Monday, June 23, 2014

Malcolm Gladwell Does It Again - Review of "David And Goliath"

I have been a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell's writing since "Tipping Point" managed to engage me and intrigue me.  "David And Goliath" is another success - taking a familiar topic and showing aspects of that topic in a new light.  In this case the topic at hand is the age-old struggle of Underdogs vs. Giants.

In his usual manner, Mr. Gladwell bolsters his central argument - that Davids often have hidden advantages when battling Goliaths  - with fascinating examples from a wide variety of fields.  He demonstrates how an undermanned group of Catholics in Belfast, Northern Ireland managed to break the curfew imposed by the powerful British Army.  He shows how Martin Luther King, Jr. and local Civil Rights leaders in Birmingham, Alabama managed to out-fox (or out-rabbit) Bull Connor and his police dogs.  He describes in gripping detail how a well organized group of French Huguenots managed to rescue thousands of Jews under the noses of the Nazis and the collaborating Vichy government.

As is often the case with a Gladwell book, many of his examples are counter-intuitive - why choosing to attend the University of Maryland rather than the prestigious Ivy League Brown University may have been a better choice for a fledgling scientist.  As he often does, the author takes threads that seem distinct from one another and weaves them together into a rich tapestry of myriad Davids besting Goliaths in many places around the world and in a broad variety of circumstances.

I am already figuring out to whom I will give copies of this book.



Review of "The Mockingbird Next Door" - A Rare Glimpse Into The Life of Harper Lee

Journalist Marja Mills has pulled off an extraordinary coup on several levels.  At one level, she managed, through patience, perseverance and integrity, to overcome the decades-long animosity that Harper Lee has nursed against journalists.  Her almost reclusive life in sleepy Monroeville, Alabama has been constrained largely by her desire to stay out of the public eye.  The whirlwind of publicity that came her way after the success of her novel, "To Kill A Mockingbird" left her painfully gun shy.

At a second level, having gained the trust of Ms. Lee and her older sister, Alice Lee, Ms. Mills manages in this book, "The Mockingbird Next Door," to reveal fascinating aspects of the Lee family history, the history of Monroeville and environs and the lives of Alice and Nelle (Harper Lee's given first name) without over breaking trust or confidentiality.  This is a remarkable achievement in journalism and in inter-personal relationships.

The book was years in the making, and was well worth the wait.  I have loved "To Kill A Mockingbird" since my high school days of feasting on the book and the film with the iconic depiction of Atticus Finch by Gregory Peck.  In this book, author Mills shares wonderful snippets about Harper Lee's life-long friendship with Gregory Peck and his wife, as well as the stormy relationship with Truman Capote, who was the inspiration for the character of Dill in the novel.  In this telling of the Lee family story, elder sister Alice comes across as a fascinating one-of-a-kind woman - still practicing law at age 90.  Harper describes her sister as "Atticus Finch in a skirt."

This beautifully written book has driven me to re-read "To Kill A Mockingbird" and to watch one more time the fine film adaptation that was a highlight of my youth..Any fan of Harper Lee's novel will enjoy Ms. Mills' behind-the-scenes look at life in a part of the world that is unique.



Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Go See "Gidion's Knot" by Bridge Repertory Theater - A Gripping Drama

The short nature of this review in no way indicates a lack of passion for this Bridge Repertory Theater's production of "Gidion's Knot."  I am running to catch my transportation to NYC and have only a few minutes in which to alert White Rhino Report readers of their last few chances to catch this remarkably moving play.

Here is the plot as described in the Playbill:

Plot Synopsis:

Over the course of an unannounced parent/teacher conference, a mother and the teacher of her 5th grade child have a fraught conversation about the suspension of the mother’s son, Gidion. During the highly charged encounter, details of the boy’s behavior are revealed, while questions are raised about everything from school bullying to the nature of creative expression. A finalist for the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award, Gidion’s Knot ensnares actors and audience alike through its suspenseful execution and timely themes. 

To say any more about the plot or the action would be to ruin the suspense of this beautifully written and crafted play by Johnna Adams.  Directed skillfully by Karen MacDonald this play treats in creative ways a cornucopia of issues: conformity, the role of authority, what makes a good parent, who is to blame when a child go "wrong," what are the limits of artistic expression, what constitutes bullying.  Ms. Adams provides no facile answers for these complex issues.

I cannot say enough about Deb Martin as Corryn Fell, Gidion's mother and Olivia D'Ambrsio as Heather Clark, Gidion's 5th grade teacher.  The two actors put on a Master Class in acting that ran for 90 minutes of breathless intrigue.

The show, running at Boston Center for the Arts, runs through this Sunday.  Use the link below to purchase your tickets.  You will not be sorry.

Bridge Rep Site

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reagle Music Theatre Presents Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" - Some Enchanted Evening At The Theatre!

My love affair with Rodgers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific" began when I was a young boy.  Even though my parents had not grown up being exposed to music and the arts, they wanted to ensure that their children had opportunities to experience some culture.  We did our grocery shopping at the local First National store, which offered a series of LPs of the original cast recordings of Broadway shows.  So, I would often fall asleep listening to Ezio Pinza and Mary Martin singing about an enchanted evening in the South Pacific.  This past weekend, Reagle Music Theatre treated their audiences to an enchanted evening in Waltham.  This production lives up to Reagle's usual high standards, and includes a wonderful cast singing some of the most beloved snogs in the history of musical theater.

Directed by David Hugo, with Musical Direction by Dan Rodriguez, the cast assembled for this production of "South Pacific" is full of energy and professionalism.  From the opening strains of "Dites Moi," they held the audience in rapt attention in the palm of their hands.  Eliza Zangerl as Ngana and Jackson Daley as Jerome set just the right tone of winsome innocence as they charmed Ensign Nelly Forbush with their singing.  Katie Clark as Nellie is very believable as a naive refugee from "Small Rock" Arkansas, head over heels in love with the debonair French plantation owner, Emile de Becque, played brilliantly by Peter S. Adams.  His singing voice is magnificent, and covers a full range of emotions.  His rendition of the iconic  "Some Enchanted Evening" gave me chills, and his "This Nearly Was Mine" was heart-breaking.  Equally impressive was Ms. Clark's version of the ever-popular "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair."

Also worthy of special mention among the principals is the astonishingly talented Lydia Gaston, whose portrayal of Bloody Mary is the best I have ever seen.  When she sang "Bali Ha'i," I was so mesmerized I was ready to book a flight to the South Pacific.  Her gestures were measured and slow, almost as if she were doing a delicate Tai Chi routine while singing.  Her performance alone would be worth the price of admission.

Mark Linehan as Lt. Cable handled his role very well, especially in the lilting "Younger Than Springtime" and the ironic "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught."  This song remains one of the reasons for "South Pacific's" place in musical theater history, for it was among the first shows to boldly address racism.

Aaron Dore is wonderfully mischievous and scheming as Luther Billis, and Samantha Ma is lovely as Lt. Cable's love interest, Liat.

The strength of the ensemble is on full display during "There Is Nothin' Like A Dame" and The Thanksgiving Follies.

Part of the success of this production can be attributed to the wonderful scenery by Prather Entertainment Group, the Lighting Design of David Wilson.and the Choreography of Rachel Bertone.

My standards are very high when it comes to this classical piece of music theater, and Reagle Music Theatre managed to exceed those high expectations. I think you will enjoy it, too.

There are only four more opportunities to see this opening show of the 2014 Reagle Season:

This Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:00.  Book your flight to the South Pacific using this link below.

Reagle Music Theater Website



Sunday, June 15, 2014

Les Miserables Back On Broadway - It Never Gets Old

Regular readers of The White Rhino Report are familiar with my obsession with "Les Miserables" - the novel, the musical, the film.  So it should not surprise you to learn that I felt that I had to see the latest production that is causing Broadway audiences to storm the barricades and the box office at the Imperial Theatre on 45th Street.

For me, seeing a new version of an old favorite like "Les Miserables" is akin to checking out a beloved restaurant that was closed for renovations and has re-opened in a new location with some new kitchen staff and servers, but using the same trusted ingredients and recipes.  There is always some trepidation and lots of questions.  Will the new location and decor feel welcoming and feel like "home"?  Will the new chefs and wait staff appreciate the rich history of the institution and carry on with the traditions that discerning diners have come to expect?  Will the old dishes still satisfy and bring a smile to my lips and a warm sense of satisfaction to my heart?

I brought similar trepidation and questions to the new Broadway production of this record-setting musical that opened 27 years ago.  Having tasted many satisfying "meals" as an audience member over the years, I have certain high standards and expectations of the production and of the performers and of the overall mise-en-scene.  I am pleased to report that the show has been curated lovingly by the current creative team and cast. In other words, come on in, the water's fine! This production still has the power to produce chills and tears.

Let's start with technical aspects.  The set has been simplified - no more revolving turntable.  The new configuration works well.  Set design by Matt Kinley is wonderful, with elements of the Paris neighborhood spilling into the mezzanine boxes, creating an all-enveloping atmosphere of the historic period.  The projected images based on paintings of Victor Hugo are a subtle change and very nice addition to the overall feel of the production.  The projections, realized by 59 PRODUCTIONS, are spectacular, especially in the scene in the sewers of Paris.  Lighting is very effective as designed by Paul Constable, as is the very clear sound design of Mick Potter.

Laurence Connor and James Powell direct an excellent cast.  The ensemble sound is strong vocally and dramatically, and the leads are all able to pull their weight - carrying on the traditions of cast members before them and adding their own twists.

Ramin Karimloo is a very moving Jean Valjean.  His rendition of "Bring Him Home" is among the finest I have heard.  This song is so vocally demanding that it often serves as the litmus test of whether a particular actor has the vocal chops to portray Valjean.  I have one minor quibble with Mr. Karimloo's otherwise fine performance.  In a song early in the play, he showed us his head voice upper register capabilities.  I would have preferred that he held that tool in reserve until the iconic moment when he sings: "God on high . . ."  I want the sound at that moment to be virginal.

Will Swenson as Javert does a fine job, and his "Stars" is up to the high expectations I hold for that important moment in the show.

The chemistry that is needed to make the Thenardiers believable is there in spades between Keala Settle and Cliff Saunders.

Nikki M. James brings a smoky, bluesy vocal quality to her role as Eponine, and it worked very well for me.

I had heard reports that Kyle Scatliffe's portrayal of student leader Enjolras had some weaknesses, but on the day that I heard him sing, I could find no fault.  I asked someone knowledgeable about the show about this discrepancy.  I was told that in the past several weeks, Mr. Scatcliffe has relaxed, stopped trying too hard and has gained confidence and has grown into the role.

Caissie Levy is a very effective Fantine, and in the brief time between the factory scene and her death, she portrayals beautifully the dramatic changes that are called for in this pivotal character.

Samantha Hill is a lovely Cosette, and one can see why Marius is instantly smitten with her.  "A Heart Full of Love" sung with Marius and Eponine is particularly effective.

In the performance that I attended, the role of Marius was played for the first time by Understudy Chris McCarrell.  He brought a freshness and boyish innocence to the role that I found intriguing and appropriate.

Let me mention a few things about the ensemble. Nathaniel Hackmann plays the Factory Foreman and one of the students.  His singing voice and stage presence stood out among a generally outstanding troupe.  Each man and woman in the ensemble did something personal and idiosyncratic to make their character(s) something more than generic - a facial tic, and gesture, a way of standing or walking - that made their individual characters breathe and live.  Here is one example.  Arbender Robinson plays Montparnasse, a member of Thenadier's gang.  During the attempted robbery scene at Valjean's house, he is perched atop a stone wall.  I noticed that he struck a pose that was very leonine.  Knowing that Mr. Robinson had previously played in the cast of "Lion King," I asked him about his lion-like pose.  He laughed, admitted that it was an intentional homage to that show, and was surprised and appreciative of the fact that I noticed that nuanced moment in the show and his performance.

This is a production of "Les Miserables" that will be pleasing to audience members who already know and love the show.  It is also a wonderfully accessible version for those that are experiencing the wonder and grace of "Les Miserables" for the first time.

I invite you to take a trip to the Imperial Theatre.  This show never grows old.



Les Miserables Website

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Review of "O, Africa" by Andrew Lewis Conn

Andrew Lewis Conn has bitten off a large slice of the pie of human experience in his far-ranging novel, "O, Africa."  Twin movie making brothers, Micah and Izzy Grand, make a fascinating pair of binary stars orbiting around each other in very different ways.  Micah the sensualist and Izzy the recluse see eye to eye when making films - but in little else that involves their lives and their relationships.

This ambitious novel tackles a number of important philosophical issues while taking the reader on a dizzying journey from New York to the heart of the Dark Continent and to the dark hearts of Hollywood and Harlem.  The author treats with issues of the meaning of time - as seen through the eyes of Americans, artists, and primitive Africans.  Through the lens of several couples and triangular relationships, he examines the nature of love and friendship.  He explores the nature of the relationship between an artist and his subjects, in light of quantum physics discovery that the act of studying an object changes the nature of the object being studied.  He throws light on the question of how do modernity and traditional tribal ways of living interact with each other and influence each other.  What is the nature of home, and how does one find it?  What are the lingering effects of the slave trade - in Africa and in the U.S., and what happens when film makers attempt to portray the history of the tawdry chapter in our history?  What are the unintended consequences?

I sped through this book, enraptured by the characters and the kaleidoscopic nature of their ever-changing relationships with one another and with the worlds that they inhabit.  The historical context - the Roarin' 20s and the eve of the stock market crash - adds some spice to the goings on.  Mr. Conn writes with a style somewhat reminiscent of E.L. Doctorow with a similar ability to portray the many nuanced layers of reality regarding the racial dynamics at work in 20th century America and colonial Africa.  This book comes with my strong recommendation.



June Is National PTSD Awareness Month - Profiling PTSD United

I first encountered Josh Rizzo when he was tearing up the base paths as a member of the West Point baseball team.  In the intervening years, he has served several deployments and excelled in several post-military careers.  Throughout all of his endeavors, he has remained stalwart in his support of fellow warriors who suffer from the effects of PTSD.  Along with several trusted colleagues, he has founded PTSD United.  When Josh reminded me that June has been declared National PTSD Awareness Month, I told him that I would be honored to make readers of The White Rhino Report aware of the month and of the work of PTSD United in particular.

I encourage you to read the information below, log into their website, and reach out in whatever way you are able to do to stand in support of our brothers and sisters who suffer from PTSD - donate, volunteer, tell your story.

Our Process

Connect. Learn. Heal. Grow. Inspire.
PTSD United, Inc. is a non-profit organization dedicated to providing resources for sufferers of PTSD, their friends and family, and anyone else interested in learning more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our primary method of helping PTSD sufferers is through our free, completely anonymous online social community, which is available twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week where people can go to connect with others living with PTSD.
On the individual level, we hope to assist in leading members through “Our Process” and proactively addressing the challenges of living with PTSD on a daily basis. Through our online social network and associated charities and resources, members will:
CONNECT with a community full of people just like them
LEARN that they are not alone, discover available resources, and better understand PTSD
HEAL through community interaction, discussion forums, and social support groups
GROW as individuals and eventually feel comfortable sharing their stories and feelings
INSPIRE others to realize that they are not alone, gaining a communal understanding of how
PTSD affects them and learn to guide others to overcome the sometime debilitating aspects

Our Vision

PTSD United, Inc. will work to reduce the stigma of PTSD and ensure 
that PTSD – and more importantly the population suffering from it on a 
daily basis – is given the appropriate attention and support it deserves.

Our Mission

To provide a centralized, anonymous, social community with additional 
resources for people living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, helping 
members to realize that they are not alone in their struggles. With a 
strong support network, this will ultimately be accomplished by the 
members – through the process of Connecting, Learning, Healing, 
Growing, and Inspiring each other.

PTSD United Website

Monday, June 02, 2014

A New York Times #1 Bestseller That Deserves The Status - Mini-Review of "The Fault In Our Stars" by John Green

For some reason, I was unaware of the buzz surrounding "The Fault In Our Stars" until last week.  I encountered someone on the subway reading the paperback.  When I asked about the book, she informed me that it had been made into a movie that was about to open, and that it was one of the best books she had read in a long while.  Her praise for the novel was so specific and so effusive that I immediately ordered a copy.

John Green has written a very touching and unsentimental book about two teenagers who choose to live life to the fullest while dancing under the dangling sword of Damocles that is a diagnosis of cancer.  Unlike the cloying "Love Story" of a generation ago, this book captures the heart of a girl and a boy who meet in a cancer support group meeting in a church basement - "The Heart of Jesus."  Their journeys of discovery, exploration, growth, affirmation and acceptance are inspirational without being condescending or cliched.  This is a book with a lot of "metas."  There are metaphors for love and for life and for disease.  There are meta-conversations about "cancer books." And there are the inevitable metastases that hover over each cancer patient like a phantom's shadow..

This book is both heart-breaking and uplifting, and is richly deserving of its current status as a favorite of young readers and older adults alike.



A Look Into The Doctor's Black Bag - Review of "The Zhivago Affair" by Peter Finn

I have been under the care of Dr. Yuri Zhivago since the eponymous film by David Lean hit the movie theaters in 1965.   The film changed my life in more ways than one.  On one level, it introduced me to the complexities of life in Russia and sparked a fascination with that part of the world that still flames to this day.  It triggered my desire to dive deeply into the sea of great Russian novels, short stories, poems and plays that has greatly enriched my literary life.  When Pasternak's novel became available to me in English translation, I consumed it.  I soon realized that as good as the movie portrayal had been of Dr. Zhivago's life, loves and art, the novel that shook the USSR was even richer and broader in its themes and artistry.

Little did I appreciate the cost to Boris Pasternak of writing this work of art that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature and also won him the scorn of his government and many of his colleagues - at least on the surface and in official pronouncements.  This book, "The Zhivago Affair," sheds valuable light on the dark intrigues that took place in Russia, Italy, U.S., The Netherlands and Sweden in getting this book into the hands of readers around the world.

Using broad-based research, author Peter Finn reveals the role of the CIA in pushing for publication, and the role of the Kremlin in trying to squelch Pasternak and his treasonous novel.  The book introduces a dense cast of players - fellow writers, publishers, government functionaries, family members and clandestine operatives.  There is also a fascinating examination of the widely divergent views of artistic freedom and propaganda - as seen from both sides of the Iron Curtain.

The book is as well written as it is meticulously researched.  I am grateful for the role that this book plays in drawing aside the curtain of secrecy and revealing how one of the great works of literature of the 20th century came to see the light of day.



Way Out on the Outer Fringe of Boston Theater - Heart & Dagger Presents "Jesus" by Charles Mee

Heat & Dagger Productions was founded in 2010 to innovate classic plays and stories with elements of modern dance, contemporary house music, and gender-bending - all under the guidance of Artistic Director, Joey C. Pelletier.

In keeping with that tradition, this production by Heart & Dagger probes the subject of sex with a full length production as well as a strange and haunting performance art piece by Charles Mee with supplementary material by Silvia Graziano and Lizette Morris.

"Unlike the shorts, which are more narrative, this experimental piece really bares the Heart & Dagger look," says Pellitier.  "Stylistic and full of movement, it's shocking and in your face.  It features all the awful things an audience can imagine and ends with a prayer. "“Something about the feelings I'm asking these actors to play," continues Pellitier, "is just too raw, too – for lack of a better word – ‘naked’ for the average actor to handle. It takes a special kind of performer to do plays like this. I gave the roles to people who wouldn’t be scared of the material… or people who were incredibly hot."

To bring this vision to fruition, Pelletier has recruited an exceptionally and consistently brilliant troupe of actors.  There is nothing gratuitous about the desires that are portrayed and frankly discussed.  What struck me about the Mee-Morris-Graziano pastiche, in addition to the fine acting, was the co-mingling of portrayal of sexual violence and aberration and the violence and destructiveness of war.  Primal urges and emotions are on display at both ends of the play's narrative spectrum.

It may be instructive to hear Mr. Mee talk about his work:

"So I try in my work to get past traditional forms of psychological realism, to bring into the frame of the plays material from history, philosophy, insanity, inattention, disconnectedness, judicial theory, sudden violent passion, lyricism, the National Enquirer, nostalgia, longing, aspiration, literary criticism, anguish, confusion, inability.

I like plays that are not too neat, too finished, too presentable. My plays are broken, jagged, filled with sharp edges, filled with things that take sudden turns, careen into each other, smash up, veer off in sickening turns. That feels good to me. It feels like my life. It feels like the world.

And then I like to put this—with some sense of struggle remaining—into a classical form, a Greek form, or a beautiful dance theatre piece, or some other effort at civilization."

—Chuck Mee

The fine actors in this ensemble, who shall be praised as a group and not singled out, include:

  • Jacob Athyal
  • Julia Bailey
  • Mike Budwey
  • Diego Buscaglia
  • Mikey DiLoreto
  • Renee Donlon
  • Jacqui Dupre
  • Brett Milanowski
  • Jesse James Wood
  • Erin Rae Zalaski

"Jesus" is running in Repertory with "Safeword" as part of Heart & Dagger's "SexFest II" through June 14.

Heart and Dagger Productions Website