OFAM Brushes Up its Shakespeare
Festival brings a wealth of fabulous swing and more
By Brett Campbell
Just as William Shakespeare dom-inated English stages of the 16th century, musical theater and jazz were America’s signature contribution to 20th century performing arts. Just as the happenings in Ashland prove the Bard’s enduring viability in theaters, this summer’s Oregon Festival of American Music demonstrates how productively those centuries-old tales mixed with the last century’s artistic delivery systems. The festival opens this weekend at The Shedd with the first musical adaptation of a Shakespeare play, a new production of Richard Rodgers and Larry Hart’s relatively obscure 1938 musical The Boys from Syracuse. Based on The Comedy of Errors, the show sported fewer hits than some of their other triumphs, but “Falling in Love with Love” and a couple others still sing.
Next Wednesday’s opening concert at the Hult Center features one of those rare revivals that make OFAM so intriguing: a 1939 swing version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set in 1890s New Orleans and featuring such luminaries as Louis Armstrong and Moms Mabley, with sets by Walt Disney and dances by Agnes de Mille, two jazz bands (including Benny Goodman’s thrilling sextet) and a full pit orchestra. The big new song was Jimmy Van Heusen’s now standard “Darn That Dream” but the score contains period classics like the greatest ever swing number, Count Basie’s electrifying “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “Flying Home,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and many more. OFAM’s Ken Peplowski plays and directs the usual lineup of OFAM jazz notables including the great trumpeter Randy Sandke, guitarist Howard Alden and more.
They return the following afternoon to the Shedd to play music from Kiss Me Kate, Cole Porter’s musical version of The Taming of the Shrew. That evening’s concert consists of topical songs of the period; as with Shakespeare, our experience of topically dated material can be considerably enriched when we get the references that audiences of the day would have taken for granted. Friday afternoon’s jazz concert covers songs from a non-Shakespearean source, My Fair Lady, a musical based on a Shaw play that was itself based on a Greek myth. The Boys from Syracuse plays at the Shedd that evening and the following Sunday matinee, while also on Saturday night, the other summer OFAM musical opens at the Hult. Spawning glorious hits like “So In Love Am I,” “Too Darn Hot,” and of course “Brush Up Your Shakespeare,” Porter’s Kiss Me Kate is just about the only Shakespeare cover that actually improves on the original, at least to modern, feminist ears. It repeats in a Saturday matinee and on Wednesday evening. On July 31, the jazz pros return for another of the greatest Shakespeare-inspired creations: Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s 1957 suite, Such Sweet Thunder, one of the Duke’s finest latter-day efforts. As always, OFAM presents some accompanying talks that put this great music in context.
Some non-OFAM jazz happens on Aug. 1, when Eugene expat Peter Boe brings his trio to The Granary. And there’s more sounds from the so-called Great American Songbook (to which Porter contributed so much) with Maureeen Driese’s performance at the Jazz Station July 18. On July 20, the venue hosts experimental noise/improv Peter J Woods along with chefkirk.
After writing an opera (Saint Judas) and kicking a drug habit, the Bay Area-based accordion/banjoist/saxophonist/guitarist/singer/songwriter Mark Growden brings his Americana noir to the WOW Hall on July 25. Sadly , he won’t be including his band of Tom Waits sidemen and former Eugene cellist Alex Kelly, but will be joined by veteran Eugene guest trumpeter about town Dave Bender. Growden, who’s composed for dance, theater and film, creates a sense of drama in every vignette that should attract fans of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave, other neo-cabaret acts like Vagabond Opera, even Chris Isaak. Eugene’s own increasingly Waitsian, Piazzolla-inspired, neo-cabaret, nuevo tango band Mood Area 52 opens. And the preceding evening brings Seattle rock-Indian pop hybrid Manooghi Hi, featuring award wining Bombay-born singer Mehnaz Hoosein, with Gypsy Moon opening.
World music fans should also note Ala Nar’s CD release party, featuring the music and dance of Arabic and Turkish lands, only July 30 at Cozmic Pizza. Finally, Portland born guitarist Grant Gordy, now a member of the David Grisman Quintet, returns from his current Denver home to join acclaimed young violinist Alex Hargreave in their Grisman-influenced string quartet (with mandolin and bass) at Cozmic on July 31.
See more OFAM coverage by Suzi Steffen at blogs.eugeneweekly.com