Book Review: DANCE WITH THE DEVIL by JD March

Dance with the Devil
By JD March

dance devil cover

A book review by Charles Johnson Western Genre
Published by FIVE STAR, A part of Gale Cengage Learning 353 pages
DANCE WITH THE DEVIL offers a firm example of writing in the western genre. We meet all the required elements of such a tale; men of varying moral standing, the life of the ranch hand, the hot weather of a summer in near-desert conditions, and some good action scenes and adventure. The plot moves along with two lines of conflict that keep the reader involved and interested.

A hard-working, honest man (Guthrie Sinclair) who owns a ranch in the 1870s in New Mexico, finds himself confronted with a competing rancher (Chavez) who wishes to take over a neighboring ranch, one way or another. If that means gunplay, then so be it. A son returns (Guy Sinclair) after more than a decade living in the east, where he has served in the military and learned the refinements of urban life of the time. A younger son (John Sinclair, aka Johnny Fiero) also returns, having been taken away at a very early age from the ranch by his wandering mother. He has survived life of living in shacks, being abused, and learning to deeply hate so very early on; that hatred motivates him to hone his gun fighting skills so that he becomes one of the most renowned gunfighters of the period. The Range War between Cortez and Sinclair is ostensibly over water and timber rights of another ranch on which the owner Steen Andersson has died. Other complications arise that make those water and timber rights seem immaterial, including the security and the future of Peggy Andersson, heir to the Andersson ranch. As the range war escalates, the two brothers accept their part in it, each with their own level of commitment and involvement. The honest father observes his sons, approves of one, disappointed in the other. As for the sons Guy and John, though they share the same father, their upbringing in different parts of the country gives them traits that just don’t blend well, despite the efforts of the elder brother to get along.

The Sinclair men are the main characters in the book, each of them with their own characteristics. The dad brings his western stoic, honest nature to the story, the older son brings his cultured training to the ranch, and gunfighter Johnny is clearly the angry young man so often seen is westerns. The local country doctor (Ben Greenlaw) is a good friend of the Sinclair family as well as a fine physician who takes little guff from his patients. Peggy Andersson is the only major female in the book; I wish there had been more of her in the story, and more to her character. The only other woman close to being a major character in the book is Johnny’s mother. We meet her just briefly, much in the same way we meet Johnny’s women of the brothels; and there’s not much a difference between the mother and those brothel dwellers. Several other ranch hands and cowboys appear, offering some more of that western flavor to the book.

JD March, the author, describes the scenery quite well, bringing the reader into the various locations. The descriptions found my mind’s eye, admittedly a product of the 1960s TV westerns, recalling scenes from those TV westerns as I read various sections of the book. The view of the ranch from the hills found me echoing the opening of HIGH CHAPARRAL, the night-time camps brought up notions of GUNSMOKE, with images of Marshall Dillon and a prisoner wait out the night, and the fist fights in the bar brought many more westerns to mind. This is a good thing – it means the author was accurate in describing the scenes.

There are few comical situations. These are mild, not quite enough to function as comic relief in the story. In a few cases where humor works quite well, the two brothers converse, and the Bostonian son Guy uses words that amaze and confuse the gunfighter Johnny to no end.

We learn that the elder son has left Boston, not only at his father’s request to return to the ranch, but to avoid some bad times caused by his own dalliances. What those bad times were are explained, but I felt they could have been detailed more than they were. The younger son’s motivation for his angry personality are better explained, helping the reader to understand him in ways not provided as well for the elder son.

The dialogue is quite well written. The voices of the various ranch hands, the patrons of the bars, and the ladies of the brothels are all authentic. Their language is indeed in the vernacular of the Wild West; with the exception of one word. Our gunfighter Johnny is the only character in the entire book that uses the ‘f bomb’…and uses it quite often; taking away some of the credibility of the dialogue. (One would think that the other rough and tumble cowboys would also use such profanity). In fact, as I researched the ‘f bomb’, it would be fair to say that it is out of place and anachronistic to the time period and setting of the American Wild West. American literature didn’t use the word until the 1920s, and then mostly on the east coast. My suggestion; either have the word appear in conversation of others, or, preferably, don’t use it at all since its use didn’t seem part of the talk of the time and place.

And so, as you ride off into the sunset…

DANCE WITH THE DEVIL carries a good amount of the western genre in some exciting action and clearly written settings. Male characters are quite solid – I wish the women were clearer and stronger – and there’s the language matter I mentioned that pulls this book out of the young adult audience to some degree and strains the credibility of the dialogue in some ways. The novel does, however, offer a good read for fans of westerns as they sit with this book in front of the fireplace and a cup of coffee on the side.

WEEK 36 – The incompleteness of Statistics

I am:
A white (1) male (2) who is retired( 3) from teaching (4) and on a pension (5) who belongs to AARP (6) and is a church goer (7) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (8) and will soon be on social security (9) and owns some lake property (10) where I fish (11) and use a gas outboard motor (12). I drink an occasional alcoholic beverage (13), have gay friends (14) and politically lean a bit to the left (15).

So here I am, just one person who is in general pretty ordinary. Break me up into these 15 abstract parts, and I am pretty evil-looking, at least in some ways. Some people are not angry over WHO I am, but rather at WHAT I am.

Why is that? Among my friends who know WHO I am, all these various traits are intertwined, so they accept the weaknesses with the strengths. They know that I am who I am, perceiving me as a whole person, made up of several smaller parts.

Break me up into the fifteen parts I list, and I am no longer a whole package – I am a pile of statistics that can be separated into stacks of I HATE THIS ABOUT THIS GUY and I LOVE THIS ABOUT THIS GUY. This is the reverse of what my friends do. Due to these statistical piles, I am now perceived as a bunch of smaller parts that add up to the whole.

I can therefore be dismissed simply because someone doesn’t like one of those fifteen aspects. It doesn’t matter what the whole package amounts to. One flaw deems the rest as wasteful and of no use.

So enough of the self-aggrandizement and vanity. Let’s apply the idea further up the line.

I believe this effect is at work on a higher level. We are so busy making piles of what’s wrong and what’s right with our country (and each other) that we are forgetting to consider the whole package. I believe that the nature of our country, despite what the piles of statistics may indicate, is totally different. I don’t know if it is necessarily better or worse, but it is different.

We have become so very obsessed with statistics. We can’t do anything without making a top ten list, or finding some mathematical device to explain the qualities of anything we wish to examine. We want to know not only the top ten, but the bottom ten as well. It happens in industry, in education, in the economy. We compare everything, regardless of whether or not it makes sense to compare things.
We even apply statistics to things that cannot be quantified. I mean, really, can we honestly say which painting or piece of music is better than the other? Can you say a Shakespeare play should be higher on a list than a piece by Tennessee Williams?

Statistics, even at their best, are merely tool, folks. That’s all. They neither prove nor deny things. They are raw. They are part of the recipe. They serve a purpose, oh yes, they do. But that is all they do. They are a tool, just like a saw or hammer. Would you reject buying a house because you didn’t like the brand of hammer the carpenter used? Well then, why would you give final word to anything based on just statistics?

So then what do we do? Allow me one more personal, vain thought. I am indeed those fifteen things I stated first off – but that is not the whole picture. There may be some things that make me more than that list of fifteen things tells you, or I may be less. After all is said and done, those fifteen things do not make the whole picture.

I suggest this: we use the statistics as those very tools – and the more accurate the better, of course. But beyond that, we need to use the skill of critical thinking, in which we look beyond the tools and look at the whole picture, the whole enchilada, the entire package. There will always be more than is statistically available, and therefore, statistics can only BE a tool, not an end in themselves.

Analyze the statistics, yes. But that’s only part of it. Step back, use your critical sense – and common sense. Then, you can make your own conclusion to the whole picture.

Week 35 – Chanhassen’s HELLO DOLLY Reviewed

Reviewing HELLO DOLLY at Chanhassen.

HELLO DOLLY is a show that many theatres do – and that is so very well-known. It has been done before at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. Wilma and I headed down there for the matinée this past Saturday to take in the show and have a nice dinner.

Let’s start with the dinner. We both had the lasagna, which we thought was quite good. The presentation was quite ordinary, though. No sprigs of parsley, nothing to dress up the plate. We kept it pretty simple as far as drinks went; coffee and water. We each got a piece of garlic bread, which was a bit disappointing – I thought there would be more bread offered. We followed up with dessert at intermission. I enjoyed a nice warm piece of triple berry tart, which went well with the coffee – and of THAT, there was plenty. Wilma had a turtle chocolate cheesecake, and in her words, it was “to die for”. The food, overall, quite good, but maybe a bit less in presentation than Chanhassen used to do…. And I do think we got our money’s worth for the food. The service was fine – quick and efficient, main course delivered quickly before the show and then a quick appearance of our desserts at intermission.

The facilities have been around since 1968 when it opened. The main theatre has had a few facelifts over the years – and the last time we were there, we noticed it was looking tired and in need of some new carpeting and stuff like that… and they’ve taken care of that. The lavatories were plentiful and clean. We took a walk through the complex when we were done eating; there are several shops connected to the theatre, as well as the usual box office and gift shop for the theatre itself. The main theatre, where HELLO DOLLY was staged, is a large venue. The seating (we were at a table for six, with none sitting in the middle seats) are ample enough but would have been rather tight if they had been there.

And so now to the show itself – after all, it is the main reason for heading down there.
HELLO DOLLY is based on the play THE MATCHMAKER by Thornton Wilder (more on that later…) and tells the story of one Dolly Levi, she of the optimistic plans and abilities to make things happen, among which are marriage arranging… and in this story, she is to find a mate for Horace Vandergelder (and that likely candidate is hat shop operator Mrs. Milloy) but her ultimate goal is to catch Horace for herself. On the way, we meet Horace’s employees Barnaby and Cornelius, who get themselves entwined as well with Mrs. Milloy and her employee Minnie.

The cast is vastly experiences and contains some fun surprises for Wilma and me. A while back we saw Tyler Michaels as Freddie in MY FAIR LADY at the Guthrie, but here he is as Cornelius. Longtime cast member Keith Rice plays the gruff Horace Vandergelder – we’ve seen him at Chanhassen as Curly in OKLAHOMA and Harold Hill in THE MUSIC MAN, to name a few. Cat Brindisi plays Mrs. Milloy, who had a part along with Tyler Michaels in MY FAIR LADY … and the fun thing here is that her mother plays Dolly…. And her dad? Michael Brindisi, who is very active in the Chanhassen theatres as part owner and as producer and director – he wears many hats indeed.

And that mother is Michelle Barber. She has been a strong presence in the theatre world of the Minneapolis area, having appeared on other stages in town as well as many appearances at Chanhassen. She plays Dolly as an upbeat lady who will not let conditions run her desires. Ms. Barber commands the stage when she is on, delivering lines with optimism and flowing across the stage in her marvelous gowns. Strong voice and great acting chops are always there for Ms. Barber, so she delivers a fine, fun Dolly for the audience. More on her later in a personal note.
Keith Rice also brings a strong presence to the role of Horace. He played it soft as Curly when he did in OKLAHOMA, but here in DOLLY, he is a gruff and no-nonsense man of the 1900s who runs his business and his social dealings with the usual effrontery of such men of the era. His big song is “IT TAKES A WOMAN” in which he leads the men of the office (and others) through his concerns about womanhood of the time.

Tyler Michaels plays the bumbling Cornelius – and is again a joy to watch as he uses his youthful appearance to give the part an innocence and childlike joy – until things get ridiculous and out of hand. Cat Brindisi, plays Mrs. Milloy, which is usually played by a somewhat older actress – but she hides her 22 years of age (or else the makeup department did) and she gives Mrs. Milloy a more saucy and sassy attitude – in other productions, the part is played as a bit prissy, so it was fun to see a new look at the role.

Dancers all over the place… the entire ensemble appears in so many of the songs… PUT ON YOUR SUNDAY BEST is one of the best, and of course, the big showstopper HELLO DOLLY is full of kicks and prancing and costuming and so much fun.

Costumes are period-perfect. Ladies in their long gowns and ribboned hats, men in their suits or their waiter’s outfit at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant … the only truly odd moment of the show is the choice of costumes used for the ‘band members’ in the song “BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY”. Dolly sings a great song, but it has been directed to be almost a dream sequence as the band members dance around in their grey/blue body suits – as if they had escaped from a Bob Fosse piece. It didn’t work for either Wilma or me.

This show opened the night before, so there were still a few technical slipups – the first word of some of the songs and dialogues were missed as the sound operator missed several cues, leaving the audience not hearing the first words of such instances. The lighting was fine and the sets were moved quickly within the context of the show, so there was no time lost for set changes.

On that personal note: Wilma and I were married in 1983 – and we honeymooned in Bemidji, where we took in a play at the PAUL BUNYAN PLAYHOUSE. The show? THE MATCHMAKER by Thornton Wilder, which I mentioned is the basis for HELLO DOLLY. And in that version those 31 years ago, the part of Dolly was played by – well, yes – Michelle Barber! Wilma and I remember her fondly for that part, and it was fun to find her doing THIS Dolly.

A good time at Chanhassen for DOLLY and her audience.

Week 34 – Redoing the Pledge?

I allege malfeasance to the plague
Of the Polarized States of America,
And from the rhetoric from which it spreads,
Our nation,
Under such fraud,
Imperils our
Liberty and Justice for All.

So many of my friends have told me that they have had it up to here with the left/right fight that has produced NOTHING in a long time.  So have I.  Maybe this rewritten version of our pledge can be of some use to get that message across.

‘Nuff said for today.

Week 33 – ALS Ice Buckets, its controversy and our selfishness therein

Ice bucket mania…..

I’m not one for stunts.  That’s my take on the whole ice bucket thing.  Donate, yes … do a stunt?  Not necessarily.  I will say this, too — it has brought awareness about ALS to a new level of conversation.  Thanks to those who are willing to do this… but wait, there’s more.

But, certain comments and attitudes I’ve seen bother me – and one particularly caught my attention.  A gentleman, who is a pastor or minister of some sort, wrote an extremely long piece about how he has all kinds of compassion for ALS patients and all that, but from what he knows, since the ALS foundation does stem cell research, he cannot do the ICE BUCKET thing and give money to an organization that does such a thing, since his church takes the stand that embryonic stem cell work is unfavorable.

Well, okay, I get that.   Yet, it seems to me that this kind of attitude throws out the baby with the bath water.  Look at all the organizations out there that do some sort of good that are derided for some of their efforts… and granted, some of those acts are truly questionable, but yet, do we have to INSIST that it’s all or nothing?

To the best of my knowledge, the ALS foundation does more than stem cell research.  They do other kinds of research.  they are there for ALS victims.  Shouldn’t that count for something?

And we could make a list.  YMCA and the Boy Scouts have had their politically incorrect aspects… but yet, a good many of the things those groups address are desirable.  The Girl Scouts have been taken to task for the nutritional lack of their cookies.  As much as the liberals berate the NRA, they offer gun safety training.   AARP is reviled a bit for its liberal leanings.

And let’s not ignore the churches.  This sect is considered goofy for believing this, that one causes wars, this one is too liberal, that one is too conservative…. and of some of them can’t even get along within their own system.  Churches, though, are also home to soup kitchens, some provide shelters for the homeless — and clothing drives and Christmas basket drives …

Which brings me back to my original beef… the gentleman who wouldn’t do the ice bucket challenge because the ALS foundation does stem cell research… and has me ask some questions:

Isn’t it a bit nuts to expect that an organization … ANY organization…. would share the exact values as a person?

Isn’t  it a bit nuts to ignore the good of any group … or any PERSON for that matter … just because they have some ideas that we find ‘wrong’?

Isn’t it rather, therefore, rather selfish to keep your time, talents and money to yourself just because a group isn’t 100 percent in agreement with your own values?

And shouldn’t we (and yes, I include myself in this one) all be a bit ashamed of such behavior?

*****

On a more personal note, I wish to thank all those who presented my home town with the Lakes Area Music Festival this year …its sixth year.  We saw an opera, full orchestra concerts, chamber music, art songs, and so much more.  Live music provided by professionals … such as a good 17 from the Minnesota Orchestra, from Julliard and Eastman schools of music, from the Colorado Symphony …and so much more…

And these concerts were FREE…. go to a big city and you’d pay fifty bucks or more for such performances…and thanks to the hard work of over 200 volunteers and the dreams of Scott Lykins and Taylor Ward and others, and we get this fine program…  There will be some more festivals to come – and I can hardly wait.

 

 

 

 

Week 32 – DON’T HUG ME as performed at the Paramount in St. Cloud – Fun – and annoying, too.

Wilma and I have done a few versions of DON’T HUG ME, so we are quite familiar with the show — the script, the songs, the intended humor – and in fact we’ve met the playwright (Phil Olson) and his brother, so we feel quite qualified to make some comments on the performance of DON’T HUG ME that we saw in St. Cloud this past Thursday.

So this is my first review of a show that wasn’t all it could be…. and let’s deal with the upside first. For those not familiar with the DON’T HUG ME series of plays, they center on a married couple named Gunner and Clara Johnson (the parts that Wilma and I played) who run a bar in Bunyan Bay, Minnesota. The songs are short, the humor ranging from mildly funny to some real slapstick stuff, some bordering on adult type humor, but never getting beyond the edge of ‘family show’. Four of the five cast members have done DON’T HUG ME before – some have done it a great deal. ROSS YOUNG as GUNNER gives us a good look at a crusty older Minnesotan who dreams of the warmer winters of Florida. MEGAN HUBBELL plays his wife Clara with a bit of wifery similar to Alice on THE HONEYMOONERS. She is the only cast member with no DON’T HUG ME experience. EMILY MOORE plays Bernice, the bar employee, who is looking to get out-of-town in some constructive way. MICHAEL LEE plays Karaoke salesman Arvide, who manages to put a positive spin on any situation. DOUG ANDERSON plays the slightly dim Kanute, who runs a chain of sports stores. They have their characters down — the lines, the songs, the moves, the dances — and that is what you would expect, what with their experience in professional theatre including such sites as The Guthrie, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre, Bloomington Civic Theatre, Theatre de la Jeune Lune, and more.

Which brings me to an annoyance in the performance. In one of the scenes, Kanute leaves the bar in the dead of winter without his coat, hat and mittens. AS he hits the outside, the script has him saying, “Holy Crap.” in reaction to the cold. Well, accidentally or not, that word CRAP gets changed to another four letter word for crap, starting with an S and ending with HIT … in just moments the rest of the cast on stage were giggling at the unexpected utterance… not a real big deal, but it went on … and on… and on…. Is it just me, or is it annoying to see such a seasoned cast crack up so much… to be unable to retain control and stay in character? We just found it annoying. That’s what we’ll remember about the performance.

Otherwise, the characters were fine — some good slapstick humor with Arvide’s cellphone, some good bickering between Gunner and Clara — nice job from all of them really. Bernice and Arvide provided that fun tentative relationship that so often exists with young couples. All of them did a fine job with the songs – singing within their character in good, strong voices.

And some technical observations…

The cast seemed comfortable in a set that was maybe too large — the Paramount offers a wide proscenium, so the set ran from left to right to a point that made it tough for the audience to watch something happening on one side while actors reacted on the other.

The cast was miked — and often the mikes were too hot, bringing a level of distortion to some of the lines and music…. the accompaniment was recorded – it was the same music Wilma and I used 8 years ago — I would encourage a reworking of the recording – with the leaps and bounds in technology, it would be quite easy to put the soundtrack in a computer and revoice the thing, making it sound a bit less ‘electronic’.

I know the Paramount Theatre is constantly working on itself — remodel this, redo that… just a heads up … seat 11 in row J has a loose cushion on it. Not that big a deal — just a heads up.

We did enjoy the show — we laughed, even when we knew what was coming. We fondly recalled the songs from the time we did the show …. The show only ran two nights — I hope it was as full on Friday as it was on our Thursday night… and I’m sure the audience enjoyed it both nights … I just wish the annoyance hadn’t been there.

Week 31- Maestro Pauley at the Festival, a political musing

The excitement of the Lakes Area Music Festival — In my hometown, the sixth season of the Lakes Area Music Festival has begun.  I have spoken of it in past weeks, and will continue to do so as the concerts arise.

Concert 3 (of 7) just performed yesterday.  It was family concert day, all designed to work with the week-long camp of EXPLORE MUSIC for elementary age students.  49 kids spent five days learning about the songs for yesterday’s concert, focusing mostly on APPALACHIAN SPRING.

The concert started with those kids standing in front of Tornstrom auditorium (a full house of 900 folks in attendance) – and they sang BLUE SKIES and TIS A GIFT TO BE SIMPLE – teachers Alex, Jeff and Kristiana led the kids also through an accompaniment with string instruments.

Then on to the concert itself… conductor Marlene Pauley, who has directed in past years, and performed on clarinet, led the orchestra with a portion of APPALACHIAN SPRING, two movements of Beethoven’s Sixth, Gershwin’s SUMMERTIME (sung by Meghan Attridge), a selection from Mendelssohn’s MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT, and ended with FLIGHT OF THE BUMBLEBEE — Maestro Pauley has become a favorite of the festival with her enthusiastic visits with the audience, and with the musicians — who, by the way, come from this town, the Minnesota Orchestra, Texas, Milwaukee and other spots around the country.

Wednesday will find us listening to Vivaldi’s FOURS SEASONS, and then another FOUR SEASONS in a tango style.  More on that next week.

Oh, and yes, the night before the concert was a different event.  Singers scheduled to be performing at the upcoming opera (HANSEL AND GRETEL) regaled audiences at a CABARET – songs of Broadway…. lets just say it was a fantastic night of some old standards and some music from newer shows that satisfied everyone in the place… (Cragun’s Resort on Friday, Ruttger’s Resort on Saturday)….

DSC02659 DSC02662 DSC02647 DSC02665 DSC02701 DSC02696 DSC02629 DSC02675

Performers at the Cabaret included TOP ROW: Kristiana, Dan, Abbe ROW TWO: Meghan, Taylor BOTTOM ROW:  Leah, Jeff, Jennifer…. pianists included Scott, Andrew and Greg.

AND TODAY’S POLITICAL TIDBIT AND OBSERVATION…

My town right here in central Minnesota will be hosting a political fundraiser for a candidate in the area.  At that fundraiser, a very famous national political figure will appear.  The event is to be held at one of the swankier resorts in the area.  Care to guess how much the donation levels are?  Well, here you go…. gold sponsor, $10,400; silver sponsor, $5,200; host, $1,500; general reception, $250.

Can you afford any of these levels?  Do you care enough about a political candidate that you’d pony up even the $250 to see him or her?  What does that tell us about how the political parties and their system regard the ‘ordinary’ voter?

I understand the need to raise money.  But hey, when you bring in a big name, wouldn’t you also WANT that big name to be available to the common man on the street?  Apparently not.

Let’s get this political money monopoly done with, please.

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