Egremont Village Inn Brings Music Back To The Barn
By Lisa Green
When a family of professional musicians (plus one videographer) revitalize an inn that has a barn on its property, you can be sure the old saw, “hey kids, let’s have a show,” has entered their thoughts. If only it were that easy, or immediate. But after several years of renovations, the circa 1830s barn behind the Egremont Village Inn in South Egremont, Mass. is ready for its closeup. On July 8 and 9, the barn doors open and a live music series commences with a celebratory concert featuring Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
Gigi Teeley [left], a singer who has owned and run the Egremont Village Inn with family members since 2012, recalls how she fell madly in love with the barn when they bought the property, despite its failing roof, frequent flooding and odor strong enough to chase most people away. While the house was originally built in 1786, the barn followed some 40 years later and served as the horse stables. More recently, in the 70s and 80s, it was the site of the rather infamous Robbie Burns Pub, a honky tonk where folklore has it that legends such as Arlo Guthrie and Jerry Garcia exhibited some less-than-decorous behavior. Neighbors then weren’t amused, but Teeley says they needn’t worry about The Barn. The music will be acoustic, and the audience is limited to 50 max.
“We had to make fixing up the inn itself a priority, so we didn’t get to the barn right away,” Gigi says. “We weren’t even sure we were going to be able to tackle it. But during the brutal winter of 2014-2015, the barn was so stoic. If it didn’t collapse then, I figured it wanted to be here.”
The work in progress. Photo courtesy Egremont Village Inn.
A year-and-a-half of aggressive rebuilding ensued. Although the barn won’t be totally finished by the Crenshaw concert, it will be ready for music and listeners, who will settle themselves into an assortment of leather lounge chairs, church pews and tables. A new, sweet-smelling roof now sits up top, but vestiges of the old barn remain: a replacement bar rests upon the remnants of old barn doors; the guts of the old piano hang above the shelves of liquor, and an original stained glass window overlooks the staging area. A few old cigarette burns on the handsome original floors serve as echoes of the barn’s roadhouse past.
Like the group endeavor it takes to run the Egremont Village Inn, The Barn’s evolution has been a family project, and the Keene-Teely collaboration is distinctly suited to the task. Matriarch Sara Keene is a former singer and opera coach whose husband was Christopher Keene, longtime conductor and music director of the New York City Opera. She moved from Rhinebeck to purchase the old Weathervane Inn, and the family rallied around the business. Daughter Gigi, who performs and teaches at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, primarily manages the inn; her husband Tom Teely, a professional guitarist and singer/songwriter, is the jack-of-all-trades when he’s back from the road or producing albums for other musicians; Keene’s son, Nick Keene, a videographer, helps with management if he’s not off on a shoot. The Teely children, Jackson and Caitlin, who have inherited the music gene, have been hands on from the beginning.
The old honky tonk piano now adorns the wall.
As for The Barn’s musical lineup, Tom and Gigi have pulled in friends and connections (both Tom and Gigi performed with Marshall Crenshaw in the Broadway musical “Beatlemania”). Nick contributed to the wish list, and they’ve been assisted by Seth Keyes, a booking agent, to help curate an eclectic lineup they’re calling “Gems of Many Genres.” The family plans to add more events to get maximum usage of the facility, and add more food to go with the full bar, but for now, The Barn will offer “noshes.”
Don’t be surprised to find some of the family members accompanying the acts every once in a while. After all, they put in the sweat equity to get the barn ready for a show.
Gems of Many Genres
The Barn at The Egremont Village Inn
17 Main Street, South Egremont, MA
July 8-9 Grand Opening Celebration: Marshall Crenshaw and Friends, 8 p.m. $35
July 15-17 Steph Campbell Live: “It Ain’t Over ‘til the Phat Lady Sings!” 8 p.m., Sunday at 2:30 p.m.
July 23 Trout Fishing In America, family show at 2 p.m. (kids 12 and under $10); then again at 7 & 10 p.m.
July 30 Hyams and Lisa Rothauser in “Life, Who Knew,” 7 & 9 p.m.
August 6 John Davidson Sings Broadway Standards, 7 & 9 p.m.
August 13 Karen Oberlin Sings American Songbook/Cabaret, 7 & 9 p.m.
October 1 Roy Zimmerman “This Machine,” political satire, 7 & 9 p.m.
October 14 and 16 Linda Purl in “The Year of Magical Thinking,” Fri. at 8 p.m. & Sun. at 3 p.m.
The Grand Opening Show is $35, all the rest (unless noted) are $25.
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The Skivvies Perform Pop Songs ‘Au Naturel’
By Amy Krzanik
Why would two singers – a duo who harmonize and play cello and ukulele, among other instruments – ever need to coordinate the color of their underwear? It’s not because of some odd superstition the two share, but because their undergarments will be “on display,” so to speak, for their audience to see.
The singers in question, musical theater stars Lauren Molina and Nick Cearley, have been performing together since they met in 2003. But The Skivvies were born when the duo “took it to the next level” about four years ago with the release of a YouTube cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” When Molina couldn’t find anything to wear, Cearley suggested doing their stripped down cover, well, stripped down.
“We were very nervous when we first did it,” he says, “but Lauren said to me, ‘If this is a bad idea, then we’ll just delete it.’” But after four videos turned into a sold-out live show in August of 2012, the two have gone on to tour the country with their act.
“When it started it was a fun little hobby, but it’s taken off and people love the theatricality of it,” Molina says. The goal is to present pop songs in a way the audience has never heard them done before, says Cearley. As you may have noticed, a lot of today’s hit songs offer only a few lines of inane lyrics repeated ad nauseam. “We like to exploit the lyrics of ridiculous songs, and expose the most absurd ones possible,” Cearley says.
For their Saturday, May 28 and Sunday, May 29 shows (three shows in all) at The Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, the duo will be backed by a live band and special Berkshire Theatre Group guests – Lindsay Nicole Chambers, who will play Audrey in the upcoming Little Shop of Horrors; Jen Harris from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; and three actors from Fiorello. When asked if all guests also are required to perform sans pants, Cearley says… yes and no. “Everyone plays the game, but I think of it more like a sleepover or a costume party.” One of the skits will involve a mash-up of “Little Old Lady from Pasadena” and Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car,” creating the tale of a grandma who drives too fast, so maybe expect to see some grannie panties alongside the sexy lingerie.
The duo love the Berkshires, and will be back to perform for a third year at the Williamstown Theatre Festival on July 17 and 18 (where Molina made her WTF debut in 2011’s 10 Cents a Dance). You can also catch The Skivvies at Club Helsinki two days before, on July 15, in a benefit performance for AnimalKind. Animal charities are close to their hearts—both are vegetarians, and Molina works for NYC animal care centers as an adoption ambassador, fostering kittens and helping them find homes.
Although there will be skin, there will be no striptease at these shows, as Cearley and Molina like to focus on their music and witty repartee. As Molina says, “This show appeals to all ages. It’s fun and clever, and I think people will be surprised by how much they enjoy it.”
The Skivvies at The Colonial Theatre
111 South Street, Pittsfield, MA
Saturday at 8 p.m. & 10:30 p.m., $40
Sunday at 7 p.m., $40
Sunday show & post-show reception at Hotel on North, $65
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2016 Season Preview (AKA Tickets Not To Miss)
Some people try to tell you their favorite season is autumn. And personally, I do have a soft spot for spring. But here in the Rural Intelligence region, summer is a time like no other. This much we know. So even all you confirmed ski addicts and avid leaf peepers must render unto Caesar and just dive into the summer smorgasbord. It’s a cultural buffet like no other. And I, for one, always have great trouble quelling the urge to go back up for another round. (Anyone who’s been with me to the Sunday buffet at Bombay in Lee can attest to this.)
Our annual season preview scopes out the performing arts situation. Elsewhere on this site, as always, you’ll find coverage of the most notable fine art events, restaurants, and all the rest. But if it happens this summer on a stage, this season preview of theater, live music and dance will have you covered.
So get going and fill up that calendar. After all, ‘tis the season. —Jeremy D. Goodwin
Rosanne Cash at Helsinki Hudson
Rosanne Cash isn’t slowing down; just last year she won three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, quite appropriately. When she plays the Rural Intelligence region, we’re not quite sure if she’s coming straight from New York City or from her country retreat in Columbia County, but we’re more used to seeing her play in stately theaters like the Colonial in Pittsfield. Catching the legend amid the intimate ambience of Helsinki Hudson should be a particular treat.
The National at MASS MoCA
The National has been busy recently, assembling a magisterial Grateful Dead tribute in the form of a 59-track box set featuring a phone book’s worth of leading indie acts. The National itself has a place on any such list, and this booking seems to be something of a coup — it’s billed as the band’s only headlining show in the Northeast this year (not counting the odd, abbreviated festival appearance). We love when MASS MoCA brings tastemakers from this world to North Adams. Rock (or thereabouts) on.
Bob Dylan with Mavis Staples at The Shed at Tanglewood
Granted, Bob Dylan’s live shows can be a mixed bag for those who aren’t 100-percent committed to all things Bob — and even to some who are. But Dylan at Tanglewood? Come on. This is a must-see. The Bard of Hibbing played the venerable Lenox shed once before, in 1997, and most recently played the Berkshires in 2005, at Pittsfield’s Wahconah Park. This time we can trade the hot dogs for the usual Tanglewood picnic. His opening act is the similarly lauded, golden-voiced Mavis Staples, who Dylan used to talk about wanting to marry back in the day. To this pairing, just say ‘I do!’
Aston Magna Festival: J.S. Bach, Sacred and Secular
at Laszló Z. Bitó Conservatory Building, Bard College
at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
The themed programs of the Aston Magna Festival always add a layer of wit and intellectual curiosity to what is already a captivating concert of early music, played on period instruments by some of the great practitioners of that particular craft. As per usual, this program will be offered in three venues: Brandeis University, Bard College Conservatory, and the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. The program includes three pieces that offer different views of the prodigious and multifaceted talents of the composer.
Photo by Andrew Eccles.
Emerson String Quartet with Renée Fleming at Ozawa Hall at Tanglewood
Midweek performances by Emerson String Quartet are in some ways the quintessential Ozawa Hall experience. A group that would be the highlight of many classical music festivals’ schedule can pack ’em in here any day of the week, but there’s something special about catching them on a casual Tuesday and Wednesday, as you can this summer. But get this: they’re joined on the second night by opera superstar Renée Fleming, more likely to be a featured guest with the Boston Symphony Orchestra — as she was for the BSO’s opening night at Tanglewood two summers ago, shortly before opening her run in the charming “Living On Love” at Williamstown Theatre Festival. For decent lawn space on Wednesday, arrive early. Maybe just go Tuesday and camp out.
Bang On A Can All-Stars at MASS MoCA
The annual Bang On A Fan festival — aka “Banglewood” — is an event that offers more rewards the more time you give to it. It’s hard to go wrong with an afternoon-long visit to MASS MoCA framed around a featured gallery recital by one of the leading lights of the new-music movement and perhaps an evening concert by the All-Stars. (And at least once in your life, treat yourself to one of the late-night chalet parties, where mini-recitals by Bang On A Can Institute fellows and faculty are known to give way to a dizzy dance party fueled by super-group jams on “Mustang Sally.”) In its featured concert this year, BOAC’s signature ensemble offers a live performance of Brian Eno’s seminal Music For Airports.
Chick Corea Trio at Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood
It’s been a few years since Tanglewood nixed its long-running jazz festival, instead sprinkling a handful of well-chosen, high-wattage stars of the genre throughout the season. A big treat this year is keyboard legend Chick Corea, appearing at Ozawa with a trio that is just bursting with talent. Bassist Christian McBride, a frequent headliner in his own right, and drummer Brian Blade (known for long collaborations with Wayne Shorter and with Joshua Redman) will help the Chelsea, Mass. native celebrate his 75th birthday. His show here a few summers ago with vibraphonist Gary Burton and the Harlem String Quartet was a real treat; this appearance should be no different.
Photo by Jason Bell.
Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble at The Shed, Tanglewood
When the Tanglewood season is announced every year, one of the first things we check for is Yo-Yo Ma, to see in what musical contexts he’ll appear. This year he brings his great, poly-ethnic world fusion band Silk Road Ensemble to the Shed. (Mr. Ma will be back to play with the full Boston Symphony Orchestra on August 27.) This group was born here, and first played the venue in 2000. As always, it feels like a hometown crowd when the world’s greatest cellist comes to play.
Kelli O’Hara at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
The ever-hotter Broadway favorite Kelli O’Hara was most recently seen in the popular revival of “The King And I,” winning a Tony Award in the process — though we liked her just as much in “Far From Heaven” and “The Bridges of Madison County” at Williamstown Theatre Festival. She’ll make her solo Carnegie Hall debut in October, but we won’t have to wait that long to see her in the Berkshires; she’s one of the boldfaced names on the schedule of the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. There’s something special about strolling over to see a talent like this after having dinner around the corner in downtown Great Barrington.
Rubblebucket at MASS MoCA
The Boston-spawned group puts on one of the most fun shows out there, propelled by bouncy rhythms, an indefatigable horn section and the smiley charisma of vocalist Kal Traver. In recent years they’ve laid happy waste to Infinity Hall and Northampton’s Pearl Street Nightclub; we can’t wait to see what they do to a courtyard stage at MASS MoCA. The only problem: it may not be so comfortable pogoing up and down on the concrete for hours. Wear sensible shoes.
Berkshire Opera Festival: Madame Butterfly at Colonial Theatre
August 27 & 30 and September 2
Since the closing of the fondly remembered Berkshire Opera Company in 2008, the Berkshires has been without home-grown opera. No longer! Berkshire Opera Festival makes its debut this summer with the Puccini favorite, staged at the stately Colonial Theatre, a great home for opera if we’ve ever seen one. Headed by Jonathon Loy, who has worked as a guest director at the Metropolitan Opera and been a frequent Berkshire visitor, and conductor Brian Garman, the arrival of BOF is well appreciated. Our hopes are as high as one of those glass-shattering notes.
Shanghai Quartet at Music Mountain
September 3 & 4
The esteemed Shanghai Quartet has been making music since 1983, when these talented players came together at the Shanghai Conservatory. (That’s Shanghai, China, not Shanghai City, Illinois.) The group welcomes guests as it plays Labor Day weekend, the penultimate weekend in Music Mountain’s season. The first night includes pieces by Mendelssohn, Zhou Long and Brahms, with guest pianist Jonathan Yates. On Sunday, the quartet is joined by Yates plus another pianist, Gilbert Kalish. Things could get wild! That’s even before you consider that the latter show is a benefit performance, followed by a festive reception.
Presto Change-O at Barrington Stage Company
May 18-June 11
Director Marc Bruni, of Broadway’s “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” directs this world premiere tuner in the cozy environs of the St. Germain Stage. He’s recruited a big, Broadway-tested cast, including Tony Award-winner Michael Rupert (“Falsettos,” “On The Town”), Tony Award-nominees Jarrod Spector (“Beautiful”) and Barbara Walsh (“Company”), Jenni Barber (“Wicked”), Lenny Wolpe (“The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Wicked”) and Bob Walton (“42nd Street”). Surely they have their sights set on a different zip code for this show (say, 10036?), so this could be a good chance to be among the first to have something to say about it.
Photo by WAM Theatre.
The Oregon Trail at WAM Theatre
WAM Theatre’s principal season happens in the winter and spring, but a series of play readings keeps them in the game over the summer. This also gives us an excuse to visit one of our favorite Berkshire beaneries, No. Six Depot Roastery and Café; the performance is in the gallery in back. “The Oregon Trail,” which had its world premiere last year at the Women’s Voices Theatre Festival in Washington, D.C., looks like a magic-realist coming of age story. Jane is “an awkward middle-schooler with body odor” who is an ace at the titular computer game, which was all the rage, you’ll recall, back when the Berlin Wall was still standing. Her story is intermixed with that of a heroine in the game. (Hopefully no one involved sees their game end with the infamous kicker: “You have died of dysentery.”)
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof at Berkshire Theatre Group
June 22-July 16
Berkshire Theatre Group (nee Festival) is built on a foundation of the classics of 20th-century American theater. So here’s a crazy stat: it doesn’t seem that the troupe has ever mounted this Tennessee Williams classic, which looks to be right in its wheelhouse. We’re happy to see the production will be directed by David Auburn (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of “Proof”), who has made a summer production in Stockbridge a regular part of his schedule. He’s directed Williams here before, spinning gold from the little-seen comedy “Period of Adjustment” in 2011. In 2013, he helmed Eugene O’Neill’s “Anna Christie” on this stage and provided one of the highlights of the season.
The Rose Tattoo at Williamstown Theatre Festival
June 28-July 17
“Cat On A Hot Tin Roof” is at Berkshire Theatre Group, but a relatively less familiar slice of Tennessee Williams can be found up in Williamstown, with “The Rose Tattoo.” We may tell our more purist theater friends we’re attracted by the material, which won four Tony Awards — including Best Play — upon its Broadway debut in 1951, and includes familiar Williams elements like hot weather and steamy romance. But let’s face it, the more pressing reason people are cueing up for this one is the leading lady, Academy Award-winner Marisa Tomei. (She was up for a one-time reading of a different play last August.) This should be one of the hottest tickets of the summer. As hot as that tin roof, even.
Photo by Rob Jones.
The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare & Company
July 1-August 21
We want to see whatever Tina Packer is up to — especially when it’s a play in the theater named after her (S&Co.’s Tina Packer Playhouse). But now that the esteemed director (and founding artistic director of the Company) has been focusing on lesser-known plays to fill out the roster of Shakespeare works she’s directed, we take notice when she brings to the stage a title as well-beloved as this one. Longtime Company favorite Jonathan Epstein, who has assumed leading roles here only occasionally in the past several years, plays Shylock. This show is the anchor of Company’s season, and we can’t wait to see what Tina & Co. have in store.
Photo by Todd Norwood.
Demolishing Everything With Amazing Speed at Bard SummerScape
This world-premiere production is described as a “surreal puppet noir” based on four “beautiful but disquieting” plays written by the Italian futurist Fortunato Depero during World War I. You had me at surreal puppet noir. Hudson Valley-based puppet artist Dan Hurlin adapted the plays, which have never before been translated or performed in English. This deliciously original piece includes a live score, 3-D printing and, of course, puppets. Lots of puppets, we’re figuring.
Maureen Keiller and Will Lyman, courtesy of Israeli Stage.
Oh God at Chester Theatre Company
This production appeared first in Watertown, Mass. in April, before taking the stage again in Chester’s first season under new producing artistic director Daniel Elihu Kramer.
“Oh God” concerns the titular being’s first session with a new therapist. It features two of the Boston theater scene’s justly decorated actors, Will Lyman and Maureen Keiller. They’re directed by Guy Ben-Aharon, wunderkind founder of Boston’s up-and-coming company Israeli Stage.
Pirates of Penzance at Barrington Stage Company
July 15 – August 13
It looks like Julianne Boyd is setting up a shuttlebus from Broadway to Pittsfield for two big musicals this season, including a staging of this Gilbert & Sullivan favorite. The cast includes Will Swenson (“Hair”), whom we loved at Williamstown in “A Moon for the Misbegotten” last season alongside his wife, Audra McDonald. He’s joined by Scarlett Strallen (“Mary Poppins”), Kyle Dean Massey (“Pippin,” “Next To Normal”), Tony Award-nominee David Garrison (“Wicked”), Jane Carr (“A Gentleman’s Guide To Love and Murder”) and Tony Award-winner Phillip Boykin, who was seen on Broadway in Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” and “On The Town,” the latter originating at Barrington Stage. Tony Award-winning director John Rando and Emmy Award-winner Joshua Bergasse will look to replicate their success with that production, which was a highlight of the 2013 summer season before migrating city-ward.
The Wolves at Powerhouse Theater
This is the first fully staged production of Sarah DeLappe’s dark comedy, written for 10 female actors. It examines a girls’ indoor soccer team and the freewheeling, no-holds- (or feelings) barred conversations over the course of their warm-ups for five different games. Each character is identified by the position she plays — plus a “soccer mom.” The script calls for the warm-ups to be accomplished “in perfect unison and with military precision.” Sounds like quite a workout for those onstage, but audience members should be primed for the refreshing sound of a new theatrical voice.
Photo by Peter Wise.
Kickwheel Ensemble Theater: Passage at Shire City Sanctuary
After ten years of bringing compelling theater and live music to the region, the folks behind Berkshire Fringe switched gears to focus on their own work. The latest fruit of their creative labor is this devised piece of satirical physical comedy, described as a “climate change romance” and inspired by the ever-melting Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Whatever this gang is up to, we want to see it.
And No More Shall We Part at Williamstown Theatre Festival
New artistic director Mandy Greenfield, who arrived last season, landed in Williamstown with a slew of world premieres and American premieres. Put this one in the latter category. It stars Alfred Molina, who was most recently seen in the Tina Fey film “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” but has been nominated for three Tony Awards, and Jane Kaczmarek (“Malcolm in the Middle”), who’s checked off seven Emmy nominations over the years. The play, about the effect of a grave illness on a couple’s marriage, isn’t brand new — it was first performed in 2009, in Australia — but Greenfield sees something here and so the chances are very high that she’s right.
Photo by Robert Cooper.
Christopher Williams Dances at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center
Choreographer Christopher Williams describes himself as an alchemist of theater who “commingles contemporary dance with visual art, puppetry, poetry and live music.” I’m into that stuff; aren’t you? For this appearance, he culminates a residency at Kaatsbaan with a performance by his troupe with excerpts from two pieces: “Dardanus Suite” (2015) and the brand-new “Il Giardino d′Amore,” inspired by the love story of Venus and Adonis.
Viva Momix at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
This accessible dance company, led by choreographer Moses Pendleton, describes its performers as dancer-illusionists. This will be the Connecticut-based troupe’s third visit to the Mahaiwe. Sounds like a great, family-friendly event, and an alternative to weather-dependent Independence Day Weekend festivities.
Photo by James Houston.
Paul Taylor Dance Company at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center
We did a double-take when we noticed that this year marks the Mahaiwe’s ninth annual visit from the Paul Taylor Dance Company. This no-longer-new tradition is well appreciated indeed. Among the dances featured this year will be the 2009 piece “Beloved Renegade,” inspired by the life and writings of Walt Whitman. And to warm everybody up, the theater is showing the 1998 documentary “Paul Taylor, Dancemaker,” the previous weekend.
Dorrance Dance at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
Tap-dance artist Michelle Dorrance has become a real favorite at the Pillow, performing a variety of original programs and thoroughly charming the Gala crowd in 2013 when she won the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award. This year, she brings along “ETM: Double Down,” an expanded version of a dance she developed in residence here and premiered in 2014. Fame is tapping at Dorrance’s door, and we love seeing her artistry reach new and greater heights.
Photo by Christopher Duggan.
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks, with Brooklyn Rider at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
When Wendy Whelan left her position as a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet to take off the pointe shoes and pursue new dance interests, we got one of the first looks at “Restless Creature,” a collection of four new duets, including one with Brian Brooks. Now comes a deeper collaboration between the two, with live accompaniment from Brooklyn Rider, whom we loved at the Pillow three seasons ago in a performance by Dance Heginbotham. This is a can’t-miss program of solos and duets.
Photo by Lou Damars.
Compagnie Hervé KOUBI at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival
We’re told this is a rare U.S. appearance by the French dance company, which presents a dance described as “highly physical and awe-inspiring.” These types of companies always get a high-energy response from audiences, and we’re looking forward to the exploits of these 12 male dancers, who hail from Algeria and Burkina Faso and are said to combine capoeira, martial arts, hip-hop, and contemporary dance. Sounds like you may break a sweat just sitting in the audience.
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Sarah Aroeste Brings Ladino Music To A New Generation
By Jeremy D. Goodwin
Inspiration doesn’t always have a practical application. But it’s nice when it does.
And so it was for musician, mom and self-styled cultural ambassador Sarah Aroeste, whose latest album came to be because she wanted some music to play for her daughter that would celebrate her family’s specific cultural background. (More on that background in a moment.)
When she was expecting first child Irit, now two-and-a-half — who was joined last fall by sister Dalia — Aroeste realized there was no Ladino children’s music. “I wanted to write an album of songs in her family tradition that she could relate to, because I couldn’t find them anywhere else. They didn’t exist. There is no such thing as a Ladino children’s record,” she says, on the phone from her home in Alford, Mass.
Not until now. Aroeste’s album of Ladino music geared for children, Ora de Despertar (Time to Wake Up), was just released.
Oh, right. We Googled so you don’t have to: Ladino is the language and culture of Sephardic Jewry that emerged after the historically infamous expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492. The language is rooted in medieval Spanish, but picked up pieces of French, Greek, Turkish, Bulgarian and assorted Mediterranean dialects, reflecting the emerging Jewish diaspora.
Its musical culture, similarly, is a mix of influences from in and around the Mediterranean basin. The culture of eastern European Ashkenazi Jews is a more familiar presence in American life. The Ladino legacy has gotten more attention in recent years, Aroeste says, but is still in danger of flickering out. Thus the double meaning behind the title of her new album — the title track is a fun, jaunty number about kids waking up and brushing their teeth and starting their day, but it’s also a message to parents to keep this rich culture alive before it’s too late.
“Certainly people are waking up to the fact that Sephardic culture is important, and represents a really big part not only of Jewish history but world history,” she says. “Ladino is so universal. It’s pan-Mediterranean. And you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy the culture or the music.”
This album is her fourth, and her second composed of all original songs. All her work is based in Ladino folk music but with a very contemporary spin. Her last album, Gracia, makes use of an 18-piece orchestra and plenty of electronic beats. Her musical vision is decidedly international, but Aroeste’s home base is a bucolic nook in the Berkshires.
She, husband Jeff Blaugrund and their two daughters have lived in Alford the past few years after moving up from New York City. (Jeff’s a software engineer who works remotely for a Palo Alto firm.)
But she’s no Berkshire novice. Her family habitually rented a summer house here when she was growing up in Princeton, Penn., and her mom bought a home in Alford 20 years ago, where she still resides.
Aroeste studied classical voice at Tanglewood in the summers, and it remains a favorite destination. If you want to bump into her, Jeff and the kids on a sunny summer Sunday, the Tanglewood lawn is the first place to look. Jacob’s Pillow and MASS MoCA are other favorite destinations. They worship at Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington. They’re also both avid fans of the local food movement.
Her family, which she traces back to upper Greece and lower Yugoslavia, came to the United States in flight from the Balkan Wars. The Ladino culture was very much present in her childhood home.
“During family occasions like the Jewish new year or any major family gathering, I had a very clear understanding that my family’s tradition was a little bit different from my friends. The foods that we ate were different. They were very Mediterranean and Greek,” she says, noting that the table would be laden with meze, and the cookie known as a tadlikoo was her favorite treat. “The songs and tunes that we sang were different from the ones I knew my Jewish friends were singing,” she adds, “and I had a clear understanding that I came from this very interesting Sephardic background.”
Sarah Aroeste in performance at the Internationales Klezmer Festival of Fürth in Germany last month.
But when she wanted to learn more about the history, no one in her parents’ generation seemed to be an expert. It was only while she was studying classical voice in Israel that she became fully awakened to the richness of Ladino music. She started mixing a few of the songs into classical recitals, and noticed she was getting the most audience response from those pieces. Eventually she realized she agreed with her audiences. But she wasn’t interested in an austere rendering of traditional folk music.
“I knew I wanted to do it in a way that felt very authentic to me. I wasn’t born in the Balkans. I’ve never shied away from the fact that I’m American-born and my influences are contemporary. I was raised on American rock and roll. And so when I told people I wanted to start a Ladino rock band, I got a lot of raised eyebrows. But here I am, 15 years later and I’m still doing it.”
Those raised eyebrows have been replaced by lots and lots of tapping feet and clapping hands. But though her performing career has taken her to the Rock of Gibraltar and back again, the key source of inspiration for her newest work sits much closer to home.
“When my daughter hears the music being played, she says ‘Oh my gosh, that’s mommy, she wrote the music for me!’ It’s so sweet — obviously my heart just melts.”
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Life is a Cabaret (Again)!: A Divine Evening With Charles Busch
By Robert Burke Warren
Photo by Frederic Aranda.
Few, if any, entertainers are more full service than actor-singer-playwright-novelist-librettist-screenwriter-director-drag pioneer-force of nature, Charles Busch. Opportunities to see him in action, up close and personal, are rare, especially outside Manhattan, but if you’re within driving distance of Hudson, you’re in luck. The two-time MAC Award winner, Tony nominee, and Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award recipient alights at Helsinki Hudson for one night only on Sunday, Feb. 21 with A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic.
The event is a special sneak preview of Busch’s upcoming Lincoln Center American Songbook performance. With longtime accompanist Tom Judson, plus accordion and stand-up bass, Busch will veer effortlessly from Sondheim to the Beatles, saluting his friends Elaine Stritch, Polly Bergen, Mary Cleere Haran, Julie Wilson and Joan Rivers.
“Vaudeville is back!” Busch says from his Manhattan apartment. For someone who’s reached several pinnacles of artistic achievement, Busch is refreshingly down-to-earth and chatty; his voice, contoured by decades of singing and projecting from the lip of a stage, still brims with boyish enthusiasm.
“Someone recently told my manager he was turning into Broadway Danny Rose,” he laughs, “and I gotta say, it’s true.” We’re talking about the resurgent popularity of cabaret, which Busch does now more than ever. We agree the demand may be a kind of “corrective” to hi-tech amusements, a means of satisfying the innately human need to experience storytellers live and in person (see also The Moth, Selected Shorts, et al).
A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic, is, essentially, top-notch storytelling, with music. Busch says the cornucopia of song, story, drag, impersonation, and comedy is a return to his early 80s New York cabaret experiences, before he co-created groundbreaking downtown ensemble Theatre-in-Limbo (Vampire Lesbians of Sodom).
“I drifted in and out of low-rent cabaret,” he says of those early days. “It was more like performance art, and so much easier to get booked than to get a play on. It was more out of necessity than anything. I stopped around ’83, when my career as an actor-writer took off.”
Busch has worked consistently ever since, earning plaudits from notoriously hardboiled critics, and garnering an ardent fanbase. He made a foray to the Great White Way in 2000, with his play The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife, starring Linda Lavin. It ran at the Ethel Barrymore Theater for 777 performances, winning an Outer Critics Circle Award and three Tony nominations. Hyperion published his novel, he wrote and appeared in movies, and garnered much acclaim as Nat Ginzburg in HBO’s Oz. (This is actually a shortlist.)
But cabaret gave him a callback. “Four years ago,” he says, “I was asked to perform on a gay cruise, and I didn’t have an act. But the fee was good. [Pianist] Tom Judson and I were friends, and he’s good looking and fun, so I called him up, he said sure, and we had a great time. And it’s taken off. It’s marvelous.”
The timing was good. Busch had become frustrated with the playwright’s life: “You work two years on a play and it usually only plays its seven-week nonprofit subscription run,” he says. “Every playwright dreams of a Broadway transfer and that is extremely rare nowadays. I like the simplicity of doing this act, telling my story, singing these songs that are actable. It’s a challenge, especially because I’m in drag, but I don’t have a drag persona. I’m Charles Busch, who comes out looking like Ginger in ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ But I’m actually more comfortable in costume, in a mask. And I’m comfortable with my own androgynous nature.”
Lincoln Center has taken note. “The American Songbook guys like a theme show,” Busch says. “So I sold them on The Lady at the Mic. I’ve known some remarkable New York cabaret women, and in this show I share personal anecdotes about them. It’s a tribute to my friends.”
Enter Hudson-based event planner and impresario Lee Tannen, who has turned Helsinki Hudson into a frequent showcase for New York-based cabaret artists. “Lee invited us to bring the show to Helsinki Hudson before Lincoln Center,” says Busch, “so we could get more than one crack at it. And I love the room. It’s very theatrical. And you can sit down and have your vaudevillian supper!”
Dinner and a show, cabaret style; the old is new again, and the people line up to laugh, sing along to the songs, and let their lives be a cabaret, for one night only. But what a night.
A Divine Evening with Charles Busch: The Lady at the Mic
Sunday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.
405 Columbia St., Hudson, NY