Thursday, 21 May 2015

ALBUM OF THE WEEK: Mario Evon fights for love on compelling debut, Reggae-Soul Volume 1

EASY LISTENING: The soulful crooner's long-anticipated debut was worth the wait.

Nearly five years have elapsed since young medic and former UWI Singers tenor Mario Evon Guthrie decided to pick up the mic in pursuit of a bonafide recording career. In no time he shot to solo stardom on the indie scene, blending the earthy sensibilities of versatile balladeers like Maxwell and Jimmy Cozier with his own easy-listening reggae-soul stylings, as he fashioned a career that’s now positioned him among the contemporary Jamaican crooners who matter.

A satisfying 11-track sample of Evon’s artistic journey so far, Reggae-Soul Volume 1 M.E on Love, his just-released debut disc, yields a radio-ready mix of evocative songwriting and melody-making. Surprisingly, it features production work by only a handful of collaborators and a lone guest appearance, courtesy of Shaq the MC.

If there’s a single conclusion to be drawn, it’s that Mario Evon has become, by all accounts, a soldier of love. On the creamy highlight “Never Let You Know”, for instance, he makes like a student from the D’Angelo and Maxi Priest school. His earnest delivery buoys up “Love In Di Mawnin” and his soulfulness peaks at all the right moments on cuts like the breezy “Whip Appeal” and the straight-from-the-heart testimony “Puppet on a String.”

Like so many before him, Mario faced countless challenges when he was just starting out as a solo act in the biz, but in interviews with TALLAWAH he always expressed a determination to release a solid first album that would, by and large, officially introduce his sound and identity to the world. I’d say mission accomplished.

And it’s that kind of unyielding optimism that distinguishes the most successful artists of the day from everybody else. That Mario has courageously opted to dedicate his entire record to exploring ideas of intimacy, relationship dynamics and being a warrior for love makes him, quite admirably, both a lover and a fighter. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

> KEY TRACKS: “Never Let You Know,” “Soul Tek” and “This Day”

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ON HER MIND: Hurricane Honeymoon star Natalee Cole recounts the moments that led to her artistic breakthrough

STRENGTH OF CHARACTER: "I've benefitted from working with different kinds of talent," says Cole (centre), sharing a scene with costars in Glass Slippaz.

“My two main passions in life are acting and teaching, and if I can get to do both then my life would be complete,” shares actress Natalee Cole about pursuing the work that the universe has been offering to her.

For the past few years at least, Cole has been doing so with relish. In addition to steadily building a solid body of work in the theatre, she’s been changing lives in the classroom at Kingston College, where she teaches English Language, Literature and Communication Studies. At UWI Mona, where she majored in Linguistics, she’s served as a tutor and assistant lecturer since last September. “Ultimately I want to be a professor, but I don’t want to ever leave acting behind,” the thirty-something go-getter hastens to point out.

Solidifying her place among the exciting crop of Jamaican theatre's emerging leading ladies, Cole brings to the table that rare and inspiring blend of gravitas, conviction and supersized intelligence that made her a standout in hit shows like Amen Corner, Ras Genie, University of Delcita and the smash musical comedy Glass Slippaz in 2013.

But, for Cole, the breakthrough moment that started it all originated with a call from a certain prolific playwright in 2009. “The moment when things seriously changed for me was when I got a call from Patrick Brown about the opportunity to star in Puppy Love with Oliver Samuels,” recalls the actress, who was so over-the-moon happy she had to ring up her mom all the way in Colorado to share the good news.

For every aspiring Jamaican actor like Natalee, Oliver had always been the man. “Oliver is someone I’d been watching on TV from I was a little girl. So to co-star with him in my first major commercial production was like a dream come true.”

Fast-forward seven years, and Natalee continues to surprise herself – even making the leap at UWI from an MPhil programme to PhD studies in record time. Pleased as she is with her mile-a-minute success in both academics and the arts, Cole is only warming up. At the moment she’s in the thick of rehearsals for her tenth production, Hurricane Honeymoon, a remount of the fan-favourite comedy drama by Brown, who is now beginning to seem like a sort of fairy godfather.

Set in a honeymoon suite, it’s an explosive three-hander co-starring Glen Campbell and Akeem Mignott and opening this month-end at the Little Theatre. “This role is extremely different from the roles I’ve done in the past and who Natalee is,” Cole says of playing the long-suffering Hilda Charm. “She’s a very sheltered and na├»ve individual. Very fragile. I’m so not fragile. So it’s been a challenge. But I enjoy taking on new challenges like these, so I’m having a good time going at it.”

What’s more, the production marks her first time securing bonafide leading-lady credentials. And though it’s the most emotionally taxing journey she’s embarked on, she feels she’s been more than adequately prepared. “My overall experience has been amazing,” says the Manning’s High and Mico College alumna who plans to don her producer’s hat and take a swivel in the director’s chair someday. “I’ve really benefited from working with different kinds of talent over the years. I’ve grown. I’m more mature. And I feel there’s so much more left for me to attain.”

> Catch Cole and her costars heating up the stage in Hurricane Honeymoon, May 30-June 21, at the Little Theatre in Kingston.

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Wednesday, 20 May 2015

DANCING FEVER: Variety, versatility rule at high-energy Arts In The Park: Dance Edition

CAN'T STOP THE BEAT: L'Acadco Drummers whipping up African rhythms during the finale.

The Company Dance Theatre has become synonymous with vibrantly imaginative works that walk the fine line between high art and dazzling spectacle. So we knew what we were in for when the youthful troupe seized the spotlight at Hope Gardens on Sunday evening.

With the transporting, Tony Wilson-choreographed “Journey” the performers delivered one of the more memorable highlights of the evening at the inaugural dance edition of Arts in the Park, an increasingly popular cultural staple put on the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment as part of a continued initiative to showcase the best of Jamaica’s creative industries. A brilliant idea.

Set to a pulsating instrumental score, “Journey” opened with a commanding solo turn by Steven Cornwall, after which the nearly two dozen or so supporting dancers appeared centrestage, displaying graceful and agile movements with the kind of minimalist costuming that always puts the limbs to effective use.

As far as local terpsichorean feasts go (think Jamaica Dance Umbrella and the Edna Manley College’s Danceworks), Arts In The Park’s dance edition catered to all kinds of tastes, drawing a mammoth crowd that departed Hope Gardens more than satisfied.

From the rapturous euphoria of “Lifted” performed by the blue-and-white clad One Body One God ensemble to the hyperkinetic and modern dancehall stylings of the Orville Hall-led Dance Expressionz (“Evolution”) to L’Acadco’s fascination with Afrocentric rhythms, motifs and movements, the versatility and variety was unbearable.

Add to that the few surprising moments thrown into the mix, chief among them a seven-minute stint by Raddy Rich, whose superstylish street-meets-avant-garde footwork captivated the crowd. The equally creative Equinoxx Shankers later rocked the stage with the very witty “Master at Work” while the crazy kids of Shady Squad managed to cleverly fuse comedy with their own edgy dance interpretations of the latest local hit songs to score a resounding mix of laughs and cheers.

And what better way to bring the curtains down on a fierce talent show than with a jaw-dropping combination of a solo spotlight (Shem Heliodore), thunderous drumming straight out of the Motherland (L’Acadco Drummers) and a fire-breathing spectacle to ratchet up the visual interest. Ah, to ever expect the unexpected.

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Tuesday, 19 May 2015

FLICK OF THE WEEK: Smart, funny Pitch Perfect sequel strikes a tuneful chord

ALL IN: Can the Barden Bellas sing their way back to the top?

More often than not, leaving the nest is easier said than done. Just ask team leader Becka (Anna Kendrick), who has decided to chase her dream of becoming a professional songwriter and record producer after leading Barden University’s dynamic all-girl acapella singing group, the Bellas, to three national titles. But flying solo for a change would mean putting her needs above the team’s – and at a time when the group is facing a moment of crisis. That’s the gist of Pitch Perfect 2, the whip-smart and superfunny sequel to the surprise 2012 hit musical comedy that did for acapella groups what Bring It On did for cheerleaders. 

Once the squeaky-clean pride-and-joy of Barden University, the Bellas now find themselves on the rocky road to redemption after an over-the-top performance at the Kennedy Centre turned disastrous, snagging shameful headlines from the New York Post to CNN. But the girls are determined to bounce back after the catastrophe and set their sights on winning the World Acapella Champs – and finally getting the better of their aggressive German nemeses Das Sound Machine. 

Will Becka put her solo dreams on hold for the benefit of her group? Can the Bellas find that winning formula to regain their place on top? The journey to the movie’s sizzling conclusion is fraught with high and low points (the musical numbers are dynamite; the dialogue is largely hit-and-miss) but it all makes for a wholly entertaining thrill ride. 

Working with screenwriter Kay Connor, director Elizabeth Banks (the popular star of films like The Hunger Games) proves she’s a competent director of ensemble casts – and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more diverse group of actors than this, with the likes of Hailee Steinfeld (the Bellas’ new recruit), Rebel Wilson (the fire-starting Fat Amy) and Snoop Dogg (guesting as himself to record a Christmas album) rounding out the key players. 

A zesty and relentlessly groovy blend of risk-taking, complicated human relationships, and tight vocal harmonies, Pitch Perfect 2 strikes a tuneful chord. Tyrone’s Verdict: B+

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Saturday, 16 May 2015

ON THE RECORD: Powerhouse singer-actor Wynton Williams brings sizzle and substance to latest starring role

IN THE MOMENT: Williams, with the cast of King David, rocking out at the Arena. Inset, the leading man.

Drawing on his naturalistic acting style, Broadway-ready singing voice, and manly-man toughness, Wynton Williams has carved a stellar career out of playing conflicted Biblical heroes who find it virtually impossible to yield not to temptation. After storming the boards in blockbuster hits like Moses, Isaiah, Acts of the Apostles and The Messiah (all by Father HoLung & Friends), this month Williams returns to familiar territory as the titular monarch in the song-and-dance epic King David, revealing even more depth and range. TALLAWAH caught up with the reluctant star, 49, to talk music, message and making a life-changing commitment.

TALLAWAH: You've played a principal role in nearly every Father HoLung & Friends show since the group's inception almost 30 years ago. What did King David offer that was decidedly different from everything else you've done? 
Wynton Williams: It is without doubt the most complex and challenging show I've been a part of. We did an earlier version of David, back in 1986 I believe, but it was predominantly music with a bit of drama in the second half to make the show more interesting. Doing King David is not like Moses, with all those special effects and heavy set design. It's more of an emotional journey than anything else.

TALLAWAH: There are so many layers to an enigmatic character like David. Could you relate to him at all? 
W.W.: That's one of the things I appreciate most about the character; how much of an enigma he is. He is what you call a man after God's own heart, so the question I've always asked myself is, What could have caused him to slip in such a major way?

TALLAWAH: Some would say temptation and weakness.
W.W.: While I was doing the research, it really bothered me. In my own life I'm a Christian and I consider myself a free spirit as well, and if David's story has taught me anything, it's to always be careful. And, at the same time, God's tremendous capacity for forgiveness. David was a man whose weakness got the better of him, but he became an instrument through which God demonstrated his immense kindness and compassion.

TALLAWAH: As expected, the music in the show is just incredible. As Musical Director, what did you enjoy the most about creating such a memorable score?
W.W.: We always try to give the show a mix of styles and sounds, so you'll hear some powerful ballads, some reggae rhythms and dancehall flavour and the spiritual stuff. The music has to reflect the overall mood of the production.

TALLAWAH: You're such a gifted actor, yet we never see you performing in plays or other commercial productions on the Kingston stage. Is that deliberate?
W.W.: (Laughs) That's because I'm committed to Missionaries of the Poor. Working with Father HoLung and Friends is a full-time and very demanding commitment. After [King David] we have a lot of touring to do. So even though I might not seem active, there's always some behind-the-scenes work going on.

TALLAWAH: Where will the upcoming tour take you guys? 
W.W.: We have Toronto in a matter of weeks. We'll be in Australia for most of July, and in September we fly to Chicago. It's a lot of work, but whenever we go overseas we always try to have a good time. But fulfilling the mission and putting on a good show is the ultimate goal.

TALLAWAH: Speaking of fun, when are you happiest?
W.W.: (Laughs). If the message that we're trying to bring across in the show is properly communicated to the audience I feel at rest and at peace. It's not about the hype; it's about the message. 

> ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: TALLAWAH talks with King David director Greg Thames
> THEATRE LEGEND: Alwyn Bully on creative collaboration and his latest  projects

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MAN MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Jamaica Theological Seminary President, Rev. Dr. Garnett Roper

It takes a man with vision to steer a landmark institution like the Jamaica Theological Seminary (JTS) into a future where the possibilities are endless. With passionate commitment and renewed drive, Rev. Dr. Garnett Roper says he's more than up to the task at hand.

> HOW HE'S MAKING A DIFFERENCE: As the head of the 55-year-old institution, Roper is charged with leading one of the island's most venerable Christian-based tertiary institutions into its next chapter. Embarking on a wave of revolutionary new projects is how he's getting the job done. "We are in the process of building a brand-new facility that will help us develop a programme for training teachers of students with special needs," Roper explains. "The programme is a B.A. in Applied Behaviour Analysis that has so far been getting some good response. The main goal is to adequately develop this programme and to start the training in earnest. At the JTS we seek to reinforce values and virtues that are vital but can only be learned through training and cultivation."

> ON RAISING FUNDS THROUGH THE ANNUAL UNCONDITIONAL LOVE MOTHER'S DAY CONCERT: "For us at the JTS music is not just about the sounds. It's also a powerful vehicle for expressing the way we see the world and each other. With Unconditional Love, we affirm love and motherhood and provide a space in which the nation can be reminded of its nobler and better self."

> THE PHILOSOPHY THAT GUIDES HIS LIFE: "To walk humbly and act justly, because by doing so we can transform the world. That's why we place such an emphasis on developing the skills of a cadre of persons through a transformative process."

> HIS LIFE'S DOMINANT PASSION: "I'm a serving-the-people kind of man."

> THE BOOKS HE RECOMMENDS: "There are two books that I want to bring to people's attention at the moment: Living Wisely by Burchell Taylor and Social Justice by Judith Suarez, which we are going to publish very soon."

> THE MARLEY ANTHEM THAT RESONATES MOST DEEPLY WITH HIM: "Redemption Song. I think that's his most powerful song."

> FAIL-PROOF STRATEGY FOR STAYING MOTIVATED: "You just have to focus and take what you're doing seriously. Excellence, integrity and compassion are among the fundamental values and virtues that guarantee success."

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Friday, 15 May 2015

THE BEST NEW BOOKS: The return of Toni Morrison; Elizabeth Alexander's latest; plus Hazel Campbell and Donna Hart

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE: Race, class and the ties that bind have been the core themes coursing through Toni Morrison's fiction ever since classics like Beloved, Song of Solomon and The Bluest Eye raced up the bestseller lists. On the heels of her critically heralded slavery-era offering A Mercy (2008) comes Morrison's eleventh novel, God Help The Child (Knopf), a sobering reflection on parenthood and familial relations that critics say recall some of the finest writing in the Nobel Laureate's oeuvre. 

In a nutshell, God Help The Child revolves around a young light-skinned mother who calls herself Bride and the terrible consequences that arise when she rejects her dark-skinned daughter. Readers will also encounter Booker, the man Bride loves and loses to anger; Rain, the mysterious white kid with whom she crosses paths and Sweetness, Bride's disapproving mother. As the countless Grade-A reviews attest, the author's latest release is a timely wake-up call to parents everywhere. 

"With God Help the Child, Morrison gives us an unflinching look at wounds that adults can inflict on children with life-altering consequences," writes Essence's Patrik Henry Bass, while The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani proclaims, "[This novel] attests to [Morrison's] ability to write intensely felt chamber pieces that inhabit a twilight world between fable and realism and to convey the desperate yearnings of her characters for safety and love and belonging." 

> A DEATH IN THE FAMILY: When Elizabeth Alexander lost her husband of two decades, Ficre, in 2012, the acclaimed author and poet found herself at an existential crossroads. But, thankfully, she found solace in caring for her two young sons and channelling her grief into her art. The sum of her reflection and soul-searching is the utterly candid new memoir The Light of the World (Grand Central Publishing), in which Alexander, who read at Calabash in 2007 and graced the podium at Obama's inauguration in 2009, weaves a nostalgic love story in the tradition of Joan Didion that's essentially a chronicle of loss and hope. 

> BOY WONDER: The Spongebob and Dora the Explorer set will certainly enjoy breezing through Ash the Flash, popular children's book author Hazel Campbell's latest kiddie treat that's vividly illustrated and spins the energy-filled story of a talented young boy who discovers what it means to run like the wind. 

> JAMAICA LABRISH 2.0: Fans of Joan Andrea Hutchinson's work and, indeed, Miss Lou's might want to check out Donna Hart's just-released Mek Wi Laugh & Talk, a laugh-out-loud hilarious collection of poems from a promising debut author whose keen observations of island life easily complement her very clever use of the patois.

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