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This article by Simon Saltzman was prepared for the November 20, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Drama Review: `Monk’
Conformity is not my style," says jazz legend Thelonious
Sphere Monk (October 10, 1917 – February 17, 1982) in the fascinating
one-man play (with piano accompanist) "Monk" at Crossroads
Theater. The statement is also true of Laurence Holder’s more psychologically
probing than musically enhanced consideration of Monk, the "high
priest of bebop." As heatedly portrayed by Rome Neal, in equal
bursts of fierce anger and gentle sensitivity, it is the inner emotional
turmoil of the pianist and composer rather than his musicianship that
we learn about during this 90-minute portrait.
However recognized today by the musically sophisticated for his unique
artistry and innovations, Monk, unlike Charlie Parker, is still one
of the best-kept secrets of our culture. As a performer who toured
and recorded from the 1940s into the 1970s, and who influenced and
inspired countless musicians — and even our language — Monk
always fashioned himself as an outsider and an innovator.
The dramatic journey that Holder has created is mainly envisioned
through Monk’s almost schizophrenic personality. Wearing that peculiar
signature hat and pacing around a space filled with a few rarely used
furnishings, Monk is prone to hearing voices. But more than other
voices, it is his own that speaks in his own defense, hopefully to
dispel the myth of his being hopelessly crazy, uncommunicative, and
difficult. At other times, he affects us as being a very charming
and a loving enigma even to himself as he falls into altered states
in which his childhood, youth, jail time, and career surface at random
and not in any particular order.
Fortunately Neal, who also takes to swirling an dancing about as in
hallucinatory trance, has the ability to keep us hooked as his free
associations with his adored mother, his loving wife Nellie and the
patronage of the Baroness Pannonica as they surface in his agitated
mind. One wonders (it is not made clear) if drugs are meant to be
playing any part in these mostly rambling, but also provocative, episodes.
While one might wish for Monk’s wonderfully mad music to have played
a part in the play, rights to the music may be an issue. Accomplished
pianist Eric Lewis contributes short jazz riffs, but they do not significantly
define either the composer or his talent.
I’m glad I had two CDs at home: "Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane"
and "Thelonious Monk with Sonny Rollins," on tenor saxophone,
to bring back the missing magic. But there is a feeling throughout
the play that the playwright has figured on the already initiated
to want to get closer to the ghosts and fears that haunted the genius,
who suffered form depression almost his entire life. For those with
an ear for it, the text is somewhat of an homage to Monk’s music.
You can hear it messing about with words, rhythms, and moods. But
there is always an awareness of an order in complete control of the
chaos. As Monk says, "Music is not mathematics, but it is mathematical."
— Simon Saltzman
Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $36.50 & $42. Plays to November 24.
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