By Bill Garry
Editors Note: Discover Hollywood's roving reporter Bill Garry saw this play, which is looking for a home in Hollywood, on his travels to NYC.
That's Not Tango, playing in New York and preparing for a national tour, is not simple to describe. It is billed as a "theatre piece with music," but those few words do not do it justice. It is a live concert, a biography, and an intimate, emotional theatrical experience all rolled into one. The show is a visit with the ghost of Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine-American composer and bandoneón player, who reinvented the music of Tango and took it from the bordellos of Buenos Aires to the great concert halls of the world.
You don't have to know who Piazzolla was, or to even have listened to his music, to be moved and engaged by this show. You might want to refresh your memory on some of his influences, though. Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Cab Calloway, and Bartók (who also turned ethnic music into symphonic gold) are referenced. If you've heard Piazzolla's music before -- you haven't heard it like this.
On stage, an actor playing Piazzolla stands reminiscing about his life -- messy contradictions and all. Sometimes it seems that he is arguing with St. Peter at the gates of Heaven. Sometimes he is alone in deliberation with himself. Behind him is a band -- a pianist, a violinist, and a bandoneónista -- who play a dozen compositions, some in full, some in part, that work with the maestro's own monologues to pack an emotional punch.
Doing the punching are three world-class musicians who are part of this project for their love of the man. And you feel it.
Brandt Fredriksen, the pianist, puts enormous talent on display here. Mr. Fredriksen plays Piazzolla, as well as snippets of Bach, Stravinsky, Ellington and Bartok, with rhythmic energy and masterful technique.
JP Jofre is probably the best living bandoneón player in the world. Not only does he play Piazzolla's instrument with impeccable skill, but he imbues his performance with Piazzolla's own laughter, tears, anger, and grief.
Nick Danielson, the violinista, brings passion and life to every note. He pulls the story out of the sheet music (and no wonder -- as the assistant concertmaster for the New York City Ballet, he must do that everyday.)
None of these men, and the substitutes who occasionally fill in, are the kinds of musicians you find playing in small clubs. They are virtuoso musicians and are almost never to be found in such an intimate encounter. Seeing them live, in service to a master composer, is extraordinary.
Have I mentioned that Piazzolla himself is played by a woman? Lesley Karsten, the show's creator and co-writer, brings forth the man's wiles and toughness. It is disconcerting at first. But as the show progresses, the choice to have a woman play the part becomes apparent. Piazzolla was painfully torn between the women in his life -- his mother, three "wives" and daughter -- and his music. Ms. Karsten's performance brings forth the vulnerability that is so visible in his music. A woman in the part also offers the possibility of redemption to the man and the women who survived him.
The script, by Ms. Karsten (a documentary filmmaker) and Stephen Wadsworth (a writer/director in both the theatre and opera worlds), is well-structured and tightly woven. We enter Piazzolla's heart through his ears; the music of New York, Paris, Harlem, and Buenos Aires sweep us away. In the end, the threads of the man's life come together in a powerful marriage of text and music.
The show is playing through the end of July at SubCulture in New York's Greenwich Village. Seats still available on July 18, 19, 25, and 26. Tickets at http://tickets.thatsnottango.com.
July 4 is the 26th anniversary of Piazzolla's death, and it would be fitting to see this show during this time of political chaos. Piazzolla lived as an example of the American idea -- using the diverse experiences of his youth to create something new, bigger, and bolder. In its way, this show is a tribute to both Piazzolla's genius and to the nation of immigrants who freed the world through their labor, their passion, and their art.