Gloucester Stage Company Hits It Out of the Park with “Out of Sterno”

Gloucester Stage Company is on a roll this summer. On the heels of its stunning “Sweet and Sad,” the North Shore venue offers up “Out of Sterno,” a dazzling production about female empowerment that is impossible not to like. This is one you will not want to miss.

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s play features Dotty, a 23-year-old who has spent the last seven years of marriage sequestered in her apartment, occupying her days in ways that would make Pee Wee Herman feel right at home. Dotty’s “playhouse” includes toys, gadgets and puppet characters (although her appliances and furniture don’t talk, which is too bad since Dotty believes everything she is told, and even a chair would have better advice to offer than her mother’s).

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Amanda Collins as Dotty replays the first time she met her husband.

She has a crafts table where she constructs kindergarten art projects based on domesticity and a VCR where she watches re-enactments of her first meeting with Hamel, her perfect husband who has forbidden her to leave the apartment or answer the phone. The rest of her day is spent doing laundry and preparing the same dinner for Hamel — a smiley-faced hamburger. Although this is Sterno, not Puppetland, Dotty and Pee Wee are two peas in an infantile pod, their exaggerated cheer at times bordering on hysteria.

Dotty’s hermetic world is unsealed the day she receives a mysterious phone call and finds a nude girlie picture in Hamel’s grease monkey overalls. Her ordered world is suddenly topsy-turvey. She decides to disobey Hamel and track down the truth.

Once she leaves her apartment, our modern-day Dorothy discovers she is not in Kansas anymore. “Life was so much simpler when I never left the apartment,” she rues.

Her yellow brick road leads her first to Zena (a force to be reckoned with as played by Jennifer Ellis), the she-devil beautician who gives Dotty a primer in what womanhood can look like. The textbook is “Beautiful or Bust” magazine and the uniform includes false boobs, a wig and stilettos guaranteed to lead to debilitating foot problems. It also includes tutelage in Zena’s tried-and-true method to make it as a woman in a man’s world: steal another woman’s husband.
By way of illustration, Zena tells Dotty she has sunk her razor-sharp claws into potential husband number six. Before Dotty realizes that it is her own Hamel whom Zena is prattling on and on about snatching, she too falls under Zena’s foul-mouthed spell, finding womanly self-worth and identity by wearing Zena’s animal print jumpsuits and scrubbing her salon’s toilets with a toothbrush.

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Amanda Collins (Dotty) finds female fulfillment scrubbing Zena’s toilets with a toothbrush.

Dotty meets many characters no less colorful than Conky, Cowboy Curtis and Miss Yvonne while on her quest for the meaning of womanhood. Richard Snee plays each of these cameo roles with relish and panache. These include a cabbie, a professor, other beauty shop clients, and Dotty’s new “bus buddies” — a militant feminist, a pregnant Southern lady and a geeky salesman.

Each offers her a manifesto, a code of ethics and a dress code. Like the blind men feeling the elephant in the Indian parable, each has his or her narrow, subjective perspective based on a single experience that fails to account for other possible truths or for a totality of truth.

Photo_16_8754Little by little, Dotty starts to realize that, while each of these guides can help her learn something about herself, only she holds the key that can unlock the mystery of her authentic self.

The extraordinary Amanda Collins as Dotty is reason enough to see the show. She effortlessly brings to the role an openness of curiosity and naïvité (think the un-raunchy elements of Lena Dunham); a slapstick wacky physicality (think Lucille Ball) and an exceptionally expressive face (think pre-plastic surgery Meg Ryan). Her delivery is flawless and she radiates an inner light that draws the audience’s attention like a moth to a flame.

Paula Plum’s direction is full of surprises, such as props falling from the ceiling, and jaw-dropping brilliance, such as the staging of the final scene. The music has the breeziness of “The Pink Panther” and “Mad Men” and the set designs make creative use of overhead projectors, billowing curtains and backlit shadows.

“Out of Sterno” is particularly relevant in the wake of such “news” as Caitlyn Jenner’s Vanity Fair cover that shows her authentic female self. As Plum notes in the playbill, “I found it intriguing that Jenner displayed herself through the lens of Beauty Culture: corseted, provocative and heavily made-up. The transformation of this former Olympic athlete to femme fatale poses the question: what makes a ‘real woman’? Is it the sum of our exterior parts?”

Sounds like Jenner should make a trip to Gloucester; Dotty could teach her a thing or two.

Pictured at top: Jennifer Ellis (as Zena), Richard Snee (as beauty shop patron) and Amanda Collins (as Dotty)

“Out of Sterno” runs through July 18 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E. Main St., Gloucester. For tickets go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

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Still Can’t Find A Summer Job? It’s Not Too Late to Run for President!

Frustrated in your summer job search? Think your choices are limited to an unpaid resumé-building internship or a mindless school loan-reducing hourly drone job? Think again! This summer, the floodgates are wide open on a new option that may be just the right fit for you — you could run for President of the United States!

No credentials? Not a problem! No war chest? Not to worry! No real message? Even better!

You can thank your lucky stars that these trailblazers are lighting your path. Take Michael Kinlaw, for example, Texan Tea Partier with no political background. His claim to fame? He is “the only person running for office that is an average citizen.”

Had trouble with the law? No biggie. Thank Rick Perry, the only candidate currently under indictment who, when reminded that he couldn’t remember that “third agency” during his 2012 failed presidential campaign, displayed new-found smarts in stating, “anyone who’s done this more than once is recasting himself.”

Been fired? Take a spin-the-message lesson from Carly Fiorina, the ex-Hewlett-Packard CEO who fired 30,000 workers before getting the boot herself, and used that as a credential. Her “Demon Sheep” ad from her 2010 campaign has become one of the most infamous in recent political history.

Not a Republican? There’s still room for you! Martin O’Malley, the boyish liberal former governor of Maryland, can’t raise his polls above 2% despite playing in a Celtic rock band and being an alleged model for the mayor in “The Wire”.

Long in the tooth? Piece of cake! Thank Bernie Sanders, the 73-year-old who, armed with low expectations and a stopped-clock message that has finally found its time, is suddenly giving Hillary a run for her money Republicans can only salivate over.

As far as squandering that guaranteed resumé-builder for a long shot, consider this: for the price of a web page (free), you can begin narrowcasting your campaign. When you don’t make the debate stage cutoff (if you toss your hat in the Republican arena), you can complain and get more attention. When you withdraw at the end of the summer, your name recognition will command book deals and outrageous speaker’s fees.

Downside? We’re still researching that one.

PEM Thomas Hart Benton Exhibit a Dramatic Slice of Americana

“Hollywood” — The 1937-38 Life magazine commission is the centerpiece of the Peabody Essex Museum’s exciting new exhibit.

For Thomas Hart Benton, history was not a scholarly study, but a drama. The bold and ambitious artist was, at heart, a terrific storyteller who could connect his audience to characters. His medium was painting and his subject matter was anything identified with American culture, from Native Americans and the Wild West to the Jim Crow South to Hollywood and its glamorous movie industry. The not-to-be-missed new show at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem takes a multi-media approach to a most remarkable artist’s work and life.

Benton (1889-1975) was born in Missouri where he served as a congressman before leaving to attend the Art Institute in Chicago, later moving to Paris to continue his studies. His first major mural series, “American Historical Epic,” retold America’s history through his uniquely satirical, provocative and serious eye. Although it was a commercial failure (he had painted it on spec), it established him as an artist capable of producing large public works.

Benton and Rita

“Self Portrait with Rita” — The self-portrait of Benton and his wife that made the coveted cover of Time magazine in 1934.

His self-portrait with his wife, Rita, landed Benton on the cover of Time magazine in 1934 and skyrocketed his career. The painting, which greets the visitor at the exhibit’s entrance, is quintessential Benton. The modeled figures pay homage to the Italian Renaissance masters, whose methods Benton adopted by making clay models and painting from them in his studio. The couple expresses the ultimate modern American identity: modern, outdoorsy, and dazzlingly stylish. Yet there is something aloof in their gazes and Benton’s faceless watch leaves the viewer wondering what might be amiss.

His provocative and gifted paintings (and the fact that he had adorned its rival’s cover) caught the eye of Life magazine editors, who commissioned him in 1937 to spend a month in Hollywood preparing for a “movie mural” which would be the centerfold of its issue about the glitzy new industry. The painting is the centerpiece of the PEM exhibit’s most entertaining section devoted to all things cinematic, including clips of movies (“Last of the Mohicans”, “America”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “The Big Trail”, and especially, “Grapes of Wrath”) for which Benton painted the official publicity poster.

His tongue-in-cheek approach to the industry and his amazing power of observation are a delight to behold. His attention to wacky details and ability to generate emotion while telling an engaging story create compelling images that border on caricature, much as the movies of that era did. Nonetheless, upon closer inspection of the captivating painting, it becomes clear that Benton was more interested in telling the stories of the ordinary people behind the scenes rather than those of the screen stars.

Within a single career, Benton embraced many styles and immersed himself in many genres, all on display in the informative and expertly staged exhibition. The modern mythmaker explored the macho, grotesque violence of World War II with a style akin to Marvel Comic superheroes and super villains. He also portrayed the innocence and optimism of the young American boys shipped overseas to confront those demons. His renditions of the plight and contributions of the “modern Negro” tell tales of slavery, romance and jazz.

Between 1946 and 1975 Benton completed nine more murals. He was in the midst of finishing his last commission for the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville when he died at age 85.

“American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood” runs through September 7.

“The Farewell Party” Poses More Questions Than Answers

“The Farewell Party” poses questions more usually associated with the High Holidays and long hours of contemplation in the sanctuary: Who shall live? Who shall die? Who by destiny? Who by free will? Although touted as an Israeli comedy about euthanasia, the film raises important political, ethical and religious points about assisted suicide and the fine line between aiding a suffering friend and playing God.

The film is set in Jerusalem in a retirement home where everyone knows each other’s business. Although the residents have individual apartments with doors that close, the atmosphere is more like a kibbutz.

Amateur inventor Yehezkel (Ze’ev Revach) and his waifish wife, Levana (Levana Finkelshtein) are a devoted couple with a small circle of equally devoted friends. Their terminally ill best pal, Max, who doctors are keeping alive against his will, is suffering terribly from the prolonged constant pain. When his wife Yana begs Yehezkel to help in any way he can, he agrees.

The machinist teams up with retired vet Dr. Daniel to design a machine that will assist the angel of death with the push of a button. Dr. Daniel’s married lover Raffi (whom we meet for the first time literally in the closet and naked), a retired cop, suggests the mercy killers pre-tape a video of Max stating that he is ending his life of his own free will and that he alone is responsible for his decision and his action.

The posse gathers to inaugurate Yehezkel’s machine in a loving bedside farewell that restores dignity and a smile to Max’s pain-wracked face. They swear each other to secrecy but since their lives at the communal retirement home are open books where the lines between the private and public blur, word soon gets out that there is an alternative to death with indignity.

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The friends of “The Farewell Party” gather to hear the pleas of a fellow septuagenarian whose wife wants to end her life. 

Levana, the only one of the group who morally opposes euthanasia, is ironically the only one in its needs when she starts her slow disappearance into the abyss of dementia. Yehezkel’s reaction to his wife’s request spotlights the dilemmas and ambiguities of assisted suicide, and we see in his face he wishes, too late, that he had never decided to tinker with matters of life and death.

The film is surprisingly light and graceful and the cast interesting and believable. The writer-director team Tal Granit and Sharon Maymon balance tenderness and daring as they tackle the contemporary issue of how to deal with elderly patients who may not want the all the wonders medicine makes available to them. They take their serious subject seriously, but ably interweave humor and heartbreaking caring. Although “The Farewell Party” is a film about death, it is also a film about the sanctity of life.

When that life becomes subjectively unendurable, and the treatment objectively values quantity of days lived over their quality, the doctor’s drive to keep the patient alive at all costs becomes as cruel and impersonal as the disease itself.

However, whether a tinkerer and a retired vet have the right to build a “mercy-killing machine” and use it with impunity is not necessarily the best alternative. Or is it?

Check local theater listings for times and locations.

The Girls Are Dreamin’ in Beverly

Eric LaJuan Summers steals the show as James “Thunder” Early in NSMT’s production of “Dreamgirls.”
PhotoPaul
Lyden

Attending the season opener at the North Shore Music Theatre brings back memories of stepping off the bus on the first day of summer camp. Like the joy of reconnecting with old friends and places, the NSMT’s round stage with its magic trapdoor center pit, its live orchestra and its signature disco-esque spinning light signal that, finally, summer is here.

And with its exuberant production of “Dreamgirls”,the winner of six Tony and two Grammy Awards, NSMT throws quite the summer party. There’s even dancin’ in the streets.

Inspired by the career of Diana Ross and The Supremes, the musical follows the onstage and backstage drama of the 1960s up-and-coming female trio, “The Dreams.” From their career-launching talent contest at New York City’s famed Apollo Theatre to their farewell concert over a decade later, there are the usual love triangles, artistic squabbles and managerial double-crossings.

There are also a soulful score, slick choreography and the performances of Bryonha Marie Parham as Effie and Eric LaJuan Summers as James “Thunder” Early that make “Dreamgirls” anything but the usual summer musical fare.

Parham and Summers are hands down the standouts in the strong 22-member cast. In Effie, Parham has a vehicle to unleash her powerful voice, and what a set of pipes she has. Her “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” deservedly brought down the house. Summers likewise packs a wallop as the showboat Early, playing him with a blend of James Brown athleticism, Stevie Wonder crooning and Little Richard flamboyance. Not since J. Cameron Barnett tore up the stage last summer as Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid” has the NSMT hosted such an electrifying performer.

Like most NSMT productions, “Dreamgirls” is a little long at two-and-a-half hours (which includes a 20-minute intermission), but in this age of shrinking values and increasing costs, that seems a pretty silly thing to complain about.

“Dreamgirls” plays through June 14. For tickets and more information, visit nsmt.org or call 978-232-7200.

Summer Stages Beckon

 Even on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon, there is something summery about the opening day of the summer theater season. The North Shore is blessed with two stellar companies, Gloucester Stage and Beverly’s North Shore Music Theatre, that have offered theatergoers the chance to see professional productions without having to traipse into Boston for a combined 97 years.

Under the skillful direction of Weylin Symes, Gloucester Stage, in collaboration with Stoneham Theatre, opens its season with “Sweet and Sad”. The production introduces us to the five members of the fictional Apple family, who are at the center of four plays by American playwright Richard Nelson. “Sweet and Sad” is the second in the chronological series. All are set in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and all focus on either an election or a significant historical anniversary.

In “Sweet and Sad”, the Apple family assembles uncomfortably on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 (the New York Public Theater opening night was actually September 11, 2011). Although the family members — siblings Marian, Barbara, Jane and Richard, and their Uncle Benjamin — spend less time talking about the events of 9/11 than their own personal histories, the significance of the day officially devoted to loss and remembrance casts an indelible shadow.

Even though Barbara (Karen MacDonald whose nuanced performance brings to mind Diane Wiest at her finest), a schoolteacher whose Rhinebeck home hosts the family brunch, early on states that the day is not one to talk politics, the reason for the gathering is to attend a commemoration her students will perform that evening. Uncle Benjamin, who moved in with caretaker Barbara after his brilliant acting career was cut short by a heart attack that left him amnesiac, will read Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”.

Marian, also a teacher, has just moved in with Barbara, seeking refuge from a recent separation from her husband. Manhattanites Richard, a Wall Street lawyer, and Jane, a writer, round out the family. Tim, Jane’s sometimes boyfriend and an actor currently relegated to waiting tables, walks the fine line between blending in and being unobtrusive.

It’s hard to know where to start praising this production.

The lights rise on a large set that makes good use of the entire stage and yet also creates an intimate dining room setting for the family to share a late lunch and squabble. Each actor embodies his role with a stunning naturalism, breathing life and depth into his role. The same cast staged the first of the four-part Apple family plays, “Hopey Changey,” earlier at Stoneham Theater, and their obvious comfort with each other is the stuff stellar ensemble acting is all about. They are so physically at ease that the audience really does feel like it’s eavesdropping on a family reunion.

Symes, producing director at Stoneham, brings a light but quirky touch to the show, allowing the characters to explore their characters’ eccentricities and individuality without jeopardizing the cohesive fabric of their shared histories. Watching the siblings interact as adults, you can imagine what they must have been like as kids. And having the actors really eat real food (in some cases going back for seconds) is nothing short of brilliant.

Which brings us last, but hardly least, to Nelson’s script. In fewer than two intermission-less hours, he lets us through the keyhole to glimpse a family’s most perilous secrets while making us think about such broad and weighty topics as: the roles of memory and memorials; what drives young people to suicide; and the state of the nation. The characters overlap and interrupt and answer for each other with the familiarity of broken thoughts and familial patterns. We witness the passive-aggressive, judgmental and ultimately supportive Apple family dance. His dialogue (and its flawless delivery) points to as much what is not said as to what is.

The only time all the Apples manage to sit still and listen quietly is when Uncle Benjamin practices reading “The Wound-Dresser”. Whitman’s poem is a tribute to the memory of the Civil War soldiers he tended during his time as a nurse, but when we hear, “I sit by the restless all the dark night; some are so young, some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,” he could be talking about the Apple family today.

Pictured at top: Karen MacDonald (Barbara Apple) makes her sisterly point with Laura Latreille (Jane Apple Halls).

(Photo by GARY NG)

“Sweet and Sad” is at Gloucester Stage, 267 East Main St. through June 20. For tickets, go to gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.

The Queen of Accessories Reigns

Iris Apfel in her museum-like apartment


I
ris Apfel is more than the sum of her parts in the same way a unicorn is not just a horse with a horn. She trails magic dust and casts a mysterious shadow in filmmaker Albert Maysles’ (“Gimme Shelter,” “Grey Gardens”) outstanding valentine, “Iris,” the documentary pioneer’s last movie before he died in March at 88 years old.


By contrast, Apfel shows no signs of slowing down. At 93 years old, the pint-sized nonconformist with the signature oversized round glasses still trolls Harlem (albeit from a wheelchair and with a driver) in pursuit of the perfect addition to her madcap collection of contemporary fashion. (“My mother worshipped at the altar of the accessory,” she deadpans).

“I like to improvise,” she explains in the opening scene, as she vamps for the camera and concocts “another mad outfit” she might wear to a party. “I always think I do things like I’m playing jazz.” As she layers enormous amber and silver necklaces and bracelets onto her birdlike frame, the audience marvels as much at her ability to remain upright as at the final quirky ensemble.

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Astoria, Queens, in 1921, Iris Barrell developed her fearless sense of individuality and style as a child, helping her fashion boutique owner mother dress windows and accompanying her importer father to jobs at Elsie de Wolfe’s legendary interior design studio. She studied fine arts at New York University and eventually began a fabulously successful interior design business.

Early on, a mentor singled her out and bluntly told her that although she wasn’t pretty, she had something more important because it would outlast her looks: she had style. Apfel has been taking that piece of advice to the bank ever since, inventing and re-inventing her unique self.

In 1948, she married Carl Patel, an advertising executive, and together they founded Old World Weavers, a fabric manufacturing firm, after Apfel couldn’t find the fabrics and furnishings she envisioned for her many high-end clients. The two spent over half a century traveling and collecting.

Their palatial Park Avenue apartment and Palm Beach home are brimming with the eclectic fruits of their shopping expeditions. The overflow is housed in a storage loft.

In 2005, The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art approached Apfel. The 600-piece show, “Rare Bird of Fashion: The Irreverent Iris Apfel,” traveled to various museums after its New York run, arriving at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in 2009.

Apfel fell in love with PEM. “It was the climax [of the show’s tour]. They have soaring ceilings and they did a really great job,” she remarks in the film. She subsequently bequeathed the entire show plus more to the museum, substantially expanding and modernizing its permanent textiles and fashion department.

The collection and its final resting place are important to Apfel. “This is a very personal collection. I wore almost everything in it. It’s nice to see where it’s going,” she says. An additional bequest will fund a fashion gallery in the PEM’s new wing that is slated to open in 2017.

Although several academic talking heads analyze and pay homage to Apfel’s pioneering contributions (“She is the perfect example of the intersection of fashion, interior design and art,” comments Margaret Russel, “Architectural Digest” editor), it is Apfel whose pithy asides cut to the chase.

Putting together the right outfit requires skill and chutzpah. “I’m brazen,” she explains as she bargains shamelessly with a street vendor for a bauble she cannot live without and then whips out her gold American Express card to pay for it. She is also serious with a firmly embedded work ethic. “It’s hard work. Everything I have, I have to go out and find,” she says.

Apfel’s credo is that fashion should be fun. “You might as well amuse people when you dress,” she comments as she pairs priceless tribal vestments with a plastic ladybug bracelet she found at a flea market. Her flamboyant and self-confident free spirit is infectious.

Although Apfel’s larger-thanlife persona could devour the screen for the film’s 83 minutes, the moments when we glimpse her sweet and trusting relationship with director Maysles temper her nonstop chatter and activity. The few scenes when she silently turns to the camera are the film’s most intimate.

“Iris” is a playful, entertaining and beautifully shot film of a woman who has spent her life marching to her own drummer and, at age 93, is still living her dream. Recommended.

Check local theaters for times.

‘All In’ in Houston

Houston community members Daniel Ogorek and Morgan Davis rescuing Rabbi Emeritus Joseph Radinsky in a canoe.

The historic flooding that hit the Houston area on May 26 and devastated the United Orthodox Synagogue and scores of its congregants’ homes had a silver lining, according to its president, Max Reichenthal. “The Jewish community that may be fractured at times came together. It’s like we’re one seamless community,” the owner of a local stell business said.

The building, spiritual home to 325 member families, suffered damage in almost every area of the complex. The majority of the prayer books and chumashim were ruined. At the height of the flood, UOS and much of theWillow Meadows area where it is located were under as much as four feet of water. The building sustained over one million dollars in damage and it is uncertain whether it will be repaired or rebuilt.

For nearly 50 years, UOS has served as a community guiding light for the Orthodox community. Reichenthal, 57, who has lived in Houston for all his life, said this flood was by far the most difficult for everyone. Many congregants lost everything. Some had no flood insurance. “With all the people reeling from the devastation of the flood, worrying about the synagogue is more challenging,” he said.

One person who was up to the challenge is Zach Katz, 17, an incoming senior at the Robert M. Behren Academy, the private Modern Orthodox Jewish primary and secondary school located near the Willow Meadows neighborhoods. His family lost everything in the 2001 Tropical Storm Allison flood. Although he was only three years old, he remembers living with his grandparents for over two years.

“When I saw these kids my age affected by this flood, it gave me perspective. I wanted to make a difference but I wasn’t sure how,” he said.

His sister, Marissa, 24, sparked an idea. The founder of Making a Difference Houston (MAD), an organization that provides teens a way to volunteer for environmental causes, she suggested that her brother rally his fellow high schoolers to aid those in need. Katz asked his friends and was amazed by the positive feedback. “The high school took it as its own responsibility to help out,” he said.

Behren Head of School, Rabbi Ahroni Carmel, supported Katz’s idea, going so far as to waive final exams so the high school students could offer their help full time every day. “What is better than watching your kid give back to the community by helping others?” asked Uri Ghelman, president of Behren and father of student Alex, 16, who arrived home last Monday night exhausted. “It’s heartbreaking but it’s also physical work. The kids are part of a solution,” he said.

Behren Academy

Behren Academy high schoolers (l-r) Tania Blanga, Marcos Bentolila, Jared Gonzalez, Henry Sar-Shalom, Alex Ghelman and Jonathan Gross take a break.

Katz learned that it was harder to organize such a large project than he had expected. The group received supplies from the JCC in Houston and, through the school, coordinated teams to go door-to-door offering help to families and the UOS.

For Katz, this experience helped him see first hand that when disaster strikes, it’s not just individuals who are affected, but whole communities. Asked to describe how he felt about it, he recalled hearing the motivational speaker Gian Paul Gonzalez.

“He talked about being ‘All In’ and everyone pitching in. If you really think about it, that’s what this is. You can’t ever quit. When you start something, you have to do everything you want and can do for it,” he said.

Visit uosh.org to donate to the United Orthodox Synagogue relief effort.

‘Hallelujah!’ Combines Jazz and Judaic Melodies

Hallelujah! Jazzy and Classical Piano Variations
Eugene Marlow Oasis Disc Manufacturing, 2015

Eugene Marlow has done it again. The composer/arranger/ performer of classical and jazz compositions recently released an anthology of Heritage Ensemble piano tracks that puts a new spin on traditional and familiar Jewish melodies. This CD, the group’s fifth, is guaranteed to make you rethink and appreciate new melodies that have become old hat.

Try listening to the songs before reading their titles. Marlow is a superb pianist, his style a blend of innovation and tradition. It is several bars into “Hatikva,” for example, before the familiar strains of the melody beckon recognition and then fade into the background of a composition that could hold its own among that of any contemporary jazz pianist. What a thrill for a jazz fan to hear “Mah Nishtanah Halaylah Haze (Passover’s Four Questions)” as a bright, lively rendition of the traditional Passover melody. Maoz Tzur (Rock of Ages), recorded specifically for this album, feels playful and new.

Pianist Marlow founded “The Heritage Ensemble,” a quintet dedicated to performing and recording his original compositions and arrangements of Hebraic melodies in various jazz, Afro-Cuban, Brazilian and classical styles. Other members are of Puerto Rican, Lebanese and Eastern European descent. Marlow’s family background is Russian, Polish, German and British.

Marlow didn’t get serious about music until he was in his 20’s and didn’t start studying composing formally until he was in his 50’s. He is a professor at New York City’s Baruch College in the department of journalism and writing.