Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Paved Paradise Redux: The Art of Joni Mitchell (Abrons Art Center Henry Street Settlement, TWEED TheaterWorks)

By Le-Anne
so much more than a “Drag” show • great performance • beautiful renditions of beautiful songs in a live concert setting • powerful • fun

John Kelly as Joni Mitchell. Photo by Paula Court.

BOTTOM LINE: If you like Joni Mitchell or if you like a good concert, you’ll probably like this show.

Okay, so I’m a little embarrassed to say that before this weekend the only familiarity I had with Joni Mitchell was from the movie Love Actually and every once in a while I’d find out that a song I heard on the radio was a cover of a Joni Mitchell song - like Counting Crows version of “Big Yellow Taxi." I don’t remember which, if any, Joni Mitchell songs were in “Love Actually,” (I only remember that Emma Thompson’s character is a big Joni fan), and since “Big Yellow Taxi” is not in Jonn Kelly’s Paved Paradise Redux: The Art of Joni Mitchell, (apparently it was in the original production but is absent in the redux), I must admit, that I went into this experience at the Abrons Arts Center Henry Street Settlement a veritable (gasp!) Joni Mitchell virgin. I walked out however, a newfound fan, not only of Ms. Mitchell but of Mr. John Kelly as well.

Kelly embodies Mitchell in this concert-like performance, not as a drag queen but, more accurately, as an actor taking on the role of a character named Joni Mitchell. Kelly as Mitchell is neither campy nor busy impersonating a female, he is simply honest in his portrayal. Though I was not familiar with Mitchell’s particular “isms” before, by the time the show was over I was pretty certain that Kelly was spot-on. If nothing else the uproarious laughter from the audience (clearly laden with Joni fans) was a good indicator. Thanks to Youtube, I can confirm that Kelly does indeed do Ms. Mitchell justice. His little quirks, such as specific facial expressions and a rambling way of telling anecdotes that trail off unfinished are not gimmicky but, more so, funny because it’s true. For example, when Kelly went up on a lyric he cleverly, and without skipping a beat, apologized and said, “I wasn’t flying,” he said, “I was driving,” before he restarted the song he continued, “I was imagining myself in a plane -- in the third plane from the left...” he trailed off and began the song again. Even though I knew nothing of how Mitchell behaves, (before checking out several Youtube clips), it was clear that Kelly’s choices were grounded in something real. Kelly performs with comfort. He clearly respects his muse, as well as his audience, and his performance is genuine.

Speaking of performance, this man’s voice is outrageous. Kelly sings Mitchell’s songs in their original key and hits even the highest notes with ease. He slides effortlessly back and forth between earthy, warm notes to fluid, high notes that seem to hit the clouds. Note that this reviewer, a mezzo-soprano, wonders if she could hit them so easily herself. Kelly has a beautiful counter tenor that has that strange, seductive quality that tends to accompany such androgynous voices. Kelly’s rendition of “Amelia” - my new favorite song for the moment - brought tears to my eyes, and his “4th of July - Night Ride Home,” is particularly moving. Another song, “Circle Game,” which closes the first act, was complete with disco ball as the audience was asked to join in and sing along.

Like Mitchell, Kelly plays the dulcimer and the guitar, and even enjoys a cigarette during the “concert.” Adding to the concert are Vincent Van Gogh (Paul Ossola) on bass and Georgia O’Keefe (Zecca Esquibel, also Musical Director) on piano and keyboards. The lighting design (Ben Kato) truly sets the mood of a live concert. Strong colors, streaks of light through a smokey haze, backlighting and a beautiful silhouette effect at the end of the show when Kelly disrobes, transforming before his audience from Joni to John, really takes the breath away (a bit of a spoiler alert, I know, but this moment is just beautiful). While the element of surprise is nice, it is so touching that I am confident that knowing about it ahead of time will not make it any less powerful.

Joni Mitchell, herself, is said to be one of John Kelly’s biggest fans. After seeing Kelly’s performance, now I am a fan of both of them. If you are a Joni Mitchell fan you should check out Mr. Kelly’s homage. If you are, like I was, rather unfamiliar with Ms. Mitchell but you enjoy a good concert and a genuine performance, by all means, hop on down to the Abrons Arts Center and check out John Kelly in Paved Paradise Redux: The Art of Joni Mitchell. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to log on to iTunes and purchase my first Joni Mitchell album!

*Special Note: The producer, TWEED TheaterWorks extends a special invitation to Dine al Fresco with Joni, “well not exactly with Joni -- and not exactly Joni -- but...” they have announced that, “they are in cahoots with several high end food trucks -- including Vincent’s Pizza (from Union Square) and The Big Gay Ice Cream Truck, among others, to show up and feed the hungry throngs. There is an open air plaza [at the Abrons Arts Center] with tables and chairs and diners are encouraged to show up at 6:30PM AND HAVE DINNER AL FRESCO BEFORE THE SHOW (there is indoor space in case of inclement weather!)”

(PAVED PARADISE REDUX: THE ART OF JONI MITCHELL runs through June 27, Thursday through Sunday at 8pm. Abrons Arts Center is located inside Henry Street Settlement at 466 Grand Street. The show is approx. 1 hour 45 minutes with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursday & Sunday, $25 on Friday & Saturday. For information and reservations call 212-352-3101 or www.TheaterMania.com. For more info visit www.abronsartscenter.org.)

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