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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

Monk, Crossroads Theater, 7 Livingston Avenue, New

Brunswick, 732-545-8100. $36.50 & $42. Plays to November 24.


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