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Arts & Entertainment, etc.

How I spent my summer vacation

July 21, 2009
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I just returned from a vacation with family at the New Jersey shore. But, of course, I didn't leave A&E behind.

No, I didn't catch any Atlantic City casino shows -- although, I regret missing Chazz Palminteri do his one-man show, "A Bronx Tale," at Harrah's and hope such non-traditional showroom offerings catch on.

But I did a lot of CD listening on the drive. And a lot of reading once I got there. Some notes:

--The new Broadway cast recording of "Hair" captures much of what I loved about the production itself. And as I mentioned in my review a few weeks back, the women are particularly strong. I still, however, prefer the Actors' Fund benefit CD of the score which may have less consistent characterization but has a can-you-top-this, one-night-only fire that can't be beat.

--I understand completely why the musical "13" didn't cut it on Broadway. After all, do you want to go to a show populated entirely by teens? But the score, by Jason Robert Brown, is one more piece of evidence that he's the best hope musical theater has right now. His tunes are accessible without being simple. His lyrics flow and sit perfectly on the music. And I can't wait to hear what he comes up with next. Even if my 14-year-old daughter wasn't in the car, I would have listened.

--The highlight of Malcolm Gets' "The Journey Home" is a fun, Bobby Darin-esque rethinking of "It's a Fine Life" (from the musical "Oliver!"). but Gets easygoing deliver and John McDaniel's strong arrangements are a good team throughout. Gets is also one of two performers on the original cast recording of "The Story of My Life", a cringe-worthy show that inexplicably made it to Broadway last season (and left quickly). The disc doesn't make a strong case for future productions.

--After reading a galley of Nicholson Baker's upcoming intimate character study "The Anthologist," (You can read a sample chapter here), I decided to catch up a bit on the novelist, not realizing he had recently turned to non-fiction. Not what I expected, but I picked it up anyway and was knocked out by "Human Smoke," his compulsively readable account of the origins of World War II. Powerful, urgent, fresh and repeatedly insightful, it's structured in short bursts that give a day-to-day sense of our escalating involvement in the conflict. A must-read for anyone interested in who were and who we are as a country.

--As an antidote, I picked up Steve Hely's "How I Became a Famous Novelist," which presents as smart-alack fiction but ends up packing a strong cathartic punch after many laughs. A good beach read that I didn't feel at all guilty about afterwards.

--I've been waiting for someone to write a book about the creative career of composer Stephen Schwartz and author Carol de Giere has satisfied my craving with "Defying Gravity". The book is essential for anyone obsessed with "Wicked," or interested in the development of such landmark shows as "Godspell" and "Pippin." Equally insightful in a different way is Arthur Laurents' "Mainly on Directing," in which the writer of such shows as "Gypsy" and "West Side Story" pulls no punching is stating what he feels works and what doesn't work on stage.

--The final book of the trip, "A Wild Ride," is the closest to home. It chronicles, Yearbook-style, the history of Morey's Piers, the leading amusement operators in my home town, Wildwood, New Jersey (the Doo Wop architecture capital of the world).  I was there last week as the book was officially "launched" with a daredevil being fired from a canon with books in hand (See it here.) and am happy to report that the oversized volume captures the craziness of the town I love so much. While commissioned books tend to be one-sided, this one makes up for that with some great stories (I didn't know rides could vanish overseas), outrageous photos (I always wondered what happened to the giant King Kong that used to dominate the boardwalk landscape), and a sense of history both disappearing and being created.

So what have you been reading/listening to?
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