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You don’t need to be in love with the world around you to paint it—Georgia O’Keeffe demonstrated that over some 15 or more extended summers in Lake George, NY, surrounded by mountains and dense woods, during which time she painted more than 200 paintings.

Starting in 1918, O’Keeffe spent 5 months each year at the Stieglitz family retreat in Lake George, as lover & protégée to famed photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924.  While Santa Fe was the place that called to her spiritually, a large part of her esthetic was developed first at Lake George, growing over the later years (1929-1934) as she traveled back and forth between the two places (chronology here).

O’Keeffe’s distinctively macro view of the natural world was quite probably formed by her unique reaction to the grand scale of the Adirondack landscape. She wrote of feeling “confined” and overwhelmed by “the green.” She may have also been overwhelmed by the size of Lake George, the largest of the Adirondack lakes at 32 miles long, or the 11 mountains that surround it, and so she reduced the forms to understand them, examining one tree, and handful of leaves, or one flower on large canvasses.

or in a running format: Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887-1986), From the Lake, No. 3, 1924, oil on canvas, 26 x 30 in., © Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887-1986), From the Lake, No. 3, 1924, oil on canvas, 26 x 30 in., © Philadelphia Museum of Art: Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe for the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1987.

Her 1924 painting, From The Lake, captures the movement and abstract color pattern of Lake George without rendering its likeness as so many other painters did before her. Her palette, from the start, was a rich canopy of color that stood out instantly from the muted parade of paintings coming out of the Hudson River School. O’Keeffe gravitated towards the bright blues of the sky, the bright purples and reds of the flowers, and especially the browns and golds of the trees in fall.

The one color she developed an aversion to was the green that papered the entire Adirondack landscape. By the 1930s, she wrote to another painter that, “I walk much and endure the green and that is about all there is to it.”

As a lover of both the Adirondacks and landscape painting in general, I have to admit that the appeal of O’Keeffe’s work was lost on me for some time. That was, until the extraordinary exhibit now showing at The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, NY, just a few miles from where the Stieglitz summer home once stood.

It’s hard to imagine that the fluidity of these paintings, the sloping, rolling, curling and twisting lines that so invoke her style could have been formed in the harsh landscape of the New Mexico desert, for these are the lines of the Adirondacks, old mountains and natural lakes, winding rivers and trees that curve to meet the shores.

The exhibit captures all of this through several important series of O’Keefe’s paintings. The tree series are a collection of large paintings in surprisingly soft colors, painted in summer and fall. Rather than the angled lines so often associated with trees, in O’Keeffe’s vision the boughs spiral. She also painted a leaf series, examining closely the fabrics of each kind of foliage. There are the usual barns and longer landscapes, including some clever aerial views, suggesting her early experiments with abstract forms.

But her brilliance really begins to shine with the giant flower paintings she began while at Lake George in the early to mid 1920s. Two of her most provocative series are exhibited at the Hyde, the petunias, and my personal favorite, a 5-canvas series of Jacks in the Pulpit. She also began her famous exploration of red, discovering the true heart of her palette—or maybe the palette of her heart, with her paintings of the red canna flower.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887-1986), Petunias, 1925, oil on hardboard panel, 18 x 30 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Gift of the M. H. de Young Family, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887-1986), Petunias, 1925, oil on hardboard panel, 18 x 30 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Gift of the M. H. de Young Family, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Her understanding of the nature of color and form becomes intuitively obvious when you stand at various distances to the life-sized paintings. The exotic linear patterns and curvatures form spectacularly beautiful shapes of color, which as you move closer, separate.  And her continuous exploration through multiple vantage points and focal lengths also becomes clear, suggesting she was something of a scientist in her approach.

As a museum, it’s worth noting that the Hyde Collection is one of the true little gems among art museums in the northeast. It is situated in the former home of Louis Fiske Hyde and Charlotte Pruyn Hyde, designed by Boston architect Henry Forbes Bigelow at 161 Warren Street in downtown Glens Falls.  And one of the great delights to this museum is to wander the fully appointed rooms with guest beds, night stands, tabolets, etc., all so completely preserved that you feel as if you might be staying there yourself….until you look up and see the original Winslow Homer next to the closet, or the El Greco, the two Rubens (one of which is stunning), the Rembrandt, the two Renoirs—quite the personal collection.

The “Georgia O’Keeffe on Lake George” show is at the Hyde Collection for the summer of 2013. closing on September 15th to move on to its next natural stop at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum of Santa Fe, NM for the winter before concluding at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.

Suggested Reading:  “Modern Nature—Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” compiled and edited by Erin B. Coe, Gwendolyn Owens and Bruce Robertson. Thames and Hudson, 2013.

© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.

All photos reprinted with permission from the Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, NY.

 

My creative friend Anne-Marie reminded me today that the “right” to practice art was on the minds of our early leaders with this quote from John Adams, our 2nd President and one of the framers of the Constitution:

 

“I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”    

 

It was built into the fabric of our existence as Americans to celebrate being human in every way, and to express it uncensored through the arts. The fight for independence was of the mind and heart—they preserved our spirits so we could be free to think and feel as we must. And so today we have to honor the creative force we were given the “right” to express, and use it at every turn.

 

Happy 4th America!

Let freedom and creativity reign!

Accents are very much derived from the lifestyles of the people using them—and to get it right you have to first find the shape of the way they speak.  In Australia, there is a great deal of sunlight, and the people are generally good-natured and happy.  Life is good here, and they seem to know that. And so they all grin like Cheshire cats.

Think of Nicole Kidman, Keith Urban, Hugh Jackman or Simon Baker when they are being interviewed. Even cranky Russell Crowe grins.

So to speak the way they do, start by grinning broadly, letting your upper lip form a straight line across your face. Keep that line firm and throw out your bottom lip. This is all you have to form the words, and don’t move it much. If your lips are dry, even better.

Now squint just a bit—not too much or you’ll sound like a Kiwi.  Keep your tongue forward against the back of your teeth as you speak, and you’ll get the flat intonation we are so used to hearing.

And for a little more instruction, here’s a local comedian with some notes:

Now it’s your turn…say anything, as long as it’s not “G-day mate!” That’s a sure way to demonstrate your need to update your video collection and get satellite TV. After 10 days in Sydney I haven’t heard a single utterance of that phrase we have so come to expect. Maybe they say it in the real Outback, but only a very small percentage of people live in the Outback. The rest of the denizens live in cities—really gorgeous cities like Sydney (see my previous post for more on that).  And what they do say—all the time—is “no worries,’” which comes out as “now waries.”  I have been very concerned by this, since I wasn’t worried until they brought it up. It makes me wonder if something is about to happen or might happen or already did happen that I should, in fact, be worried about.

But the sun breaks through the winter clouds and it’s time to squint and I find I am sinking quickly into that broad Aussie sound where I’m just too lazy to move my lips. Ah, now waries.

© Arts Enclave, 2013.  

 

So here I am in Sydney, Australia, on a writing gig that even makes me jealous—and I’m here! Freelance writing—especially niche writing—can offer amazing perks and this is one of them. In one of my other incarnations, I am a medical writer, specializing in neurology. I’m here to cover the International Congress of the Movement Disorders Society, and of course, I had to take some time to see the city before I got down to work.

 

Before my arrival last week, my uninformed impression of this city was based mainly on movies like the absolutely hilarious The Gods Must Be Crazy, and the not quite so hilarious Crocodile Dundee. Oh, and I am a regular at the Outback Steakhouse (get your own link for this one, they don’t need me to advertise them).

 

So my initial impression was this would not be a city known for its arts culture, despite the imposing figure of the Opera House. Before disembarking the plane, my image was one of burly men in short sleeves and hats, talking about shrimp and beer. Okay, my impression may have been several miles below the solid ground of reality.

 

Sydney Opera House

Sydney, Australia

 

 

 

Not to sound juvenile, but…this city RULES!

 

Sydney is by far the most urbane place I have ever had the opportunity to visit, and given that I come originally from New York, and have lived in Boston, Los Angeles, and Munich Germany, that’s quite a statement. Sydney as we see it now was conceived in the last century, and designed largely as a playground of the mind, with nonstop entertainment. The views are spectacular from all angles at all times of the day, with each element drawing your attention to yet another feature of this harbor oasis. It is so visibly striking as to be a singular work of art, and yet there is much to see and appreciate from the traditional arts. Oh, and I should mention that you take boats everywhere. That, by itself, is enough to get me hooked.

 

Sydney Monorail

View from Sydney Monorail Station – Harbourside

 

During the time since I got here, some of the events included a visit by the Dalai Lama (sold out!), a touring performance of the show Cavalia, and the Sydney Film Festival. I took a day to visit some of the museums, which included the Australian Museum, the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Contemporary Museum of Art, and the National Opal Museum (which is not really a museum at all, but a shop that has a little exhibit). All were worth the time spent, and unlike our new disturbing habit in the US, the majority of the art museums are free.

 

The one museum that did charge a fee was the Australian Museum on College Street.  It’s a bit out of the way (and when you don’t go by boat, you’ll probably walk), but well worth it. There is a standing exhibit of “Indiginous Australia” that shows you how well the Aboriginal natives express the connection to the environment.

 

But the best part of my arts explorations was stumbling upon the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition at the Australian Museum. It is a stunning show of the skills of photographers ranging from the very young (under 10 years old category) to professionals known through National Geographic and other publications.

 

This unique exhibit not only captures specific and glorious moments in nature from around the planet, but it reflects the state-of-the-art of digital photography, without which, these images would not be possible. The winning photograph is of emperor penguins amidst a pool of bubbles they create to eject themselves from the water. Other truly gorgeous photos included a regal tiger by a reflecting pool, a lyrical close-up of a baboon sprinkled with water, and my personal favorite photo from above a giant green sea turtle swimming over black volcanic sand.

 

Copyright prevents my showing any of the photos here, but you can see a few of them from the museum website. The show is owned by the Natural History Museum and the BBC, which runs a blog on the exhibit as well.  (The photo featured on the blog page is the winning entry.) And all of the winning photos can be seen at the various galleries here.

 

And if, like me, you find yourself near Sydney between now and the close of the show on October 7, 2013, you will do yourself a special favor to see this show in person—it will literally stun you into silence (at least for a moment or two). After October, the show tours other parts of Australia.

 

© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.

 

All photos are the exclusive property of Linda Peckel.

 

An Old Irish Blessing
May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

“She’s dying,” the doctors told my grandparents. “There’s only one thing we can try, and we don’t know if it works at all.” My mother was in the hospital again, hanging on through the last of a string of life-threatening illnesses that started with measles at the age of five. My grandparents, who had married and begun their family late in life, were not about to lose their firstborn at this point. My grandfather hired bums from the Bowery in lower New York City to donate blood for the many transfusions she had, and family life had revolved around trips to the hospital for years. This was just one more thing. “Do it,” they said.

And so my mother became a test case for penicillin, even before the clinical trials began in this country. And it was truly a miracle drug. She recovered completely and was never again sickly. For the rest of her life, she would make sure everybody in the room knew she had entered it—and she wasn’t going anywhere.

Until she died, I had forgotten how beautiful my mother once was. At many times she closely resembled Shirley MacLaine, although in the later years she headed in a different direction, fueling her body and brain with decades of cigarettes and a lifelong passion for ho-hoes, ring-dings, cupcakes, chocolate, ice cream, and any kind of pastry slathered in a syrupy glaze. (As a result, her last several years were spent in an intense relationship again with doctors and Coumadin clinics.)

But much earlier, before the kids (me and 2 siblings), she had wanted more from life. My mother was a dreamer, an Aquarius rising who lived more probably in her private world than in the one we saw her in. In the early pictures from college, she posed, pushing out her 1950s busooms and turning out her toes beneath the flared skirts she carried off so well. My mother always had fabulous legs.

Growing up with her, I never had a sense of who she was, and ever since she died, I have heard a myriad of impressions from friends and relatives who experienced her over the course of many years. She was cranky, intimidating, smart, pushy, demanding and over all, funny. She was very funny, but in a mean way. In the nursing home they said they knew she had been a woman who took charge…okay, so everybody sees what they want to.

Her name was Barbara, and she may well become the next legend in a family of women who broke the mold. There was her Aunt Jessie, who took off for Alaska sometime in the 50s (I think) and came back to work as the first female comptroller for the New Yorker Magazine at a time when women were lucky to be secretaries. Jessie got my grandmother a job there as a bookkeeper in the 60s, and they worked daily in the company of Brendan Behan, James Thurber, and Truman Capote, who was then a mail boy.

My mother did not have a big career. She had a big imagination. I remember coming home to find her stripping the walls of my bedroom to paint it deep forest green. I remember her keeping the three of us out of school once when it was raining, and then taking us to see “Half a Sixpence” at a local theatre. I remember later when she tried to get stoned with my boyfriend, and when, newly single, she moved to New York and had a better social life than I did.

I never knew what she was trying to accomplish with her life, and by those standards, I didn’t view her as a success. She even said, at the age of 83, “I think I’ve wasted my life.” She was demented at that point, but having what I thought was a lucid moment.  Silently, I agreed with her. And then she died.

It was a winter day, cold and gray. I drove past a frozen lake with old men and kids ice fishing and stopped to watch them. The emptiness she left behind was huge. After a lifelong battle with this woman who had been so difficult, even in the best of circumstances, it was so strange to not have her as force, pulling against me, and I felt myself sagging.

So I have waited, now that I know I am the front line female in a family that turned out a few rare petunias. And yes, I have my eccentricities, obviously bred in the bone for many generations. I waited for some epiphany to come, some great wisdom on how a life should be lived. I watched the fisherman sit on the ice, waiting for the fish to bite, probably waiting for hours. I couldn’t tell from that distance, and I didn’t wait for them to catch one.

I waited over the next week, for the weight of maturity to find me—and it did, as I took on my mother’s penchant for a whole junk-food diet. But that was not what I was looking for. It has settled on me slowly. Legacy is in the little things.

 Although she was never what you would call a feminist, my mother raised two girls in the seventies, sure in her belief there was nothing we couldn’t do. Her own sense of failure pushed us out into the world with the expectation that we would live the big life she had planned…and on the occasions we did do something, she was sure to be there.

There was no denying that she was weird and inconsistent, and given to wild imaginative rides powered in no part by logic. My mother was about possibility…and miracles.

Barbara Peckel Memorial

A Memorial Flyer created by my sister, Nancy

I can see now, looking at the pictures of her youth, that she had great plans, and greater confidence. And the crankiness and bitterness of the later years was still peppered by a belief that life held something more. In the few years before she became really demented and moved to a nursing home, she lived alone, having divorced my father in her fifties to search for that something. And she was bored by life in the quiet senior apartment, but didn’t know what she wanted to do.  “Mom,” I said. “It’s not like there’s some big party bus that’s going to pull up at the door and invite you in.”  “Why not?” she responded.  She had fought so hard to be here, she felt life owed her something.

 And now, two months later after examining her legacy, her voice reverberates through me, a strong presence that will clearly not go away. Her ashes have been sitting on the mantle in a black box, wearing the big white sunglasses she wore in the last months, which we will set free today. She did leave behind her spirit—and a wicked sense of humor, and you can’t confine that.

She had been around the world to many places I have never seen, although I often travel for work. She had moved to Mexico in her 60s for a few months (and then moved back to my couch, but that’s not the point here). She had been to Banft and Brazil, Finland and France, Greece and Germany, and even Orlando. And she had postcards from every one of those places, kept over a lifetime. Pictures that would be hard to find today, but that showed the world as she marched her little feet through it.

And there were the family pictures of her three fair-haired, fair-eyed babies. She made the quintessential 60s mom on the surface. We did seem the perfect family. And we never suspected the depth of her quirks. She had dreams. I will never know what they were, as she didn’t share most of them with me. She did ask me if I thought she could bury the body at the Croton dump for the mystery novel she was writing, but never wrote. And she always wanted to travel—in the end, even a trip to the supermarket was exciting for her.

And then there was that sense of humor. That slice and dice kind of wit that made you laugh while she drew blood. Like when she fought with my sister, who in her twenties was an actress, trying to get established. She did a few small parts in movies, a TV commercial or two, an off-Broadway play—by acting standards, a huge success. So she had this fight with my mother who did something typically Mom and probably mean. My sister recounted to me how she was screaming at Mom, telling her, “that’s it. If you don’t stop, you’ll never get to see me again. The only way you’ll be able to see me is in the movies!” Without a single beat’s pause, my mother replied, “Which row will you be in?”  You can’t write stuff that good.

She had a real flare for language, and color, and was given a bit to drama. She tried a lot of things, writing for a newspaper, real estate, paralegal, and then real estate again. She didn’t stick with any of them, or ever draw much of an income, but she certainly drove my father to great success in the law, where he set precedents and established new practices in corporate litigation. He did very well, and they were able to move to a nice house in the suburbs with their three kids. Her mother was very proud. She asked Mom, “did you ever think you’d have so much at this stage in your life?” And Grandma told me “she gave a typical Barbara answer, ‘I thought I’d have more sooner.’

So Mom was never satisfied, and saw her life as a failure. I think the evidence suggests otherwise. After weeks of looking at the pictures and postcards that catalogued her travels, I have come to one conclusion. You were wrong, Mom. You didn’t waste your life. You lived it, without a roadmap to go by. As Woody Allen once said, “98% of life is just showing up.”  My mother did a lot of showing up.

Most of us are not destined to do big things. Many people will think they are doing big things, but in the end they won’t matter any more than my mother’s accomplishments did.  Hers was a part of a bigger story. She did her part and there will be lots more to tell.

For a while after she died, I had so little to say. The well around me felt huge and confusing. My mother’s off-kilter view of life had for so long tilted my own picture of the world, and I now know it will continue to do so. My love of color came from her. My sense of wanderlust, also from her. Her passing has opened in me a desire to explore the world some more on my own, and in doing so, to pass on her legacy.

Good going Mom!

© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.

Freelancing is a lifestyle that tends to appeal to people who have a somewhat unstructured approach to life (with the exception of my sister, also a freelance writer who  functions gloriously by organizing the unorganizable.) Anyway, I like the relatively free-form dance of my days, but yesterday I went on an usually light journey, just blowing in the breeze, sponsored by the pharmaceutical industry.

When I awoke yesterday morning and got out of bed, I could tell I was a little stiff, but that’s not unusual. I’ve always had back pain, and the tires to this old car have been on the road awhile, so you have to expect a few squeaks. But attempting to stand, my body folded into the shape of an arrowhead; it wasn’t going no further up or down. This was unusual.

Okay, I knew I was in trouble. Busy day ahead, and just bending to put on my socks was proving to be harder than giving birth. I had two deadlines in the next few days, and another job I would have to leave the house for (which would mean standing on my feet–or more accurately, staring at my feet) for several hours.

I’m searching for solutions. Pain is a powerful motivator, and it comes to me: drugs! Riffling through my old prescription bin in the back of the closet, I come up with an unused migraine prescription of Fioricet with codeine that expired in 2007. It hadn’t helped my headache then, but right now I’m open to any possibility.

Expiration dates are relative. As a medical writer, I know this. The drugs do gradually lose potency, but it takes a lot longer than a year or two—I’m thinking more like a decade or two—and the manufacturers want to make sure you will keep buying  new versions of the drug you think is rotting in your cabinets. I hardly ever throw out drugs. I have enough old drugs to plug a landfill. Popping a 4-year expired Fioricet into my mouth, I am hopeful it will provide some relief so I can actually get my work done today.

Some twenty minutes later, I have to interview a high level administrator from the National MS Society. The interview goes well and I am focused enough to begin to transcribe the tape. I sound okay, not too loopy. And then, after she gives a lengthy response to one of my less-than pointed questions, I hear myself say, “awesome.” Okay, there’s 25 years of credibility shot dead with a rubber arrow. I’m not even sure how she managed to finish the interview without laughing, as it is cracking me up—of course, I may still be loaded.

I realize I should eat something—but what? Ah, salad, with that fresh avocado I bought the other day, the one I have been meticulously nurturing to the perfect point of ripeness. I set it on the windowsill two days ago, and I remember removing it yesterday, afraid I would forget about it and allow it to rot. So where did I move it to? I begin a half-hour avocado hunt, which I relocated yesterday in all sobriety. Now certifiably stoned (awesome!) I am patiently searching even ridiculous places for the aforementioned avocado. I even check the freezer—where it is not. Actually, I am surprisingly qualified to locate it, since I apparently put it in a drawer with the chinese food and pizza menus—and that was when I was straight.

Taking a break from my new friends, the Fioricets, I let the next dose time go by, planning to get a little grocery shopping done. But first, I decide to stop at CVS—for no real reason, except that I have extra bucks, which are like winning the CVS lotto.

After shopping for a while, I am nearly ready to buy a pink doggie dress that says, “I heart tail”.  On a normal day, the only thing I find more obnoxious than the thought of dressing my dog is the idea of putting her in a pink dress, and yet my drug-adled brain is cheerfully ruminating over something that is wrong in so many more ways than just these two.

Luckily, I can hear my right mind screaming from the dark closet I have her locked in. “Go with the dog bed!” she is pleading. “The dog bed!” I can feel my CVS extra bucks burning in my pocket. Do I feel lucky? The dog bed it is—but blue,…or green? Never mind that stupid dog has already demolished three of them, leaving great balls of stuffing all over the house to choke my vacuum (and then deciding she no longer likes the nasty deflated dog bed, she climbs on my furniture). That dog doesn’t deserve anything, especially not my extra bucks. If CVS still had the electric toothbrush in stock that I bought for myself the other day, I would be buying one right now for my son, who probably doesn’t need it any more than the dog needs a dog bed.

So I take the dog bed. No, let’s get two for when she destroys the first one. Logic has no place in my universe at this point.

I head to the supermarket, my original goal, parking instead over by MacDonalds. I never eat at MacDonalds, but the world is a new and bright place today. I manage to walk past the door and pop into TJ Maxx next door to look for a bath mat.  Suddenly I’m shopping for comforter sets, despite the fact that I already have one. This is a quiet shopping frenzy, one that is probably not obvious to the casual observer, but inside my head, I am obsessed, determined to buy something I absolutely don’t need. Luckily for me, almost anything will do, as long as it has a price tag—even a cheap one. So I take a look at the dog beds.

After cruising for a while and looking at a Michael Kors handbag on sale for $199,  I leave without buying anything, probably because I am finally coming down from my high—as evidenced by the return of the pain (dun-dun-duuuhn!). This makes for a sobering and tooth-grinding drive home, at which point I decided to pop another Fioricet for the night. Ahhhhh…This stuff is awesome! (I love to hear my own voice slowly say that word.) Why didn’t I take it when I filled the prescription six years ago?  (And where is that avocado again?) Just for fun, I look up what Fioricet with codeine might be doing to my brain—not that I am in any way concerned. And I find a message board where a bunch of demented people are blathering on in much the same way I have been doing…because they are stoned on Fioricet with codeine (which they all agree does not a damn thing for headaches).

All in all, not a bad day—or to quote myself, awesome.

 

 

dog beds

The culprit, with the next old bed.

 

 

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  ONE CAVEAT – NEVER TAKE EXPIRED ANTIBIOTICS. ALWAYS GET A NEW PRESCRIPTION TO ENSURE THE PROPER POTENCY.

© Copyright 2013 – Arts Enclave.

There was a big debate in my family last night on the drive back from NYC—was the new Pippin, which we just saw in previews at the Broadway Music Box Theatre—revamped enough from the classic Bob Fosse-directed original 1972 musical to have its own signature?

My sister and I have memories of that magic from when it opened in 1972, and we saw the original cast in the early months of this show with our parents and grandparents. And yesterday we took my son to see it in revival, hoping to recapture some of wonder. So, we were initially mildly disappointed when the opening started without the classic dark screen jazz hands that sets the tone for the whole play….but as the show went on, it had many new delights and much of the old charm. My son, who only saw clips of the original I dug up on Youtube (which now seem dated, even to me), much preferred the new version, and felt it was unique.

The original was literally a hard act to follow.  Aside from being directed by Bob Fosse, it launched the Broadway (and beyond) careers of Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein, and Jill Clayburgh. It also had songs (and especially lyrics) nobody seems to forget by Stephen Schwartz (whose credits also include Godspell and Wicked):

 

And time weaves ribbons of memories

to sweeten life when youth is through

But I would need no memories there

if I could share

my life with you…

TIME and LEGACY are the running themes of this show, which, despite taking place at the time of the Crusades. is THE MEANING OF LIFE. The book by Roger Hirson follows Pippin (the first son of Charlemagne—) through his imaginary journey to find his unique fate. The songs eloquently take you there, where he variously tells you, “ I gotta find my corner of the sky,” and “when you’re extraordinary you got to do extraordinary things.”

The score is so singable that the audience even gets the opportunity to sing along (on one song only). My sister and I sang it the whole way home in the car, with my son now jumping in.

Oh, it’s time to keep living

Time to keep taking from this world we’re given

Time to take time

For Spring will turn to Fall

In just no time at all.

It launched Ben Vereen in a part he continued to play for more than 2 decades, even recovering to dance it again after a devastating car accident. It also starred Jill Clayburgh, in her first major Broadway role, and John Rubenstein, whose face (minus the big afro) you have seen on every TV show, from NCIS to West Wing, Bones, House, Desperate Housewives and Law and Order (and in a film I worked on, Hello I Must Be Going).

And there was Fosse burned into every move. The shape of a Fosse-directed figure, the way it moves, is something completely outside of other dancing styles. Picture the Broadway shows he directed, Sweet Charity, 1966, Pippin, 1972, Liza with a Z, 1972, Chicago, 1975, and Dancin’, 1978, and you see the tipped heads, sharp outlines, curved spines, in-turned feet, and spread fingers jazz hands.

And there were the movies he directed, including Sweet Charity and Cabaret, and the darkly honest self-portrait, All That Jazz. Fosse was a fascinating artist, and a disastrously self-destructive and somewhat explosive personality, who died in 1987 at age 60 of heart attack brought on by years of excess. But he left his mark on shows we still enjoy today, and watching Pippin back in 1972 and again in 2013, it’s clear his fingerprints are as much a part of the show as the music itself.

The moves are still there, although current director Diane Paulus of the American Repertory Theatre in Boston, cleverly introduces the backdrop of circus acrobatics to fill the stage in a way the original couldn’t. The individual chorus players, mostly trained circus performers, move forward to capture the audience attention in wonderful moments that do help put a new stamp on this show—a little Cirque du Soleil on Broadway. Even Andrea Martin (yes, of SCTV) literally gets into the act in a delightful off-the-ground spin as Pippin’s elderly grandmother.

The CAST of the current show is nearly as wonderful as the original. In 1972, I didn’t know who Ben Vereen, John Rubenstein or Jill Clayburgh were, and I’ve never seen these new cast members either, but I think they will go on to big careers just like their predecessors.

Patina Miller has the challenge of playing a lead character who doesn’t even have a name—most of us call him “the Ben Vereen character” after the dancer who is so embedded in this show’s history. She does a great job, and those who never saw Vereen (like my son) will enjoy her performance immensely, but I still hear his delivery and see him dancing beside her on stage. Maybe next time I see the show, I’ll be able to see her more clearly on her own.

The lead character of Pippin is wonderfully played by Matthew James Thomas (formerly Peter Parker in Spiderman on Broadway).  He sings and charms his way through the show, creating a new performance separate from others who have played Pippin before him (William Katt performed the role after Rubenstein left), and brings a new, gentle physicality to role that was previously missing.

And then there’s the role of Catherine, the young(ish) widow. I loved Jill Clayburgh in everything she did (she died much too soon in 2010), and I have powerful memories of her from this show….but…even then, I felt surprised she was in it. She was never a singer, and the numbers she did really called for a strong, sweet voice.  ENTER Rachel Bay Jones, singing beautifully, and bringing a really freshly funny new play on this character that is even more enjoyable.

And yes, whatever they say about the choreography, it has enough of the Fosse feel to hold the uniqueness of the initial physical shape of the show on stage to be very recognizable, while still bringing in a contemporary feel all it’s own with the jaw-dropping acrobatics. It’s not the same, but of the same artistic pedigree (Schwartz and Hirson both worked with Paulus to make changes that would be relevant to today’s audience, and choreographer Chet Walker admittedly worked closely with and under the influence of Bob Fosse).

My one complaint—and it is, to those have loved this show all along, a big one—is that the opening absolutely needs the jazz hands. This may be a new 2013 version of a show that opened 40 years ago, but opening speaks “Pippin” as much as the name, and it feels very flat without it.

SPOILER: The opening to the original Pippin, which is now in revival on Broadway.

But the new Pippin still has Magic to Do.  Listen to the original cast album, or watch the original opening here, if you want to see how it was, although you may prefer to see it as it is, without any shadows of the past performances.  Either way, if you go to one show in your lifetime, Pippin should be it.

And luckily, Pippin is back on Broadway. Probably for a very long time.  A very long time. The show is in previews until the opening April 14 when it officially opens, but judging by the lines around the block, that is just a technicality. You’ll want to see this show, whether it brings back memories, or creates new ones.

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