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.