'Matter of Laugh or Death,' a humor column
By Bill Dunn
Interesting observations on this thing we call life
(appearing each week in the Republican-American newspaper, Waterbury, CT)
VENTURING INTO THE UNKNOWN
By Bill Dunn
As someone whose idea of “performing art” rarely goes beyond Simon Cowell insulting a talentless singer on the popular TV show “American Idol,” I thought it might be time to broaden my horizons and sample some of the performing arts available here in northwest Connecticut.
The performing arts in this part of the state are experiencing a renaissance: the new Palace Theater in Waterbury; the Nutmeg Conservatory and the Warner Theatre in my town, Torrington; the Thomaston Opera House; and various other playhouses and music venues in the region.
I knew that the performing arts were experiencing a renaissance around here, not because I’d actually attended any performances, but because I vaguely remember hearing something about it on the radio. I suspect there are many people in this area a lot like me: middle class suburbanite folks who are glad there are artistic opportunities in our region, but who never seem to have the time or motivation to get out and see a show.
Nowadays it’s simply too easy and comfortable to let television be the sole source of our artistic exposure. Personally, my C.Q. (Cultural Quotient) has been so dumbed-down over the years by the idiot box, I doubt I can tell the difference anymore between Mozart and Mick Jagger. (Except they’re both about the same age, but Mozart had more affairs with his groupies.)
I do attend “live” performances once in a while, but these performances take place in either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. Even if the game is lousy—a 14 to 2 Red Sox loss to Cleveland comes to mind—just being inside the ballpark and seeing the players in person is always a special experience. Maybe the same holds true, I wondered, while watching an artistic performance inside a theater.
So a few months ago I resolved to get out of my couch-and-clicker rut and explore some of the performing arts opportunities in this region. But where to begin? When I think about “art,” I am immediately overwhelmed by two emotions: confusion and intimidation. I don’t know anything about performing arts, for crying out loud. I can recite the “infield fly rule” in my sleep, but when it comes to the performing arts I’m clueless.
Also, I was concerned that if I did venture into a local theater to see a performance, surely the quiche-and-croissants crowd would sense instantly that I am a cultural rube and look down their sophisticated noses at me. They’d probably laugh and say my big foam finger with the “Red Sox are #1” logo is the wrong size for an indoor event.
Luckily, I’m the parent of teenagers, so I’m used to being told that I am clueless. I finally decided to get some tickets for my wife and me, and just go.
The first event we attended was the annual Nutmeg Conservatory Jazz Festival in Torrington, an afternoon of jazz workshops, performances, and an open house tour of the Nutmeg complex on Main Street. I’m not sure which impressed me more, the music or the building.
The founder and artistic director of the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts, Sharon E. Dante, has built a terrific state-of-the-art facility, which opened a few years ago. The building is home to one of the most well-respected ballet and music training programs in the nation, and contains large performance and rehearsal areas, a complete costume shop and dressing rooms, and a dormitory area for full-time students. It felt like I was walking through a combination modern art museum and college student union.
The musicians assembled for the Jazz Festival were top notch. OK, I admit I have no credentials to offer a critique regarding jazz music, but let me say that when those guys started playing, it sounded just like the low end of the FM dial, only better. And it was live and in person, and not interrupted by pledge drive breaks. Also, when I waved my big foam finger at the trombone player to show my appreciation for the solo he had just concluded, he nodded and smiled at me.
All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience. When my wife and I walked out of the building, I could feel my C.Q. go up a few points.
The next event we attended was a performance by the Hartford Symphony Orchestra at the historic Warner Theatre, just a few doors down from the Nutmeg. It had been many years since I was inside the theater, and I had heard news reports about the major renovations being done there. I expected the place to be a little nicer than the faded, water stained, ripped-seat-cushion facility I remembered, but I was completely amazed when I walked inside. The place actually sparkled. Well, maybe it was a fancy trick done by the lighting crew, but I swear the place sparkled.
Everything inside the theater was bright and colorful. All the art deco furnishings, especially the stunning ceiling with its star-shaped chandelier, looked brand new. I thought I had been transported right into the 1930s and the golden age of mammoth movie houses—at least until I saw a guy talking on his cell phone.
The symphony performed “An Evening of Schubert & Strauss.” Now let’s be honest. The only Schubert I know is Blinky Schubert, a classmate from 6th grade who had a weird facial tic. And the only Strauss I’ve ever heard of is Submarine Strauss, a left-handed relief pitcher in the 1970s who hurt his elbow and never made it to the big leagues.
However, the conductor and Musical Director of the HSO, Edward Cumming, having been alerted presumably that I was in attendance, took the time to explain the background of each musical piece before it was performed. By the way, Mr. Cumming is a dead ringer for Kramer from the TV show “Seinfeld”—at least from the 25th row.
Again, the music was way down in the low end of the FM dial, nowhere near my more familiar classic rock stations. And again the music, although a little foreign to my ears, sounded wonderful. Those composers from the 18th and 19th century really knew how to boogie.
The next destination in my cultural adventures was the Thomaston Opera House and a performance of the rock opera “Tommy.” Now this music was anything but foreign to my ears, since as a freshman in high school in 1972 I listened to this ground-breaking album by The Who, oh, about 8 million times.
Seeing this show performed live and in person was a real treat. My wife and I were amazed at the high level of talent assembled for this production—all amateurs, by the way. The young man who played Tommy has a singing voice that surely makes Roger Daltry envious. And the Thomaston Opera House itself is a delightful facility, quaint and cozy, with every seat close to the stage. One bit of advice, though: if you’re over 5 foot, 10 inches tall (or if you are, shall we say, pleasingly plump), avoid the balcony seats, which were designed, apparently, at a time in history when the average American was the same size as the Mayor of Munchkin Land.
Our next stop took my wife and I back to the Warner Theatre and a performance of “Singin’ in the Rain.” This stage adaptation of the famous movie starring Gene Kelly was spectacular. The singing and the dancing and—you’re not going to believe this—a real live rain storm right on the stage, were just magnificent. I could not stop marveling at the high level of effort, dedication, and talent that went into the show. The all-volunteer cast and crew obviously put their hearts and souls into the production.
It took my wife and I a bit longer to walk back to our car after the show, as I was compelled to hum the title song and swing around a lamp post or two on Main Street along the way. My only lament was the fact I had ignored such wonderful entertainment opportunities for so many years right in my own backyard.
If you’ve ever experienced the magic of sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium, watching a ballgame live and in person rather than on TV, take it from me, the same magical feeling occurs inside the theater. When the lights go down and the curtain goes up, it is a very special moment.
The tickets to attend a performing arts event here in northwest Connecticut are much more affordable than a Major League baseball game. And you’re not forced to pay an additional $30 for parking and $9 for each hot dog. Also, when the show is over, you don’t have to face a 3-hour drive on the Mass Pike or Major Deegan Expressway.
To my fellow middle class suburbanites: I highly recommend taking in an area show. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the experience. It’s not intimidating and no one looks down his nose at you. But do yourself a favor—leave the big foam finger at home. It makes it hard to clap, something you definitely will want to do.
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