Monday, April 07, 2008
Simon said, Night 1: "Songs from the Capeman" at BAM
watching or listening to "The Capeman," it's pretty easy to forget you're in the midst of a Paul Simon work. this was especially the case during tonight's (awesome) presentation at BAM, "Songs from The Capeman," which is the first of three Simon retrospectives running at the venue this month. Simon wrote the tunes, of course, but this was the musicians' and singers' show.
i thought maybe i'd miss the presence of Simon throughout (he was there, but only in a cameo role--more on that later), but that wasn't the case at all. this was a seriously exuberant, transporting event. it was a sort of semistaged version of the production, evoking the mood and the story of the Broadway show while keeping the focus on the vocalists--most of them well established in one or another sector of Latin music--almost all of whom were pretty stunning. the music by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra was ace as well, just totally pro. (i'm terrible w/ genre IDs when it comes to Latin music, but let's just say they took the show where it needed to go, from festive to folky to romantic to gutbucket, etc.) i also was really into the intimate setting of the BAM Harvey Theater--very classy.
if you're not familiar w/ the Capeman story, it's a pretty engrossing narrative. basically, as i gather it, a Puerto Rican teenage gang rumbled with an Irish teenage gang in Hell's Kitchen in 1959 and two innocent Irish boys ended up dead. the killer was Salvador Agron, who came to be known as the Capeman b/c he wore a cape in the brawl. he was convicted and jailed, and after a long imprisonment (and brief escape) he was released in 1979.
Simon basically takes the bare facts of the story and turns them into a gripping narrative of family, racism, violence, brotherhood, young love, etc. in tonight's production the first part of the story, leading up to the murder, was the most affecting. the young Agron was played by Frankie Negrón, a really brilliant singer. the most touching songs to me are pieces like "Satin Summer Nights," a doo-wop-flavored ode to young love in the city; "Vampires," a hectic, gritty account of Agron's induction into the gang; and "Adios Hermanos," where he bids his neighborhood friends farewell as he heads off to jail. there were some nice moments in the second half of the performance, but overall, the tunes just aren't as rich, catchy and evocative as the first batch.
Negrón and Obie Bermúdez (who played both the gang leader and a grown-up version of Agron--at least i think the latter is true; the roles got a little confusing at times) both did an awesome job of throwing in just the right amount of acting in their performances. there was some light stage business throughout the evening, but these two always projected this really passionate investment in the story. some TV clips of Agron both as a surly teenager and a meek old man added to the atmosphere.
i don't even know what to say about Simon's brief appearances other than that i was nearly brought to tears when he came out. there was a lot of buildup--he didn't show until halfway through the second act--but little fanfare. one song ended and he just strode out with the guitar and all of the sudden he was just... there. i don't know what it was, but there was something about being that near to him that just blew my mind, thinking about how many hours i'd spent obsessing over that voice (which sounded AMAZING, perfectly, unbelievably intact) and how even my parents had done the same, it just felt overwhelming. the intimacy of the theater just made it that much more special. he sang "Trailways Bus," not the greatest song in the production, but a solid one. his performance was humble and straightforward, but the show was stolen the second he opened his mouth--i was just floored.
it's saying something, though, that even having seen him you didn't necessarily wish he would stay or that he had been there all along. the singers and musicians--sorry i haven't named many of them, but i've misplaced my program--were just so committed and so right for the material that you really felt they were the right ones to be performing it and that Simon belonged in the background.
but there was room for a brief awesome finale, where all the singers made a semicircle and Simon emerged with just the mike. as though on the playground, they all clapped while he strode into the center, sort of jitterbugging, and the band struck up "Late in the Evening." a dance party basically erupted, with the players grabbing folks out of the audience and whatnot. it was an awesome treat, just a refreshing little coda. "Me and Julio" felt like it would've fit so naturally, but they didn't go there. in a way, i'm glad it didn't turn into a Simon concert--the production was thoroughly joyous and satisfying as it was.
in case i haven't emphasized it enough, some of these songs are REALLY excellent. i'm a big fan of Simon's original recording, where he sings all the leads, but i'd like to get a disc of these performances too. there was some major passion on display, not to mention some absolutely sick dance moves, courtesy of Danny Rivera (whom you see above), who straight-up BELTED out the opening and closing theme, "Born in Puerto Rico." and i can't forget to mention Little Anthony and the Imperials, who did a quick appetizer set at the beginning--pitch-perfect classic doo-wop action, which simply could not be messed with.
this show made me think: how often is it that we go out for an evening of good, old-fashioned *entertainment*? there's no shame in that.