Thursday, August 6, 2009

Ezra Weiss: Alice in Wonderland

Northwest Children's Theater and School
By Ric Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.6.09
Buy CD: Alice in Wonderland

Portland, Ore., sponsors numerous activities and workshops for its citizens; one is the Northwest Children's Theater.

Some time ago, that group decided to expose youngsters to jazz in a way that would entertain them; Lewis Carroll's wonderful Alice in Wonderland became the vehicle. The score that Ezra Weiss wrote utilized songs inspired by jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Monk, with lyrics added to tell the story.

The original production placed a band in the center of a stage; all action happened around the musicians. The cast consisted of a dozen talented kids; the band was made up of well-known Portland musicians, including luminary vocalists Marilyn Keller and Shirley Nanette.

This CD is essentially the play's soundtrack. The drama was presented in two acts; the first included an opening overture, followed by six absolutely delightful tunes that introduced the various characters: Alice, the White Rabbit, the Mouse, Caterpillar, Frog, Duchess and Cheshire Cat.

Act 2 covers the Hare and Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the Queen, Knave and various other characters. Each composition is marvelously constructed, and the result is a wonderfully swinging little jazz opera.

I would imagine the primary purpose — to introduce kids to jazz — succeeded beautifully. As Weiss commented, “Even if they aren't aware they're hearing jazz, it's there on a subconscious level. So, when they hear it again, they'll think 'Oh, this is like 'Alice'; I liked Alice!' And maybe they'll start listening to Coltrane.”

Keller and Nanette (Dormouse and the Queen of Hearts) sing and scat their way through the score neatly. The band — Farnell Newton, trumpet; Noah Bernstein, saxes; Lars Campbell, trombone; Bill Athens, bass; and Tim Paxton, drums — keeps things swinging wonderfully.

Weiss, who also arranged the works he composed, received rave reviews. He deserves them.

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