Friday, November 30, 2012

Normal? What's that?

I have to admit I was a little doubtful going  to Thursday's opening performance of "Next to Normal" at Actors' Theatre. I worship the American musical, characters breaking into song because it's the natural thing to do. But singing about mental illness? I mean, we can't even TALK about mental illness. But somehow this show makes the singing seem perfectly... well, normal. And you know why? It's because they're not singing about mental illness. They are singing about love. And the hurt that love brings. This is a family ripped apart at the seams by love and hurt. And it all seems, well, understandable if not almost normal. "Powerful" everyone was saying as the show closed with a standing ovation. See my review.
BTW -- Sold out house. Standing ovation. Busses pulling up outside dropping off sections full of enthusiastic patrons. One bus load came all the way from Dayton, Ohio, to see this show on Thursday, a performance of  "A Christmas Carol" at Civic on Friday, and attend classes at Civic on theater arts. Tell me this is the New Normal for local theater.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A Shoe Thing

I love shoes and easily have 'many more than I need (especially Merrells). But I'm no competition for Imelda Marcos or Cary Bradstreet on "Sex in the City."  But today I have 100 extra shoes in my kitchen.

I say shoes, not pairs of shoes because they're all facing the same direction, though I don't think they'd fit right or left feet. They're cookies. A kitchen counter full of red cookie shoes. They're all for my Sneak Peek Book Release Party tonight at Grandville Library. (6:30-8 p.m.) The cookies celebrate the publication of my new book, One Shoe Off.

It's about a newspaper editor that disappeared in 1956 leaving just a shoe behind.

Believe me, I have a lot more respect for the shoemaker now ... and the cookie baker too! The dough kept sticking and twisting. Sometimes it would stretch out so the cookie cutout looked more like a snake. And sometimes the thin pointed toe would get brown in the oven way before the rest of the cookie was done.

And I've been playing Lady Macbeth all afternoon, washing my hands and  repeating "Out, out drat spot," because my hands are stained with red food coloring!

Come join us tonight and take a bite out of crime... I mean, cookies.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Pie school

I spent the morning in remedial pie school. My mother, 85-year-old Bobbie Merrell,  claims she failed pastry in her high school home-ec class, but everybody says Mom's pie crust is the best ever. So this morning, as she was preparing a pumpkin pie and a blackberry pie for tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast. I paid extra close attention.
She uses one cup of flour, 1/3 cup Crisco, and 3 tablespoons of water for each crust. Today we were making three crusts, one for the pumpkin pie and two for the fruit pie, so she started off with three cups of flour and one cup of shortening.
Secret #1: sift the flour. We've become lazy about that over the years but Mom always sifts the flour. Otherwise you get too much she said.
Secret #2: Use cold shortening. Cold. Mom put it into the measuring cup and put it into the fridge. Then when she decided that wasn't cold enough she set it in the freezer for a few minutes.
Secret #3: Cut shortening into flour with a pastry blender until all the flour has a bit of the shortening. Mom's old pastry bender is different than mine and does a fantastic job.
Secret #4: Use cold water. Mom used water from the dispenser on the fridge. And she's a little stingy on the water. Her mixture looked too crumbly to me to roll out on the pastry cloth, and I would have been tempted to add more water but she said to do so would make it tough.

Secret #5: Work quickly, and don't overwork. Lickity split, mom took a handful of her crumbly dough, rolled it out and then made quick patches. Working the dough too much will make it tough too. It doesn't need to look pretty to be nice and flakey.

Of course, the best part comes tomorrow, after dinner, when we get to eat pie!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Don't be alarmed, the play will go on!

Grand Rapids Civic Theatre's production of "A Christmas Carol" is an evening of fun and inspiration. But I have to admit the biggest laughs on opening night came from the mishaps.
      Just as the first act is really heating up, when Scrooge's long dead partner Jacob Marley calls upon his chums in chains from the netherworld to really scare Scrooge, billows of fog fill the stage. Chains are clanging. Marley is flying and skeletons are popping out of the closet. It's sheer bedlam.  So on opening night when a pair of strobe lights started flashing in the auditorium, at first it seemed like part of the special effects. Except for that ear-piercing squeal on the decibel level of something from the sound system of today's overly enthusiastic rock bands. We put our fingers in our ears, the required pose for many of today's "music" performances.  As the on-stage singing continued in spite of the squeal, we soon realized this wasn't a special effect. This was a malfunctioning fire alarm. The horrible sound continued for what seemed like forever, but was probably less than a minute. For the rest of the show, house manager Mary Jo DeNolf was stationed at the alarm controls in the lobby just in case it went off by mistake again.
      But the next mishap was on stage. Near the end of the second act, when the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge his own grave. His tombstone, with his name inscribed in bright red lights, opened up from a stage platform, and from the brief glimpse we saw it was an impressive marvel indeed. But no sooner had the stone showed its face but something snapped and BOOM! it was lying face down again. The show continued with Scrooge bemoaning the hidden grave, while backstage and under the stage someone managed to make sure the stone had slipped back into its place in the stage platform just in time to become a floor again for a chorus of singing citizens.
        As is the theater tradition, the show went on. I laughed on the way home to write my review, which gave only a brief, necessary mention of the mishaps. And I thanked my lucky stars that at least we had avoided the problems of the sick patron which beset a Broadway show earlier in the week.  You gotta laugh!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Getting the point across

This photo appears on the back of my new novel, One Shoe Off, which hits the bookstores December 1. I asked my friends on Facebook to guess what it is and lots of people assumed it had something to do with the shoe in the title. A shoe horn or some repair apparatus. A meat hook.  Or a hook for hay bales. But several also mentioned it looks pretty lethal.

When my journalist friends spotted the picture, the jig was up. Newspaper people recognize this as a spike. Back in the days before computers, a lot of paper piled up in a newsroom, especially on an editor's desk. All those stories typed on all that copy paper needed to be corralled. When an editor was finished with a story, he would put it on the spike.Evidently some must have used the spike to hold rejects... ie the phrase to "spike a story." But the editors I worked with used it as a way to file used copy, a sort of purgatory before the waste can where copy could be retrieved if there was a question later.

I remember spikes standing straight up and sharp, like a very long nail. And more than one person got nicked when they slapped a piece of paper on the spike.  The spike in this photo -- which I inherited from David Nicolette's junk drawer at The Press -- has been bent over to avoid such accidents, possibly in response to OSHA regulations.

The spike on the back of One Shoe Off represents that dangerous, lethal aspect of journalism. A spike figures into one of the scenes in the book when a reputed mobster confronts a crime-fighting editor. "Too bad she has to see blood before she regrets the damage she's done. Some people are like that. Blood's the only language they understand."

Friday, November 9, 2012

Christmas Carol chuckles

OMG is Christmas coming to Grand Rapids Civic Theatre! I visited the theater last night as part of the Inside Dish program that gives local media the inside track before each play opens. The official program for the evening was all about flying actors in the upcoming musical, "A Christmas Carol." We got to see Flying by Foy's patented harnesses that are specially fitted to each actor. Actor Michael Dodge calls the awkward underwear a "chastity belt," but it's so top secret that we were warned not to take pictures. 

But one of the fun things about being in the theater before opening night was seeing the backstage preparations without all the sets and costumes. And at this time of year those backstage preparations spill over into the lobby where boxes of ornaments are lined up waiting to be hung on the Christmas tree. Wreaths lean against the wall and garland stretches across the floor. And up on the staircase, executive director Bruce Tinker is stringing lights.

And who is that posing for pictures over by the Christmas tree? Why it's Scrooge (Steve Place) and Tiny Tim. (William Mathias). I even got my picture taken with a rather cheerful Scrooge.

That's just a hint of the festivity that awaits when Civic opens "A Christmas Carol" on Nov. 16. Never let it be said that Civic doesn't know how to celebrate Christmas.