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Patricia Nix’s Boca Museum Show is the Right Kind of Crazy

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At first awestruck blush, Patricia Nix’s work seems absolutely insane. And I mean that as a compliment, of course. She doesn’t create sculptures or paintings so much as phantasmagorical monuments to imaginary realms, often on a monolithic scale.

Nix is a collagist who constructs totems from secondhand ephemera, from doll parts to broken musical instruments to religious iconography and animal horns. Some suggest humanoid forms, while others adopt more abstract shapes. Most feel like offerings to pagan gods. The best reside on the border of the nightmarish and comic, a twilight zone that both attracts and repels. I’d want to buy these pieces in an instant, if I wasn’t afraid of the kind of energy they’d attract in my home.

These are the weird emotions that percolated during my visit this week to “American Baroque,” the Boca Raton Museum of Art’s audacious survey of Nix’s ongoing oeuvre. The native Texan has been making art for more than half a century, and she now works in her studio on Palm Beach, making surrealist outsider art that couldn’t be more incongruous from the other galleries on the island, with their accessible Pop art and gilded antiques. There’s little accessibility in Nix’s macabre mixed-media goulashes. And those stately figurines in the Worth Avenue galleries? She’s more likely to use them as readymade elements in her collages than display them.

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While there’s no linear chronology to the exhibition, “American Baroque” starts quite rightly, for visitors traveling clockwise, with one of her early pieces, “Bulldog on a Tightrope,” from 1978. Begin with this embryonic work, with its muted circusy atmosphere, because it only gets weirder from here. “Beauty and the Beast,” a sculpture begun in 1985 and completed in 2017, features the body of a string instrument encased in a cabinet, topped with the head of a monster which is sprouting wild antlers. The beast part is clear, so does the broken instrument represent music, which represents beauty?

Overthinking is de rigueur for most of these masterpieces, but it’s unnecessary for their appreciation. “Cowboy and Indian,” another wall-mounted assemblage, resembles neither of its titular archetypes, though it does suggest a humanoid animal chimera with a disemboweled keyboard for a spine. “As Time Goes By” conjures an instrument from some madman Terry Gilliam set—part chair, part piano, part clock, part midway amusement whose constituent parts have been stripped of their functionality.

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This transformation—from valued appliances, instruments and icons with individual purposes, to reinvented parts of an esoteric whole—is a recurring element across her oeuvre, often resulting in a mordant wit. In “Mother and Child,” a porcelain doll head rests atop what appears to be a miniature stove where inside, instead of a “bun in the oven,” there resides only wood shavings and cracked glass. The title character in “Fat Girl,” from 1984, is comprised of two chubby “legs” (actually ornate table legs), a jigsaw-puzzle heart with missing pieces, and an inverted tortoise shell to approximate an oversized midsection.

As Nix continued her practice into the Aughts, her art has seemingly become more vertical, more deliberately totemic, and even less figural. “Allegro 1” and “Allegro 2” are, in typical totem fashion, divided sectionally—abstract paint swatches here, dominos there, piano keys over there. “Flexible Totems” is a series of 24 narrow objects, each a work of extravagant collation, each suggesting a belt for an eccentric giant.

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The exhibition concludes with her large-scale interpretations of tarot cards, paintings composed of fever-dream visions of devils and hanged men, before coming full circle with “The Magic Mountain.” Completed in 2017, this newest sculpture is also the most massive in the exhibit, a golden shrine that feels like a Patricia Nix greatest hits collection, with its mounted steer head, its tiny piano, its billiard balls and bicycle wheel and dominoes and stopwatches. It’s festooned with too many religious icons to count, from Buddhas to crucifixes, popes to saints.

It comes across, like so many of her manic sculptures, like an object of worship, but of what? Certainly, Nix’s catchall ingredients and ambiguous aims transcend any one belief system. For all I know, she’s creating her own.

“Patricia Nix: American Baroque” runs through Oct. 22 at Boca Raton Museum of Art, 501 Plaza Real, Boca Raton. Admission is $12 adults, $10 seniors and free for students with ID. Call 561/392-2500 or visit bocamuseum.org.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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New Dance Documentary a ‘Step’ in the Right Direction

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A veritable shoo-in for an Oscar nomination five months from now, “Step” borrows a familiar structure—the competition documentary—and lends it an urgent, headline-ripped specificity. Taking its formal cue from docs like “Spellbound” and “First Position,” it follows a high school girls’ step team in the months leading up to both a regional dance contest and their graduation as the inaugural class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.

This would be a tumultuous period for any 17-year-old trying to balance college admissions, academics, extracurriculars and personal relationships, but these universal issues are magnified by the young women’s socioeconomic status: They’re all African-Americans, from poor and working-class families, maturing in an age of police brutality and Black Lives Matter, of empty refrigerators and emptier college savings.

Producer-director Amanda Lipitz homes in on three exceptional girls. Blessin, who is raised by a single mother, is arguably the step team’s most talented competitor, but her woeful grades threaten her academic future. Cori, who lives in a crowded, blended-family household with five siblings, is a scholarly student and self-described introvert who relishes the liberating abandon of step. Tayla is an only child whose mother acts like a teenager herself when spectating at step class, but who patrols the streets of Baltimore as a corrections officer after hours.

“Step” balances the percussive liberty of dance lessons with the trying uncertainty of the college lottery, and these twin plotlines each generate emotional swells. If there’s a hero figure in “Step,” it’s Paula Dofat, the school’s college counselor, a person of deep compassion who believes in each of her students but who isn’t afraid to temper their expectations about college admissions. In one of the film’s most poignant scenes, she tears up when making her case for Blessin to a panel of college administrators. Many in the movie’s audience will follow her cue.

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For me, there was no moment more stirring than the step team’s mid-film performance at another area high school, in which their inspirational choreographer, Gari McIntyre, designed a routine around Black Lives Matter (“Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” is integrated into the steps). As the crowd’s rumble builds into a cathartic standing ovation, the scene speaks to the visceral healing power of dance to communicate where words sometimes fail.

It’s arguably the apex of this site-specific movie, which opens not on the dancers but with news footage of the apprehension and subsequent death of Freddie Gray. Baltimore, as one of the nation’s racial flashpoints of recent years, becomes its own character as the movie progresses. Lipitz divides many of her scenes with images of the city’s murals dedicated to Gray and Baltimore’s black heritage, and we eavesdrop on conversations pertinent to racial justice and the dispiriting news cycles of the summer of 2015. Art can hardly be divorced from the surroundings of its making.

By nature of its brevity (its running time is 83 minutes) and its generally positive sheen, “Step” is not as profound, immersive or unflinching as a film like “Hoop Dreams,” yet it competes on the same hardwood. They’re both honest portraits of Americans overlooked or misrepresented by 90 percent of our media.

There are bound to be negative reviews for “Step” from a handful of Rotten Tomatoes contrarians, though it’s hard to fathom a coherent case for a C grade or lower. As a story about young women rising above the circumstances life has dealt them, this is a movie that can genuinely, and easily, change a lot of lives. How many products of Hollywood can say that?

“Step” is playing now at Cinemark Palace 20 and Regal Shadowood 16 in Boca Raton, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura 24, and Regal South Beach Stadium 18. It expands to additional area theaters on Friday, Aug. 18.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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Concert Review: Garbage, Blondie at Hard Rock Live

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Even Garbage, a Platinum-selling rock band with millions of fans, must suffer the indignities of the touring life. “Our tour bus is now officially dead to us,” Shirley Manson tweeted, at 5:09 a.m. Aug. 7. “We are currently hitch hiking to Orlando. Pray for us. Stay strong.”

Garbage’s Central Florida fans may still be on tinterhooks, with the group’s scheduled performance hours away at the time of this writing. Luckily for us South Floridians, Manson and her band made it halfway, lighting up the Hard Rock Live stage by 7:40 (yes, that early, to the chagrin of some!) Tuesday night. So when she exclaimed, after two songs, “We made it to Hollywood!,” the relief was palpable.

This double bill, alongside Blondie, certainly wouldn’t have been the same without them. “This has been a meeting that is long overdue,” Manson said, noting that Garbage hasn’t played this region since 1999. She made it up to us with an electrifying set of molten songs full of angst and spitfire, plucked judiciously from a more than 20-year career.

Clad in a floor-length scarlet dress coat, her bob an equally blazing shade of red, Manson looked like the belle of any ball, especially one thrown by Lewis Carroll. Whether standing downstage to let a fan billow her dress to pantomiming windmill guitars with her bandmates, she was a captivating presence, impossible to look away from. During “Empty,” she collapsed to her knees, feeling every painful lyric down to each syllable. She left the stage in the middle of “Cherry Lips” to commune with lucky superfans in the front section, slinked around the stage like a sinuous Bond girl during “The World is Not Enough,” and knocked the mic stand off the stage during the raucous send-off, “Vow.”

As one of the great post-grunge poets of the disenfranchised, Manson has lost none of her edge, nor has her band’s terrific music. Its latest single, the politically conscious “No Horses,” throbbed with apocalyptic urgency, while “I Think I’m Paranoid” remains a primo example of the loud-quiet-loud Pixies/Nirvana formula that made the ‘90s such an exciting time for alternative rock. “Why Do You Love Me?”—the only song in Garbage’s set that the rest of the cities didn’t get—was a blistering rocker that could wake the dead. “Stupid Girl” and “Only Happy When it Rains” both deviated agreeably from their album versions, the former with a deceptive intro, and the latter opening with Manson crouched on the drummer’s platform, crooning the opening stanzas like a jazz singer.

The adrenalized head-banger “Push It” was another of many highlights, yielding a modicum of pogoing from an otherwise docile crowd of Gen-Xers and older who have matured alongside the band—outgrowing mosh pits and crowd-surfing but certainly not the great music that once inspired them.

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Blondie followed, and though any respectable bill would have Deborah Harry’s legendary New Wave act headlining, Garbage was unquestionably the main draw. Still a rebellious voice—she sported strange headgear resembling bees as part of her colony collapse disorder activism, along with a cape emblazoned with the phrase “stop fucking the planet”—Harry seemed to be having a good time onstage. But she also seemed to be on something that affected her performance, and not in a positive way. Her energy sagged even during the opening number “One Way or Another,” and “Call Me” was an abject mess, with Harry appearing to forget lyrics and mumble words that may or may not have been part of the song (though we got to see keyboardist Matt Katz-Bohen rock that Key-tar like it was 1985!). “That was fun, actually,” she said afterwards, and I can’t say I agree.

As for “Rapture,” that song was a travesty even when it was released in 1980, and I diligently skip it every time I spin Autoamerican. Onstage last night, it seemed to stretch on for twice its length. The same tediousness marred “Fragments,” a slow-building number from Pollinator that led to a mini-exodus of fans to the bathrooms, or the bar, or their cars. Perhaps it’s saying something that the best number from the first half of the set was also the most incongruous one: the band’s short, bluesy take on “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” a hippie sing-along that felt like Bob Dylan by way of Chuck Berry by way of Blondie.

Patient concertgoers were finally treated to a solid finish. “Atomic” featured a rousing guitar-solo climax, “Heart of Glass” proved Harry still had the golden range to hit the song’s ethereal notes, and “The Tide is High” transported us briefly and pleasingly to a Caribbean island.

But the fact remains that very little in Blondie’s set was exciting. The necessary caveat, of course, is that Harry is 72, and the fact that she’s still playing 90-minute rock shows is an accomplishment in itself. It’s just not enough.

GARBAGE SET LIST

No Horses

Sex is Not the Enemy

#1 Crush

Empty

I Think I’m Paranoid

Cherry Lips

Blackout

Special

Why Do You Love Me?

Even Though Our Love is Doomed

The World is Not Enough

Stupid Girl

Happy When it Rains

Push It

Vow

BLONDIE SET LIST

One Way or Another

Hanging on the Telephone

Fun

Call Me

My Monster

Rapture

Fragments

Too Much

Atomic

Long Time

Heart of Glass

ENCORE

The Tide is High

Dreaming

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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Art & Culture Center’s Latest Exhibits are Whimsical and Confrontational

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The works comprising “Charley Friedman: Moist Things,” occupying the main gallery at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, exude an emotion too often overlooked in contemporary art: They’re fun.

Small in number but monumental in scope, “Moist Things” surveys more than two decades of work from this Lincoln, Neb., artist, whose dominant sculptures are massive and playful and kinetic. The exhibition moves and drips and hums with life, inspiring immediate awe and dumfounded attention. Bright and surreal, it mesmerizes schoolchildren and art scholars alike.

At the center of this exhibit are four installations created out of mad genius and dogged persistence. “Carpet World,” the first such piece visitors will encounter, is a scaled-to-size globe made from fabric, a painstaking latch hook project that took the artist two years to complete. It’s vividly blue—oceans cover most of the planet—with countries and islands color-coded in shades of pale orange, mauve, taupe and lime green, like randomly cut snacks in a bag of veggie chips. You’re probably not supposed to touch it, but it’s so tactile I couldn’t resist. It’s a giant cat’s toy, and it turns us all into inquisitive felines. Its ambition staggers.

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The same can be said for the piece that gives the show its title, “I Like Moist Things.” Call it aquatic text art: Friedman refashioned 16 sponges into letters spelling out the titular phrase, a silly and suggestive declarative sentence. The sponge art hangs in the air, suspended by wires and absorbing and releasing streams of water, which collect in a kiddie pool below. The water circulates back to the streams above the sponges, generating an endless loop—a fountain that might fit in the lobby of an eccentric hotel, a la the Grand Budapest.

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The liveliest of all is “Science Project,” completed with assistance from local engineering students. This summery kinetic sculpture consists of 80 motor-propelled beach balls spinning like atoms around a steel rod. A beach party distilled into a carousel of symbols, it’s as endlessly watchable as anything I’ve ever seen in a museum. Just as painstaking, and arguably lovelier, is “Garden,” a site-specific arrangement of hollowed-out eggs covered in resin and glued to a gallery wall in formations that resemble verdant plants, with the occasional yolk signifying a budding flower.

Stunning from afar, Friedman’s work tends to grow in esteem the closer you analyze it. “Garden,” in particular, demands a deep dive. Viewed up close, those sinuous plant tendrils reveal themselves indeed to be eggs, with individual puncture marks serving as reminders of their previous functional life. Part of Friedman’s genius may be the way he hides nothing about his transformed materials yet manages to transport us nonetheless. Beyond that, it’s hard to discern an overarching “point” to these large-scale whimsies. Rather, as in the work of the Dada artists, they expose the futility of searching for one. Their blazing originality is pointed enough.

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By contrast, Miami artist David Rohn’s “In Service/Out of Service,” in the next gallery, confronts issues of classism and inequality head-on. It largely consists of oval-shaped portraits of the artist himself dressed as stylized versions of homeless and working-class Americans, men and women alike. For the homeless portraits, he dons secondhand garb including Army fatigues, worn coats, shower caps and makeshift wigs, a convincing hodgepodge of apparel these poorest of people may have cobbled together.

On the gallery floor, Rohn created a tent city filled with the meager detritus of a life on society’s fringes—ugly blankets, a bucket used for god knows what, a Slim Jim label, an empty Pringles canister. In a careful ironic touch, Rohn incorporated promotional giveaways from the Design District, such as tarps and umbrellas, which comment on the contrast between this ostensibly upscale tourist attraction and the urban poor that surround it.

One room over, Rohn inhabits working-class archetypes in the same portrait style, clearly identifying himself as a nurse, a mechanic, a housekeeper, a cable guy and a server. They hang over a more domestic, if still budget-conscious, setting: Instead of tents and tarps, there’s a hearth decorated with thrift-store tchotchkes, and a used three-piece used sofa set which the artist painted over with dinosaurs, a poignant reflection of our industrious method of turning others’ trash into new treasures.

The two rooms are more similar than different. Rohn’s expression never changes regardless of his subject’s socioeconomic status, and this one-gaze-fits-all approach draws connections between these tenuous strata. In an increasingly automated economy, more and more skilled workers are becoming expendable, and the gap between the lower classes is shrinking. The people in Rohn’s portraits might represent the so-called “forgotten man” (and woman) whose votes decided the last presidential election. They’re invisible to most of us reading this, but Rohn takes time to look at them. Any candidate would be wise to be follow his lead.

These exhibitions, along with “Lisa Rockford: Dear 33020,” run through Aug. 20 at Art and Culture Center, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission costs $4-$7. Call 954/921-3274 or visit artandculturecenter.org.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Movie Review: “Lady Macbeth”

All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions

All photos courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Feminist outrage turns itself on its head and shakes off its moral cobwebs in “Lady Macbeth,” the disturbing, ferocious and unforgettable debut feature from English director William Oldroyd.

Forming at best a thematic lineage with the Shakespeare character of the title, the movie’s source material is actually Nikolai Leskov’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. But considering how dramatically it deviates from that novella, it’s best to forget about the film’s title and its inevitable associations: This is an original work of fiction, full stop.

It’s set in rural England in 1865, where Katherine (21-year-old newcomer Florence Pugh) has been purchased as the spouse to a middle-aged grouse named Alexander (Paul Hilton), who keeps her cloistered in the castle they inhabit with his dentally challenged father, Boris (Christopher Fairbank). Husband and wife share no affection for each other. When Alexander is not humiliating her naked body, he shuns it, preferring to pleasure himself, from a distance, to her backside.

Katherine is as much a piece of property as the housecat and the china. Like Sofia Coppola’s “Marie Antoinette,” Katherine is a modern female sequestered in a regressive age. You can feel the painful constrictions of the corset she’s required to wear, and you feel immersed in the tedium and second-class servitude of her life.

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Screenwriter Alice Birch, cinematographer Ari Wegner, and Oldroyd chronicle this marital slog with patient attention to detail, staging her day-to-day life in sequences that stress its numbing repetitions, and shots that emphasize its splendorous emptiness. Filming everything frontally and confrontationally, Oldroyd’s camera eye is the boldest I’ve discovered in some time. (The severe symmetrical framing nods to legendary British director Peter Greenaway, surely an influence on Oldroyd’s work.)

Soon enough, the stifling patterns of Katherine’s life are disrupted, first by the abrupt departure of Alexander on an urgent business matter, then by the aggressive sexual overtures of Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), a virile groundskeeper. They begin a bodice-ripping affair that leads to multiple murders—and shifts in the movie’s tone that are as wild as they are harrowing.

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“Lady Macbeth” is haunted by the spirits of female gothic literature, of the Brontës and Du Maurier and Shelley, but also by the cunning femmes fatales of film noir. The corroded air of pulp-fiction classics like “The Postman Always Rings Twice” grows more toxic as the narrative spirals into ever-more-destructive directions, leading to an excruciating long take that can’t be unviewed. You’ll know it when you see it.

A doomful treatise on power, caste, corruption and race (the fortress’ head maid, a black woman, is a central supporting character), “Lady Macbeth” is anchored masterfully by Pugh. Her performance is a multifaceted, star-making turn with a revelation in every reel. Like the film itself, she deserves credit for refusing to please her audience, flummoxing us where we expect to cheer. The heart of darkness has rarely beaten under a lovelier form.

“Lady Macbeth” opens today, July 28, at Living Room Theaters and Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton, Movies of Delray, AMC CityPlace in West Palm Beach, the Classic Gateway Theatre in Fort Lauderdale, AMC Aventura, Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, and the Landmark at Merrick Park.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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Theatre Review: “Sweeney Todd” at Palm Beach Dramaworks

Michael Mckenzie & Shane R. Tanner in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017

Michael Mckenzie & Shane R. Tanner in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

To produce “Sweeney Todd” is to attempt to summit one of the most challenging mountains in the musical theatre canon. Stephen Sondheim’s serpentine, contrapuntal harmonies are intimidating even for the most seasoned singers. For the orchestra, the score requires virtuoso dexterity, and the ability to similarly shift on a delicate dime. And then there’s the tone, singular among Broadway musicals, with its macabre amalgam of coffin-black humor, aching romance and grotesque horror.

Given all the bells and whistles—and the blood and guts—it’s a herculean choice for Palm Beach Dramaworks, a company still relatively new to fully produced musicals. At the risk of being the lone (somewhat) contrarian critic, it doesn’t quite come off with the ravishing effortlessness of last year’s “1776.”

It’s not for lack of enthusiasm or industry: Director Clive Cholerton wisely respects the limitations of Dramaworks’ mid-sized space. Rather than chart Everest, Cholerton chisels the source material into a more manageable peak, a decision most apparent in musical director Manny Schvartzman’s minimalist orchestra of five, navigating compositions traditionally performed by 15 to 26 players. This is a two-edged razor: Cleverly and discreetly hidden in a center-stage alcove, the quintet’s performances are spot-on but, by their nature, don’t achieve the sonic blanket of a fuller score, tamping down the atmospheric bombast necessary to lift this demented thriller to its most dizzying heights.

A cast of local and flown-in talent capably embodies Sondheim’s coterie of Victorian lechers, madmen, beggars and naïfs, some more transcendently than others. Shane R. Tanner captures the heft and vocal acrobatics of the title character, a London barber newly released from a trumped-up 15-year prison sentence, who seeks revenge on the corrupt judge who destroyed his life and ravaged his wife. Tanner seethes with thunderous desperation, his singing almost perfect—those high notes can be brutal—but he never reaches the nightmarish potential of Sweeney at his most homicidal, which, even if intentional, feels lacking. The scariest thing about him, for the wrong reasons, is the transparently fake beard he’s forced to don in the production’s early scenes, a styling misstep that’s mercifully eschewed a few songs later.

Shane R. Tanner and Company in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017

Shane R. Tanner and Company in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

Ruthie Stephens brings a delightful, droll wit to Mrs. Lovett, Sweeney’s co-conspirator in cannibalistic capitalism, charmingly embracing her character’s duality as cold-blooded killer and starry-eyed romantic. Among the female cast, she’s matched only by Shelley Keelor, whose Beggar Woman pierces the polluted air with pitch-perfect requests for “Alms! Alms!” This is a supporting role, yet Keelor’s sonorous voice and overwhelming gusto creates a more memorable Begger Woman than any “Sweeney Todd” production I’ve seen.

Paul Louis Lessard is a lovely, innocent Anthony, whose resonant “Johanna” is a highlight of the production. As Johanna, Jennifer Molly Bell is an accomplished cloistered damsel, rapturously bathed in a golden yellow hue, one of lighting designer Donald Edmund Thomas’ many evocative choices.

Among the musical’s villains—admittedly some of the more two-dimensional characters in Sondheim’s oeuvre—Jim Ballard’s Beadle Bamford struts around London in steampunk couture, his movements a ballet of lascivious innuendo. It’s a striking, assertive interpretation that doesn’t always feel warranted. Michael McKenzie’s Judge Turpin is agreeably unctuous, though his self-flagellation scene is limp and unconvincing.

Ruthie Stephens in 'Sweeney Todd', 2017

Ruthie Stephens in ‘Sweeney Todd’, 2017

The production’s comic relief, in the form of “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir” and especially “A Little Priest,” is effective and more than welcome. In a show without a credited choreographer, these buoyant, movement-filled numbers counterbalance the accelerating gloom that pervades the narrative.

When the bodies do begin to pile up inexorably, in Act Two, Cholerton and his design team are equally skillful at managing the ambience. An appropriately shrill train whistle accompanies each slit throat, along with a wash of scarlet lighting. Sweeney then releases the bodies to the second-story barbershop floor, where a hidden lift carries them to ground floor. There’s a ritualistic process to the slaughter, but just when you least expect it, one signature slaying is not even depicted at all.

Like Sondheim’s score, Cholerton’s direction turns surprising corners—opening with a mood-setting prologue, occasionally turning his ensemble into Sweeney’s accomplices, and culminating in a bold climax that reinterprets Sweeney’s last breath.

Controversial? Sure. But Dramaworks doesn’t shy from potentially polarizing decisions. This is a production that swings for the fences in a stadium that’s probably too small for the game. It’s fascinating to see where the balls land.

“Sweeney Todd” runs through Aug. 6 at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Tickets cost $67, but if you’re under 40, you can “pay your age.” Call 561/514-4042 or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 21: Jason Isbell of The 400 Unit performs at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

Concert Review: Jason Isbell at Fillmore Miami Beach

By James Biagiotti

MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 21: Jason Isbell of The 400 Unit performs at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

MIAMI BEACH, FL – JULY 21: Jason Isbell of The 400 Unit performs at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

Don’t put Jason Isbell in a box. Some call his music alternative country, some call it southern rock, and some call it Americana. No matter the genre, Isbell’s music is going to showcase his dexterity as a guitar player, his soulful singing and his incredible lyricism. Those traits are exactly what he brought to his show at the Fillmore Miami Beach on Friday night with his backing band The 400 Unit.

Isbell is a Grammy-winning guitarist, singer and songwriter from Green Hill, Alabama. He first rose to prominence as a member of the beloved southern rock stalwarts Drive-By Truckers, and is now best known for his solo work with The 400 Unit, which includes his wife Amanda Shires on violin.

South Florida is a tough market for Isbell’s tough-to-define brand of alt-country, and he drew a small crowd to the Fillmore, struggling to fill seats in the back of the venue. At times, conversation in the crowd could be heard during the performance, and a strange discord emerged in the audience between those who wanted to stand and those who wanted to sit.

After a mostly slow and timidly received opening set by Strand of Oaks, the project of Philadelphia-based musician Timothy Showalter, Isbell and The 400 Unit took the stage and began their set with “Anxiety,” a forceful cut from this year’s The Nashville Sound, which reached No. 4 on the U.S. Billboard chart earlier this month.

MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 21: Sadler Vaden, Jason Isbell, Jimbo Hart, Chad Gamble and Amanda Shires of The 400 Unit perform at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

MIAMI BEACH, FL – JULY 21: Sadler Vaden, Jason Isbell, Jimbo Hart, Chad Gamble and Amanda Shires of The 400 Unit perform at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

Not every song of the set landed as well as the first. Some of the slower songs seemed to lose the attention of the crowd, and fans could be seen trickling in and out to visit the bars in the lobby. I heard more than a few comparisons between Isbell and Ryan Adams, some positive and some negative.

The first big moment of the night came when Isbell busted out “Decoration Day,” a powerhouse track that he wrote for his first record with Drive-By Truckers. Much of the crowd came to the show in DBT T-shirts, and these fans were elated to hear the old classic from the beginning of Isbell’s career.

The most touching moment of the night came when Isbell dusted off “Cover Me Up,” the opening track from his 2013 record Southeastern, and perhaps the strongest illustration of the night of his impressive lyricism. He lovingly dedicated the song to his wife as the rest of The 400 Unit left the stage.

“This next song I wrote for my wife Amanda,” Isbell told the crowd. “It means a whole lot to me when I get to sing this song to her, with her, and for her as well.”

MIAMI BEACH, FL - JULY 21: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires of The 400 Unit perform at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

MIAMI BEACH, FL – JULY 21: Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires of The 400 Unit perform at the Fillmore on July 21, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. Credit Larry Marano © 2017

Easily the most moving song of the set, “Cover Me Up” began as a quiet, stripped-down ballad with only Isbell and his wife onstage. Slowly, the other members of The 400 Unit joined them one by one, adding layers to the song as it built to a climax that featured a slide guitar solo. The song then receded into a calm harmony between Isbell and his wife, concluding with the strongest reaction of the night from the crowd.

Even if the entire set wasn’t gripping, Isbell and his band knew how to end the show on an extremely strong note. The final tune of the night, a rollicking rendition of the Allman Brothers Band’s classic “Whipping Post,” got the entire crowd on its feet and brought the house down. The extended, jam-heavy interpretation of the song was reminiscent of My Morning Jacket at its best, and put Isbell’s guitar prowess on full display. (Isbell rotated between five or six axes throughout the night, from Fenders and Gibsons to a beautiful Martin acoustic.)

It seems clear after attending Jason Isbell’s show that Miami Beach is not the strongest market for his genre of music. Though Isbell may not have been able to fill up the venue (or even come close), he did bring in a loyal group of fans, some of whom drove hours to see the show. The nearly 20-song set was comprised almost entirely of his solo work, and though it had some ups and downs, the valiant performance by Isbell and The 400 Unit proved that his unique brand of southern rock is here to stay.

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The Real Kramer Delights ‘Seinfeld’ Fanatics at Live Appearance

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An audience of “Seinfeld” fans—many would qualify as “Seinfeld” fanatics—filled the 270 seats of the Boca Black Box Thursday night for a sold-out presentation by Kenny Kramer. It was a little surreal to see a man applauded for who he wasn’t: As Larry David’s inspiration for the character of Cosmo Kramer, Kenny never appeared on “Seinfeld,” nor participated as a writer (though he is a former standup comedian). He’s a celebrity once removed who has milked his association for a lucrative career as a “Seinfeld” expert-cum-monologist-cum-publicist. As he admitted to the Black Box attendees last night with a smile, “If I don’t cash in on this, I’m an idiot.”

Kramer is best known for his still-operating “Seinfeld” bus tour of New York City, where, for $37.50, visitors can listen to Kramer’s narrated journey through “Seinfeld” lore, and enjoy three hours’ worth of stops at iconic locations from the series. His live show, “Kramer on Seinfeld,” is a truncated stage version of the same, beginning his 90-minute program with an interactive trivia contest and ending with a tour of his virtual gift shop, where fans can purchase “Seinfeld” bumper stickers and an “ASSMAN” front license plate.

Kramer proved to be a studious “Seinfeld” historian and a gregarious storyteller, even if he sometimes spoke too quickly to be fully comprehended. Clad in a white button-down shirt and New York Yankees cap, he projected the air of a laid-back, extemporaneous conversationalist, performing without the aids of a microphone stand or stool. He reiterated the point made abundantly clear in the contentious “Seinfeld” finale: that the four characters audiences had grown to love over nine seasons were not very nice people: In Kramer’s words, they were “despicable, egocentric, self-centered and irresponsible.” That we continued to follow and relate to them was part of the show’s subversive genius.

Mostly, Kramer discussed his longtime relationship with Larry David, famously kick-started when they lived across the hall from each other in an enviable apartment complex in Hell’s Kitchen. Kramer still has fun poking at David’s neuroses, especially during the latter’s 1980s wilderness as a prickly, obstinate standup comedian. Recalling these early days, Kramer referred to his friend as “Bozo the Clown on acid.”

Many of the classic “Seinfeld” ideas emerged from Kramer and David’s friendship, and much of Kramer’s presentation explained the fascinating way that real-life interactions mutated into sitcom gold. For instance, Kramer really did intend to redesign his house in layers, with an entertainment pit in the middle. But in other ways, David was the more eccentric friend: It was he, not the real Kramer, who would take food from his buddy’s fridge and create a fastidious tally of every item borrowed and its cost, not the other way around. It was David who decided he would become a “minimalist” and bequeath his 32-inch television to Kramer, only to visit Kramer’s apartment every night to watch sports on his former TV.

Kramer integrated a few video clips into his performance, including interviews with David discussing his friendship with Kramer, and a cute “Seinfeld” clip that references Kenny Kramer’s bus tour. The rarest clip, one that even YouTube has not exhumed, consists of Larry David’s lone television standup appearance, on Richard Belzer’s short-lived Lifetime talk show, circa 1984. The material consists of a courtroom comedy in which David’s teenage self is put on trial by his mom for masturbating, with David playing five or six parts. It’s dated and draggy, and plagued by poor sound quality, but occasional brilliance emerges.

Kramer plays that clip on his bus tour too, which he says always prompts David—ever the insecure, needy comedian—to ask him if the audience laughed. He may be multimillionaire, but some things never change.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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Movie Review: “Dunkirk”

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With its cast of thousands, its IMAX photography and its nonstop intensity, Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” (opening Friday) is a film of breathtaking scope and design, a gargantuan accomplishment in large-screen ambition. Dramatizing the three-pronged efforts—by air, sea and land—to rescue some 400,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk during the early stages of World War II, Nolan’s movie is an experiential distillation of the director’s epic style, unshackled by traditional storytelling concerns. Imagine something like the opening 27 minutes of “Saving Private Ryan” stretched to feature length, and you’re getting there.

Nolan’s choice of 65mm film stock results in a clarity of composition and a depth of field rarely achieved, or even attempted, in movie history. Its majestic aerial images of 6,000 ant-sized troops hark all the way back to Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics, and its marvelous tracking shots are Kubrickian in their execution.

Like needles in a war-torn haystack, Nolan burrows down on a few rugged faces—both the evacuees and their rescuers—who serve as synecdoches for the enormity of the event. These include the newly discovered Fionn Whitehead as a British Army private who smuggles his way onto a Navy evacuation destroyer, Jack Lowden and Tom Hardy as Royal Air Force pilots, and Mark Rylance as a stoic mariner captaining a requisitioned yacht with his brave sons.

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Kenneth Branagh and Cillian Murphy appear in supporting roles as well, but “Dunkirk” is decidedly not a star vehicle, and dialogue is scant. Technical virtuosity surpasses character development. Nolan’s camera juggles multiple crises like they’re flaming torches, a technique familiar to fans of his “Inception,” with its patchwork of intercut dream layers. “Dunkirk” is just as dexterous in its editing rhythms; the Academy might as well announce that award today. It’s accompanied by an equally impressive, singularly unnerving Hans Zimmer score that balances moody bombast with violent violin solos and the perpetual ticks of a stopwatch.

Despite its bounteous formal wonders, “Dunkirk” is not entirely successful at generating audience engagement for these hardscrabble characters: When people are scripted in two dimensions, it’s hard to connect with them on an emotional level. Its relentlessness is another hurdle. As an accounting of seemingly insurmountable miseries, there is only so much bombardment we can be expected to stomach, and “Dunkirk” brushes against its limit.

Yet as it crashes, chugs and barrels toward its conclusion, the movie ends up touching the heart more than you might expect. Lessons in compassion, patience, forgiveness and perseverance are conveyed gracefully, with a characteristic dearth of words. With images this stunning, I guess you don’t need them.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
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Theatre Review: “1984” at Pompano Cultural Center

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“You can’t found a civilization on fear and lies and cruelty!”

Perhaps not, but you can certainly win a presidential campaign on it. This protest, uttered in the throes of torture by Winston Smith, the everyman hero of 1984, is one of countless ways George Orwell’s novel echoes across our zeitgeist. With every passing year, his fiction lurches closer to prophecy, even if he was off by a few decades.

Endless war, the erosion of privacy and the ubiquity of surveillance, the stifling of dissent and the deconstruction of language, the proliferation of propaganda and the doctoring of truth: Most of these “1984” forecasts were gaining traction in the United States by 2004, when playwright Andrew White adapted the book for the stage, but they’ve reached full flower in 2017. Sales of the book famously spiked this past January, when the phrase “alternative facts” entered the political lexicon, introduced by a person who would have fit snugly into Big Brother’s Ministry of Truth.

For Outre Theatre Company, the temptation to revisit Orwell’s dystopia in the Trump era proved too enticing to resist. The gypsy company, formerly of Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, chose White’s “1984” as the first production in its permanent new home at the just-opened Pompano Beach Cultural Center.

The decision was greeted by much anticipation, but by intermission, it was difficult to feel anything but deflation. Languorously paced by director Skye Whitcomb, this dreary production of an already downbeat source material updates few of its rich ironies and profound revelations. White’s imperfect edit eschews some of the more salient and necessary points of Orwell’s novel, and Outre’s translation—stolidly acted and plagued with audio issues—leaves even more gaps. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel, expect to feel marooned.

Whitcomb favors a barebones aesthetic suggestive of the bland, functional sterility that Smith and his co-workers inhabit. The scenic design, by Doug Wetzel, consists of a vacant stage with three slightly raised platforms, whose cleverest touch is the pair of Big Brother banners flanking the stage, each bruiting a signature “1984” contradiction: “Freedom is Slavery; War is Peace.” The implication is that Big Brother is watching us while we’re watching the play.

Ambience is generated mostly through the giant “telescreen” behind the stage, adding a welcome multimedia element. On it, we see footage, shot specifically for this production, consisting of everything from jingoistic news reports to buried memories from Winston Smith’s childhood to the occasional POV shot that, oddly, does not match the onstage visuals. In the most compelling and inventive usage of the telescreen, we watch Winston Smith (Seth Trucks) re-edit a soldier’s dispiriting battlefield interview into a falsely patriotic bromide. He creates this “fake news” on an iPad, one of the ways Whitcomb situates the story in a more modern era.

On opening night, there were still tech kinks to be ironed out, as evidenced by the disastrous opening of Act Two, in which a televised Emmanuel Goldstein (Michael Small), Big Brother’s straw-man enemy, offers his treatise on war. But the audio malfunctioned, leaving us to observe Winston reading Goldstein’s words silently onstage for a languid minute or two. This is unfortunate, because the soundtrack likely contained some of Orwell’s most incendiary and accurate prognostications. (i.e. “War hysteria is continuous and universal in all countries, and such acts as raping, looting, the slaughter of children, the reduction of whole populations to slavery, and reprisals against prisoners which extend even to boiling and burying alive, are looked upon as normal, and, when they are committed by one’s own side and not by the enemy, meritorious.”)

It wasn’t the only instance of the sound design going astray on opening night. One of Winston’s diary entries abruptly stopped mid-sentence, and most of the other audio clips were inaudibly low, even when providing crucial exposition.

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These problems cannot be overstated. For a show that depends this much on a sensorial experience, they are debilitating, and do no favors to the actors. Trucks, who recently excelled in Evening Star’s effusive production of “Waiting for Godot,” performs on the opposite end of the spectrum here, so much so that he lacks both the presence and personality of an inchoate revolutionary. The same can be said of Jennipher Murphy’s Julia, who shares no chemistry with Winston; even the sex scenes proceed with plodding, clinical detachment.

As O’Brien, Peter Galman’s finest hour is the show’s menacing climax in and around Room 101. Carrying himself with stentorian, fascistic authority, he’s the embodiment of a dictatorship. Yet it’s impossible to buy his character’s bait and switch of the naïve Winston and Julia, which came off as plausible in the novel: There’s nothing in Galman’s performance to indicate subversion, save for an unexplained insignia on a business card.

Meredith Bartmon, Michael Conner, Joey de la Rua, Murphy Hayes and Daryl Patrice provide capable support; Bartmon is especially memorable as Syme, the story’s ultimate party loyalist, gleefully truncating the dictionary and hissing at Goldstein with sociopathic fervor. Yet some actors’ transitions into secondary roles—such as Bartmon and Patrice doubling as spoiled children—feel jarring and unconvincing.

This “1984” is, sadly, adrift. It’s neither a suitable introduction to the book nor an immersive tribute for its longtime admirers, though it probably aspires to be the latter. A few more days in tech may have helped.

“1984” runs through July 30 at Pompano Beach Cultural Center, 50 W. Atlantic Blvd., Pompano Beach. Tickets run $19-$39. Call 954/839-9578 or visit ccpompano.org.

As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.