Magic Time!

The random adventures of a theater buff in DC

Month: December, 2013

The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

History hit an astounding “rewind” and “refresh” button last night at The National Theatre. An abundantly assorted audience of  Washingtonians rose as one to applaud an iconic work of musical theater with a past so complicated and conflicted that such heartfelt unanimity would have been unthinkable back in 1936 when the show first came to town.  So rich in passion and talent is this revisioned version of Porgy and Bess that though billed as The Gershwins’, it ought rightly be acclaimed as the twenty-first century’s.

An awesomely insightful creative team led by director Diane Paulus, book adapter Suzan-Lori Parks, and musical score adapter Diedre L. Murray has done a number on Porgy and Bess that’s a winner. And just in time. The original—with music by George Gershwin and book and lyrics by DuBose & Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin—has been rethunk and revamped for decades, but it had settled into its long lifespan like a somewhat awkward artifact.

I’ve been perusing Ellen Noonan’s The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera, which relates this sometimes shocking and unsettling history up to 2012 when the production now on national tour first opened on Broadway. What stands out for me is how this classic American folk opera has come to represent the aspirations of extraordinary actors, singers, and other theater craftspeople to make art that does not so much imitate life as triumph over it. Take, for instance, the show’s first run in DC, when Anne Brown, the original Bess (and a Baltimore native), and Todd Duncan, the original Porgy (a Howard University music professor), inspired the cast to strike in order to force the National Theatre’s management to suspend its segregation policy.

Over the years Porgy and Bess has been deplored for its depiction of black Americans, and with good reason: The show’s dispiriting parade of poverty, violence, and drug dealing through a neighborhood that would today be dubbed urban blight is problematic, to say the least. As Noonan reports, when Harry Belafonte famously turned down the role of Porgy in the 1950s film version, he said of the Dubose Heyward script, “All that crap shooting and razors and lusts and cocaine is the old conception of the Negro.” Sidney Poitier went on to play the role (when he realized that producer Samuel Goldwyn would put the kibosh on his career if he did not), but in his later memoir,

the actor recalled his feeling that Porgy and Bess was “an insult to black people,” and he characterized as “outrageous bullshit” Goldwyn’s belief that the opera was “one of the greatest things that has ever happened for the black race.”

Perhaps tellingly, when the current Porgy and Bess was announced, there was no equivalent chorus of critical barbs from black actor-singers (for whom the show has always offered plum roles). Instead it was a white guy, the estimable Stephen Sondheim, who laced into the production (before it opened) with a letter to the New York Times in which he called “dismaying” what he believed to be “the disdain that Diane Paulus…and Suzan-Lori Parks feel toward the opera itself.”

I cite these details from the show’s fascinating back story not to inflame but to underscore just how phenomenal is the performance now on stage at the revived and revitalized National.

Right from the opening strains of the Overture, the score as adapted by Diedre L. Murray (with marvelous orchestrations by William David Brohn and Christopher Jahnke) rings brightly with a liveliness and life force that feels completely contemporary.

And the cast, the cast! Glorious one and all. Each in their own way brings their classic character to life in a way that is completely credible and approachable right now—Alicia Hall Moran as Bess, Nathaniel Stampley as Porgy, Alvin Crawford as Crown, Kingsley Leggs as Sporting Life, Sumayya Ali (an alum of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts!) as Clara, Denisha Ballew as Serena, Danielle Lee Greaves as Mariah, David Hughey as Jake—all around whom the members of the chorus sing with such resounding brilliance as to prompt one’s soul to stir.

Ronald K. Brown has graced the show with choreography that captures and celebrates the company’s verve with no stereotypical shuffle and jive. Riccardo Hernandez has designed a beautiful minimalist set that evokes a sense of place with no classist presumption. Esosa’s costumes are character-specific without condescension and at times display real loveliness (as during the picnic scene).  And Christopher Akerlind’s lighting design, an ever moving intangible presence, animates each stunning stage picture peopled by Paulus, one after another and another.

Suzan-Lori Parks has done many smart and astute things to the text of Porgy and Bess. One striking example: When Porgy sings “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” he does so with a big grin on his face, having just consummated offstage his crush on Bess. In Parks’ reworking, nothing now means something—and the audience shares instantly in his delight. Parks has abandoned the original’s phonetic spelling throughout so as to allow actors to discover their characters’ diction unconstrained by the creators’ superciliously broad  notation of Gullah dialect. And in countless instances Parks has tweaked the script such that the effect is no longer a demeaning museum piece but an exuberantly embodied story of community and caring, misfortune and survival, loneliness and love.

This is no masterpiece dusted off simply to redeem its unsavory past. This is art keeping pace with life. And it succeeds magnificently.

Our Suburb

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Avid and discerning theatergoers seeking a fresh take on a beloved classic will not find a more rewarding gift this time of year than Our Suburb, which just opened like a wonderful present at Theater J. This beautiful brand-new play—which playwright Darrah Cloud modeled loosely on Thornton Wilder’s Our Town—is so full of honest human heart, humor, hurt, and hope that it is destined to become a classic for all seasons.

Cloud borrows Wilder’s metatheatrical devices (minimalist set and props, actors as if in rehearsal), three-act thematic structure (stages of ordinary life in a small town), and a Stage Manager (played with winning wit and warmth by Jjana Valentiner), who affably sets the scene for us: The place is Skokie, Illinois, and the time is late 1970s, a year when Christmas and Hannukah happened (“for dramatic purposes”) to coincide.

We meet two neighboring families: the Edelmans, who are Jewish, and the Majors, who are Christian. Besides serving as our guide to the play’s scenes and time shifts, the Stage Manager is double-cast as the youngest child in both families. We see her sibling tiffs with her Major sister Thornton (played with smart sensitivity by Sarah Taurchini) and her Edelman brother Ricky (played with buoyant charm by Joshua Dick). Soon she is comically singing along to two different tunes from the two families’ religious heritages. With such gentle humor, the play sets its stage for the profound import to come.

Before long Thornton and Ricky are falling in young love. Significantly the interfaith aspect of their teenage romance is not a point of tension either for Thornton’s homemaker mother and traveling-sales-rep father (Kathryn Kelley and Jim Jorgensen, both first-rate) or Ricky’s graduate-law-student mother and kosher-butcher father (Barbara Pinolini and Michael Willis, equally superb). Only Ricky’s grandmother, Mrs. Witcoff (played movingly by Barbara Rappaport), ever even brings up the subject. She  quizzes Thornton whether she will convert if they get married, which utterly embarrasses Ricky—then delights when Thornton politely relishes the intestine-based kishkes that make Ricky and his sister gag. We learn why the issue of religious identification matters deeply to Mrs. Witcoff. Alone in all her family, she and her daughter survived the Holocaust. And her anguished memory cannot but persist.

Much mentioned in advance publicity for Our Suburb is the fact the play is set in the period when a Neo-Nazi group threatened to march on Skokie, a town home to more Holocaust survivors than any other in America. Don’t go expecting an earnest docudrama, however.  The play’s characters do react to the appalling events unfolding offstage, but always in intriguing, specific, and illuminating ways.

Mrs. Edelman, who has gone back to school and become fond of the First Amendment, attends community meetings and argues that in America such freedom means safety. Mrs. Witcoff flatly scoffs at that reasoning; permitting the Nazis to march “will hurt us,” she says, observing the obvious. (She also notes the bitter irony that Aryeh Neier, who in real life threw the weight of the ACLU behind the Neo-Nazis, thereby throwing her annihilated family under the bus, was himself a Jew.)  Meanwhile Mr. Majors, a World War II veteran who fought Hitler’s forces not for naught, sensibly gets out a gun.

It took me a while to realize what Cloud is up to here.

There’s also a whole other story line going on in Our Suburb centering on an African-American neighbor named L.C. Minor (played with understated simplicity and affecting grace by James J. Johnson). We first meet L.C. delivering groceries to the two families, who greet him familiarly and with thanks (though Mrs. Witcoff keeps referring to him by a tactless Yiddishism even as her daughter attempts to correct her). Next we learn L.C. is a would-be op-ed essayist whom Mrs. Major helps wordsmith. (His conservative blacks-should-pick-themselves-up-by-their-own-bootstraps-not-take-affirmative-action-handouts-from-whites politics is a kind of counterpoint to Mrs. Edelman’s ACLU-ish leanings.) Then we learn L.C. Minor plays classical piano—beautifully, over the telephone, to Mrs. Major, who listens with cocktail in hand and a yearning borne of  loneliness in her marriage.

Who is this guy? And what is he doing in this play?

When I first encountered Our Suburb at a Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage reading in September, the character of L.C. had me  perplexed. Now, seeing the play fully staged (the script evidently tweaked), I could follow L.C.’s storyline clearly in context, and I realized how it suffuses the vision of the work (which has been directed with artful authority and authenticity by Judith Ivey).

Not to knock Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, but that burg really was an insular place. Everything that happened there was in close-cropped closeup. Sure, each time we pay that remote village a visit, Wilder’s eloquent narrative makes us re-appreciate, like clocks-ticking clockwork, just how universally extraordinary our ordinary human life is. But Grover’s Corners was a world without a world outside. A podunk portrait framed by Norman Rockwell. A sketchy etching by Currier and Ives.  Hardly any town in America looks like Grovers Corners anymore (if indeed any ever did). The whole wide world of global enmity and ad hominem animus has interrupted our parochial dreams.

Our Suburb never lets us forget that world outside. The Neo-Nazis offstage are a story-line reminder that anti-Semitism has not perished. L.C. Minor’s aspirations to self-betterment (as well as the sympatico mutual support he shares with Mrs. Major) are a plotline reminder that racism does not heal through law and policy alone and color-blind affinity is really rare. Even the character-through-line contrast between Mrs. Edelman’s empowering return to school (with her husband’s pride and admiration) and Mrs. Major’s pre-Friedanian marital unhappiness (dismissed and abandoned by her career-driven husband) echoes everyday ongoing gender inequities.

Early on in the play, the Stage Manager remarks blithely that the war is over, the civil rights movement is over, the women’s movement is over… Our Suburb ineluctably ushers our emotions beyond such complacency—not least in the unspeakable tragedy that prompts the enormous sorrow of Act Three.

Cloud’s genius in Our Suburb is that though she never lets us forget that world outside, she also never lets us lose hold on our hearts’ hopes and dreams and our connections to one another. Our Suburb reminds us those hopes, dreams, and connections happen still, every minute of every day, within families, among friends, in neighborhoods. Just like in Our Town. Except brought home for today.

Do not miss this precious gift. It is one to treasure…and then pass on.

Our Suburb plays through January 12, 2014, at Theater J at The Washington DC Jewish Community Center’s Aaron & Cecile Goldman Theater – 1529 16th Street NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call Box Office Tickets at (800) 494-TIXS, or purchase them online.

Seasonal Disorder

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

Washington Improv Theater has been tickling DC audiences for 15 years. When I discovered the madcap company a while ago, I got hooked on the spot. Hooked as in addicted. Feeling the need for a giddy-fix, I checked out WIT’s current offering, Seasonal Disorder (at Source through December 28). Did you know laughing can get you high?

Like all WIT’s totally unscripted impromptu entertainments, the show I saw happened one night only, to the delight solely of the folks clever enough to be there at the time. Over the course of the evening, 22 performers working in four teams did a stint on stage, and each bunch was buoyantly introduced by Artistic Director Mark Chalfant. Twenty other teams are also in play for Seasonal Disorder; the lineup of three or four gets switched show by show. So not only are there singular treats and surprises packed inside each performance; the casts change completely as well. That these antics are ephemeral is half the fun.

The other half is that each team bounces off a suggestion from the audience and turns it into crackling fresh sketch comedy sometimes so wild and weird you can scarcely catch your breath between laughs. Teams have odd, insider-y names.

The one that opened the show I saw was “Mr. Meaner Wraps the Holidays”—Jon Chesebro, Charles St. Charles, Stacy Hayashi, Ami Krasner, Satish Pillalamarri, John Windmueller—who spun a ridiculous yarn in spontaneous rap while one of them beatboxed into a mic.

Next up, “The Train School Holiday Special”—Ceci De Robertis, Caroline Chen, Jason Mayer, JJ Jackson, Todd Menhinick, Cynthia Van Maanen, Bryan Hughes, and Daniel Brown, coached by Topher Bellavia—took the audience prompt “game show” around hilarious hairpin turns.  “Holiday Party Crashing with Nox!”—Aaron Mosby, Brianna Lux, Chris Ulrich, Matt Winterhalter, Sean Paul Ellis, and Stacy Hayashi, coached by Rachel Grossman—bungee-jumped off the word “elf” into a silly surreal Santaland scene.

Last but not least, “Season Six”—Thomas Achilles, Joe Donnelly, Nick Greenough, Murphy McHugh, Charles St. Charles, and Abe Woycke, coached by Mikael Johnson—rejiggered an audience member’s recollection of an awkward holiday memory into inspired lunacy.

You had to be there.

At this time of year when there are enough earnest holiday-themed shows on the boards around town to bestir almost anyone’s inner Ebenezer Scrooge, the honestly earned belly laughs to be had on a crazy-cheap ticket to Seasonal Disorder are a priceless gift of loopy merriment.

Toast (a workshop production)

(This report was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

“Audience integration” is a buzzword that has been flying around awhile but only recently landed in my brain. In live theater, it means going beyond removing the fourth wall; it means erasing the line between spectator and performer altogether. It’s different from “audience participation” because it’s not a rehearsed performance into which audience members are sporadically cajoled (without their fully informed consent—which, depending on one’s temperament, can be off-putting or a kick). And it’s different from spontaneous happenings, flash mobs, and other crowd bursts. When one comes to an “audience integration” theater event, one does not merely attend; one joins the creative team.

The preeminent local practitioner of audience integration is the capriciously named theater company dog & pony dc, whose workshop production of  Toast I attended—er, no; I helped create—last night. The site of this novel experience was Arena Stage, where for one weekend (December 5-8, 2013), dog & pony dc appears as part of the Kogod Cradle Series. The company will conduct the workshop production again December 12–14 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop. After that Toast goes back into development, a process that typically takes dog & pony more than a year. (Its two most recent productions, Beertown and A Killing Game, both highly acclaimed, opened for real after similar periods of tinkering.)

Though Toast does not appear to be scripted, there actually is a thoroughly worked out conceptual and implementational plan created in advance  by a surprisingly huge team. A program distributed at the end credits two project directors (Rachel Grossman and Ivania Stack), two assistant directors (Wyckham Avery and J. Argyl Plath), a “performing ensemble” of five, a “devising ensemble” of 17, and more than 60 “co-devisers.” The “too many cooks…” maxim clearly did not apply. To the contrary, dog & pony’s recipe for egalitarian collaboration is their broth’s secret sauce.

I was there to report on a work-in-progress, not to review it yet, so I’m repressing all my evaluative critical faculties as I write. Which is no easy matter, because I had so much fun.

Part of my enjoyment was not knowing what to expect. I went in knowing nothing except that friends had urged me to check out this unique company, and I had read a bit about the workshop production on its website—which made Toast sound like a mixture of smart and wacky. It turned out to be even smarter and wackier than I thought, and as tasty a combo as peanut butter and jelly. Or the flavored butter I made. (But more about that in a moment.)

Upon arrival I was greeted by some company members who welcomed me—with an ebullience I was to find shared among the whole ensemble—to what they dubbed an aspirational summit. I was told that this occasion was being held to memorialize a great inventor, the recently and dearly departed Robert Thinkerman, whose bespectacled and bookish photograph was projected on a screen above the stage.

“Is that a real person?” I asked the young man escorting me to the table where, as a summit attendee, I would get my name badge in a plastic pouch hung from a lanyard round my neck.

“Oh yes,” he answered earnestly. For a moment, I believed him. And before I knew it, I was playing along.

Arrayed about the stage were a dozen workshop stations, each a different gamelike challenge to bid one’s creativity and ingenuity to come out and play. I gravitated to a table spread with muffin-size paper cups containing an assortment of unlabeled flavoring ingredients. There I was handed a tablespoon slab of butter in a tiny cup together with a tiny wooden spoon. I was then invited/instructed to create my own flavored butter by picking ingredients to mix in—and I could taste my mini concoction as I went along. Overcoming my hesitance to eat butter as a stand-alone food (“It’s just like ice cream!” I was chirpily assured), I started in. I ended up with a blend of butter, craisins, walnuts, brown sugar, and powdered ginger that was too delicious for my own good.

None of the other workshop stations involved food, but each fed the mind in some idiosyncratic way. After a posthumous video of  Thinkerman, in which he expressed his great regret in life that he had failed to invent a better toaster,  we were invited/instructed to form small groups and brainstorm our own notion of what that better toaster could be. Overcoming my reluctance—I looked forward to think-tanking with complete strangers about as much as I would being stuck with them in an elevator—I randomly wandered into a group in formation. Before I knew it we were all pop-corning ideas and laughing. It turned out to be way more fun than I expected. And the kicker was when each group got to present its invention, from the stage, to an audience of ensemble members and ourselves. It was a turnabout from how theater is ordinarily done that I found utterly delightful and even kind of mind altering.

Obviously we were learning through experience something about the creative process by which inventors come up with ideas—which was evidently the company’s thematic genesis for the entire event. But enjoying that secret sauce was something else as well. It’ll be a different enjoyment for anyone who joins in. And the workshop itself will no doubt become different through ongoing reinvention before the show officially opens in fall 2014.  But as this dog & pony first-timer can candidly report, the aftertaste of Toast piques an appetite for more.

Man in a Case

(This review was written for DCMetroTheaterArts and is reprinted here.)

It is one thing to amble through a modern art gallery and appreciate an innovative multimedia installation—some videos and audio here, some projections and lighting effects there, perhaps some human performers moving and speaking with random disjunction and non sequitur connotation. One is at liberty in such esoteric circumstances to  interpret free-associatively, to mentally assemble one’s own connective thematic meaning. Or not. A multimedia art installation makes no claim on our participation other than that we show up. We need follow no storytelling. We need engage with no characters’ emotions or continuity. We need have no particular experience at all, actually, because our experience is not the installation’s raison d’être. It’s all about the artist’s vision and expression—which exists in that physical space on its own self-sufficient definitional terms even after-hours when the gallery is empty.

But it’s quite another thing to sit expectantly through all these media techniques deployed in an experimental work of live theater as they are in Man in a Case, the much-touted touring vehicle for Mikhail Baryshnikov now on exhibit at Lansburgh Theater.

Man in a Case comes to town courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Presentation Series, which  has imported such superb and unforgettable international productions as Black Watch from Scotland and Mies Julie from South Africa. STC’s curration of this series has been inspired. Its imprimatur is like a Good Theater Seal of Approval that pretty much guarantees a peak experience of a profound or provocative stage event.

The marquee name Baryshnikov may have been good enough reason to book Man in a Case. And indeed, Baryshnikov’s fans (of whom I am one) will be keen to see what he’s up to here. It’s a project that’s certainly adventurous and nervy. Reportedly Baryshnikov as a youth in Russia loved reading Chekhov and, vividly remembering some short stories, initiated a collaboration based on them with the innovative Obie award-winning directing team Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar/Big Dance Theater. They have surrounded him with Peter Ksander’s spectacularly eclectic set, Oana Botez’s wild melange of period costumes and modern dress, Tei Blow’s extravagantly jolting sound design, Jennifer Tipton’s sometimes disorienting lighting design, and Jeff Larson’s surreal video designs. And though they have given Baryshnikov a smattering of dance moves—including a brief but elegantly pleasant soft shoe routine—they have focused his portrayal on two similar characters, one from each of two stories, which seque one into the other, with supporting performances by an able cast that includes Jess Barbagallo, Tymberly Canale, Chris Giarmo, and Aaron Mattocks.

The two stories they chose are each centered around the insular life of an emotionally repressed man (which some may consider a tautology) whose two-bit tragedy is that he withdraws from love (not that he was unlovable to begin with because he was so annoyingly self-involved). The original texts—”The Man in a Case” and “About Love“—are available in good translations online and are worth a read if one wants to know what Chekhov was up to. Another good reason to read them is that unlike playscripts that always come more to life onstage, these two short stories come to life on the page far more than they do in this production. That’s because the texts have not actually been dramatized; they’ve been deconstructed, haphazardly, into various styles of depiction using sound effects, projections, videos, and what not, along with fractured bits and pieces of singing, dancing, and acting.

This mixed-media hodge-podge at times prompted my mind to wander, and I found myself trying to guess whether a particular video clip being shown was prerecorded or is being captured live. (Both kinds are used.)  But this quirky approach to staging Chekhov, which I found disconcerting and distracting, will surely appeal to others who will enjoy its moment-to-moment clever surprises and witty twists. There’s more cheekiness than Chekhov, of course. More stunts than substance. But seeing how the great danseur noble is keeping on his toes these days is pretty darn impressive.

Woody Sez

Hootenanny is a word one hardly hears anymore. Whole generations have come along for whom it elicits blank stares and a big “Huh?” The press release for Woody Sez: The Life & Music of Woody Guthrie (which has come back to Theater J all too briefly to reprise its sold-out, Helen Hayes Award–winning gig last year) explains quaintly but necessarily that hootenannies are “informal folk music jam sessions.” Mention “folk music” to fans of Justin Bieber or Miley Cyrus and they might think you mispronounced the F word. But for anyone who came of age before Madonna, the word hootenanny, when it pops up in patter during the four Woody Sez performers’ pre-show warmup, can prompt remembrances of things past more deliciously than Marcel Proust’s madeleine.

In Woody Sez, four extraordinarily gifted actor/singer/musicians—David M. Lutkin, Helen Jean Russell, David Finch, and Leenya Ridout—give a stirring concert featuring more than two dozen treasures from the Woody Guthrie songbook. All the while they weave in and out the life story of this superb folksinger-songwriter: he who, raised in the Dust Bowl, identified all his life with the down-and-out; he who identified their desperation as damage done by America’s owning class (he was on to the one percent long before Occupy Wall Street got their number); he who saw hope and a chance at change in collective organizing; and he who could set subversively inspiring lyrics to sweetly uplifting tunes.

Beyond being a rousing tribute to this maverick musician, Woody Sez offers pleasures to the ear, mind, and funny bone that leave one humming, thinking, and grinning. The cast performs not only unplugged—on guitar, bass, mandolin, fiddle, autoharp, banjo, and more—but also, so far as I could tell, unmic’ed. Within the Goldman Theater’s fine acoustics, this becomes an intimate and deeply satisfying aural experience. The cast’s voices are breathtakingly beautiful. Their polished staging and arrangements have evidently been refined down to the last gesture and semihemidemisemiquaver. And their performances could not be more joyous and fresh.

Guthrie wrote his classic “This Land Is Your Land,” we learn, because he found Kate Smith’s rendition of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America” annoying (which in her over-warbled vibrato it was, sappy lyrics aside). The bit early in Woody Sez where Guthrie, in a live radio broadcast from Rockefeller Center’s Rainbow Room, insists on singing his rejoinder while the announcer tries to shut him up is as comic as it is prescient. Guthrie could not abide, and resisted all his life, what he called “sissified nervous rules of censorship.” As Woody Sez calls to mind, there’s a long list of singer-composers he influenced musically to whom he also passed on that foundational principle of a free society.

Guthrie’s politics were radical; he championed the poor and unprivileged; he discomfited the comfortable. He also knew his political homeland was not only America but the world. When, regarding war, he says he “saw the difference between wanting something to stop and wanting to stop it,” we catch a glimpse of the activist grit beneath the gorgeous sonority of his songs. Of course Woody Sez, like many a well-crafted traditional musical, has no intention of being a troublemaker like the troubadour it’s about. The show is comforting and reassuring, actually—like a fond old-time portrait  softened around the edges so it’s a presentable and accessible vignette. I was aware during the show that I was not  getting to know Woody Guthrie the real revolutionary up close and personal. But the show made me curious, made me want to know more, made me realize and appreciate what an important national hero he is. And you know what? that’s a wonderful thing: theater as tasty pastry, to open and expand one’s awareness and prompt one to remember more.

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After selected performances of Woody Sez, there will be informal, improvised hootenannies that are free and open to the public (regardless of which performance you attended). Dates and times are here. Some will even be led by the delightful cast of Woody Sez. You can join in and sing along and bring your own musical instrument if you like, which promises to be…a hoot.