I love a surprise – of course, only if it’s a happy one. Well, there I was at the New York City Center to see an old show that played like a young one: “Fiorello!” It sings! It dances! It acts! (And it deserves all those exclamation points). Filled with a bevy of buoyant songs, it exudes an idealistic peppiness. This “Fiorello!” is a kind of double-nostalgic valentine: first to the 19-teensand 20s and, secondly, to the wonderful musicals of the 60s. The show is filled with the lilting waltzes of pre-World War I America to the razzmatazz of the Jazz Age. So what does all of this have to do with a surprise? Well, in Act I, there’s a scene of politicians meeting and all of a sudden, there was an approving uproar, applause, and cheers from the packed audience. The cause of all this commotion which stopped the show for a few minutes was a man born and raised, guess where? In Bayonne. In fact, in 1957 he graduated from Bayonne High School before going on to Harvard. Barney Frank, who served in the House of Representatives to this year was there onstage playing a politician (is that type-casting?) for just a few minutes, speaking only a few lines. Later I learned that he was picked out of the audience at that evening’s performance (lucky me!). During the intermission, as I was heading for the ladies’ room (as always!), I passed the former congressman surrounded by admirers. But all I had to say as I joined the throng was “I’m from Bayonne.” A big smile came on Barney Frank’s face as he grabbed my hand and asked my name. He lit up as soon as he heard “Sturz” and proceeded to tell me that he knew my late husband Mel and his family. Barney Frank was warm and generous in his attention to me. All of that was simply the result of my mentioning a magic word: “Bayonne.” Now that’s the kind of surprise I enjoy.
This appears to be the year of Beyonce Giselle Knowles-Carter. She clinches her status as American pop’s reigning mega-star, but I have a confession. I only became aware of the super-talented gal on Jan. 20, 2009, when she performed one of my favorite songs, “At Last,” at Barack Obama’s first dance with his wife Michele during the Neighborhood Ball of his inauguration as president of the United States. Her music is generally contemporary R&B, but she also incorporates pop and soul into her songs. Amazingly, the seemingly superhuman flawless Beyonce possesses a mezzo-soprano vocal range that spans more than three octaves. The singer-songwriter and actress credits Michael Jackson as her major musical influence and idol. If you saw the HBO feature-length documentary “Life is But a Dream,” you know about her childhood, her role as a mother and businesswoman. The 16-time Grammy Award winner uses home movies from her Houston, Texas childhood and turns her laptop on herself to show a woman trying to have it all: a loving home life with her husband, the rapper Jay-Z, a successful career, and the freedom to simply be. Yes, Beyonce continues to rule the world. She’s rich, beautiful, and comports herself in a manner that is about as dignified as pop stars can manage. She’s on the April cover of “Vogue,” appearing elegant and simple, wearing soft makeup with her hair in a chic updo. In addition, there’s a scheduled tour next month that features stops in 20 European cities. But wait, there’s even more. The gorgeous gal is set to star in a remake of “A Star is Born,” directed by – guess who? – Clint Eastwood. Beyonce Knowles certainly doesn’t have time to be bored or boring. Perhaps one might suffer from Beyonce fatigue. It can be a little depressing to normal females. We regular gals might feel like we got it together – and then we look at her.
“World on a String” – that’s a musical memoir I am currently enjoying reading. Its author is jazz guitarist and singer John Pizzarrelli, whom I have known since he was a small boy, literally at his father’s knee. His father, Bucky Pizzarrelli, at age 86 is still active playing his seven-string guitar. In my past life, I wrote a monthly column for “Jersey Jazz Magazine,” and I was always glad to attend a concert when Bucky Pizzarrelli was featured. Son John says in his memoir that his dad will play just about anywhere they asked him to. The patriarch says that “as a youngster, John watched me play and then played what he heard. He’s really talented!” Recently I saw John Pizzarrelli and his quartet at Birdland, a landmark jazz club established in New York in 1949. It’s named after Charlie Parker, known to his fans as “Bird.” Birdland’s booking history reads like a Who’s Who of jazz. It’s a world-class setting, has good sight lines, and great acoustics. When I asked for a really close table to the music, my request was smilingly granted. John, and I can be familiar by calling him by his first name, since I’ve known the 52-year-old most of his life, was at Birdland with an unfailingly swinging quartet: Larry Fuller, an amazing pianist, bassist Martin Pizzarrelli, John’s equally handsome brother, and drummer Tony Tedesco. Up front, John, a master raconteur, too, told colorful tales about his dad and all the jazz greats he met (and I had met many of them, too). John also breathes new life into classic tunes like “I Got Rhythm.” He even scatted several choruses in unison with his virtuosic guitar solos. Excuse me for adding a personal aside to my 18-year-old grandson who has been studying guitar for many years – Learn to sing, too, David. John Pizzarrelli, now grown up and handsome with a charismatic persona, is a jazz master and skilled interpreter of the Great American Song Book. He left his packed, admiring audience at Birdland clapping, singing, smiling, happy, and more than satisfied (especially me!).
Is it possible to ambivalently watch a TV show? I’m not sure. “Smash,” a soap about backstage strivers, is in season two. Season one was filled with personal dramas and now, although some of the characters have been changed, there are still almost too many subplots in the creative theatre world of “Smash.” At times, it’s hard to follow. True, what is special about this series is that it seems to have an understanding that art isn’t just a job. Many of the musical numbers appear to be sort of stuck in, especially in season two with Jennifer Hudson’s performances. Perhaps she’s been added to lend some energy to the proceedings. I was distracted by remembering her as a Weight Watchers spokesperson. Dolled up in skin-tight dresses, she is indeed a fine ad for that company. I guess I’m simply not a fan of her dramatic singing. Actress Debra Messing, whose comedy acting has always endeared her to me, has a different role in “Smash.” I find her character, Julia, a bit annoying. “Smash” has one consistency – the rivalry between Karen (Megan Hilty) and Ivy (Katherine McPhee) for the lead in the fictional Marilyn Monroe musical “Bombshell.” In season two we’ve been introduced to a couple of newcomers, Jimmy and Kyle, who write a musical that captures Karen’s ear (ha!). So far the story has led me to wonder: could Ivy end up with “Marilyn” in “Bombshell” while Karen leads a new Broadway show? Those questions remind me of the way radio serials used to end each day. But back to “Smash.” I have a sincere desire to see this TV show become a hit in spite of its shortcomings. I’ll keep tuning in to find out.
You can email June Sturz at email@example.com.