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Pianist Envy

The term "unsung hero" usually applies to volunteer firemen or people who tend to the sick without compensation or publicity. But there is another unsung figure of import: the artistic hero who lives and dies in obscurity, who skips the occasional family dinner to wander down to the beach and...
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The term "unsung hero" usually applies to volunteer firemen or people who tend to the sick without compensation or publicity. But there is another unsung figure of import: the artistic hero who lives and dies in obscurity, who skips the occasional family dinner to wander down to the beach and capture on canvas the heads of the frothy waves, who composes music late at night in the den, who writes poems and stuffs them into drawers, all the while appearing to the world as nothing more or less than a dentist, a teacher, or an old maid.

These people choose to keep their dearest dreams a hobby and opt for security, family and a normal occupation, nonetheless possessing enormous insights and talents the world will never share. The man working in your garden right now might be a sculptor the equal of Rodin, or a short story author worthy of Hemingway's ear. Ironically, many of these unsung artists are bestowed with greater gifts than popular figures in the entertainment world, but they seem to receive enough glory just from the process of engaging in the art and need neither fame nor fortune to validate their pleasures.

Harry Ross A real name: Hershel Rosenblatt, but better known to a few Harlem-based jazz musicians as Doc Bones A emerges as one of these multitalented men, masquerading as a simple Long Island dentist. He is also the subject of the earnest but tedious tribute written and performed by his actress/pianist daughter Pamela Ross, harry, currently presented by the newly opened Broadway at the Surf Theatre.

Ross last displayed a remarkable array of talents at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Carre*o!, an exciting and witty monologue broken up by stunning piano solos. This standout piece about a famous and infamous eighteenth-century Venezuelan pianist won her an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for outstanding achievement, heartily deserved recognition for a job more than well done.

Now Ross returns to South Florida, offering up the same playwriting form A some talk, some Chopin, an anecdote, some Gershwin, more talk A in a different house on a not-so-famous subject: her father, a talented amateur artiste, who sat in on numerous jazz sessions with the greats but never cut a recording of his own. Unfortunately, this combination of change in venue and and in topic causes the downfall of the new piece.

The converted Surf movie house, unlike the Grove's cozy Encore Room, is an acoustic nightmare, and it makes Ms. Ross's strong fingers sound more like drills attacking the keys, particularly when she incorporates bombastic playing into anecdotes about her life with Harry, such as how he encouraged her to challenge her coach on the validity of certain piano pieces being assigned purely to male fingers. "Is it marked 'allegro testosteroni'?" she inquires of the coach when she is still an adolescent. No, we find out, but it isn't marked "allegro slammeroni," either. Only slow, soft offerings such as "Clair de Lune" by Claude Debussy and George Gershwin's "Someone to Watch Over Me" show off Ms. Ross's Julliard-honed musical magic. All the rest turn into clang and clamor, mostly due to the unsuitable hall, and not transcended by the magnificent Baldwin grand piano set near center stage.

There are other factors that make Carre*o! much more fulfilling and dramatic than harry. One is the simple fact that in the former piece the actress becomes her subject, whereas in the latter Ross tells about Harry far more than impersonating him. Still, the most glaring problem arises out of the basic personality differences between the two subjects. Teresa Carre*o devoted her life to her art and her life was larger than fiction, with many marriages, madnesses, children, and scandals. Harry Ross, on the other hand, was a wise and stable man who devoted his life to his family and his dental practice, privately loving music, art, and tennis, but existing happily within the proper bounds of society. Certainly, he was brave enough to tackle Pamela's public school principal when the arch old woman made racist comments about jazz, just as he was eccentric enough to steal a half-eaten slice of Serge Rachmaninoff's bread so he could make a dental impression of the great composer's bite.

Harry certainly was also a great dad, entertaining his "honey chile" Pamela with jokes and instilling her with confidence, teaching her piano from the third grade onward by having her place her small hands over his as he stroked the keys ("a live player piano," she calls him). Any male of the Depression era who could tell his daughter to "let men apologize for their weaknesses, don't apologize for your strengths" and who saw the value of combining classical music and modern jazz in the same program embodied the spirit of a visionary and owned a remarkable heart and mind. An unsung hero, surely. But as a figure of great dramatic strength, Harry Ross just doesn't possess enough fire for a two-act, one-woman show. At least not the way Pamela tells it.

We all tend to see our parents as more important, more beastly, or more unusual than they are, and Ms. Ross is guilty of that sin in the script. She puts Harry on an awfully high pedestal, and then through forced one-note acting consisting of a reverent, wistful smile and a humbled tone of voice, relates one cute anecdote after another and expects the audience to feel the same awe she does. For example, her father made her mother dress and fix her hair with greater speed by playing the piano too loud and too fast while they were getting ready to go out for the evening. So? I could tell you about my own late father's outstanding achievements in golf, but would you really care as much as I do? Not unless I possessed the skill of Arthur Miller, who could turn even the ultra-mundane Willy Loman into a significant tragic figure. But Ms. Ross certainly doesn't come near to displaying such skill, either in her acting or her writing. And as mentioned, her piano playing, a revelation in Carre*o!, sounds jarring and unexceptional in this unsuitable atmosphere.

Speaking of the atmosphere, while perusing Broadway at the Surf Theatre's program, I came across the most unusual and tasteless marketing ploy ever developed to bring subscribers into a dramatic venue. According to an order form designed to be sent to The ITME (International Theatrical-Marketing Entrepreneurs), for $1239.95 per year you can receive tickets to twelve shows presented at either the Surf, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, or the Jackie Gleason Theater, with free transportation included. Now this sounds like a lot of money, considering that ACME's subscribers only pay $120 per year and even the Greater Miami Broadway Series' highest price is a mere $236. However, in the Surf's plan, subscribers also get a "national brand, nutritionally safe, weight control program with complete vitamin-mineral supplementation." This equates to "a cost of only $3.50 a day," the program points out, for theater enrichment and figure/health enhancement.

What is Frederick R. Von Langen, artistic director of the Surf, thinking of? Is he taking spiked vitamin capsules? Someone please tell me that the Coconut Grove Playhouse isn't part of this sleazy scheme. When theater takes on the tone of a Body By Jake or Cher-driven informercial, it truly is time to declare that art is dead.

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