Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Goodness, Gracious, Great Balls of Fire, A Rockin' Time at the Merry-go-Round Theater

I’m here to praise the Finger Lakes Theatre aka Merry-go-Round Playhouse again.  Yesterday we went to see “Million Dollar Quartet,” the musical about the one evening that Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis were together at Sun Records with Sam Phillips, the man who had or would launch their careers.  It’s a really interesting story, but I’m not going to tell it now.  Because the greatness of this wonderful production is in the music!  From the first chord to the third encore, the audience is rapt and part of this rock roll moment that happened on a December night in 1956.

I want to rave about the performers/actors in this show.  Individually, each is fine, but this is a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts!  When these young men are rocking it together--I’m not sure how they keep the roof on the building out there in Auburn!  Noel Casey IS Jerry Lee Lewis.  This is THE performance of a cast full of terrific performances.  Casey brings the backwoods, piano-pounding Jerry Lee to life from the moment he enters the scene.  He pounds on the piano, plays it with his feet, his elbows, and his butt!  He climbs on it and dances on it, and it’s an upright.  Casey as Lewis is great as an actor, too.  He is a pain-in-the-ass country boy, 20 years old and already twice married, once to a cousin, who was 13.  James Bock’s Carl Perkins is nearly as fabulous as Casey’s Lewis.  He’s an occasionally brooding, pissed-off-at-how -success-has-failed-to-happen-in-his-world kind of young man.  He’s fearful that if something doesn’t come to him quickly, then the rest of his career will be spent playing gigs from the back of a flatbed truck at firemen’s carnival.  Bock’s a fine actor, but a better guitar player.  When his fingers launch into a lead guitar riff, the result is so powerful, yet so apparently effortless--one of those joys to behold!  Justin Figueroa as Johnny Cash is very good.  He’s got the voice, the, interestingly enough, innocence, and the gravitas I associate with Cash.  (I hate that word “gravitas,” but I couldn’t think of a better one.)  Then there’s Elvis as performed by Luke Linsteadt.  Elvis’ contract had been sold to RCA the year before so that Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Records could keep the studio alive.  This is a troubled, innocent, naive, very likable King of Rock and Roll come back to visit Phillips, the one man he feels really understands him.  Linstead is very good.  He can sing and shake and dance about in the Presley way.  The only thing that distracts from his performance, and I hate to mention as it’s not his fault, is he is too short to play the King surrounded by strapping six-footers.  I don’t think he’s more than 5’9’, and is dwarfed by those he shares the stage with.  The most iconic figure in rock and roll history has to tower!!

Oher performers I have to mention include Dana Parker as Dyanne, one of Elvis’ girlfriends.  When she sings “Fever,” well, as the old saying used to go, it’s hot enough to melt your zipper.  Luke Darnelle is a wonderful Sam Phillips, charismatic, wise beyond his years, and very content in the little musical world he has created.  The drum and stand up bass background musicians were marvelous.  It was fun to look away from the main performers once in a while to watch these pros at work.

If you can get out to Auburn to see this show do it!  It’s bright, and fast, and loud! I raved about “From Here to Eternity” this summer.  Again, the Merry-Go-Round has spun out a production equal to what you could find in New York.

Friday, December 18, 2015


Walking around the block the other day, I heard 3 little boys playing in a backyard. One of them shouted to his mom, I imagine, "We're playing an army game, but it's non-violent." Playing KP maybe. It made me think back to how us postwar kids in the mid-1950's always were playing army. We spent hours killing imaginary Germans and Japanese. I don't remember us being aware of the Italian involvement in the Axis, save for the little song, "Whistle while you work, Hitler is a jerk, Mussolini pulled his weenie now it doesn't work," which we loved to sing. A lot of us had genuine helmet liners to wear in our play, and lots of toy companies produced all the army necessities one could ever need. My favorite was the Mattel burpgun. I also loved my Bulldog Tank, for playing army with toy soldiers.

My thoughts on armed play in the past then jumped to playing cowboys. If we weren't playing baseball or football on Pineview Drive, we were probably playing army or cowboys and Native Americans. I then recalled my favorite cowboy gun. It was the Nichols Stallion 45. It cost five bucks, no less, and came in it own very special box. It was so heavy, it was tough for a kid to hold up. I bought mine at W.A.B. Drugs in Sea Breeze. Then I wondered if I or someone else could buy a vintage Stallion .45, now. I checked and sure enough ebay had a mint one in an equally mint box. Price--$895.95. I guess there are a lot of boomers who value their childhood and put a high price on it.

Enough reminiscing. I'll now try to get to the hazy point I am trying to make. It was logical that we played war and cowboys back then. Our fathers were WW II vets, and cowboy shows took up half the limited schedule on the 2 TV channels we had to watch. As a result there were few days when the suburban air around our houses wasn't filled with cap fire and shouts of "I got you!" and "You're dead!" For this we never got in trouble. That was an O.K. way to play. None of my friends became bad people, although, one guy, who lived close, but wasn't a playmate, became a murderer. I think it's safe to say that this wasn't brought about by playing army as a child.

What am I saying? I guess I'm saying that my childhood friends grew up to be gentle people, and yet, if kids now played the games we played then, they'd get shipped off to the Junior Shrink. We are an interesting and changing people, society, culture. . .
Perhaps, the biggest irony of our youth was that all the kids who played army to glorify WW II came of age just in time to qualify for the least glorified, most despised conflict, of all time, the War in Vietnam. We had gloried in our army games, but we didn't want to play for real.

This entry has nothing to do with gun control. If you were looking for something, sorry. This came about because of 3 little boys playing army in the backyard.

(If anyone thinks I was overcome by PC disease when I mentioned Native Americans, I wasn't. It was a joke. I have realized people sometimes don't know when I am joking.)

Sunday, December 13, 2015

"Peter Pan" is a Marvel!

I wasn’t looking forward particularly to the Wednesday performance of “Peter Pan” at Syracuse Stage.  I’ve seen several productions over the years.  Some really good, some so-so, and of course, last year’s live TV production, so disastrous that I still feel sorry for everyone involved.  I think that clunker was the main reason I wasn’t excited about this week’s SS holiday special.  I am so glad we went!  This production is the best live theater I’ve seen in quite awhile, as good, I think as the touring companies of “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” which were the last two musicals we attended

If you want a guarantee that your elementary school child will develop a love for live theater then this is the show to start that love.  If you can, get tickets for this show before it closes on December 31.  It is magical, delightful, exciting, any “rave” adjective you might care to supply, so wonderful that I am going to try to hold myself to a single adjective per kudo.  It is meticulously directed.  Every stage picture a live illustration from this wonderful tale.  The choreography is a joy to watch.  One number involving drumsticks made me want to shout ‘bravo,” even though I’m not the “bravo” shouting type. The scene design takes advantage of the not terribly large stage, creating both style and function, beauty and practicality. And the costumes--lost boys, pirates, warrior, are properly tawdry yet bright at the same time.  And the animal costumes!  I didn’t remember a kangaroo, a lion or an ostrich in other productions I’ve seen.  I’m happy for the creative inspiration that added these delightful creatures who hop and lope on stage and through the auditorium.  The crocodile is great, too.

 The “professional” actors in the cast are as fine as you would expect.  Donald Corren as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook plays both the good father and the famed villain with equal aplomb,  Christine Toy Johnson as Mrs. Darling/grown-up Wendy is the quintessence of mother, and Kraig Swartz is a properly smarmy Smee.

But the expression “youth must be served,” which means to me that youth should be given its head, and allowed to be its excited and joyous self, seems to fit this show! It’s “Peter Pan” after all, about kids who don’t want to grow up.  Peter, Wendy, all the lost boys, most of the pirates, all the warriors, the animals, and the maid Liza, are still youths, SU Musical Theater students, mostly seniors.  Everywhere I looked during a scene featuring a bunch of these young actors, I would find involvement, concentration, attitudes that made me think that this performance felt as new to these young people as it did on opening night.  I especially need to mention three names, Troy Hussmann as Peter, Delph Borich as Wendy, and Ana Marceau as Tiger Lily.  Keep at it, kids!  You’re doing exactly what you were meant to do!

And for the kids in the audience, the show is exciting and colorful, and they’ll see actors of their own age playing Michael and John.  There weren’t a lot of really little ones in the audience on Wednesday, but those who were there shouted “I do,” when Peter asked the audience if it believed in fairies.  I shouted “I do,” too, and applauded with the rest of the audience to bring Tinkerbell back to life.  At that moment, I believed in everything this talented and finely trained ensemble wanted me to believe!!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Robert Frost Already Said This. . .

Robert Frost Already Said This. . .

in unrhymed iambic pentameter,
which teachers and poets know as blank verse,
or at least in some strong, disciplined way,
a structure solid, yet transient. Like leaves,
first green in newness, hold on to their trees,
then scant weeks later, ramble off with breezes,
a gold and orange and crumbling danse macabre.
“What did Frost say?” that “Nothing gold can stay.”
Be it leaf or youth or Eden even.
His words as stark as freezing rain.  And hard
as the gravel kicked to the side of the lane
by the wooden wheels of the horse-drawn hearse.
A man is gold, a towhead as a boy.
No different, I think, when blonde turns gray.
Of a boy’s sudden death, Frost once did write,
“No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
For me that is the most demanding thing,
we here alive turning to our affairs,
putting aside those that are gone to stay,
like heaps of leaves the wind to clear away.
So, live through winter and await the spring?
The April buds, the dewy flowers of May?
Time, the alchemist, will conjure more gold. . .
Ah well, Frost said this better anyway.
by Greg Ellstrom

(With Debt to Robert Frost and his poems, “Out, Out” and “Nothing Gold Can Stay.”  Also, for those who know, to Ponyboy and Johnny for bringing fame to a little verse.)

Friday, November 6, 2015

Going to the Theatre, Pronounced Theata!

         We went to Syracuse Stage yesterday afternoon to see Steve Martin's "The Underpants." "The Underpants" about a young housefrau whose underpants fall off while she's standing on a stool in her kitchen window watching the king go by in parade. It is very funny, directed at an effective, rapid pace, stuffed full of double entendres, and with terrific performances. It reminds me a little of "The Sneeze" by Chekhov but more out of control. It's probably 20 or 25 minutes too long, but see it if you can. I'm sure you will enjoy it.
          The reason for this post isn't to write a review, though. We were 15 minutes early, and as we sat in the house I watched the audience enter. Wednesday afternoon is heavy with senior citizens, although the kids from Chittenango who have attended the Stage for 30+ years were in the balcony. There were 2 or 3 interesting people down on the main floor. Kind of avant garde folk with interesting hats and flowing scarves. And I thought, seeing that I am a bit of a theatre person myself, that maybe I should start being weird. I'm sure many of you are saying, "you're already there, Greg," but I mean coolly eccentric, outre, artsy, and those kinds of adjectives. One of the artistic types there yesterday had a flowing mane of hair. That's not happening with me. When my hair gets too long it starts growing toward the left. If I wore a ponytail, it would stick out the left side of my head. Another guy was bald. That's not happening either. One guy never took his tweed driving cap off his head. Maybe, I can start wearing a beret. . .all the time. And I could get an earring for my left ear. (That's the hetero ear isn't it?) I could wear a torn t-shirt from some early 70's band, torn jeans, Chuck Taylors or cowboy boots, and a suede sport coat maybe with fringe. . .but you know I look bad in hats, and Linda wouldn't let me go to the theatre with ripped pants. I guess the weird, outre me just isn't going to happen. (Did you notice that I used the British spelling of "theatre," though. That's the way I always spell it. Pretty outre, eh?)--Greg Ellstrom

Friday, October 16, 2015

I Miss the Hike

I was feeling a little down this morning.  I had this nightmare just before waking up, which really screwed up my beginning of the day attitude.  It was a strange dream.  Full of people glaring at me.  But the dream is only secondary to the purposes of this brief post. 

The first purpose is to recall the fun my dad and I used to have hiking in the Adirondacks.  We only did a couple high peaks, the old standards Cascade and Porter.  My dad was almost 80 when we were hiking, so we stuck to some of the smaller peaks.  I have especially fond memories of Pitchoff, with the bus-sized boulders at the top and of little Mt. VanHoevenberg, where it took nearly as long to walk in to the base as it did to make the summit. When my heart episode occurred, our mountain hiking ended, and even though, I have been cleared to hike by my cardiologist, I'm afraid I no longer have the stamina.  Still, I cherish the recollections.

My second purpose is to explain what led me to write this post today.  At Panera, I had little talks with Jess, a terrific young woman who works there, and Terry Perrone, one of my Panera friends and a student from time gone by.  Jess had just come back from a trip to the Adirondacks with some friends during which they summited 2 mountains in 1 day.  Ah, the benefit of youthful leg muscles.  The 3 of us, first Jess and I then Terry and I, talked for a few minutes about good hiking memories.  Just that short term recollection of wonderful times shared with my father, chased the dregs of my crappy dream away.  The Adirondacks and memories of the Adirondacks have a way of spiritually refreshing me.   So does the ocean.  Maybe sometime, I will write a post comparing the two.--Greg Ellstrom

The beautiful photograph at the beginning of this entry came from Syracuse.com.

Thoughts About "The Martian"

This is not a rant.  Read it in a soft voice.  It’s simply an observation.  Yesterday we saw the film “The Martian.”  The film is about the survival of a man left behind on Mars when a mission has to be aborted.  The actors are all great, including Matt Damon, who is the Martian of the title, Jessica Chastain, Kate Mara, Jeff Daniels, Kristen Wiig, and many more, each of whom seem perfect in his or her role.  But the star of the film is science.  It is science that saves the day.  This movie makes you want to be brilliant, to be as scientifically capable as these NASA geniuses, especially Matt the Martian.  As I was enjoying this really fine film, a thought distracted my enjoyment for a moment.  The thought was how can anyone deny the scientific proof of climate change, and why don’t we let science do battle with this enemy, utilizing the great minds like those portrayed in “The Martian.”  Oh, we’re all at fault.  We drive cars, after all.  But I’m mostly talking about the politicians and the businessman who deny the truth of climate change because of its economic detriment.  These deniers are the people who have the science at their beck and call.  Alone on a planet, one man uses his genius to survive, and yet the deniers chose not to use our genius.  Can the billions on this planet survive?--Greg Ellstrom

P.S.  When I posted this on FB, I was told there was an error in scientific logic concerning e-mail.  I'm sure that's true, but it doesn't diminish the power of the film.