July 12th, 2008


Hayley Westenra - Kiwi Charlotte Church

Hayley Westenra's PR flacks say don't compare her to Charlotte Church, but the voices are so similar it's impossible not to. Hayley has that youthful, crystal clear soprano which cuts through a room like a laser. I first heard her on Pandora.com, a tune from her Odyssey album called Never Saw Blue. It was very pretty, but it was a showcase for a spectacular voice rather than an expression of emotional lyrics. I was hoping she had more depth than that, seeing as her bio shows a long list of child star roles in Christchurch musicals and work as a street singer.

So I bought Odyssey and her double album Pure and gave them a listen. Sad to say, Never Saw Blue is one of maybe three tunes in which she shows any capacity at all for telling the story of the song. And that's where comparing her to Ms. Church would be wrong - it would be an insult to Ms. Church.

And it's probably a reason she is mostly unknown in the US. She has an amazing voice, and her technical skills are superb, but she sells her pipes, and not the song. The albums go one step further in the wrong direction by featuring a few songs in the Maori language, but she isn't Maori, and the arrangements are done up so whitebread that I'm expecting an advertising tag line at the end for Twinkies. Though there is a wide variety of songs on the CDs, they mostly sound the same.

It's very sad. Her voice is one in a hundred million. In New Zealand she'll be able to continue to be the "home town girl makes good" forever, but if she hopes to make it in the rest of the world, she'll need to find some good teachers to show her that words are not mere sounds to push out of her lungs. With a couple of small exceptions, the two albums remind me of Italian vowel exercises we do for warm-ups before going onstage for a musical. She's young. There's time.

Edit add: someone left an anonymous comment about the Maori connection which I will be happy to have here if it is submitted from a logged-in LJ account.
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Rough Crossing at the Dragon Theater

Friday's treat was opening night at the Dragon Theater in Palo Alto, a full house + 3 folding chairs. Rough Crossing by Tom Stoppard is very entertaining, and director Dave Sikula did a brilliant job with it. The play is set on a steamship in the 30's sailing from Southampton to New York via Cherbourg. Turai (Steve Cortopassi) is a playwright whose leading man Adam (Jason Arias) has come down with a case of vocal block (it can take up to two days to get a sentence out) and has been replaced by Ivor (Noel Wood) who was the first lover of Adam's fiance Natasha (Monica Cappuccini). Adams stays on as the show's musical composer. The sometimes acid and usually verbose Turai is kept in check by his producer Gal (Magenta Brooks) and the whole lot is served by a steward named Dvornichek (Jonathan Ferro).

The first five minutes reminded me of Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by making us guess who the characters are, but eventually Dvornichek clears that all up with a monologue which sounds like it is pages and pages long, and clearly and concisely explains everything which has happened, who everyone onstage (and off) is, and a few things which are likely to happen.

The show is fast-paced, lots of laughs, some very funny running gags, and even some alleged singing. From the director's notes, this was originally a musical, but was trimmed down to be a comedy with a little bit of music. Lisa Battista didn't have much to work with as musical director, but her piano playing from backstage was excellent.

Technical stuff: The set by Ron Gasparinetti is very clever, converting from two stateroom balconies to the inside of a stateroom via three minutes of cast-being-crew magic. Parts of the set are excellent, parts not so much. There are a lot of food props, and I thought the challah in Act II was out of character for the show, though pretty funny for a Friday night performance. Dragon head honcho Meredith Hagedorn did the props. Lighting was good, except for the little bit at the end which wasn't as much of a spotlight effect as I suspect the director was going for.

Acting stuff: Cortopassi played a very even tempered character with your standard American accent, and could not have been better at it. However, I would bet real cash dollars that the script calls for an Eastern European accent and corresponding bouts of shouting. Arias chose to play his part with a French accent. This made no sense for a character called Adam Adam, and the accent was very difficult to understand, which went a long way toward killing the role for me. He showed great talent with physical comedy, and due to his condition, we don't have to suffer through as much of the accent as we might have. Wood's Ivor was way over the top, and he changed accents a few times during the performance. He didn't seem to have a good handle on who is character is. But he put everything he had into it, which helped. I don't know what the script says about Natasha, but I'm guessing she ought to be 10 years younger than Cappuccini played her, and she ought to have a musicals-quality singing voice (as should Ivor and Adam - none of them do). Brooks, on the other hand, was her character, through and through, the smart 30's professional woman, right down to the wavy short hair, white silk blouse and maroon slacks. Cross Katherine Hepburn's no-nonsense confidence with Audrey Hepburn's elegance, and you're in the ballpark. I cannot say enough about how completely she fit the part. And stealing the show was Ferro, who successfully kept the steward in the neighborhood of a Dick Van Dyke comic character, where it could easily have fallen into the cesspool of Adam Sandler - Ben Stiller stupidity. My only criticism of his role is I thought a character named Dvornichek ought to have an Eastern European accent.

Bottom line: worth full price. It's a tiny theater, this show is going to sell out, so make reservations. It runs Thurs-Sat at 8 pm and Sunday at 2 pm through August 3. July 27 features talk-back with the cast after the show. I may go to that one, to see how things have progressed since opening night. Click here for the link.
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Gai Yang Foo

Thai BBQ chicken, aka Gai Yang (pronounced Guy Yaahng - rhymes with bong), apparently is an endangered species. Last night I ordered it for dinner in Palo Alto at Thaiphoon, and was served boneless, skinless strips of Tandoori chicken breast. Tonight, in an attempt at karmatic dining, I ordered it at Pacific Thai in Santa Cruz, and got underdone grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast which had been dusted with that yellow satay powder and sliced into strips. Both times it was served with a cup of Thai honey pepper sauce on the side.

Thai BBQ chicken is cuisine of the Northeast, and it is done like this:

Take a whole chicken
Baste it with honey pepper sauce
Cook it over coals on a spit
Keep basting it
When it's done and a little more brown than golden, take it off the spit, and use a cleaver to chop it up, skin, bones and all, into bits about 1" wide.
Serve with honey pepper sauce.
Traditionally it is served with sticky rice, but long grain Thai white rice is okay too.

Pacific Thai also ruined dessert. I have never before had mango with sticky rice where the mango had been previously frozen. Yuck. And the sticky rice was purple with sesame seeds and some other crunchy seeds or beans mixed in. That's a different dessert, it doesn't belong with mango. Mango requires white sticky rice soaked with sweetened condensed milk and maybe coconut milk.

I am reminded of something I wrote 20 years ago when I led ba.singles jaunts to the Thai restaurants in the south bay. There is a lot of excellent food in the local Thai restaurants, but there is not a lot of authentic Thai food.

Both places committed cutlery crime. Thaiphoon sets their tables with chopsticks. Thais do not use chopsticks except to eat Chinese food. Chopsticks are for barbarians who don't know how to use a fork and spoon. Pacific Thai sets their tables with a fork and knife. Knives are weapons, and putting one at someone's place at the table is tantamount to a death threat. There should have been a spoon, but there wasn't. Pacific Thai added to the non-authentic atmosphere by playing a CD of pan pipe music from the Andes.

My waiter at Thaiphoon did not speak Thai. He was Chinese. My waitress at Pacific Thai was Thai, from Surin, and spoke not only Thai but also the command  language they use with the elephants (Surin for the past 100 years or so has hosted the annual elephant round-up), however it took her a minute to realize I was speaking Thai because, she said, they did everything in English there, including placing orders with the kitchen. Out of the wait staff of five, only two were Thai. It is possible that the Caucasian woman and the African-American man spoke Thai, I just didn't ask. Should have, just to be fair. After all, looking at me, who would guess I speak it?
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