

Looking around the lobby with a sense of wonder, I found a pleasant surprise.

The place was all decked out for the holidays, and it was beautiful to behold all of the decor. Wreaths, nutcrackers, jolly elves, and slightly creepy old ladies under a giant Christmas tree made the lobby a festive place. I was surrounded by the holiday cheer. As Billy Mack from Love Actually would sing,

I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
Christmas is all around me
And so the feeling grows

Warm feelings abound and everyone was all smiles and pleasantries. Before taking their seats, it seemed all were taking in the decorations. With a few minutes to spare, seats were filled and eyes were trained towards the stage. After a brief introduction by director Ken Stein, the house lights went out, leaving us completely in the darkness.

The moment of darkness lingered, and then a vocal recording filled the auditorium. It was obviously a young girl, and one could hear the genuine fear and trepidation in her voice. She was talking about living in a gang culture, and recounting an incident when a gun was first pulled on her. The young woman gave a depiction of this violence as being typical for her surroundings, but she had never encountered it personally before. Clearly, it shook her to describe this event. The emotion in her voice hung in the air after she finished speaking, but then another voice was broadcast. This one was live. It was gentle, reassuring and casual. It belonged to Ira Glass.

The stage lights slowly came up, and Glass was revealed to be sitting at a station onstage with audio equipment. It resembled a mini radio booth, and was ever so appropriate for him.

As Ira came into full view, he explained that the girl was a gang member that was interviewed for a story. He added that her appearance had a tough exterior and for most people would have been considered off-putting. But when just her voice was presented, you don't have any other images to paint her with preconceived notions. With only a voice, you don't just listen... you hear her.

Thus is the power of one's voice on its own, Glass poignantly described. When it is just you and someone's voice, it is one of the most intimate acts of communication. He had a point. Think of any late night phone call from a loved one. Your full attention and heart are focused on that voice on the other end, under the cover of night. That is genuine intimacy.

Ira appended by demonstrating that stories are all around us. I knew in short order this was going to be a very special evening. One about sharing and the power of human interaction. And what an amazing night it was. The experience was so rich and full, that my meager summary here can't possibly do it justice.

Storytelling was the theme of the show. Ira Glass shared tales about people he's encountered while making "This American Life," and also behind-the-scenes drama on its creation. He played clips from people who shared their experiences, augmented by transitional music (just like his show). And what interesting anecdotes they were! We heard tales about the bizarre behaviors of drunken undergrads at Penn State, the eccentricities and snobbery of Palm Beach's super wealthy, and many more. Each underlined the power of narrative communication.

The most fascinating twists and turns came from a story of an elderly veteran who served his country and was outraged to find his wife's burial (also a veteran) was not going to be taken care of 100%, as promised by the governement. Incensed by a 16 dollar fee, he dumped his wife's ashes in the parking lot of the Veteran's Affairs office. When Glass caught wind of the story, he was intrigued at the possibilities. Not only was it outrageous in its own right, but it held deeper connotations. It revealed a attitude of a prior generation, when people had faith in their government and the honor of service. Quite the stark contrast to the cynicism of today's populace, he thought. The story also was an indictment on bureaucracy and red tape. It was going to be a perfect lead story for his program. There was only one tiny problem.

Research revealed the entire story was a fabrication. The story collapsed as the holes were uncovered, and it was never allowed to air.

Such are the tough breaks when one is bound by journalistic integrity. Make no mistake, Ira Glass is a journalist, but not in the sterile and conventional sense. He addressed this throughout the show also, along with thoughts on the state of media today. I tended to agree that news too often takes an "authoritative" view of itself, possibly derived from an era (early 20th century) where radio had to boom its broadcasts. It's a commanding tone that, when transferred to the emerging medium of television in the 50s and 60s, hasn't served itself well.

Perhaps this is why so many gravitate to "less objective" media outlets. Opinions are dominating broadcast journalism now because of how antiseptic the traditional methods have become. Glass described journalists as "robots," and that's not far from the truth. Who among us can identify with a robot? People therefore tend to gravitate to the biased outlets. Not because they're fringe lunatics who wish to lean left or right, but because they identify more with the passion on full display when opinions are involved. People want connection to the stories they hear.

Near the conclusion, Ira opened the floor to questions, and his answers also were little nuggets of gold. At one point, he played a very unique promo for public radio by Alec Baldwin. He takes a humorous reverse psychology approach, pleading with listeners NOT to give. There was a whole library of these gems played for our amusement, and they can be found here for your own enjoyment.

Not one to shy away from any answer, Glass weighed in on the theatrics of Glenn Beck and also on the Juan Williams controversy ("it was poorly handled, but it was in poor taste for Williams to bad mouth NPR so quickly"). Also unconstrained by pride, he played clips of what he called his early awful "radio voice." I'd hate to disparage the man, but "awful" is the right word. It was forced and too self-important to take seriously. Give me the earnest and slightly nasally Ira Glass voice any day.

All in all, I enjoyed the presentation a great deal. The casual atmosphere gave the whole experience a pleasant and easy-going tone. Ira's sincerity and candor made the show feel like a conversation with an old friend. Ira might as well have been across a table at a coffee shop rather than on stage. Granted, he wouldn't have been able to conduct such a presentation without his equipment. The entire production reinforced the importance of what Glass referred to as an integral part of storytelling, the element of narrative suspense.

I don't think any of us wanted it to end. We could have spent many more hours with Ira Glass. Like that personal phone call in the dead of night, we didn't want to disconnect. All of us hung onto every word, drinking in the emotion and knowledge as if at a desert oasis. Afterwards, the audience was still buzzing, obviously chewing over the topics presented and exchanging ideas with their companions.

I'm not sure if it was just the show or the added warmth of the holiday season, but I emerged that night with a great sense of rejuvenation and a renewed appreciation for storytelling's power. It can cut through rational and irrational thought like a knife through butter; connecting us to something in a core we all share. Stories are everywhere, and the diversities of these unifying narratives remind us how rich, big and wonderful our world really is.

I couldn't wait to get home and relay some of the things I heard that evening to my loved ones. Telling stories is contagious like that. Thank you, Ira, for giving me such great ones to share tonight. And also for reminding me that the intimacy and sharing of these tales is a lot like love, actually.

I feel it in my fingers
I feel it in my toes
Stories are all around me
And so the feeling grows...

December 7, 2010

Review: John Oliver

November 20, 2010

24 hours before John Oliver's show, I had already been subjected to a night full of laughs, and now even more hilarity is on deck. The night before, I enjoyed a set from the outrageous (if slightly mean-spirited) humor of comedian Louis C.K., also right here at The Paramount. Here I am finally recovering, and now going back into the proverbial lion's den for another round of hard laughs. If not careful, there was going to be danger of a busted gut. At the very least, I'm sure my face was going to hurt something fierce.

Arriving early, I found many patrons already inside eagerly awaiting the show. Although some were young (members of The Daily Show demographic, to be sure), the audience was of all ages. As the moments passed, more and more arrived and packed the place to capacity.

Once the lights went down, executive director Ken Stein came out and introduced the opening act. A young comic who warmed up the crowd, Shane Mauss entertained us with his goofy charm and child-like pluckiness.

After a brief set by Mauss, he introduced the headliner and finally passed the mic to the man of the hour, Mr. John Oliver.

What struck me first about Oliver was how casual he looked. This is a guy I'm accustomed to seeing as a correspondent, usually clad in suit and tie. Not as a depiction of a stiff Brit, but as a professional. It was a bit jarring to see him as a regular guy clad in jeans, sneakers and a poplin shirt.

Once John began his act, though, all the confusion melted away and I settled in to enjoy his brand of comedy. A bit ranty but always hilarious; it was a unique show I can only describe as a cross between observational humor and a state of the union address.

While most were a series of observations, he sprinkled amusing tales of when he was on assignment for The Daily Show. These anecdotes were real highlights, because of his storytelling style. Drawing you in with a tale, he adds intrigue and dialogue that have you laughing well before he builds to such absurd conclusions. Amongst these gems was a story of a disconcerting ride to the airport from a Michigan hotel with a frightening driver. When the journey goes off the beaten path (literally), John fears for his life when the stranger claims he "wants to show him something." Needless to say, John was not killed. He did, however, learn that this burly fellow proclaimed himself to be the first line of defense against any invading Canadians. Neighbors to the North, you have been warned.

For a "stand-up" act, Oliver showed a lot of energy up there, at times becoming a "sit-down," a "kneeling," and even a "prone position" act. Yes, he was all over the place in both topic and his staging, but the show benefited from these manic actions. Whether demonstrating drunken antics or re-enacting Thanksgiving with his father, John wasn't afraid to get into character for our amusement.

Staying true to his roots, John made sure to anchor his act to what he does best: point out what the heck is wrong with America. From Brett Favre to Las Vegas to blind consumption, Oliver didn't hesitate illustrating what a silly and nonsensical society we often inhabit. There were several acute observations, but a favorite was about the error of generalizations. He noted how many in our country have an irrational fear about Islam, and made the comparison that equating all Islamists to terrorists is akin to equating all Americans to baseball players. Amusing when you find the sport's biggest stars in baseball to be the likes of Ichiro Suzuki and Albert Pujols.

Oliver also clarified that he has gained more perspective and respect for the democratic processes now that he lives in the Unites States. What has become increasingly grating to him is the prevalence of voter apathy. He shared that Australia has attempted to counter this trend by making voting mandatory (can you imagine that here?!) and that many pubs and bars are open to provide alcoholic incentives around the clock. As John concluded, this is not a very good recipe for responsible civic duty. And so the search for shaking off this apathy continues.

Furthermore, Oliver has incensed that as a British citizen living in America, he had no control or voting privileges even though he paid his taxes here in the States. Then, it hit him. What was he actually angry about? Taxation, without representation. "Ohhhh," John said solemnly. "That was a big deal, wasn't it?"

As he ended his set, Oliver lamented the pathetic remnants of what was once the mighty British empire. Once the most dominant nation on Earth, it has now been reduced to the voice of a gecko selling insurance. To emphasize his contention, he produced a list from his pocket. On that piece of paper was a list of Guinness world records. But not "real" records, mind you, like Olympic marks or any legitimate feat of human endeavor. No, this list was more of the Joey Chestnut variety, if you know what I mean. Feats of the ridiculous and asinine.

Now, who do you think now dominates these types of accomplishments? The good old U.S. of A. Who was the first to jog across the Sahara? American. Most live rattlesnakes in the mouth? American. Oldest stripper? You guessed it. Largest gathering of people dressed as gorillas? Oh, well looky here! It's the British! The Queen should be so proud. And over the laughter from this final revelation, John Oliver was sure to plead with us not to take this record from them. It's all they have.

As I left the theatre that night, I was relived that my gut had not ruptured. But my face did hurt, in spite of the beer ingested. It was a good hurt, though. I'd much rather have sore muscles from laughter rather than say, stepping on a rusty nail or even getting a paper cut. And I think all of us at The Paramount felt the same joyous yet cathartic pain. We laughed because it's funny and we laughed because it's true. Sure, Oliver may venture into the realm of the hyperbole to make his points, but these arguments are no less valid despite the snarkiness. Any fool can point to the ills of our country, but only a jester can make us laugh instead of cry at the idea.

December 6, 2010

Coming Soon: Golden Dragon Acrobats

As December hits its stride, one can find more activities to undertake with their families during the holiday season. Last weekend, The Paramount staged its first production in its partnership with the UT Department of Theatre & Dance. Yet that play, featuring children's literature figure Junie B. Jones, wasn't the only family event this season. Soon, the world-famous Golden Dragon Acrobats will be taking the stage here in Austin at The Paramount Theatre. The troupe maintains the legend and mystique of traditional Chinese acrobatics, an art form over 2,500 years old.

Director Danny Chang and choreographer Angela Chang lead this group of 27 performers. This show first began its Broadway run in 2005 to sold-out crowds at the New Victory Theatre. Since that highly-acclaimed engagement, they have toured the world. They have played in all 50 states and over 65 countries, winning awards and maintaining themselves as the only Chinese acrobatic company that tours the U.S. year round.

Although capable of remarkable feats, these are also the types of stunts that make insurers very nervous. I'm sure crowds here will be treated to numerous acts of contortions and balancing that make us both exhilarated and completely unable to blink. In that case, be sure to bring eye drops, because you won't want to miss one single second. The feats promise to be awe-inspiring and amazing for attendees of all ages.

For instance, here is a promotional spot for the Golden Dragon Acrobats. Just look at this stuff!

In those 30 seconds are a plethora of stunts I would never dream of trying myself, for fear of broken limbs or possible paralysis. In particular, my jaw dropped at the towering balancing act. I'm not exactly a fan of heights, and I've never been known for my sense of balance. If I attempted that, I'd flop (literally). But you better believe I want to see someone else try!

From a cultural standpoint, I imagine it will be fascinating to behold the artisans exhibit such natural grace, agility and discipline. Being from a nation only a couple of hundred years old, it's nearly mind-boggling to think people have been practicing this athletic prowess for well over two millennia.

The Golden Dragon Acrobats promise to treat a full house to chills, thrills and gasps. Whether you attend to see the stunts, the control, the tradition, or for the spectacular art form, expect an exhibition of unmatched grace and beauty. One thing for sure, these will likely be the most nimble and downright bendy entertainers you will ever witness.

Come and see the spectacle with an auditorium full of fellow patrons staring in disbelief. Hey, there was a reason that these acrobat shows are where Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan found their "grease man" for their little visit to Terry Benedict. It's because these people do things the rest of us mere mortals are simply unable to. And that, my friends, is something to behold.

The Golden Dragon Acrobats perform at The Paramount Theatre on Saturday, December 11th, at 4:00 p.m. and at 7:30 p.m.

December 1, 2010

Coming Soon: Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison Holiday Show

Everywhere one looks, the holiday season is well underway. Christmas lights are blinking, stocking are hanging, shoppers are abound, and those awesome Little Debbie Christmas Tree cakes are available once again (yum)! Heck, you may have already put the tree up in your living room. Yes, that holiday feeling is in the air and festivities are taking place all around.

At The Paramount, Christmas is getting a Lone Star spin with a holiday show by Austin country musicians Bruce Robison and his wife, Kelly Willis. They're practically royalty in the realm of Texas Hill Country music, and are performing at the Theatre. Also featuring "The Band of Heathens," the duo will hold court in Texas's grandest venue to celebrate the season. Forget about eggnog or chocolate-covered cherries, this is a real Christmas treat.

Bruce Robison is a singer/songwriter raised in the heart of Texas. An accomplished country singer in his own right, he has also penned successful hits for the likes of The Dixie Chicks, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and the legendary George Strait.

Born in Oklahoma and raised in Virigina, Kelly Willis moved to Austin after high school to launch her musical ambitions. After a roller-coaster ride (and whirlwind marketing) with major labels early in her career, she later settled into her comfort zone and etched her niche as one of Texas country music's darlings.

Robison and Willis dated for a few years before getting married in 1996 and have four children together. A few years ago, they released a cover album of Christmas songs, "Happy Holidays." Annually they pepper the state with their winter concerts. This time of year, their appearances spread as much joy to Texans as Santa Claus himself.

Curious? Well, take a gander at these clips:

Here's one from a local Austin TV station on November 18th of this year.

Or how about this one from a past concert? Appropriate because... as I write at this moment... baby, it's cold outside.

From these two examples alone, one can see how sweet and cozy their melody is. The show promises to be just the thing for this chilly season in Austin. Like a warm blanket, Willis and Robison will wrap audiences up in that country dance hall charm. Their music is comfort food for Texan hearts, offering a refreshing new take on holiday classics. Soon, Christmas fun at The Paramount Theatre will get a Texas-sized upgrade. They will be rocking around the Christmas tree, and we all will be dancing merrily in the new old fashioned way.

Sounds pretty incredible to me. Dare I say it? It may be even better than (gasp!) one of those Little Debbie treats.

Put the cake down and come see Austin royalty spread holiday spirit. The Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison Holiday Show will perform at The Paramount on Thursday, December 9th at 8:00 p.m.

Coming Soon: Junie B. Jones

"Jingle Bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg..."

In addition to the wonderful shows this season at The Paramount, they are offering something for the little ones in your family, as well. These are The Play-Time Series, programs throughout the season for all ages to enjoy.

To celebrate the holiday season, a production will be presented about the ever-popular Junie B. Jones, a character from the bestselling children's book series by Barbara Park. Specifically, it is a theatrical adaptation by Austin playwright Allison Gregory. A production of The Paramount and the UT Department of Theatre & Dance, it's a tale about young Junie's holiday hijinks with her first grade classmates, and is entitled, "Jingle Bells, Batman Smells!" Yes, I know it's a silly title, but come on. Why so serious? With a name like that, you just know it's gotta be a fun time.

But wait (as any Holiday salesperson will tell you), there's more!

For subscribers of the Play-Time Series (or if one donates to The Paramount Theatre), there is a pre-show craft activity. Taking place before each of the play-time shows, this activity is thematically related to the show. Partnered with Theatre Action Project (a non-profit theatre education organization), the aim is to engage the children's imaginations and have them be a part of the theatrical experience before showtime. Sounds great, doesn't it? Well, click here to subscribe.

Batman may indeed smell (like guano, I presume), but this event smells like a winner to me. Bring the whole family and take in the show. Kids are happy, parents are happy, and you don't need to hire a babysitter!

The Play-Time Series' presentation of Junie B. Jones will be Sunday, December 5th. There are shows at 2:00 p.m. and at 4:30 p.m.

November 29, 2010

Coming Soon: Ira Glass

He is a fixture on National Public Radio. His show is crafted out of living, breathing pieces. Each week he presents us with a quilt portraying America; patched together with the fibers of its citizens. His award-winning show is broadcast on NPR radio waves and is the most downloaded podcast in the country. The man is Ira Glass, the bespectacled host and producer of NPR's "This American Life," a program that is one of the smartest and yet warmest snapshots of our culture.

As a radio personality, Ira Glass is the unassuming hero of the airwaves. Imagine Ferris Bueller's perspective inside Cameron Frye's body and you begin to get an idea of his persona. As airwaves crowd with the polarizing likes of Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern, and Alex Jones, Ira's personality is a most refreshing one; and his voice is distinctive for being so unremarkable and devoid of impertinence. Glass's winsome appeal extends to his signature creation, giving it a unique charm. Make no mistake, "This American Life" is his baby, and he's nurtured it since its inception in 1995.

Smart and yet warmly engrossing, each episode of "This American Life" focuses on a theme, and is composed of different kinds of stories to underline this topic. All are genuine and thought-provoking. Sure, they may not be as visceral as other radio podcasts. But for those of us who rely on rumination rather than knee-jerk reactions, these tales are infinitely more fascinating and revealing. In short, the stories captivate you. The allure stems from its "every man" spirit. They are tales that could be about your neighbors, your friends, your family or even yourself. And in many ways, they are.

What's most striking is the authenticity of the people involved. The narratives are often first-person, and serve as a testimonial to our diverse land. Many of the stories have a tint of melancholy, creating clouds over our country's amber waves of grain. And yet, it's all so identifiable. It's tailor-made for radio, where your mind is free of any pre-conceived notions that images can provide. For a short while, "This American Life" was adapted as a television program on the Showtime network, but it never captured the same vibe. On the air, the show feels casual and even extemporaneous, but on TV it felt overproduced. Sometimes, stories don't need anything else but our ears and imaginations to bring them to life.

The first time you hear Ira Glass, you are struck by his voice, but not for conventional reasons. The voice is not what one expects from a typical radio vocal talent. No one will ever confuse him with James Earl Jones. Yet, I'm of the opinion that one of the most important elements in the success of "This American Life" is Ira's voice. To be honest, it's slightly timid and nasal. And that very lack of command is distinctive. What he lacks in baritone, he makes up for in sincerity. More importantly, it doesn't distract us from the power of the stories themselves. His common voice allows us to hear both the literal and figurative voice of the subjects. Don't take my word for it. Visit the official site, browse the library and give a listen. Just follow the glasses.

The beauty of "This American Life" is that it allows one to breathe and taste the lives of others. Ira Glass's conversational tone make it feel like bedtime stories for adults. These tales are unconventional and rarely follow a straight path, yet Glass reads between these lines. We find that in this great land, the space between all of us can become the very bridge that connects us. Storytelling at its best reveals the culture of the narrator and the audience, and this man provides a peek at our nation's very soul.

His name is Ira Glass, and he is a modern day Paul Harvey of sorts. A throwback to an era where radio men didn't aim to crossover all media; he stays true to the spirit of storytelling and its power to enlighten. The stories engage us, gestate inside us, and affect us in ways we may not expect. Glass pulls back the curtain on what typifies America to focus on the citizens across our land. News stories may be about events, but they are always rooted to the people that are effected. Here's a man that holds onto that truth: that it is these people that comprise (as Paul Harvey would himself say) the rest of the story.

"This American Life" by Ira Glass can be found at iTunes, the official website, and of course, on the radio. In the Austin, TX area, Ira is on KUT 90.5 FM radio Sundays at 10 a.m.

Ira Glass will be appearing live at The Paramount on Saturday Dec. 4th, at 8:00 p.m.

November 15, 2010

Coming Soon: A Tuna Christmas

Ahhhh. Breathe in the slightly cooler air, Texas, it's almost Christmas time again. Unless, of course, you've entered a retail store in the past few months. In that case, Christmas season began sometime in August.

With autumn moving towards the exit and Thanksgiving a week away, we can all turn our attention towards the winter holiday season. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa, Bodhi Day, or even Festivus, there are some universal and ageless staples of the season (like that holiday fruitcake no one ever wants to eat). Everyone has their own habits and traditions they can enjoy, sharing the holiday cheer with others.

A great deal of the people I know have an implicit laundry list of traditions they experience between Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Some of them even brave the crowds of Black Friday, but to me that's a whole different kind of madness. For the rest of us, perhaps visiting Santa Claus at the mall would suffice, or just watching a holiday show or display of some sort with your loved ones will do.

Some have their own Christmas film festivals. These staples of the season are universal, and many shows and exhibitions celebrate this joyous time: "A Christmas Carol," shooting your eye out with A Christmas Story, "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" (the real version, not the Jim Carrey one), chuckling with the Griswolds in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, yipee-ki-yaying with Die Hard, or simply basking in the warmth of "The Charlie Brown Christmas Special."

Here in Austin, TX, there's another timeless holiday treat this year. That would be the return of the annual Zilker Park Trail of Lights performances of the comedic play "A Tuna Christmas." Wait? You don't know about Tuna? Well, let me fill you in. Rest assured, it has nothing to do with Jessica Simpson.

"A Tuna Christmas" is the second play of a four part series created by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard. The first was Greater Tuna, and the holiday tale was followed by Red, White and Tuna and Tuna Does Vegas. Set in the fictional town of "Tuna" (proudly proclaimed as the "third-smallest in Texas"), the play revolves around the community's annual Christmas Yard Display Contest, a wayward vandal, family strife, and a frustrating attempt to stage a production of "A Christmas Carol."

There are twenty-two roles in this play, but here's the kicker. It's a two-man show directed by Howard. Yep, Williams and Sears play every single role. Judging by all the acclaim they've accumulated over the years, the guys are fast, witty, and hilarious. These satirists grew their creation right here in Austin, and constantly tour the country performing their shenanigans about Tuna, TX. They've taken "Tuna" off-Broadway, played at The White House, and even had an HBO Special back in the 1980s. It's not easy to take a swipe at small-town conservative ideals here in the great red state of Texas, but the trio shows that Tuna is greater.

Something tells me the humor is really gonna hit close to home for your truly. You see, with all respect to John Cougar Mellencamp (or whatever he calls himself now), I was born in a small-town. And let me tell you something, growing up in small-town Texas is a unique experience. I often marveled at how ludicrous the small-town mentality can be, and I think my old stomping ground was the very prototype of half-baked, bass-ackward ideas. Even as a kid, I couldn't understand its policies and contradictions. What's worse is that decades later, they haven't changed.

Allow me to paint an example of what my hometown does. Recently, this town was suffering from an identity problem. Located smack dab in the middle of nowhere (seriously, it's a two-hour drive from Austin, Houston, San Antonio and Corpus Christi), the local leaders decided the city was lacking, from a marketing standpoint. They need a trademark, something that will make people come and spend tourist dollars in that coastal oasis that resides 100 miles from civilization. After spending a good chunk of taxpayer money, they decided on an image. They would brand the town with... wait for it... boots. Yeah, boots. No, not Dora's little monkey buddy.

I know what you're going to ask, and the answer is also "no." The town is not known for boots or for bootmaking of any kind. If anything, I'd say the town is known for being populated by conservatives who raise children that can't wait to grow up and escape. Imagine, if you will, The Last Picture Show without Ben Johnson (or Cybill Shepard) and you'll begin to get the idea.

Oh, and get this. This week, the city staged some fabricated event to pat themselves on the back and market a line of boots emblazoned with tacky graphics of the town's various logos. All I can say is that the focus groups must have been blind. Trust me, the boots are truly hideous. That is my hometown, ladies and gents. You can't make this stuff up. It's all so sad and funny in a Waiting for Guffman kind of way. With towns like this all over the Lone Star state, I'm sure the Greater Tuna trio has a wealth of experiences to draw upon. I fully expect my jaw to hurt from laughing.

So as I enjoy life in Austin now, I look forward to starting my own holiday tradition in this city. "A Tuna Christmas" will anoint this jolly season with some Texas-sized laughs at the expense of small-towns. Heck, I guess I shouldn't complain too much. I know I've harped on my hometown, but it's done out of love as much as frustration. After all, it's Christmas. And like George Bailey learned, everything has its sweet and salty moments in this wonderful life. Maybe even that holiday fruitcake. Not that I would know, because I'll never try it. You eat it this year, and I'll help myself to a serving of Tuna.

Re-gift the fruitcake and come enjoy "A Tuna Christmas" with me. It is playing at The Paramount from November 23rd through the 28th.

November 11, 2010

Coming Soon: John Oliver

"Hmm, John Oliver. That's the guy from The Daily Show, right?"

This was my first impression a few months ago when I saw his name on the list for the Paramount 2010/11 season. Now that I'm familiar with his work, it's a show I will not miss. Please, allow me to explain.

Confession. I'm not, or ever have been, a regular viewer of The Daily Show. It's not that I don't find merit in the program, because I do find the writing witty and the insight to usually be spot on. Admittedly, I may be more inclined to appreciate it due to my seed of counter-culture inside me (particularly in a state that for some reason just re-elected Rick Perry as governor, again).

I've not watched it all these years because I never thought it would be my cup of tea (as in the drink, not the crazies political movement). However, just because I don't watch The Daily Show, doesn't mean I'm a lunatic who prefers Glenn Beck. In fact, I'd rather opt for lobotomy over watching anything on FOX News (which coincidentally, may be the requisite for finding anything informative about that very network).

Oh, but did I mention I don't have cable TV? That kind of answers the whole "why I don't watch" thing. I probably should have mentioned that to begin with. Oops.

Of course, through the miracle of the interwebs I've been able to catch up on what I've been missing all this time. My appreciation for the show grows... well... daily. What I find most enjoyable is the cast. There are enough personality types on the show that it replicates a kind of family dynamic. And by "family," I obviously mean the dysfunctional (yet endearing) kind. Political rantings dyed with this level of satire is likely reminiscent of Thanksgiving dinner for most of us. Ah, I can almost hear it now. "Uh oh, Uncle Lewis Black is ranting again. Someone get his high blood pressure meds."

For those more familiar to the show than I was, they know that a strength has historically been the hilarious correspondents and contributors. Off the top of my head, I can think of the aforementioned Lewis Black, as well as Stephen Colbert, Steve Carell, Samantha Bee, John Hodgeman, Ed Helms, Rob Riggle, Rob Corddry, Mo Rocca, Dave Attell, and (why not?) Olivia Munn. Each quirky and brilliant in their own way. Browsing endless clips on YouTube and Hulu, I've developed a short list of favorites. At the top of that list is the ever affable... John Oliver.

Oliver is a stand-up comedian who appears as a "Senior British Correspondent" on The Daily Show. After discovering his work online, I discovered I can whittle away hours watching his comedy. His pieces are consistently funny, and all have a boyish charm that make his humor appear countercultural and precocious. He's like a cross between Sacha Baron Cohen and Harry Potter.

But what is it about Oliver's twist on the news that makes me ask for more? Is it the Emmy-winning writing? The sharp social commentary? The sometimes tongue-in-cheek exasperation? The nonchalant delivery? Nah.

It's the British accent.

There seems to be a mystical power over us American yokels regarding Brit accents. I've met many people who are absolute suckers for an English dialect, and evidently they represent a microcosm of how this country feels about Great Britain in general. How does the old saying go? The U.S. and England are two nations separated by a common language? I'm inclined to believe it, and I guess for us the grass is always greener over on the British Isles.

For those seduced by the land of fish and chips, bangers, beef trifles and afternoon tea, I imagine the accent just makes things sweeter and more pleasant to listen to. It's like a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. Wait, who said that? That's right. Mary friggin' Poppins, the nanny. And guess where she's from?

Contemplating the why was a tricky proposition. Perhaps the accent sounds so familiar and yet so (paradoxically) foreign that it demands our attention. Perhaps we're tired of listening to our own boorish speech. Perhaps the accent makes discussion sound more regal or sophisticated. We seem to respect the British more, as if it lends itself an increased cachet.

For instance, look at recent Oscar winners. What do Helen Mirren, Kate Winslet, Tilda Swinton, Rachel Weitz, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, and a few dozen other nominees have in common? You guessed it. Old Blighty. Heck, even Gwyneth Paltrow has an Oscar, and I attribute it solely to her playing a British role in Shakespeare in Love. Because, let's be honest; if Paltrow was truly talented, we wouldn't be marvelling at her performance at the Country Music Awards, now would we? As a side note, I'm pretty sure the CMAs are the one venue where a British accent won't help.

And do you think television news networks aren't aware that British accents equate to increased credibility? Take a look at (former CNN darling) Christiane Amanpour. Or how about Martin Bashir? Why else do you think more people would trust BBC news over MSNBC or (gulp) The Drudge Report? The accent, baby.

So it stands to reason that John Oliver's candor (and accent) allows him to brazenly tell the truth to American audiences, even on a fake news program. We can tolerate the Horatian satire because of how earnest he is. Hopefully, we can also learn a thing or two.

Here's a prime example of what allows our great state of Texas to select the like of Rick Perry... again.

Even better, here's this. This clip summarizes what I've been personally espousing for years now. And why I always remember that "nostalgia" isn't just a yearning, it's a malady. A reminder that clarifies the proverbial "rose-tinted glasses" are really just cataracts that cloud one's vision.

We laugh, then laugh some more, and hopefully see through our self-delusion. American folly can be brought to light and we won't feel inclined to shoot this messenger. John Oliver can tell the truth because he's British. After all, it worked for Simon Cowell.

Comedian John Oliver has two shows at The Paramount on Saturday, November 20th. An 8 pm, and a late show at 10:30 pm. Go to one of them. You know you want to. What else are you gonna do? Go to the movies and watch Harry Potter, Part 7?

October 21, 2010

Review: Chris Issak

October 13, 2010

Even though I've experienced two great shows thus far, a part of me had slight reservations about another live concert. You see, my history with them have always been rather hit or miss. Austin may be a mecca for live music, but that doesn't necessarily translate into a high caliber show. For instance, one can find live music at a good number of restaurants and outdoor venues, but that's no guarantee it equates into a good experience. Off the top of my head, I had a lackluster encounter recently at Hyde Park & Grill a certain restaurant I won't name, where the live entertainment consisted of a woman singing with a live band with a baby strapped to her body. Yes, just like Zach Galifianakis in The Hangover. Yeah. Luckily, the food is always pretty darn good there. My lesson was learned, though. I'll be dining inside from now on.

So yeah, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with live performances. I'll be the first to admit I was blown away by Omara Portuondo, though, so I'm hypothesizing that the venue has a lot to do with it. Good thing Chris Isaak's show is at The Paramount, since it's obviously one of my favorite places ever (as if any long-time reader would know).

I arrived pretty early for the event, and there were still a heck of a lot of people already there. The crowd consisted of all ages, but I noticed something right away. It clearly was a mid-week "date night" for most in attendance. Hmmm. For an artist like Isaak (with his sultry tunes), this is a bit of a no-brainer. Alas, I was attending tonight without the company of my beloved; and began to feel left out.

Glancing around shortly before the start time, I saw a packed house. It was impressive to see so many people filling up the theatre. The buzz was electric, and finally the house lights went down. Executive director Ken Stein came out and expressed his appreciation to the large turnout. He also reminded everyone to please turn off cell phones as to not disrupt the show. The method in which he does this never ceases to make me smile. Stein asks for everyone's attention, makes the cell phone announcement, and then asks anyone unwilling to do so to please join him in the lobby during the show. At that point, Ken adds, he will be happy to have a heart-to-heart conversation with them about how to have a life again. I've heard this a few times before the shows, and I chuckle every time. That night the crowd roared in approval. No one wanted any distractions. With the business out of the way, he introduced the opening act, singer-songwriter Amy Cook.

I gotta admit, friends and dear readers, I was impressed with her set. A transplanted Californian, Cook now calls Austin home, and so I imagine it was a real treat for her to perform in front of the home crowd. Heck, it was a treat for me (as I must confess I had not heard of her before that evening). She played and I found myself captivated by her sound, reminiscent of Brandi Carlile (whom I absolutely love, by the way). Her music was dignified and soulful, and I was particularly taken with the song "Hotel Lights." Cook seemed ever so humble up there on stage, and her chats between songs about Austin and Chris Isaak were so casual it put the audience at ease with her mellow sound. As she wound down her set, however, Amy sang a cover of Del Shannon's classic "Runaway" that really got us all going. By the time the chorus came around, we all were singing "I wa-wa-wa-wa-wonder why Ah-why-why-why-why-why..." That's right, the fun was underway, and Amy had us all pumped up for the main event.

As Ms. Cook exited, the lights came up and we all took a brief break as the stage had the finishing touches applied. I stretched in my seat and glanced around to look for any friends amongst the patrons. I was half-expecting to see an old friend of mine who lives in Austin (and is one of those fanatics I spoke about in my preview), but had no luck. Of course, finding one face among the hundreds was a futile venture. I turned on my phone to check if there were any messages, and found a text message. Lo and behold, it was from that very friend. She told me she was there, sitting by herself next to an empty seat (her companion was unable to attend). Speak of the devil, huh? I made my way through the crowds and found her.

I sat next to her and we caught up for a few minutes. Then she excitedly began to tell me what to expect during the show. She explained that she has attended every Chris Isaak show in Austin over the past ten years or so. That, my friends, is dedication. Through her excited animated descriptions, I was relieved to not get that "scary vibe" from this super fan. Her vibe was enthusiasm, not insanity. It's the kind of fandom that produces genuine happiness, not restraining orders. Her vigor was infectious, and now I had Isaak fever as well. In mid-sentence, the house light went down again. Ack! No time to return to my seat; instead I settled in.

Lights dimmed, and all eyes turned towards the stage. The music began blaring and everyone's hands were clapping together as he stepped onto the stage. Chris Isaak. Giddyup!

And what a fantastic show it was! If I had to describe it in one word, it would be... vivid. No, I'm not referring to the dazzling lights or the lively band clad in silver (the band name is "Silvertone," after all), or the turquoise-clad Isaak himself. "Vivid" means the energy was high, and the entire performance was a very colorful and stylized production. Up on stage, Chris was boundless in his stamina. At one point (covering Elvis Presley's "Love Me Tender"), he cavalierly sauntered down the steps of the stage and cruised the aisles, crooning to individuals and occasionally even sitting down next to them as he continued singing. Wow. That's not your typical serenade, now, is it?

But the lucky ones weren't just at orchestra levels. While in the aisles, he made a mad dash for the upper levels. Those of us down below could hear him up in the mezzanine, and the screams and squeals indicated the approval of the masses. We glanced up to try and see where he disappeared to, and POW! He then appeared like a jack-in-the box in one of the balconies. Can you imagine that? One thing for certain, he gave the couple in those seats a story they will tell for many years to come. A truly awesome experience for those people, and for us gawkers.

It would be an understatement to say the crowd was into the performances. Heck, they were frenzied. Looking over at my normally demure friend, I was shocked to see her whooping and hollering at the top of her lungs. Goodness!

Not that everything was revelry and sunshine. Chris would frequently talk to the crowd between hits, and on occasion reflected how some labeled his work as songs about heartbreak and unrequited love. He hesitated, then agreed with that assessment. But oh, how we all just clamored for such melancholy. While most of the songs in his set had his usual uptempo rockabilly pulse in them, a few simmered the audience with the slow pangs of desire. When the signature chords of "Wicked Game" began, one could practically hear the audience melt... and swoon.

For me, one of the highlights was the rapport between Chris and his bandmates. The quips between he and Silvertone were sharp and funny, yet never had a hint of malice. You could feel the love between Isaak and his mates: Hershel Yatovitz (guitarist), Scott Plunkett (keyboardist), Kenny Dale Johnson (drummer, and a Texas boy), and Rolly Salley (guitarist and Grammy winner). Chris humbly acknowledged their contributions, even if done in a tongue-in-cheek manner. The band got in their digs also, referring to Isaak's outfit as that of an ice skater. But it was all in good fun, seeing those boys ribbing each other while playing their jam session. Watching this, I can see how Chris and the band were featured in a television show as themselves. Sure, that Showtime program may have been a bit of a Seinfeld rehash, but I never saw Jerry place the cereal bowl down long enough to rock out in a sensual voice while Kramer, George and Elaine played rock and roll.

All in all, it was a comical show with stunning production value and great music. What more could one ask for? And for the cherry on top, Chris had the last laugh on his band when he changed clothes for his encore. The costume, you ask? It was a suit made completely of mirrors. Yep. Showmanship. The mark of a true entertainer. Make no mistake, that's exactly what Chris Isaak is.

After the slam dunk of an encore, my friend and I were standing with grins practically chiseled on our faces. We ventured towards the stage, searching for any discarded guitar picks, but had no luck. Wandering outside after the show, we continued talking for a long while beneath the The Paramount's awning. I may have been without a date that night, but sharing favorite moments with a friend was not a bad way to go.

There's no denying the draw of a performer of Chris Isaak. Like a modern Roy Orbison or even Ricky Nelson, his stirring voice captures hearts even as he sings about lament. But when one is treated to a show like I witnessed that night, the misery of love pains aren't so bad. This was a live show I had no reservations about. In fact, heartbreak never sounded so damn good.

October 17, 2010

Review: John Lithgow

October 12, 2010

In the days before Tuesday's one-man performance at The Paramount, my anticipation become more acute. Why? Because as I was writing my preview piece, a revelation of sorts came to me. I really love John Lithgow. He's the actor you secretly love. It's so secret that you probably don't even realize the truth.

As I picked up my tickets at will call, I was thrilled to see I was going to be seated in the front row! Row AA seats 11 & 12, to be exact. As I gave my tickets to the usher, she led me down to the front. We were dismayed to find, however... that the seats were not there. Not because anyone was sitting in the chairs; I mean because they literally did not exist. The row went up to seat 10. Needless to say, this was... disappointing. What a bizarre situation to be in, and staffers quickly rushed to find another spot for me to sit. Happy to finally find an available seat, I was still chagrined at the missed opportunity to actually be down in front. To illustrate, those would have been here:

Oh well, no time for tears. The time of Lithgow was at hand, and I still had a great view. Settling down into my new chair, I observed and appreciated the sparse set up on stage. For a one-man show, it gave the air of an intimate affair, even if I was to watch the stage with a few hundred other patrons.

When John appeared on stage, he received a warm welcome from the crowd. Conversing casually with us all, he explained that this was actually his first trip to Austin, ever. Informing us that he arrived the day before, he had taken in some of the city and loved it (naturally, it's Austin, who wouldn't love this place?). Visiting the University of Texas campus, he showed us a little souvenir that was made specifically for him. Out of his bag, he brandished a burnt orange UT football jersey. The applause rained down from the audience, then graduated into thunderous cheers when Lithgow displayed the reverse side. It read, "Lithgow # 7" (check the slideshow at the conclusion of this article for proof).

Mr. Lithgow that night was performing his one-man theatrical memoir "Stories by Heart." An intimate look at the types of stories that shaped his childhood, his adulthood and career. He performed two separate stories that evening. The first story was prefaced by an explanation regarding the significance of the tale in his personal life. "Uncle Fred Flits By," by P.G. Wodehouse, was a favorite of the Lithgow siblings while growing up, discovered in a collection of short stories. His father would read it with, as John put it, "an exuberant flamboyance." Now there's a descriptor that can be applied to John himself; a point that he willfully conceded with a cheeky abandon.

"Uncle Fred" gained added significance for John several years ago. After a debilitating medical procedure, John's father, Arthur Lithgow, was sapped of his lifelong vitality. John moved in with his parents for a month during his dad's recuperation, and it pained him to see his father as a shell of his former self. After repeated attempts to connect with his parents (both in their 80s), John found the old collection of stories on the shelf and one night read the story to them.

It's a hilarious tale filled with moments of mirth and outlandish situations. During his reading for his parents, John told us a magical thing happened. Arthur started laughing. It was described as a moment of crescendo, an involuntary act of merriment that revitalized his stoic and ailing father. Laughter and gaffaws burst forth like a fountain, and John credits "Uncle Fred" as the catalyst that brought his father back from the dead.

The story is about a young man named Pongo and a eccentric afternoon jaunt with his outrageous Uncle Fred, a man capable of brewing mischief where ever he goes. Like a force of nature, Fred leads Pongo on an excursion to an estate where zany misunderstandings ensue involving the duo, servants, visitors, eel jelliers (that's right, eels), and a parrot. Lithgow embodied every character while reciting the tale, and it was a riot to see him juggle this craziness effortlessly.

Boisterously merry, the story took a poignant turn as we realized Lithgow was recreating the very reading from that night years ago. When he addressed us all at the end as if we were his mother and father, the smiles remained, only now with tears sparkling in our eyes.

During the intermission, I had time to reflect on what I just witnessed. Was it merely the humor that made his storytelling so engaging? Was it Lithgow's caliber of acting that elevated the silly story into a tale of humanity and the frailty of life? Was it the history he provided us before the story? Was it the vulnerability he displayed and earnestness of his candor? Likely all of the above. One thing was for certain, Lithgow was skilled at painting mental pictures. Whether it was the farce of "Uncle Fred Flits By" or the scene recounted at his parents' home, it was all so real.

After the break, John came back out and immediately led the audience into a rhythmic hand-clapping. Once we were in unison, he began to sing a jolly-sounding song. A continuation of mirth from the previous story, it seemed. As we all listened to the lyrics, we quickly learned that the story told in the song was much darker than the melody let on. Entitled "Eggs & Marrow Bones," it was a story of a wife who is desperate to kill her husband.

Yeah. Not so sunny, after all. And it was an appropriate segue into the second story he had for us that evening. "Haircut," by Ring Lardner, was a story that Lithgow discovered in his junior high school years. It existed in a world John was familiar with. Where, as the new kid in town, he was subjected to cruel teenage torment varnished with excessive societal niceties. The tale is told directly to the audience, who plays the role of a customer in a barbershop. Gossip and chatter spill out of the barber's mouth as he tells the tales of its citizens, particularly a popular townie who is clearly a bad seed but everyone makes excuses for, or else simply turns a blind eye to.

Lithgow embodies the town barber in his story, and we are his new customer, rapt at attention and sometimes blushing at how forthright and candid his tale is. Clearly, discretion is but a flag in the wind to the barber, and town secrets pass from a mouth as wide as a barn door. As the haircut progresses, we swing on a pendulum from shock, to disgust, to sympathy. Despite the affable nature of the barber (with his giddy but slightly creepy laugh), we can see the darkness under the surface like storm clouds on the horizon. It hints at a Midwestern passive-aggressive nature and duality in general. Lardner's narrative is more than a shave and a haircut; the story itself cuts close us to the bone.

His performance of "Haircut" guided me along a path of anticipation and silent dread, and left me in a clearing of ambivalence about human nature. Nevertheless, I can not dismiss the power that John displayed up there on stage. I was riveted and, to reinforce a cliché, was on the edge of my seat. So often, stories like these can open our eyes and force us to confront that which we usually want to sweep under the rug. The beauty of performance (be it live acting or cinematic) is that it can place us in other people's shoes, or perhaps reveal to us a pair we didn't even know we possessed. This power of storytelling is one of the underlying elements to humanity itself. That night, Lithgow's one-man show reminded me why.

Storytelling is a primal element of humanity exactly because it is crafted by us. These chronicles work because of our ability to connect with one another. And where the conscious mind leaves off, imagination can pick up the trail. This artistry can enlighten, transport us, and even rejuvenate the soul. Tuesday was like a fireside chat and a warm bedtime reading rolled into one.

Good night, John. Thanks. I hope you loved Austin, because we truly love you. And that's no longer a secret.

October 14, 2010

Review: Omara Portuondo

October 7, 2010

Despite a summer chock full of events at The Paramount Theatre the past few months, they were all cinematic in nature. No complaints, here, mind you. I'm always a film fan, first and foremost. However, I had yet to experience a live performance at the venue. No concerts, no acting, no shows. But all of that was about to change that night. Omara Portuondo, legend of Cuban music, was taking the stage at The Paramount.

In spite of my preview write-up, I must confess I was unsure of what the show was to entail. My beloved and I were ever so excited for this exotic experience. Sure, we may live in the professed "live music capital of the world," but how often does that encompass a 79 year-old Latin diva and such Cuban flavor? My gut told me something truly special was in the offering.

There was a genuine air of excitement at the theatre. Patrons were not merely milling around before the show, they were buzzing. As the performance time arrived, director Ken Stein took the stage and welcomed us to the 2010/11 season. Thanking individual and corporate sponsors, he reminded us that none of it would be possible without the patron's generosity.

And with the introduction stated, the show began. For the next two hours I was enraptured by what unfolded before me, a sensational event the likes I had never seen.

All of the musicians were of the highest caliber, and would have been amazing to behold indivdually. Each was fantastic in his own right, but I was most impressed with Harold Lopez Nussa, the pianist. With powerful fingers, he flashed over the keys like a flash of lightning and thundered chords during solos that would leave the crowd breathless. The five musicians had such a special harmony with the songs, and the energy levels they brought kept the entire show ratcheted up to an 11. Every one on stage had a chance to shine, and they all were bathed in the audiences' adoration and applause. Felipe Cabrera on the bass and percussionists Andrés Coayo and Rodney Yllarza Barreto brought the house down during solos. And the passion of guitarist Swami Jr. was simultaneously cool yet caliente, evoking memories of a young Carlos Santana.

However, the true revelation that night was Omara herself. She may not have played an instrument on stage, but with her ardor, her voice and her charm, she had us all listening intently. I was astonished and hypnotized by her energy. Portuondo's stamina was a marvel to behold. Heck, I get fatigued from climbing simple flights of stairs, yet here was this living legend performing a vibrant show for nearly two hours (the first 90 minutes of it without a break), a mere few weeks shy of her eightieth birthday. ¡Dios Mio!

Omara was reminiscent of Yoda up there, only far more impressive than any Star Wars special effect. This was real; a true phenomenon of flesh and blood. There was something magical and beautiful about the lyrical nature of her soulful production. It was a performance of the spirit, and it was genuine magic. That night, neither her body or voice betrayed her frail corporeal frame. Her vocals were sincere and powerful, captivating the entire audience (even if some of us couldn't understand most of the Spanish lyrics). As the show continued, it was like watching someone in a fountain of youth. One could almost see the years melting away, and I imagine that night's performance was identical to those in a smoky Havana club over half a century ago.

Whether singing from her own albums, leading the audience into an impromptu accompaniment of "Deep in the Heart of Texas," or getting everyone to stand and sing along with her finale of "Guantanamera," Omara gave everyone something to treasure and remember. As we left the theatre that night, we felt so alive and so enriched. It was a great evening and an amazing display.

To witness something of this caliber, I was entranced. I was moved. I was grateful.

Feliz cumpleanos, Omara... y gracias.

October 10, 2010

Coming Soon: Chris Isaak

Let's be honest. What's the first thing that pops into your head when you think of Chris Isaak? It's this, right?

That's ok. Me, too. Nothing wrong with that. Not one bit. After all, the video is hawwwt.

Okay, so back on task. I've been a "passive fan" of Chris Isaak. While I really like his music, I don't possess any of his albums. Granted, I don't own a lot of albums to begin with, so that's not a knock on Chris at all.

Throughout my life, I have known several Chris Isaak fans. Hmmm, that's not quite accurate. Let me try that again. I have known several Chris Isaak maniacs fanatics. Those ladies were obsessed with the guy, and each proclaimed him the sexiest man that ever lived. Although I don't advocate any type of behavior that leads to a scary level of infatuation and mania (take note, all you tween Justin Bieber fans out there), I can see where the allure lies. Isaak is one suave dude. He reminds me of a cross between Elvis and David Duchovny, sans the X-Files stigma or the peanut butter & banana sandwiches.

From humble blue-collar beginnings, Chris literally is a self-made musician. If Loretta Lynn was the Coal Miner's Daughter, Isaak is the Fork Lift Operator's Son. Teaching himself how to play on his brother's guitar, influenced by country music (and by Elvis himself), he began writing songs in his teens.

Dabbling in amateur boxing during his youth, Isaak also was an exchange student staying in Japan. There he decided on music as a his career. After years of paying his dues in San Francisco dives, he finally caught his break in the mid-1980s. His debut album Silvertone garnered attention and particularly caught the ear of film director David Lynch. The creatively eccentric filmmaker put two of Isaak's songs in the 1986 film Blue Velvet. A few years alter, Lynch used a little known song from another of Chris's albums (Heart-Shaped World) for the film Wild at Heart. That song? "Wicked Game." Hot as a match, the song lit the fuse that rocketed Isaak into stratospheric new levels of success.

And like that, he began appearing in front of more audiences, both in film and TV. After a few blink-and-you-miss-him turns in Married To The Mob and The Silence of the Lambs (I guess Jonathan Demme is a big fan, too), he featured more prominently on the big screen in Little Buddha and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Seems like directors simply love Isaak, and even the reclusive cinematic auteur Stanley Kubrick used the song "Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing" in his final film, 1999's Eyes Wide Shut. Heck, the entire trailer was set to the song.

Taking his talents into living rooms across America, Chris was finally exhibited in a show of his own. The Showtime network gave him "The Chris Isaak Show" in 2001, where he and his band played fictionalized versions of themselves. Think of it as a more musically based version of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," without the acerbic humor and Larry David's unassuming yet rude behavior. Lasting three seasons, it was generally liked but not loved by cable audiences.

Although still crossing over into different media, Isaak is now focusing again on his music predominantly. This week's performance at The Paramount promises to maintain his long-time rockabilly charm and that (ahem) smooth sex appeal. I, for one, would not be surprised in the least to see some of the long-time maniacs fans there that I'm familiar with.

Songs will also be performed from last year's album, Mr. Lucky. As described on his website, this album is "like some rocking Sinatra album for the 21st Century, a song cycle about the good luck we earn and the bad luck we just can’t seem to shake." Sounds like it's worth a roll of the dice to me.

Don't miss the show. That would be a bad bad thing.

The show is Wednesday, Oct. 13th. 8 pm.

October 8, 2010

Coming Soon: John Lithgow

I've always known John Lithgow was a man who has worn many hats, but I had no idea how diverse his work was until I started doing a little research.

Born of parents with theater backgrounds, one could say the stage has been in his blood from the very beginning. While attending Harvard, he decided upon a career in acting for himself. Fun little factoid: as a freshman, Lithgow lived across the hall from roommates Al Gore and Tommy Lee Jones. Wow. How interesting do you think it was to be the Resident Assistant (R.A.) in that hall? And here I thought The Social Network was an interesting look at Harvard life. Pssh. Give me these three over Zuckerberg any day. Someone make a movie about Lithgow, Jones and Gore in college. Stat!

Lithgow made his Broadway debut on stage in David Storey's The Changing Room, for which he won a Tony award (how's that for a career start?). In the decades since, he has crossed over into television, film and radio with equal acclaim. in addition, John has created numerous works for children: writing poetry and short stories, while recording albums too.

Most audiences, however, are likely familiar with him due to his film and TV work. Early in his career, he was in Brian De Palma's Obsession, a kinda-remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. He started to gain notice in films after appearing in Bob Fosse's All That Jazz. Then he really took off, gaining Best Supporting Actor nods in back-to-back years for The World According to Garp and Terms of Endearment (1982 and '83, respectively). From that point, Lithgow really seemed to be everywhere.

While contemplating his filmography, one thing occurred to me. I had never noticed before, but I really enjoy John Lithgow in everything I've ever seen him in. Even if the movie or TV show itself is less than par. He is one of the few actors that I delight in watching, whether I love his character or hate him. Take a gander a the collage I assembled below and tell me John isn't one of the most endearing actors you can think of. He's just so damn good in any role that he embodies.

From Harry and the Hendersons, to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, to 2010, to Twilight Zone: The Movie, Lithgow impresses each film with his own mannerisms and that signature voice. I'll even forgive his scenery-chomping turns in the likes of Cliffhanger, Ricochet, Raising Cain and... wait for it... Santa Claus: The Movie. Yeah, I went there.

And let's not neglect his work on television. He charmed us all for several seasons of "3rd Rock from The Sun," and he won an Emmy this year for his role in last season's "Dexter" as a sociopath (who also really sticks it to our favorite serial killer with the last shot of the final episode).

By the way, did you know he played Yoda? Yes, the jedi master from Star Wars. Not in the movies, mind you, but in the radio drama portrayals. No lie.

And now the prolific actor will be gracing the Paramount's stage as well with his one-man show, Stories by Heart. In it, John "traces his roots as an actor and as a storyteller," utilizing two stories from his youth.

I don't know about you, but it sounds fascinating, and with the ever-appealing Lithgow as its center, well... Count me in. There's still time to join me.
The show is Tuesday, October 12th at 8 pm.

October 3, 2010

Coming Soon: Omara Portuondo

It's fall, and time is approaching for the kick off. No, not for football (although that is a staple of the autumn also). I'm referring to the first performance of the 2010/2011 season at The Paramount. The season begins with a special performance by a living legend, Omara Portuondo. On the 29th of this month, she turns 80. That's right, eight
decades and has been in show business for over 60 years. Wow.

Portuondo is a legend and ambassador of
música Cubana. Listing all of her life accomplishments and discography would easily take me until Christmas (remember, 80 years), so I'll keep it brief. She began in 1947 by singing with her sisters. After singing with different groups, she embarked on a solo career in the 1960s, where she garnered international acclaim. Her music also attracted attention for sometimes skewing political, referring to Chilean leader Salvador Allende and even Ché Guevara in some of her work. Through it all, she has remained closely tied to her Cuban roots. Heck, to this day, she's still a fixture at The Tropicana Club in Havana, fifty years after she preformed there the first time.

An assembly of her discography can be found on her website and other sites. Give her a listen.

Modern audiences are more apt to know her from her involvement in "The Buena Vista Social Club" album from 1997. American guitarist Ry Cooder (he of the slide guitar) worked with Juan de Marcos González to assemble a band of Cuban musicians, honoring the heritage and passion of pre-revolutionary Cuba. Widely acclaimed at its release, the
grupo musicales was also featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Buena Vista Social Club. Directed by Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, Wings of Desire), it documents the creation of the album and the lives of the elder musicians involved.

Doing some digging, I found that you can even watch the film in its entirety, right here.

Omara is a true gem. Her concert promises to be a culmination of a life long lived, and also an homage to a Cuba before our country decided to blacklist their very culture.

Glancing at the seating chart, there are still some limited seating available. Guys, this is one of those once-in-blue moon kind of event. Come down and enjoy this engagement. You can say you've seen a living legend, and prove to your friends and colleagues that you know first-hand that Cuban culture consists of more than Fidel Castro or Cohibas.

What a way to kick things off this season.
The show is Thursday, Oct. 7 at 8 pm.

September 23, 2010

Opening Party... and BINGO was his name-oh.

September 22nd. The marquee pretty much says it all.

"Season Kick-Off & Thank You Party."

I knew the evening was going to be a kick-off party, much like the one I attended before the Summer Film Series. I also knew it was to involve bingo in some way. No, not the dog from the children's song, but the actual game. And when it came to bingo, I was an unqualified amateur of the lowest order.

Several years ago I had my one and only brush with bingo. It was in one of those bingo halls where everyone in attendence is hardcore about the game. You know, with the multicolored dabbing markers and several cards to play at once. Those people were like octopi, magically scanning and dabbing a dozen cards in the two seconds between called numbers. To me, it was an impossible task. I attempted two cards simultaneously that night, and I couldn't keep up. Instead of winning prizes, I was the lucky recipient of a migraine and was a desperate need of a drink. Trust me, it was a total nightmare. Here's hoping tonight's experience fares much better (or least less stressful).

I arrive to a sweet surprise. They're handing out raffle tickets. There's always a comfort in raffles; it assures me that no matter how awful I play bingo, I could still win something cool. Securing my raffle ticket, I step inside and claim my bingo cards. Glancing at them I see the custom touch for tonight's event. Instead of the typical layout (B-1, I-16... what have you), the spaces were filled with phrases and names (B-The Salt Lick, I-Film Series, N-Ira Glass, etc).

Walking into the auditorium, I find the place has a definite Game Show Network kind of vibe. The music playing over the speakers is like a collection of cheesy '70s TV anthems of game shows gone by. I glanced around expecting to see Richard Dawson, but alas, it was not to be. On a personal note, I always thought it would be awesome to party with the Dawson back in his heyday. Something tells me that bro was a drinker of the highest caliber. Despite the absence the "Family Feud" emcee, I embrace my inner-Chuck Barris and find a seat.

As "The Dating Game" theme song was playing (with more cowbell- er, I mean.. flugelhorn!), Ken Stein comes out as our host for the evening. The lovely Brooklyn Barbieri, Associate Director of Marketing & PR, also appeared onstage as a sparkling hostess. She was like our very own Vanna White, only with an personality (apologies to Vanna, but let's be real. She was merely a plastic letter-turner). After laying out some ground rules, the games began. Up for grabs were very nice gifts donated by various businesses who don't hesitate to show their love to The Paramount. As each space was called out, Ken would explain its significance and give a brief lesson or anecdote about the person, place or sponsor. it made for a fun and interesting lesson about The Paramount.

Four games were played, and between each game was a raffle drawing. That gave me pretty good odds of winning something, right?

Wrongo. I didn't even come close. A couple of times, the only space I got to mark off was the center square. Yeah, the free one. Afterwards, my card might as well have looked like this:

On the plus side, because I was only playing only one bingo card at a time, I staved off the hectic disorientation and need for alcohol. Aw, the heck with it. Let's have a drink anyway, shall we? And someone shut off the damn game show music!

Games concluded, everyone then went to the lobby to have beverages and socialize. And, oh my, was I popular that night. During the games, Brooklyn and Ken recognized me and pointed me out to the crowd for my work during the summer series. I graciously waved to the crowd at the time, but after the bingo I was approached by numerous patrons in the lobby. It was great to meet new people and also assign names to familiar faces from the summer. Some were unaware of my blog and expressed interest, while several told me they read it regularly throughout the summer. I gotta admit, it's always nice to meet fans.

Hobnobbing was easy and casual the rest of the night. Ken was giving new patrons a mini-tour of sorts, and provided all of us with updates on the plumbing/digging. It's still a work in progress, and none of my theories have been proven correct... thus far.

Despite striking out on the big money (gift certificates) and fabulous prizes (gift baskets that were, well.. fabulous), it was a fun evening amongst new friends. Leaving the theatre after the festivities, I by no means felt empty-handed. Quite the contrary, I was actually giddy in anticipation of the shows to come this season. If all these people involved are any indication, this is gonna be one hell of a season.

However, I will probably smash any television I find that is playing game show tunes (note to self, stay away from retirement communities). And if I feel the need to try bingo again, I'll just go to Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon here in Austin. I've heard it's the shizzzzz. Literally.