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Theatre in Review: The Count Meets the Duke (59E59)/That Physics Show! (The Playroom)

Top: The Count Meets the Duke. Photo: Eileen O'Donnell. Bottom: That Physics Show! Photo: Donnell Culver

'Tis the season for all sorts of special interest shows; here's a pair that will appeal to very different constituencies. It's always a livelier holiday season when Peter and Will Anderson are around. Twin brothers and jazz musicians -- they specialize in the saxophone and clarinet -- their shows at 59E59 combine excellent musicianship with a well-informed discussion of the artists under consideration. In The Count Meets the Duke,, they are Count Basie and Duke Ellington, whose orchestras formed the twin poles of the mid-20th-century jazz universe. Joined by Clovis Nicolas on bass, Phil Stewart on drums, and, at the performance I attended, Tardo Hammer on piano, the Andersons serve a super-smooth collection of classics and lesser-known pieces that draw a surprisingly precise double portrait. The Basie numbers are generally smart, sophisticated, and witty, marked by a knowing attitude that never becomes coy. Ellington could swing with the best of them -- see "Take the A Train" -- but many of the songs here, most of them written with his longtime collaborator Billy Strayhorn, are introspective, melancholy, marked by an unappeasable longing.

Highlights include a pair of Neal Hefti classics for Basie, "Cute" and "L'il Darlin," each of them marked by an imperturbable sense of cool. "Corner Pocket" features a lively Will Anderson flute solo. Lester Young's "Tickle Toe" races up and down the scales with glee. Ellington is represented by "Star Crossed Lovers" from the suite "Such Sweet Thunder," informed by the plays of Shakespeare; "Ad Lib on Nippon," with an arrangement so angular it almost wanders into bebop territory; and the strikingly moody "Single Petal of a Rose," a clarinet solo -- with beautiful work by Peter Anderson -- written as part of a private tribute to Queen Elizabeth II. Hammer brings an array of chromatic colors to his performance of "I Got it Bad (and That Ain't Good)." For the holidays, there's Ellington and Strayhorn's kicky revision of Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies," retitled "Sugar Rum Cherry." We also get an original Will Anderson composition that reflects the influences of both men.

A well-chosen set of video projections includes an interview with Oscar Peterson in which Basie discusses Ellington, a photo of the bands' baseball teams, a bit of Ellington's appearance as the mystery guest on What's My Line; and footage of Strayhorn performing with Ellington's band -- a rare occurrence -- which hints at their sometimes fraught relationship. The Count Meets the Duke will be catnip to fans of Basie, Ellington, and the Andersons, and anyone who unhappily doesn't fall into any of these categories, will learn a great deal if they happen to attend.

Speaking of learning, I, an official science Dodo in high school, approached That Physics Show! with great trepidation. I needn't have worried, however, because David Maiullo is the science teacher of one's dreams -- an affable, highly knowledgeable individual who makes each lesson an entertainment.

Indeed, That Physics Show! is a kind of anti-magic act in which Maiullo pulls off a nifty trick, then explains the science behind it -- all by way of explaining such basic concepts as weight, mass, friction, and Newton's laws of inertia and gravity. Along the way, he spins a full bucket of water over his head (without getting wet); demonstrates a chaos pendulum; explains what makes one soda can float in water while another sinks (the presence of high-fructose corn syrup is what does it); explodes a hydrogen balloon to startling effect; removes air from a tube, thereby crushing the soda cans inside it; discusses the greenhouse effect; and, in his most nerve-shredding bit, lies down on a bed of nails, has another bed put over him, then invites one of his assistants to put his weight on top.

It makes for a breezy, amusing, and informative ninety minutes, and I now know far more about physics than I ever did. All around me, however, were young people -- average age 11 -- who sat rapt as Maiullo presented stunt after stunt. When the time came to ask for audience participation, there were many enthusiastic volunteers. If you have a budding scientist in your household, this is the show for him or her; it might even stimulate the interest of that English or music major you've been nurturing. The current run is sold out, but rumor has it that it is transferring to a larger theatre in early 2016. Keep your eyes open for it. -- David Barbour

(17 December 2015)

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