New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: theatre

Sylvia Milo’s Powerful Biodrama The Other Mozart Goes Global

“They didn’t save my letters,” Sylvia Milo’s Nannerl Mozart muses early on in The Other Mozart, Milo’s witheringly relevant one-woman show now on world tour after a wildly successful  three-year New York theatrical run. If you find the glass ceiling in music troubling, consider that it wasn’t until the Reagan era – irony of ironies – that an all-female rock band, the Go-Gos, achieved national prominence. For a woman instrumentalist in jazz, the challenges continue to be daunting. And you can still count the internationally known women orchestral conductors on the fingers of one hand. In that context, is it any wonder that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his dad tossed aside Nannerl’s responses to their breathless chronicle of touring their era’s great European concert halls?

Milo’s tragicomic biodrama about “Wolfie” Mozart’s lesser-known but reputedly just as talented older sister has already been performed in the Mozart family apartment in Salzburg; the Mostly Mozart Festival here in New York would be the logical venue for a triumphant homecoming. With a lithely luminous, charismatic presence and a balletesque grace in a physically taxing role, Milo transports the audience into a world of 18th century high society drama and intrigue that puts this era’s celebrity Twitter feeds to shame. The action is nonstop, so much that in the early going, her whirlwind delivery demands especially close attention. The dialogue, most of it drawn verbatim from the Mozart family’s archival correspondence, reveals that Amadeus was hardly the only drama queen in this story. That’s a family trait, and Milo dives into that for maximum entertainment value, juicy gossip and all, although it eventually takes its toll on pretty much everyone concerned.

The great tragedy is that Nannerl’s kid brother at least got the chance to pursue his art fulltime. Her mom – who, predictably, has been lost to history to an even greater extent – couldn’t wait to put Nannerl’s childhood dreams of stardom to rest and marry her off to some bigwig. Complicating those efforts is the Mozart siblings’ past as child stars. Clearly, Nannerl dreads the thought of having peaked at a young age after having been feted as a child prodigy alongside her brother while Father Mozart, desperate to escape his dreary dayjob, pulled out all the stops in trying to ride his kids’ talent all the way across the continent, and, ultimately, out of town.

Jealousy simmers while Nannerl busies herself with smalltown drudgery, cast aside by her father and brother in their headlong dash for fame, fortune and an increasingly elusive rich patron to facilitate all of that. Milo puts all of this in context, resulting in many of the performance’s most cruelly amusing moments. After all, in Enlightenment-era Europe, everyone knew that women’s fragile constitutions and similarly weak minds put all sorts of all-male activities, the concert tour among them, permanently off limits. Milo dredges up a couple of particularly ugly, piggish quotes from none other than Immanuel Kant and Jean-Jacques Rousseau to drive that home: compared to those two, Donald Trump may not be Simone de Beauvoir, but he’s definitely a cut above when it comes to misogynist prejudice.

Although Milo saves a particularly ironic twist for the very end, the conclusion of this tale isn’t as tragic as it could have been. History tells us that Nannerl Mozart was able to find some late-career redemption, such as that could have existed for her then. Widowed and supported by an inheritance, she earned respect as a teacher, salon operator and champion of her late brother’s works. Milo doesn’t address this, but one can only wonder if Nannerl could have achieved as much without living in her brother’s shadow.

The musical score, with spot-on musical direction by Nathan Davis deserves its own stand-alone release: it’s that good. Rippling, uneasily and vividly atmospheric original compositions for toy piano and music box by Phyllis Chen are juxtaposed with well-chosen, familiar excerpts from works by Mozart and also from Marianne Martines, a popular salonniere and composer in mid-1700s Vienna. What we don’t get is Nannerl Mozart’s own work: only a fragment of one of her compositions survives.

 

Object Collection Stages a Deliciously Noisy, Messy. Provocative Piece at LaMaMa

Longtime LaMaMa impresario Nicky Paraiso reminded last night’s sold-out crowd at Object Collection’s latest experimental opera, Cheap & Easy October, that the experience would be what used to be called “total theatre” back in the 80s – a description that really nailed it. With a tight, often scorchingly intense four-piece band playing behind a ratty knitted curtain of sorts and cast members scampering, leaping and chasing each other around the stage, it’s more of a concert with a cast acting out a dadaesque video of sorts than it is anything else. And what a show it is. As immersive and pummeling as composer Travis Just’s score is, it’s far less abrasive than it is enveloping: you are drawn into the heart of the cyclotron, violently thrust out or, surprisingly, cast gently into a starlit reverie. Earplugs will be handed out, hut you don’t really need them. The run at LaMaMa is coming to a close, with final performances tonight, October 17 and then tomorrow at 10 PM; tix are $18/$13 stud/srs.

The band shifts abruptly but strangely elegantly through dreampop, post-hardcore and Mogwai-esque nightmarescapes, with acidic mid-80s Sonic Youth close harmonies, furious percussive interludes that recall taiko drumming, moments of what seem to be free improvisation, and echoes of the cumulo-nimbus swirl of guitarist Taylor Levine’s quartet Dither. Violinist Andie Springer uses a lot of extended technique and nails-down-the-blackboard harmonics; she also plays bass. Explosive drummer Owen Weaver doubles on Telecaster, while keyboardist Aaron Meicht also adds the occasional trumpet flourish or joins the stomp on a couple of floor toms.

The text – drawn from Soviet revolutionary histories by Leon Trotsky and John Reed as well as conversations between writer/director Kara Feely and cast member Fulya Peker (whose butoh background informs the simmering menace she channels throughout the show) veers from lickety-split spoken word to a bizarre, falsettoey singsong. Sardonic symbolism is everywhere: there’s a zombie apocalypse subplot, a telephone gets abused, and swordplay abounds. The rest of the cast – Deborah Wallace, Daniel Allen Nelson, Tavish Miller and Avi Glickstein – take on multiple roles, some of them living, some of them presumably dead.

There’s some toying with poststructuralist japes, springboarding off the premise that if you control the conversation, you control the situation. “Do you think a revolution of words can be as profound as an actual revolution?” one of the cast poses in one of the performance’s less chaotic moments. Much of the iconography in the set is sarcastic and ultimately portends a lot of very gloomy endings: as Feely and Just see it, revolutions tend to disappoint.

No less august a personality than Robert Ashley gave this group’s work the thumbs-up. For those who need their ideas packaged neatly and cohesively, this isn’t going to work. And it raises fewer questions than it intimates – which by itself is reason to see this provocative piece, one more nuanced than its sonic cauldron might initially suggest.

ThingNY Debuts a Blackly Amusing, Sonically Rich Reflection on Hurricane Sandy

ThingNY‘s provocative, often hilarious performance piece This Takes Place Close By debuted last night, making maximum use of the spacious, sonically rich Knockdown Center in Maspeth, a former doorframe factory recast as adventurous performance venue. Through the eyes of various witnesses to Hurricane Sandy, the multimedia work explores apathy, anomie and alienation in the wake of disaster. It raises more questions than it answers – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Is this limousine liberal self-flagellation, a vain attempt to demonstrate eleventh-hour empathy? A simpering, self-congratulatory meme for gentrifiers hell-bent on their fifteen minutes on Instagram? A welcome dose of perspective on where the hurricane falls, historically speaking, in terms of disastrous consequences? A caustic and often poignant critique of narcissism raising its ugly head at the least opportune moment? You can find out for yourself when the piece repeats, tonight, September 25 through Sunday the 27th at 8 PM; general admission is $20.

Ostensibly an opera, this is more of an avant garde theatre piece with music. The six-piece ensemble lead the audience from one set to another, creating a surround-sound atmosphere, voices and instruments leaping unexpectedly from the shadows. The live electroacoustic score – a pulsing, rather horizontal, minimalistic theme and variations – is gripping and often reaches a white-knuckle intensity, and the distance between the performers has no effect on how tightly they play it. The narratives vary from more-or-less straight-up theatre vignettes, to phone calls, harrowing personal recollections and surrealist spoken-word interludes. Other than Gelsey Bell – whose pure, translucent chorister’s soprano is the icing on the sonic cake – the rest of the ensemble do not appear to be trained singers. Yet they gamely hold themselves together through some challenging, distantly gospel-inspired four-part harmonies. Violinist Jeffrey Young‘s shivery cadenzas and the occasional creepy glissando enhance the suspense, while Bell’s keyboards and Dave Ruder’s clarinet supply more resonantly ominous ambience. Percusssionist Paul Pinto wryly doubles as roadie and emcee of sorts with his trusty penlight. Bassist Andrew Livingston distinguishes himself by playing creepy tritones while sprawled flat on his back in the rubble; meanwhile, Bell projects with undiminished power despite the presence of Livingston’s bass on top of her diaphragm.

Intentionally or not, the star of this show is multi-saxophonist Erin Rogers, whose vaudevillian portrayal of a 911 operator slowly losing it under pressure – in between bursts of hardbop soprano sax – is as chilling as it is funny. Happily, she later gets to return to give the poor, bedraggled, unappreciated woman some dignity. And playing alto, she teams with Livingston for a feast of brooding foghorn atmospherics during a portrait of a philosophical old bodega owner for whom the storm is “been there, done that.”

The characters run the gamut from enigmatic or gnomic to extremely vivid. Young gets to relish chewing the scenery as he channels a wet-behind-the-ears, clueless gentrifier kid who’s just self-aware enough to know that he ought to cover his ass while expunging any possible guilt for gettting away with his comfortable life intact. Livingston’s shoreline survivor, horror-stricken over the possible loss of his girlfriend, really drives the storm’s toll home. Bell’s baroque-tinged ghost is more nebulous, as is Pinto’s mashup of tummler and historian at the end – in a set piece that seems tacked on, as if the group had to scramble to tie things together just to get the show up and running in time. Yet even that part is grounded in history – which, if this group is to be believed, does not portend well for how we will react when the waters rise again. And they will.

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed Challenge Your Place in the Universe

Jane LeCroy and Bradford Reed‘s kinetically hypnotic, thought-provoking performance last night at Dixon Place was a booster shot to the synapses. Becoming immersed in their performance was like re-reading Steppenwolf, or La Nausée, a gut check to make sure all systems are still working. Reed played not his famous invention, the pencilina, but a thicket of multicolored wires and effects, like something from under the hood of Martin Rev’s earliest synthesizer. Reed activated it by beating out a steady, syncopated groove on a snare and an ominous-looking, upside-down, jet-black steel chemical drum, then running those beats through the maze of wires and boxes for textures that varied from bleeps and bloops to gentle pulses and washes. The chemistry between the two performers was intuitive, varying the dynamics as the emotional arc of LeCroy’s vocals and poetry rose and fell. Meanwhile, time-lapse footage of boats on the Hudson and cloud formations overhead flitted and shifted shape, projected on a screen above the stage.

LeCroy alternated between a tersely considered spoken-word delivery imbued with a puckish existentialist humor, and hazy, dreamy vocals informed by vintage boudoir soul music. On the night’s most dramatic and intense piece, her voice took on a stern, stark, defiant quality that drew heavily on centuries-old African-American spirituals. Steadily and methodically, she drew the audience in and never let them go. Trying to figure out what was improvised and what was not was a lot of fun. As the music and grooves unwound, it was hard not to get lost in them, but LeCroy’s sometimes gentle, sometimes biting challenges to the audience peppered the reverie and, intentionally or not, jarred the crowd out of their dream state.

The grim progression of time, and by implication, the ravages of age, were recurrent themes. LeCroy offered matter-of-fact cajolement to anyone willing to listen, to exercise their freedom and seize the moment. But her tightly crystallized litany of images and mantras owed far more to Sartre or Kierkegaard than to any new age source. Her funniest stream of consciousness rap involved teeth and what happens to them when they’re neglected. Her final piece was an improvisation based on themes suggested by the audience, which turned out to be kindness and smoke. How she wove those images together into a bigger picture, bringing her calmly determined, angst-fueled contemplation full circle, was as subtly amusing as it was nonchalantly and unselfconsciously profound: LeCroy loves double entendres and subtext and can’t resist employing as much as she can come up with, on the fly, plotting her next move. The experience was as therapeutic as it was challenging.

John Kelly Winds Up His Memorably Tragicomic Performance Piece on Governors Island

The foreshadowing of Jarrod Beck‘s masterfully surreal, decaying, apocalyptic steampunk set design for John Kelly‘s latest performance piece, Love of a Poet, intimated a cruelly ominous fate for its protagonist. Based on Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe song cycle setting of lovelorn Heinrich Heine poems, Kelly’s piece is a grimly tragicomic study in self-absorption. In typical multimedia fashion, Kelly employed projections of an alter ego of sorts, ghostly images of a girl strolling through a black-and-white Blair Witch-style set, left and right of the stage while he sang and performed the suite with his usual nuance, operatic flair and lithely muscular grace.

Pianist Christopher Cooley opened with blackly menacing, minimalist motives, building to an aptly murky, riveting ambience from which Kelly arose, literally, from flat on his back, just beyond the sold-out crowd’s sightline. From there the two worked a dynamically rich tension, both singer and pianist sometimes veering into rubato, each following the other, raising the level of angst and fullscale alienation.

Kelly is an artist who likes to push himself to the limits of how he portrays a character, both physically and on an emotional level, and this performance was no exception. Tragic historical figures are favorites of his. This interpretation of the doomed poet offered suspense – was he going to bury himself alive, drown himself, stab himself, all of the above, or survive it all? – as well as Kelly’s signature wry humor. A brief, anachronistic bit involving a laptop was irresistibly funny. Even more so was the suite’s most vaudevillian number, a blackly droll little song whose gist was, in case any of you think that all this nonstop heartbreak is funny, it happens every day…and it’s gonna happen to you! There was a physical element to that which made it all the more priceless, but it’s too good to give away. Throughout the piece, Kelly worked from the soaring top to the eerily resonant bottom of his famously vast vocal range, singing in both the original German as well as in English, cautiously and then frantically weighing just how much torment an artist can take…or simply subject himself to.

Originally written to be performed at what is now the Governors Island ferry terminal, at the Battery, this new set took advantage of its new digs in the performance space on the lower level of the building just to the right of the Manhattan ferry landing on the island itself. The audience whisked themselves in, slowly, single file, being made to wade through gusty sheets of plastic. Was this more eerie foreshadowing? An immersive prelude to the struggle of the poor poet to maintain his santity?

Yesterday’s performance here was the final one, at least for now, although there are several other intriguing upcoming concerts on Governors Island, including the world premiere of a new large-scale composition by Serena Jost and Matthew Robinson for fifty-piece cello orchestra, outdoors on July 25 at 3 PM outdoors at the southwest corner of Fort Jay.

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

Bora Yoon Holds the Crowd Spellbound at La MaMa

Bora Yoon is a connoisseur of high, ringing sounds, and the things that make them. Wednesday night at La MaMa, in the first of a four-day run of her new program Sunken Cathedral, she employed her signature instrument, singing bowls, in addition to rattles, chimes, a music box, pizzicato violin and several items typically found on the stove or in the cupboard. She also played piano, tersely and evocatively, in a thoroughly opiated Erik Satie-meets-Cab Calloway vein, acting out a surrealistic, shadowy, existential one-woman play of sorts against a shapeshifting prerecorded backdrop incorporating both electronic atmospherics and snatches of material from her enveloping, enigmatic new album from which the production takes its name.

Onstage, the exit and re-entry point was the grandfather clock in the corner, giving Yoon the chance to change costumes – and also allow for flitting appearances by a male dancer dressed in traditional Korean garb, complete with twirling tassel atop his colorful cap. Yoon bookended the performance with pre-renaissance vocal works augmented by atmospherics: she has a crystalline chorister’s voice and held the sold-out crowd rapt along with her. In between, she took brief detours into brooding art-rock, lengthy, nebulous vocalese sculptures and a couple of horror-film interludes complete with scary shadow puppetry and projections. Early on, she got an almost imperceptible doppler effect going with what looked like a crystal on a spinning turntable, a more subtle take on an old Andrew Bird shtick.

The theme of the album – recently reviewed here – and the show are something along the lines of “if you don’t make your life happen, it’ll happen to you.” Despite the pretty relentlessly moody ambience, what was most striking was how absolutely hilarious Yoon can be. A couple of momentary appearances by Yoon’s mom speaking animated Koreanglish into her voicemail drew predictable chuckles. But the funniest sequence involved a countertop, an oven and the things around it. The sight gags were priceless, and it wouldn’t be fair to spoil them – suffice it to say that Yoon is hardly the first person to peel and then munch on a carrot while singing, but she didn’t let it throw her off, pitchwise or otherwise, no small achievement. The rest of the La MaMa run, continuing through tomorrow night as part of this year’s Prototype Festival, is sold out, but there is a wait list and several people on that list made it into Wednesday’s show.

The Minetta Lane Theatre Stages a Sinister, Politically Spot-On New Rock Musical

“If we act like we know what we’re doing, people will think we know what we’re doing,” Marrick Smith’s tirelessly ambitious yuppie character announces at a particularly pivotal juncture in Ivar Pall Jonsson‘s surrealistically sinister, fearlessly relevant new rock musical, Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson, Furniture Painter, currently playing at the Minetta Lane Theatre. Inspired by the Enron-like run on the Icelandic krona by currency speculators in the wake of the 2008 global financial collapse, the musical is a cruelly telling parable of how the ruling classes and those elected to represent them manipulate the rest of us – and convince us that their failures are somehow ours instead. As both political and musical satire, it’s surprisingly subtle, considering how much dramatic fireworks take place and how over-the-top the parody gets in places. With roots in hippie agitprop, glam rock and George Orwell, it’s well worth the price of admission and with better branding would have a very high upside on Broadway.

The story is simple. Elbowville is a sleepy town full of people situated deep in the titular laborer’s body, south of Mombreast and north of Knee York City and its trendy suburb, Hipburg. As befits satire, the characters are all pretty broad. Cady Huffman’s Manuela, the mayor, starts out egocentrically brassy and gets increasingly diabolical as the plot unwinds. Smith’s Peter, inventor of the Prosperity Machine that brings the town great joy and hilariously spoofy bodily “enhancements,” is insatiable in his quest for more and more until the whole scheme seems on the brink of collapse (a crisis that resolves itself via flashback early on). Jesse Wildman methodically emboldens the persona of Brynja, the ingenue who can’t decide between bossy Peter and his shy, good-hearted brother (Graydon Long). Brad Nacht is exasperatingly unwavering and amusing as doofy third-wheel brother Stein, who will avoid a decision at all costs just to get along. Kate Shindle lends an acerbic fire to his status-grubbing but increasingly suspicious wife Asrun, while Patrick Boll is wickedly perfect as Manuela’s sneaky, kiss-ass straight man, Kolbein (which sounds suspiciously like “Cobain” throughout the performance).

The satire goes beyond politics to Broadway spectacle itself. A good portion of the action unfolds during song sequences, and not a single character bothers to imbue his or her vocals with anything other than a rote, smiley-faced, Disney-approved cheer (which seems to be a directorial decision, a very effective one). The music, also by Jonsson, is catchy and tuneful, drawing heavily on Aladdin Sane-era David Bowie as well as the more anthemic side of 80s new wave pop, with a bit of metal crunch or goth horror in the tenser moments. The band – Matt Basile on bass, Bryn Roberts on keyboards, John Kengla and Rob Ritchie on guitars plus a terse, swinging drummer who somehow managed not to let an injured leg in a thigh-high boot stop him – play with dynamics and intensity.

Interestingly, the narrative positions the local powers that be as the villains, without taking into account external factors conspiring against them – there are a couple of very amusing repo man/woman scenes, but that’s about it. As the bank or its facsimile gets run on, pandemonium ensues and it looks like somebody’s going to get strung up. The sudden ending packs an unexpected wallop. This show succeeds on all levels: as comedy, as corrosively cynical political commentary, as a rock show. And there’s a soundtrack album – sung by the actors and band in the original Icelandic production – that you can listen back to.

Back to that title: it’s got to go for this to succeed on any sizeable level in the US.  A show this accessible yet this impactful could have a real future on Broadway (that Fela managed to last as long as it did is good reason to believe the time is ripe for a similarly edgy 99-percenters’ tale). But xenophobic American tourist audiences won’t buy Ragnar whateverhisnameis. Elbowville would work just fine.

John Otway Provokes Laughter On the Big Screen and Onstage

As John Otway self-effacingly explained to the crowd at his Sunday concert at Theatre 80 St. Marks, he’s a “microcelebrity” in his native England. He was Spinal Tap before Spinal Tap existed. As documented in Steve Barker’s fascinating new documentary film Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure: The Otway Movie, Otway was on the receiving end of a multimillion-dollar 1977 recording contract from Polydor Records, resulting in little more than a couple of minor UK hits. Apparently the label’s view was that Otway’s exuberant/buffoonish rockstar persona would put them in position to compete with the era’s foremost stadium rock buffoons, the Bay City Rollers. The deal may not have exactly worked out the way the label wanted it to, although there’s no question that today, Otway is more popular than the Bay City Rollers.

As both the movie and Otway’s show revealed, he was always ahead of his time. He was doing crowdsourcing and creating flashmobs before anyone else. His shtick may well have given Christopher Guest the inspiration for Spinal Tap. At this particular concert, he didn’t have his band, but he did have a roadie who did triple duty as offstage chorus, as shill hollering suspiciously well-timed repartee from the aisles, and on one number, as fill-in keyboardist. Much of Otway’s comedy draws heavily from oldtime English vaudeville in the same vein as Monty Python or Neil Innes, especially when baiting the audience is concerned. Another weapon in Otway’s arsenal is improv. His deadpan parody of rockstar narcissism – and the public’s cluelessness about it – is stingingly accurate and often gut-bustingly (and potentially head-bustingly) funny even if it’s sometimes a little obvious. And while the lovably inept one-hit wonder character he channels can’t resist taking a leap of faith and landing on the “fail” button every time, what becomes clear early on is that Otway is actually a decent tunesmith, a perfectly adequate guitarist and in a lot of ways an utterly original if utterly devious creative genius.

Much as his parodies of 70s stadium anthems, by-the-numbers punk rock, disco and heavy metal all had their moments, it was between songs that Otway was funniest. He related how “some people actually come to see me more than once,” that he recalled (accurately or not) being “in the loo and overhearing guys talking about where my guitar capo was, on this fret at one show but on another at the next.” That set up one of the night’s most irresistible musician-insider jokes, concering the challenges of playing solo versus playing with a band.

Otway’s most exuberant comedy is very physical: pratfalls, a ladder and the endangerment of expensive instruments are involved. His funniest is surprisingly subtle. The film goes into more detail than the stage show did about how Otway led a write-in campaign resulting in the BBC putting their imprimatur on his ridiculously absurdist psych-pop song Beware of the Flowers Cause I’m Sure They’re Going to Get You, Yeah as one of the seven greatest lyrics ever written. Because Otway’s humor is not for everyone, he sometimes gets heckled. His solution? Book Abbey Road Studios for a recording of House of the Rising Sun and invite a crowd to come heckle him. “I had to tell them that the crowd was a choir,” he confided, “Abbey Road is a proper studio, you know! And you know that everyone who’s on the record would want a copy for themselves and the mum!” Otway related the incident’s logical Top of the Pops conclusion with a smirking triumph that the crowd couldn’t resist.

At the concert, there was a special bonus, a stripped-down, mostly acoustic opening set by janglerock songwriter Richard X. Heyman and his trio including his wife Nancy on bass and a lead acoustic guitarist playing nimble, bluegrass and blues-infused fills. With richly intertwined, catchy guitar and vocal interplay and soaring harmonies, Heyman led the group through biting, defiant anthems, crescendoing  powerpop and some richly tuneful Britfolk-infused numbers in much the same vein as what Otway probably drew on for his initial inspiration.

Three More Chances to Watch Tammy Faye Starlite Channeling Nico

Irrepressible, subversive blonde cabaret personality Tammy Faye Starlite plays Nico in Chelsea Madchen, her wildly popular evocation of the iconic ice queen on Mondays in June at 8 PM at the lushly redesigned new Cutting Room on 32nd Street just west of Park Avenue. Serena Angelique Williams’  rave review of Tammy’s performance during a sold-out run at the Duplex originally appeared at NY Music Daily’s sister blog Lucid Culture a couple of years ago:

I happen to be partial to divas, so it was with great fanfare and enthusiasm that I set out to see Tammy Faye Starlite’s new work, “Chelsea Madchen,” a self-styled performance piece she has put together from scratch. Though pleased that anyone had been brave enough to tackle the task of taking on the Teutonic temptress, and particularly a woman, rather than a drag queen, I was hesitant to believe that it could really be pulled off while eliminating the potential for excess camp. Impersonating Nico is a seemingly uphill climb for even the most accomplished actress. Were it not for Tammy Faye Starlite, a modern day diva in her own right, my skepticism may have won out – especially since my first attempt to see the show was thwarted. In true Nico style, it had been cancelled – in this case, on account of the unexpected October snowstorm of a few weeks ago.

I knew Tammy Faye Starlite from her noteworthy performances at Lakeside Lounge, fronting the Mike Hunt Band, the all-girl Rolling Stones cover group, as well as her hilarious turn as a country music songstress in Tammy Faye Starlite and the Angels of Mercy, where she croons original country songs as shocking as they are humorous. She has the chops to do many things very well, and had previously put this piece up at Joe’s Pub and Theater 80 at St. Marks Place. The Duplex’s cabaret is a much smaller house – it only seats 77 at full capacity – so I was aware that this would be a rare chance to see her perform in a more intimate venue, with hopes that it would add to the authenticity of the experience. It had long been my dream to see Nico, in whatever way I could get her, and I had never imagined my wish would ever surface as a reality. Still, I kept my expectations from brimming over, though I had read that Danny Fields, Nico’s former manager, had been impressed with Tammy Faye’s interpretation, a stamp of approval that carries considerable weight. In spite of this, I entered the cabaret more curious than hopeful, wondering how in the world she would manage to pull off this daunting task.

This piece could be described as a play within a play, though there are no programs distributed, which dispels the notion that we are seeing anything but a live and improvised performance. Tammy Faye cites that her inspiration to create this piece emerged in adolescence, listening to Nico obsessively as many a teenage girl (including myself) was wont to do before music so radically shifted gears. It was Nico who paved the way for many experimental musicians, a rare female innovator overshadowed by her predominantly male contemporaries. She was irreverent, an outlaw, a conjurer of emotionally charged sound from an era that unforgettably changed the way we perceive and listen to music. Yet she put out a relatively small body of work, and it still is a challenge to track down many of her more obscure recordings.

The band is onstage before Tammy Faye makes her grand, if understated entrance. They are a cohesive ensemble, and utterly faithful to reproducing the Velvet Underground’s signature sound. They start the set with the appropriately titled “Femme Fatale” while Tammy Faye as Nico quietly assumes her place, hesitating before beginning the set with an overlong pause, in character, while keeping everything in the moment. Then she starts to sing.

Though she resembles Nico, she is not a clone. Rather than attempting to present the “Dolce Vita” image of physical perfection that is characteristically associated with Nico, she seems instead to emulate Nico in her later life. This is a wise choice, although at that point, Nico had stopped dyeing her hair, and Tammy Faye retains the hallmark blonde tresses. In an all-black ensemble, wool sweater and heavily lined eyes, she is transformed into a version of Nico that is both aloof and believable, without inviting potentially unfavorable comparisons.

In fact, she is infinitely better-looking than Nico became in her hardcore junkie years, when her beauty was ravaged by self-destruction and bloated with excess. Tammy Faye’s voice is also stronger. However, it is not her intent to fall back on the timeworn stereotype of Nico as a drug addict – a wise decision, as it does not diffuse the focus of the work. Nico, as I’ve mentioned, is difficult, if not impossible to imitate, but the beauty of her vocals is also aided by certain imperfections, and a visceral, hollow resonance, unique unto her alone. Tammy Faye’s German accent, inflections, and phrasing are on point, her timing impeccable, but the better-known numbers from her days with the Velvet Underground lack the dark cultivation of Nico’s original recordings. Still, this does not seriously detract from the performance, and after the first song, she quickly settles into character. As the show progresses, her rhythm as Nico continues to gain momentum, and it is compelling to watch this transformation as it unfolds.

The premise of the piece is an interview – a skillfully assembled pastiche of actual Nico interview quotes from over the years – with a cheerfully inquisitive, if somewhat inept Australian (Jeff Ward deserves a big hand for this role) providing the necessary tension for Nico to play against. His queries are met with a series of blatant non-sequiturs and unabashed haughtiness, revealing an austere and singularly self-involved woman. Her intellect is equally apparent, despite many, many prejudices, echoed with a candid, sometimes beyond-the-pale precision that is surprisingly droll. Tammy Faye proves once again to be a gifted comedienne, and manages to balance these perceptions with such refreshing honesty that she is able to captivate the audience without alienating them with excessive arrogance or an obliquely slanted worldview.  We observe a Nico who is simultaneously astute, eccentric, opinionated, and flawed, a mosaic of contradictions which serve as the basis of her persona as blighted, yet gifted artist of infinite potential.

Nico was one of the great muses of her time. At one point, she explains that her one regret in life is that she “was born a woman instead of a man”. It may seem ironic that she would make such a remark, considering that her classically feminine style of beauty is so integral to her iconic status. She did not embrace feminism, yet she gradually cultivated a level of androgyny emphasizing her more masculine traits. She seems to have regarded her sex to be an extreme handicap, which she perpetually strove to overcome in spite of her attractiveness. She rebelled against her good looks, waging a later campaign that now seems a deliberate attempt to destroy them entirely. Her battle was a long-hidden struggle to desexualize herself in a quest for artistic self-realization. But equating creativity with masculinity, she fell victim to a rigidly established system of chauvinistic ideals. Consequently, nearly all of her work would become heavily influenced by the men in her life while she searched for her true voice as a singer. Handing over the reins, she allowed them to dictate and compose much of her material.

As Nico, Tammy Faye recounts her several collaborative efforts and relationships with Warhol, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne, Jim Morrison, and even Gordon Lightfoot (one of the most poignant, confessional songs in her repertoire, is her cover of Lightfoot’s “I’m Not Sayin’,” describing her view of herself in relationships with affecting accuracy). She trusted them more than she could trust herself, and in turn, they used her as an inspiration for their own work. There are traces of bitterness in Nico’s harsh delivery of her side of some of these stories, yet she never makes an appeal for our sympathy. In their respective ways, it could be argued that each used the other. The difference lies in that Lou Reed, for example, would have remained Lou Reed with or without Nico: he brought her into the Velvets to serve as eye candy as much as to sing. She would never again achieve the same level of fame as she’d enjoyed with them after going solo, most of her best-known work being laid out during her earlier sessions with the band. When she objectively recalls her problems with Reed, deducing that “he could never get over what my people had done to his people–I can’t make love to Jews anymore,” this is beyond a mere catty or oblivious indictment. Reed’s excuse that they separated under the premise of cultural differences is unlikely. What is more believable is that they could no longer work together because he felt her to be his creative inferior. She simply moved on, to Dylan, and later John Cale, and other musicians, placing them all upon pedestals, and following their respective leads. Forever searching out mentors, lovers, and assistants, she unfortunately undermined her own talent. Dominated by a string of more successful male artists, Nico was all but swallowed whole. She literally fell to the wayside, eventually dying much too early, impoverished, obscured by her more famous friends and colleagues.

And therein lies the true genius of Tammy Faye’s opus as Nico. Tammy Faye is able to vividly capture the woman’s genius, while exposing her weaknesses, providing a completely three-dimensional portrait of a woman often marginalized, and one who continued to persevere despite a long history of folly and failed relationships. She is unapologetic for all of it. Ultimately she ended up with a beautiful catalogue of material that defines her as a modern chanteuse. These songs are timeless. When Tammy Faye sings them, we are reminded of their lasting value as groundbreaking contributions to the evolution of postmodern trends in music, art and performance art. When she sits before the piano and begins the first strains of “Frozen Borderline” from The Marble Index, for all intents and purposes, we are seeing art that is as stunning in originality as it is arresting in its realism. Resurrected from the great beyond, this diva commands her audience with such mastery that by the time she launches into her haunting version of Jim Morrison’s “The End” I was no longer conscious of Tammy Faye “channeling” Nico; the two had harmonically converged.

The show ended all too soon, though it clocks in at nearly ninety minutes, without intermission.  Nico left the stage abruptly after delivering the explosive denouement, a vengeful rendition of Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for My Man,” a powerful statement to conclude this story. There was no encore. No introduction of the superb backup band – Claudia Chopek, Dave Dunton, Rich Feridun, Keith Hartel, Craig Hoek and Ron Metz, nor of the brilliant interviewer. No greeting of the audience after the show. Like a dream, she seemed to have evaporated almost immediately, leaving me feeling overexposed as the house lights turned on. What was left was the lingering sense that I had just experienced the rare good luck to have been transported through time to a place forever obsolete, in the supreme presence of a living phantom. Tammy Faye Starlite–singer, writer, performance artist, comedienne and actress extraordinaire, has offered us a glimpse into the past, giving us a final chance to pay homage to a spirit we should honor and respect. These performances should not be missed. This diva will haunt you.

Tammy Faye Starlite is Nico in ”Chelsea Madchen” on Mondays in June at 8 PM at the Cutting Room, 44 E 32nd St. just west of Park Ave. Advance tickets are $20 and still available as of today, June 5.