George Varga, U-T San Diego Pop Music Critic
James Hebert, U-T San Diego Theater Critic
Related Story: Weekend Preview: Music and Theater
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. This week, it's all about theatre and music on the weekend preview. My guests are George Varga, pop music critic at UT San Diego. Welcome.
CAVANAUGH: And Jim Hebert is here. Theatre critic from UT San Diego.
HEBERT: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: We start off with a country legend, Merle Haggard. And George, you had a chance to interview him. What's he like?
VARGA: Oh, he was exactly like you hoped he would be. Very earthy, eloquent, engaging. And very candid.
CAVANAUGH: Has his music changed over the years? Or is it he just this sort of immovable rock of Gibraltar icon guy?
VARGA: Both, I think. He's remained true to what has become known as the Bakersfield sound. The sound kind of pioneered in the early 1960s in reaction to the slick Nashville sound that was popular at the time. But he's evolved over the years, grown more accomplished. His single came out last year, working in Tennessee, which was a really good album. You can hear how his lifelong love of jazz has led him to use cords and harmonies that most country artists would never think to use.
CAVANAUGH: We have the title track of working in Tennessee. Let's hear just a little bit of that song.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: And Merle Haggard, of course, is coming to San Diego tonight. Is he still performing at the same caliber as when he was at his peak? He is, what? 75 now?
VARGA: He'll be 75 in April. The last time I saw him was in 2005 with bob Dylan in Los Angeles. And one could arguably say that anybody would sound really good alongside Dylan, and I love Dylan. But his voice has not held up well over the years, and Merle has. In 2008, he lost part of his lung to cancer, but when we talked by phone last week, we talked for an hour, and his voice was very strong and steady throughout.
CAVANAUGH: Is this a good venue for him to be performing at? The Balboa theatre?
VARGA: I think it's a good listening room. The aisles are wide enough to dance. But I think it's a pretty good Venn rue to hear him in.
CAVANAUGH: And ticket prices?
CAVANAUGH: Merle haggard, tonight at the Balboa theatre. We move on to a different kind of music. A room with a view, a new musical. You say that this musical, which of course we're all familiar with from the book and the movie, takes its inspiration from a single line in author E. M. Forster's novel of a room with a view. What is that line?
HEBERT: Right. The writer of this musical said that the line they really keyed on is "this is a yes." And that's a line directly from the novel. And it symbolizes what I understand the show to get at, and something the novel is based on, which is this kind of contrast between this repressive world of early 20th century England that one of the main characters, Lucy, comes from. And the world of Florence Italy, which is -- you know, romantic and open to possibilities, which is something she hasn't seen in her life. And that gets at the heart of what the changes that happen.
CAVANAUGH: Can you give us a really small sampling of what the plot is? I've seen the movie but I have to admit, it was a long time ago.
HEBERT: It came out in 1985, I think, so it has been a while. And the musical is not based on the film, but it's substantially the same events. And it really centers on Lucy church who is played by Helena bonham Carter in the film, who comes from this repressive, strict background. And she comes to Italy on vacation, and her chaperon is sort of trying to keep her reigned in. And she meets this man, George Emerson, who is this kind of free spirit. So it becomes this tug of war between what her family thinks is right for her and the possibilities she sees.
CAVANAUGH: As you point out in one of your stories about a room with a view, if you watch TV, you think that musicals happen overnight. But they can take years to develop. But this one is a little bit different. Tell us about its creation process.
HEBERT: Yeah, it's really happened very quickly. And I was just reading something about a musical that was -- had one of its first productions at The Old Globe eight years ago, and it's just now getting to New York. So this show, are the two main creators started talking about it just over a year ago. They decided to put some songs together, and then The Old Globe, and some other theatres heard about it, and the Globe ask forward a workshop. And based on that workshop, the theatre signed on said we want to do this.
CAVANAUGH: What is the music like?
HEBERT: It's kind of a mix of styles like English operetta, and Italian opera, which again as the composer Jeffrey stock explains it, represents the clash between these two cultures, and also between the old world and this new way of modernism that's coming in the early 20th century. So it's a mix, but it's also I think there is it maybe a contemporary touch or two to it.
CAVANAUGH: It starts previews at The Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park tomorrow. The show opens on March 10th. Third story has an album release party Friday. What's different from that than just a live music performance.
VARGA: Well, people tend to get very drunk.
CAVANAUGH: Good call! Yes, that is different.
VARGA: Well, I think the main thing, this is unusual for jazz, they're won't be performing live. They will be miming everything. So it will be the instrumental equivalent of lip synching. I'm kidding. I would think given the nature of how good they are at playing, they will expand on it and take it to a new place.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about third story. What is their music like?
VARGA: Music is heavily inspired by the impressionistic jazz style that became popular in the mid 1970s on a German record label called ECM records, and they signed John Abercrombie, and a lot of musicians who created a new approach to jazz at that time. What's particularly new about them are the members, they're all in their 20s, three of them are from San Diego. And the pianist last fall won second place honors at the Kennedy center in Washington DC in the Thelonious Monk international jazz competition. And not long after that, I did an interview with Hershey Hancock who was one of the judges, and he was effusive in talking how good Josh was.
CAVANAUGH: We did a feature, Angela Carone, did a feature on Joshua white. I remember. Let's hear a clip from this band from their CD, the track is called for now.
(Audio Recording Played)
CAVANAUGH: What is the new CD called?
VARGA: It's self-titled, it's called third story, and it features compositions written by all four of the members. Of
CAVANAUGH: What does it cost to get into this event? Will you be able to buy the CD there?
VARGA: Yeah, it's $15 at the door. But I would highly recommend that people call ahead and make a reservation. And the phone number is 619-255-7885.
CAVANAUGH: So this young jazz band, third story has an album release gig on Friday at the back room at 98 bottles. The car plays. Jim, the La Jolla Playhouse parking area is where you expect to see these car plays. What are they?
HEBERT: They are 15 Mayes all together, and -- plays all together, and each one is a different, weird, whacked out world. Some are serious, some are comedies. But you see five plays, and each is about ten minutes. And once you've seen five, that's about the whole program. So you get assigned to a row of cars, randomly to check out these plays. And they're all -- the plot of each play is somehow tied to obviously being inside a car, but there are only two audience members for each one. And then the actors sometimes the actors are in the front seat, sometimes you as a audience member are in the front. There's one play where the play is between the two audience members. So you're literally rubbing shoulders and poking elbows with one of the actors.
CAVANAUGH: You write that the intimacy in these car Mayes is sometimes cringe-making.
HEBERT: Yeah, in kind of a good way in the sense that it really breaks the boundaries of what you expect a theatre performance to be. Especially when you're in an environment like this, that's really familiar. If you spend a lot of time in a car, and yet the rules for this are so different. And for each play, sometimes you're drawn into it a little bit. Sometimes the actors actually kind of talk to you or make eye contact. And other times, you feel as though you really don't want to mess with what's going on. And it's hard to know with each one what the right thing is.
CAVANAUGH: Do you have a favorite?
HEBERT: One of my favorites was something called the audience, which I don't want to give away too much about, but it essentially just completely flips your expectations of being at a play on -- flips them on their head. And there was a play similar to that call Disneyland, you're supposed to be these children going to Disneyland with their dad, and the dad turns around to scold you. And what can you do?
[ LAUGHTER ]
CAVANAUGH: The car plays, San Diego, at the La Jolla Playhouse parking area has been extended through this weekend and next. And the aristocrats this Friday at brick by brick.
VARGA: Well, they're a trio that only came together by accident about a year ago when the guitarist they were going to play with got held up. And the guitarist who's from England happened to be at a music trade show in Anaheim where the drummer who lives in imperial beach and the bassist who is from the LA area found Guthrie as a last-minute substitute. And they and the audience were totally blown away by how good he was. And they kind of play a style that draws from progressive rock, what was known as jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s but they do it in an incredibly creative and fresh way, and have reinvented what fusion used to be.
CAVANAUGH: Okay. The aristocrats this Friday at brick by brick. And the Hedda Tron. You've not seen this play, but you're excited about it. Why?
HEBERT: Well, it's incredibly ambitious. And the premise alone, if I understand it right, because it's kind of complicated. But essentially it has to do with some robots who compel a mid-western home maker to perform the lead role in Hedda Gabler, the Ibsen play. And this play is not entirely serious. It involves -- it's satirical and it's going to have actual robots on stage at Ion theatre, they have a high school student designing these robots, and actors will be controlling them from backstage. And it's -- who knows what's going to happen with it? I think they were even -- they sort of have to prepare for it to be whatever it's going to be with these robots, whether they work or not. It's ambitious.
CAVANAUGH: It is. Hedda Tron opens March 18th at ion theatre on sixth avenue. And George and Jim, thank you so much.
VARGA: Thank you.
HEBERT: Thanks Maureen.