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PLAYING AROUND

It’s easy to see when somebody loves what they’re doing. It’s plain as day to spot and nearly impossible to imitate. They could repeat it every day and night for years and still their eyes will light up and they’ll look like a kid who just surprised themselves, learning how to do some exciting new thing.

Five decades into an illustrious career, Tommy Emmanuel still loves playing the guitar. That was clear for his audience on the opening night of his two-day performance with Martin Taylor at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall on Feb. 20, because he’s damn good at it.

The duo draws a motley crowd — a near-even mix of Van Halen-era tour tees and double-starched collars. Of snarled manes and wispy greys. When Emmanuel picked up the guitar, the reason behind the dichotomy became clear.

The man can shred the cheese. He’ll out-solo the best of ‘em, and then just keep going until he feels like doing something else, giving the audience his self-assured wink-and-nod service the entire time. Still, there’s a sophistication to his playing. Ten fingers conduct their six-stringed orchestra, coaxing an eclectic array of textures and moods and percussions out of one instrument. It looks like a parlor trick, and he’s very aware of that, making extraneous, often humorous moves with his hands as bedroom rock-stars young and old study the master’s every move, hoping to witness his secret.

The secret is, there is no secret. It’s apparent from the ear-to-ear grin and the way he struts about the stage that he’s simply a big kid playing with his toys — he's just been playing with them a whole lot for a quite a long time.

The show is nearly all guitar-driven, though Emmanuel does chime in with his Australian take on a honky-tonk drawl for a few verses of “Deep River Blues.” When he does sing, it takes a backseat to his playing and when he doesn’t, you don’t really miss it — and that’s not a knock against his voice. Like classical music, …   More

PLAYING AROUND

“War Horse” requires a commitment.

When you read “horse puppeteers,” the fact is, your brain might tell you, “I’m not going anywhere near a play with horse puppets.”

But the stellar cast and creative team go all out staging this emotional two-act play, based on the 1982 novel by Michael Morpurgo and presented by Artist Series Feb. 18-23. The beautiful minimalism of this production delivers the simple story of a young man, Albert, leaving his British village to look for his horse Joey in the chaos of World War I.

Ultimately, the most important commitment must come from the audience, suspending disbelief on those horse puppeteers, two inside the adult horse Joey and one controlling his head.

The puppeteers controlling the title character — James Duncan, Adam Cunningham and Aaron Haskell — carry this production. They breathe life into “War Horse,” causing some theatergoers to tear up at the connection formed between Albert and Joey.

The intensity of the actors, particularly Michael Wyatt Cox as Albert, puts the spotlight clearly on Joey, not the puppeteers. The entire production hinges on it.

It must be said that for some, it’ll truly be too hard to look past the puppeteers. Those pondering taking a chance on “War Horse” for its eight-show run through Feb. 23 would be advised to watch videos of Joey first and judge for themselves.

A goose, controlled by Gregory Manley, proves to be a scene-stealer, injecting some much-needed humor.

But the production might very well lose some of its audience in the first 10 minutes when the foal Joey — not nearly as impressive — is up for auction. Albert’s father Ted bets the mortgage to win, and the drunk’s half-cocked decisions drive the plot throughout the first act.

The 120-pound Joey bursts in not a moment too soon and rather dramatically.

Joey is challenged to take to the plow, then goes off to war before Albert is old enough to join. Later, Albert enlists and the …   More

PLAYING AROUND

Joey, the 18-hand-high star puppet of "War Horse," towered over reporters Feb. 18 just before meeting two real horses from Diamond D Ranch on the morning of opening night before beginning a six-day performance at the Times-Union Center.

'Bama (as in Alabama) and the miniature horse, Honey, were unimpressed with the celebrity of the evening. 

“Horses have a very strong sense of smell,” Jessica Krueger, a rear-leg puppeteer said. “Bama can tell she’s smelling three puppeteers, not a horse.”

Joey couldn’t win the mares’ hearts, but the puppet had its notebook-and-camera-toting audience following its every trot, rear and neigh. Journalists remarked that, though they could clearly see the three puppeteers manipulating Joey’s movements, the puppet felt very lifelike as it approached and interacted with them.

Krueger said months and months of preparation has gone into creating that effect. She said the production team and the puppeteers studied everything they could about the movements of horses and their behavior — every detail down to a skin flick to shake off a fly or foot stomp or nostril flare. 

They studied real horses with a little help. 

“Luckily, a lot of horse owners like to post videos of their horses on YouTube,” Krueger said. “So we’ve been able to do a lot of research from those.”

One of the biggest crowd-pleasers was the convincing neigh Joey’s puppeteers could belt out on demand. It’s a layered, three-person a cappella that could echo through the Times-Union Center lobby. Krueger said that horses have lungs about three times as large as that of humans, so it worked out conveniently that it takes three performers to maneuver the full size puppets.

“We really have to train our voices for that,” puppeteer Danny Yoerges said. “We had six weeks off one summer and our voices were so out of shape, we were …   More

PLAYING AROUND

Four local music acts are competing for a chance to perform during the tournament and $5,000 in the Rock The Players contest.

The competition was open to musicians in Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina, but the four finalists all have Northeast Florida roots.

Fans will have the opportunity to vote for Flagship Romance’s “Hit the Ground,” The Embraced’s “Let in the Light,” Stephen Carey’s “Love the Way You Love” or Billy Buchanan’s “Rock The Players” in voting Feb. 13-22.

"My co-writer, Michele Howe, and I are so honored to be chosen as finalists for the Rock The Players songwriting contest. We’re so thankful that The PGA Tour would give aspiring songwriters an opportunity like this,” Buchanan said, in a statement after the announcement Feb. 13.

In addition to the cash prize and opportunity to play before and during The Players Championship, the winning musicians’ song will become the unofficial “Song of The Players” and be featured in The Players’ excitement video.

A PGA Tour panel chose the finalists, and the tour announced them on Feb. 13.

Fans can watch the four music videos and vote via through the tour’s website at pgatour.com/rocktheplayers.

    More

PLAYING AROUND

Manhood gets a bum rap, but it wasn’t always that way. In the day of cavemen, man hunted the plains; he did what he wished and ate meat from bone. It was a simple time.

Today, bookshelves and talk shows and magazine stands snub men as assholes. The problem is, no men deny it. But can man defend — maybe even justify — his instincts? Can he, as the fictional Lester Burnham so nobly did, reclaim his dick from the mason jar under the sink?

Spear in hand, comedian Cody Lyman sets out to answer this question in the Broadway original, “Defending the Caveman,” running Feb. 12-16 at the FSCJ South Campus’ Wilson Center.

Lyman stormed the stage for opening night Feb. 12, joined by the Venus of Willendorf, which he affectionately dubbed the “prehistoric Angelina Jolie,” and a stone carved sofa and television set. He soon scatters his cave floor with some very worn-looking tidy whites and a shower-towel, because it’s just more comfortable that way.

The show started a little slow, but Lyman soon picked up steam with his cave-dwelling antics and quips that hit home for many couples in the audience. He explained how men and women’s respective hunter-gatherer roles still show up in everything we do, from sex to communication to conflict resolution.

The audience was mostly older, but the relationship comedy seemed to hit home with the been-there-done-that crowd. Still, college students would still get a kick out of Lyman’s all-too-accurate portrayal of bachelorhood — a world he describes as a “dirty, dirty, place.”

A few simple lighting effects, along with Lyman’s delivery, were very effective in transporting the audience from one scene to the next. One minute, we were in “sacred circle of underwear” in Lyman’s living room. The next, we’re in an ominous red-lit cave. The next, on a lethargic fishing trip. Lyman could change the mood of the theater …   More

PLAYING AROUND

Witty banter and solid — though unspectacular — performances helped capture the audience in “Butterflies are Free," playing through Feb. 16 at the Limelight Theatre in St. Augustine.

Written by Leonard Gershe in 1969, the play centers around a young blind man, Don, who moves out of his overbearing mother’s house and tries to make it on his own in the big city. After a month, he meets the girl next door — a zany, outgoing and ditzy divorcee named Jill. An inevitable and rather predictable romantic fling ensues.

Constant puns on blindness keep the play from becoming too emotional or boring. The loudest laugh came when Jill was explaining how she became a hippie to rebel against her mother. Then, her mother loved the idea and followed in her footsteps. That’s when Jill “joined the young Republicans for Ronald Reagan.”

The set was that of a humble apartment complete with a make-shift dining room table, constructed from a bathtub and wood plank. A guitar, a box of cornflakes and a bunk bed were the defining features of the set. Audience members remarked that the set was too simple and “didn’t have the '60s feel.”

The performances by the four actors captured the audience’s attention, but the lead actor’s unconvincing portrayal of blindness came off more zombie-like and took away from his overall performance.

After starting a bit slow, the action picked up in the second act. The humor sprinkled throughout the play are not as memorable as the lasting impact and sympathy the audience gets from Don’s character. “Don’t leave me because I’m blind, but don’t stay because I’m blind,” he says to Jill in the midst of an argument.

This performance is capable of holding your attention, touching your heart, and producing a few laughs.

  More

PLAYING AROUND

Indie folk project Whetherman begins a Kickstarter fundraising project Feb. 10, with a goal of $13,500 to send the trio on its first European tour.

Founded by Nicholas Williams in 2007, Whetherman has independently released five full-length studio albums and embarked on three nationwide tours. The grassroots project has recently been placed on Pandora Radio and featured in Relix Magazine as an “Artist on the Rise.”

“Songs and Whispers,” an artist development network based in Bremen Germany, has already booked the tour and recently invited Whetherman to join the 25-day May/June circuit of shows between Germany and Denmark. The shows are all booked and ready, and the band just needs to get across the pond.

Funds raised will go toward travel and living expenses for the band, in addition to new merchandise for the tour. Any funds raised above the goal will go toward funding Whetherman’s sixth record, “Seeds for Harvest,” scheduled for release in winter 2014.

Incentives and goodies for donating funds range from digital downloads of the band’s latest songs and albums to artwork, jewelry and merchandise from the band to an intimate show at your house during their fall 2014 tour and two-year VIP show treatment.   More

PLAYING AROUND

The posh, velvet seats and ribbed halls of the Florida Theatre might not have seemed like the ideal setting for stoner-rock quintet Queens of the Stone Age Feb. 3. Tufts of beard with residue of cheap ale hung plentifully over tattooed throats and secondhand shirts as fans crowded into carpeted aisles, anticipation and unextinguished tobacco palpable in the air.

When a 60-second countdown led into the simmering, adrenaline-drenched riff of “You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar, But I Feel Like a Millionaire,” it was clear the once-assigned seats would serve no further purpose.

The top balcony stood and gathered at the rails. Hands and fists and drinks raised into the air. Queens of the Stone Age had a rock and roll show on their hands.

And that’s just where they wanted it. There’s no smoke and mirrors to the band’s stage presence — it’s hard-hitting drums, overdriven guitars and plain, old-fashioned style. They used stop-and-go rhythms often to keep listeners on their toes, waiting for applause to start before pummeling the audience with an additional few measures.

The theater screen behind the band showed images that might not surprise you — but ones you could never really predict — from stoner rock, including a crow pecking the gizzards out of a bandaged man and bare-breasted ladies with exploding planets for faces. The theatrics helped set the tone, but most of the audience’s focus fell on singer Josh Homme’s tequila-lubed dance grooves and loose guitar playing; both only got groovier and looser as the over two-hour set wore on.

Much of Homme’s charm seems to come from being one with the crowd. He’s accessible. He takes drags from his cigarette and croons a verse on the exhale. When he drops his guitar pick, he just squats down and picks it up. He has a one-sided chat with an audience member about penis length between songs, outstretching his arm as means of reference.

After security pulled a fan out of the show, …   More

PLAYING AROUND

New Yorkers make great pizza and dreadful tourists. They claim their city as the center of the universe, and won’t let anybody forget it. But for one night on Feb. 1 at the Times-Union Performing Arts Center, we were the tourists, given a glimpse into the world of Broadway, a world that indeed has influenced our universe of entertainment.

"Broadway Rox," an ensemble of six talented singers and a backing band of authentic New York musicians brought Big Apple charm to the River City, promising to take the audience on a musical journey through 50 years of Broadway.

Half a century of ubiquitous, influential music is an ambitious journey, and "Broadway Rox" wasted no time getting into the thick of it. The show opened up with a medley of hits, ranging from rocker Jason Wooten’s "Jesus Christ Superstar," to Ashley Loren’s energetic rendition from "Footloose," to Green Day’s "21 Guns."

The performers encouraged the audience to sing along, and sometimes they did. On slower songs, like the haunting group a cappella of the Beatles' "Because," the audience stayed silent while the singers exercised their impressive range.

During his rendition of Jersey Boys’ "Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You," the charming Darren Ritchie serenaded one lucky lady in the audience — concluding with a quick apology to the gentleman she was with.

"Broadway Rox" got the audience fired up with the energetic, slightly campy "Time Warp" from "Rocky Horror Picture Show." From the first few notes, the performers were able to get much of the crowd — ranging from older couples to children — grooving and pelvic thrusting along to the signature dance from the Broadway hit.

The performance was moved to the more intimate Terry Theater at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts. With a capacity of 600, the theater was packed, but no one seemed to mind.

While the first half of the show mostly kept the very tight and professional backing band in the periphery, the …   More

PLAYING AROUND

The blue men of Blue Man Group never talk, so of course, they must have handlers.

Before opening night Jan. 21, those handlers picked me randomly in the audience and sized me up. They were seeing whether I had what it took to become a human paintbrush.

As it turned out, one of those handlers doesn't like reporters. After she heard I was the Arts & Entertainment Editor at Folio Weekly, I was not surprisingly almost out. But the other guy (Aaron) liked either me or chaos — or both. Fortunately, I met their other criteria: skinny, geeky, lover of the arts, not claustrophobic and seriously in need of a haircut. So, I was the man for the job.

Then, that woman who really hates reporters swore me to secrecy on BMG’s methods at the Times-Union Center for the Performing Arts’ Moran Theater. Maybe, I was getting the theater version of good cop, bad cop.

Backstage, I saw things that I may never speak of again.

The audience saw the rest. Near the end of a wild performance featuring Twinkies, lots of paint, plumbing, lots of percussion and several stunts, a blue man ventured into the crowd and found me. I hugged him, thinking this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. He didn’t hug me back.

On stage, they put me in a jumpsuit and a helmet, setting me up for the human paintbrush stunt they teased.

Throughout the Artist Series show — the first of eight shows through Jan. 26 — Blue Man Group amazed. They caught “paint balls” and candy in their mouths, taught “Rock Concert” movements to the crowd and created paintings and sculpture in ways most of us could never imagine.

They took shots at high-priced art and our cultural fascination with technology while fusing audience interaction, stunts and percussion in a show estimated at about 100 minutes (no intermission). Many of the stunts — including mine — were videotaped, so theatergoers in the balcony could see the action via the big screen.

Though BMG maintains a vow of silence, …   More

 
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