April 10, 2019

SURVIVAL TALE: “Breakthrough,” based on a memoir by Joyce Smith, recounts the unlikely survival of her son John (played by Marcel Ruiz) after he was submerged for more than 15 minutes in a frozen lake. (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

By Kam Williams

Despite having a couple of generic American names, John Smith’s (Marcel Ruiz) life story has been anything but boring. It’s just too bad that the shy 14-year-old has been too embarrassed to share it. 

He was born in Guatemala, but raised in Missouri by Brian (Josh Lucas) and Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz), the missionary couple that adopted him as an infant. But even the terrific childhood they provided couldn’t supply answers to nagging questions that still burdened the boy in junior high, like wondering why his birth mom didn’t love him enough to keep him. John was so traumatized that he gave his teacher an excuse the day he was supposed to make a class presentation about his family tree. more

April 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

With Town Topics set to print on Marlon Brando’s 95th birthday, I’ve been riding the wild west of cyberspace to Odessa, the birthplace of Charles Neider, who wrote the novel that inspired One-Eyed Jacks, possibly the most quotable western ever made and the only film Brando ever directed.

You might think the writer of such a book would hail from the Odessa in Texas where there’s an eight-foot-tall statue of a jackrabbit downtown. In fact, Charles Neider was born in January 1915 in the Russian city where Pushkin wrote part of Eugene Onegin and Eisenstein shot the cinematic landmark of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps for his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

When Neider died in Princeton in July 2001, the New York Times remembered him as a prolific essayist, novelist, nature writer and a devoted Twain scholar who edited, arranged, and introduced The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The first time Neider read The Innocents Abroad, which is included in his edition of The Complete Travel Books, he must have smiled to find that Twain had “not felt so much at home for a long time” as he had when he visited Odessa, which “looked just like an American city …. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!”

Mentioned in passing in the Times obit was Neider’s book The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), which novelist Wirt Williams suggests “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written” in his introduction to the 1972 paperback edition. Almost 40 years later, a July 2010 article in The Independent claims that Hendry Jones is “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses, and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.”  more

Momix is an outgrowth of the groundbreaking dance company Pilobolus, and it comes to McCarter Theatre Saturday, April 6 at 8 p.m. The creations of founder Moses Pendleton and colleagues conjure up a world of surrealistic images using props, lights, shadow, humor, and the human body in sometimes startling ways. On the program are excerpts from “Botanica,” “Alchemia,” “Remix,” “Opus,” and “Lunar Sea.” Tickets start at $25. Visit mccarter.org or call (609) 258-2787.

Gustavo Dudamel, Princeton University Concerts’ first artist-in-residence and current music and artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, will return to the Princeton University campus for the final leg of his residency, from Monday, April 22 through Sunday, April 28.

Events include a performance by and community jam session with members of the Berlin Philharmonic, a showcase by students from the El Sistema-inspired Harmony Program of New York City, conversations with Nobel Prize-winning physicist Kip Thorne and Irish public intellectual Fintan O’Toole, a day of shared music-making by almost 300 students from El Sistema-inspired programs across the East Coast, a film screening at the Princeton Garden Theatre, and two concerts in which Dudamel conducts the Princeton University Orchestra and Glee Club — one of which is a free (but ticketed) community concert at the Trenton War Memorial.

On Tuesday, April 23 at 7 p.m., members of the Ensemble Berlin will present works by Schubert, Wagner, and a world premiere by Princeton University faculty composer Steven Mackey in a program curated by Dudamel that celebrates the intersection of music and nature. Ensemble Berlin is made up of five players from the Berlin Philharmonic. They are joined by another four players from KonstKnekt, the orchestra’s training program located in Norway. A post-concert discussion extending this topic to the intersection between art (broadly defined) and nature will follow with Dudamel and Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Kip Thorne (California Institute of Technology). more

“GUMJI IN TOWN”: Whimsical digital illustrations by Sunghye Cho are featured in “Fly Gumji,” on view April 6 through May 1 at the Plainsboro Library Gallery. An artist reception is Sunday, April 7 from 2 to 4 p.m.

The Plainsboro Library Gallery presents “Fly Gumji” April 6 through May 1. Inspired by her beloved pet, Gumji, artist Sunghye Cho depicts a character that travels the world in detailed, fun, and humorous digital illustrations. From Manhattan to Sapporo, Japan, and Chamonix, the viewer is treated to whimsical urban scenes throughout the world in the form of colorful large format prints.

Large sketches will also be displayed, including renderings that show the development of the illustrated character. Cho’s work is created in Photoshop, and those interested in digital and graphic illustration are sure to enjoy this exhibit. An artist reception will be held on Sunday, April 7, from 2 to 4 p.m.  more

“BOOK CLUB”: This painting by Natalie Kinnemon of Pennington is among approximately 60 works on display at the Gallery at Mercer County Community College’s 2019 “Visual Arts Student Exhibition.” The show runs through April 25.

The work of visual arts students at Mercer County Community College (MCCC) is now on display as the Gallery at Mercer presents its annual “Visual Arts Student Exhibition.” The exhibit, featuring the best works of MCCC students, runs through Thursday, April 25. It is free and is open to the public.

MCCC Gallery Director and Curator Alice Thompson notes that the student exhibition is an important element of the continued growth of students studying visual arts. “It’s a departure from the relative safety of the classroom to present one’s creative exploration to the public. The ongoing encouragement and support of the MCCC visual arts faculty continues to guide our students along the path to becoming visual arts professionals,” she said. more

“SUMMIT”: This painting by Florence Moonan is featured in “Mélange,” her exhibit at the East Amwell Museum April 6 through May 12. An artist reception is Friday, April 12, 7 to 9 p.m.

Contemporary artist Florence Moonan will be mixing things up for her solo exhibition at the newly-dedicated East Amwell Museum. “Mélange,” a medley of art, will run from April 6 through May 12, with a free public reception with the artist on Friday, April 12 from 7-9 p.m.

Moonan says an expressive language felt deep inside her directs her work as an artist. Its song is aroused by family memories, the natural world, her travel experiences, and vivid recollections of performing in St. John Terrell’s Lambertville Music Circus, a cultural attraction in Hunterdon County from 1949 to 1970. Her love of performing merged into painting in adulthood after her father gave her a set of acrylics and told her to paint. more

MYSTERY AT TWIN ELMS: Nancy Drew (Sophia Lillis, left) investigates paranormal activity inside an old mansion owned by Flora (Linda Lavin) in “Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.” (Photo courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures)

By Kam Williams

After the untimely death of his wife, Carson Drew decided he and his daughter Nancy (Sophia Lillis) might benefit from a change of scenery. So, they moved from Chicago to an idyllic oasis in suburbia called River Heights.

The relocation proved to be far more of a challenge for Nancy than her civil rights attorney father, a pillar of the legal community, since the 16-year-old found herself having to adjust to a new school. Plus, the picture-perfect town seemed pretty dull, at first blush, to a thrill-seeker born with a sense of adventure. more

March 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Say you’re on a dream tour of literary capitals. Instead of London, you get off the train in the ramshackle world of Dickens. Instead of Paris, you disembark in the swarming, exciting metropolis of Balzac. Each time your expectations will be satsfied and exceeded by a variety of metropolitan possibilities. But if the train stops at Kafka, it’s another, darker story. The skies will be grey, if not drizzling, the wind will be stiff and harsh, the station will have a dreary, haunted look, and two men in overcoats will intercept you before you have a chance to get your bearings. They want your papers, only you have the wrong papers it seems. But who’s complaining? This is  the scene the guidebook promised. It’s only a dream, so enjoy your stay in Kafka, even if you don’t get out alive or in your right mind.

But imagine arriving in the sunlit splendor of another city with the same name, the station lined with smiling booksellers whose carts are stocked with volumes rich and strange. The station master not only shakes your hand, he gives you a hug. Everyone’s glad to see you. The girl driving the cab that takes you to your hotel is unthinkably charming, speaks English with an adorable accent, and offers to show you around town (by now the rain is gently falling), no strings attached, no design on your wallet. Would you be disappointed? Ask for your money back? Well, maybe.

Inspired by a Mistake

Just putting Kafka’s name at the top of this column is the equivalent of saying, “Close the curtains and prepare to be unnerved.” And it’s true that I’m returning to what might be called the scene of the crime, since a mistake is what set everything in motion. In my March 13 piece on Stanley Corngold’s new book Walter Kaufmann:Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, I incorrectly attributed a quotation from Kafka to the “Letter to His Father” when in fact, the passage comes from Dearest Father (1953), a collection of writings centered on that famously unsent letter.

My atonement has been to read around in Kafka’s short fiction, sample some chapters from Amerika, his unfinished first novel (as are they all), and, in particular, plunge at random into The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, edited by his close friend  and executor Max Brod. As with the diary entries, I found the quotation in question at random, as if by accident, in the notes at the back of Corngold’s book. Here it is again: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say, an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.” more

By Nancy Plum

New Jersey Symphony Orchestra launched into spring this past weekend with a performance at Richardson Auditorium that was three-fold — presenting an audience favorite, a monumental cello concerto, and a work showing Music Director Xian Zhang’s development of the ensemble since taking the NJSO helm. Friday night’s concert of “Zhang Conducts Schubert and Dvorák” was heavy on concerto soloists, and their collective technical abilities were well appreciated by the Richardson audience. 

Ninteenth-century composer Robert Schumann’s Konzertstück for Four Horns in F Major had never been performed by the NJSO before this past weekend; this three-movement work placed the entire NJSO horn section front and center to showcase the capabilities and rich variety of colors available from the instrument. Horn players Chris Komer, Andrea Menousek, Lawrence DiBello, and Eric Reed played from the front of the stage, allowing the audience to hear Schumann’s motivic solo writing travel up and down the row of horns. Zhang began the first movement in a lively tempo, with a fanfare in well-tuned thirds from the horn soloists. Throughout the Konzertstück, Zhang kept the orchestral background clean, as horn solos were often answered by the Orchestra. Kathleen Nester’s piccolo playing added a sharply-defined color to the instrumental sound.

The darker second movement romanze was played in a more pensive style, with the four horn soloists providing a chorale-like texture.  Both Orchestra and soloists played uniform crescendi, and Zhang tapered the sections within the movement well. Komer, Menousek, DiBello, and Reed well handled the tricky fast-moving motives in the closing movement, emphasizing the hunting character of Schumann’s writing. The clean runs from the horns were complemented by lyrical melodies from the Orchestra, and the four players interacted well with each other. The trumpet section’s use of rotary trumpets enhanced the classical roots of this piece, adding a mellow color to the brass orchestration. more

Westminster Community Orchestra, conducted by Ruth Ochs, will present a concert titled “Solos to Symphony” on Sunday, March 31 at 3 p.m. in Hillman Performance Hall on the campus of Westminster Choir College on Walnut Lane. Tickets are $15 for adults and $10 for students and seniors.

Featuring pianists Jian Kai Ang and Yi Zhang as well as students from Westminster Conservatory’s Suzuki violin program, the program includes Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in D Minor, Vivaldi’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, and Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3, “Scottish.” 

Jian Kai Ang has received recognition for his accomplishments in Singapore, Illinois, and New Jersey. Most recently, he was awarded the Grand Pix in the Music-Fest Rising Talents Festival and performed at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. Yi Zhang is a PhD student in science at Princeton University, and she has been studying piano since she came to the United States in 2016.  Both pianists are students of Phyllis Alpert Lehrer at Westminster Conservatory. more

Virginia Rep’s musical “Jack and the Beanstalk” comes to Mercer County Community College’s Kelsey Theatre Saturday, April 13 at 2 and 4 p.m. The show centers on the famous exploits of young Jack, who decides to sell Bessie to a stranger for some purportedly magic beans — instead of selling her in town as his mother instructed. Tickets are $10 for children and seniors, and $12 for adults. Visit www.KelseyTheatre.net or call (609) 570-3333. Kelsey Theatre is wheelchair accessible, with free parking available next to the theater.

SPRING CABARET: On Saturday, April 6 at 7:30 p.m., Katie Welsh performs “The Broadway Musical Heroine,” the first of her Spring Cabaret Concert Series at the Arts Council of Princeton.

Welsh, who is a graduate of Princeton University, takes the audience on a journey through the decades, from the 1940s to the 2010s, on a quest to understand how Broadway’s leading ladies have changed over time. What makes a Rodgers and Hammerstein heroine different from a Sondheim heroine? How do favorite female characters navigate the world of relationships in similar and different ways?

Welsh considers these questions as she sings songs from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, Bells Are Ringing, Sweet Charity, Jesus Christ Superstar, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, The Light in the Piazza, and more. more

“NAKASHIMA LOOKS”: Renowned artist Mira Nakashima is the curator of “Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture,” on display through July 7 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. The exhibit includes examples of Nakashima’s own work as well as that of her father, George Nakashima, presented alongside pieces by other craft furniture designers. (Photo by Woong Chul)

Rago Auctions of Lambertville is proud to sponsor “Nakashima Looks: Studio Furniture,” the latest exhibition of modern craft to come to the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa.

On through July 7 and curated by renowned artist Mira Nakashima, “Nakashima Looks” presents an exploration of the Michener’s Studio Furniture collection that reveals the museum’s commitment to elevating and exhibiting modern and contemporary craft. Included in the exhibition are examples of Mira Nakashima’s own work as well as that of her father, George Nakashima, presented alongside designs by Paul Evans, Jack Larimore, Robert Whitley, and Mark Sfirri, among others. more

“ARNARSTAPI COAST”: This photograph by Robert Zurfluh is part of an exhibit by members of the Cranbury digital Camera Club, on display April 7 through April 26 at the Gourgaud Gallery in Cranbury. An opening reception is Sunday, April 7, 1 to 3 p.m.

Photos from Cranbury digital Camera Club (CdCC) photographers will be on display April 7-26 at the Gourgaud Gallery, located at Cranbury Town Hall, 23-A North Main Street, Cranbury.  An opening reception with refreshments is Sunday, April 7 from 1 to 3 p.m.

The photos selected for the show depict various themes and subject matter. The photographers are from Cranbury, Hightstown, Monroe, West Windsor, and other communities in Central New Jersey. Their work has been on display at various galleries throughout New Jersey, and many of the photographers on display have had their work cited for awards by the NJFCC, PSA and other photography organizations. more

“GREEN PALACE”: Heemin Moon’s installation in the former bank vault at BSB Gallery in Trenton showcases three-dimensional shapes incorporating upcycled materials, including a whimsical view of man’s best friend. It is on display through April 13.

Heemin Moon, in collaboration with Dorothy McNee, has created the site-specific installation “Green Palace,” on display in the former bank vault at BSB Gallery at 143 East State Street in Trenton through April 13.

Heemin Moon’s “Green Palace” is an intimate world of exotic creatures, iridescent lighting, metallic finishes, and sustainable materials. This showcase of three-dimensional shapes, incorporating upcycled materials, is a result of Moon’s unique whimsical view of man’s best friend and unlikely wildlife in regal surroundings. His art and color vision were rendered for the special collaboration between BSB Gallery and TerraCycle, the exhibit “Scrapped.” more

“ADELINE AT THE WINDOW”: This work by Meta Dunkly Arnold was named Best in Show at the West Windsor Art Council’s “Fiction: The Art Show,” on view through May 17 at the West Windsor Arts Center.  An opening reception is Sunday, March 31 from 4 to 6 p.m.

Running now through May 17, the West Windsor Arts Council will showcase the work of many of its member artists in the exhibition “Fiction: The Art Show.” The theme was chosen in conjunction with the spring theatrical performance of Fiction by Steven Dietz and produced by the Pegasus Theatre Company, to be staged at the West Windsor Arts Center. The play blurs the boundaries between fact and fiction, life and the written word, and so members were likewise invited to submit artwork based on the concept of real vs. imaginary, the merging of visual arts and literary arts, and the image with the written word.

An opening reception will be held Sunday, March 31, 4 – 6 p.m. Artists will be on hand at the opening to discuss their work. more

HERO AT THE HOTEL: Dev Patel plays a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel who tries to save as many guests as possible from radical terrorists in “Hotel Mumbai.” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

By Kam Williams

On November 26, 2008, radical Islamists from Pakistan launched a series of coordinated attacks around the city of Mumbai, India, which would claim 174 lives and leave hundreds more wounded. Within hours of the raid, the authorities were able to secure all of the sites except for the legendary Taj Mahal Palace Hotel.

The jihadists ostensibly picked the legendary five-star resort as the location for a final showdown because of its image as a getaway spot for rich and famous Westerners. The siege there would last four days, since the local police were outgunned by the terrorists who were heavily armed with bombs, hand grenades, and automatic weapons. more

March 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years ago, my column about the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale featured poet and Princeton graduate W.S. Merwin’s memoir, Summer Doorways (2005), with its recollection of student life in the 1940s. Those were the days when poets Merwin and Galway Kinnell were waiting tables (“the only two waiters who had been on the job for so long without being promoted”) and frequenting the Parnassus Bookshop “in a house along Nassau Street.” The shop was run by Keene and Anne Fleck, who told Merwin about the proposed Creative Writing Program just getting started under R.P. Blackmur. At her urging, he wrote to Blackmur and asked to be admitted to the course. Blackmur’s assistant was a poet named John Berryman. The rest, as they say, is history.

Climbing Mt. Princeton

Curious to learn more about that bookshop on Nassau Street, I did some cyberspace browsing and found, as if on a table at a virtual Bryn Mawr, a volume called Breaking Through Clouds by Richard F. Fleck, who grew up in Princeton. In his account of climbing Mount Princeton (14,204 feet) in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies, Fleck recalls sitting in “the warmth and comfort” of his parents’ bookshop listening to “young poets” like Merwin, Kinnell, and William Meredith.

After coming away empty-handed on my mainly reportorial visit to the preview morning of this year’s book sale, I returned Saturday with the news of Merwin’s death fresh in mind and found a copy of his 1999 collection The River Sound abandoned on the discard table. Opening the volume at random to “Testimony,” which takes up 58 of the collection’s 133 pages, I found myself once again in Princeton with Merwin and Kinnell in those days “when we were too young/for the war.” The line that jumped out at me, however, referred to Mike Keeley (“we have been friends since both of us/were beginning to shave”), a clear signal that it was time to contact poet, translator, novelist and Professor Emeritus of English Edmund Keeley for his thoughts about Merwin. more

“THE GODS OF COMEDY”: Performances are underway for “The Gods of Comedy.” Directed by Amanda Dehnert, the play runs through March 31 at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre. Classics professor Daphne Rain (Shay Vawn, right) is visited by Dionysus (Brad Oscar, left) and Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro). (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

McCarter Theatre is presenting the world premiere of The Gods of Comedy. In this delightful farce by Ken Ludwig, a classics professor makes a mistake that threatens her career, as well as her romantic interest in a colleague. She is visited by Dionysus, the God of Wine and Revelry; and Thalia, the Muse of Comedy and Idyllic Poetry. They are magical, have a passing familiarity with American pop culture, and come when they are needed. They also are impulsive and disaster-prone.

The young, independent, and ambitious professor Daphne Rain, who is planning to direct a production of Medea as part of her tenure folio, is visiting the island of Naxos. She is closely observed by Aristide, an eager merchant, who serves as a narrator at the beginning of the play. more

A new website highlighting the untold history of women film editors is celebrated with a multimedia talk at Princeton Garden Theatre on Tuesday, March 26, at 7:30 p.m.

Filmmaker and Princeton University Professor of Visual Arts Su Friedrich will lead the program on “Edited by,” which surveys 139 women film editors who invented, developed, fine-tuned, and revolutionized the art of film editing. The program is presented by the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Program in Visual Arts. more

The noontime series Westminster Conservatory at Nassau will continue on Thursday, March 21 at 12:15 p.m. with a program of music for oboe, English horn, viola, and piano.

The performers are Melissa Bohl, oboe and English horn; Marjorie Selden, viola; and Christopher McWilliams, piano. The program will feature music by Robert Kahn, Christopher McWilliams, Frank Bridge, and Paul Hindemith. The recital will take place in the Niles Chapel of Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, and is open to the public free of charge. more

“MERMAID”: This painting by Elena Chestnykh is featured in “Distance and Happiness, Dreams and Time,” at Artworks Trenton through April 13. The exhibit showcases four artists working in two-dimensional figurative art that considers images of women.

Artworks Trenton presents “Distance and Happiness, Dreams and Time,” curated by Jeff Evans, on view through April 13. more

“VOICES OF THE MARSH”: This photo by Maria Reim is featured in an exhibit showcasing photography of the Abbott Marshlands, on view now through September 15 at the Tulpehaking Nature Center in Hamilton.

“Voices of the Marsh,” a public art exhibit showcasing photography of the Abbott Marshlands, is on display through September 15 at the Tulpehaking Nature Center in Hamilton. more

TROUBLE IN KINGSTON: Ami Ameen stars as Dennis “D” Campbell, who is out to avenge the murder of the older brother who raised him, in “Yardie,” the directorial debut of actor Idris Elba. (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures)

By Kam Williams

Dennis “D” Campbell (Aml Ameen) grew up in the slums of Kingston, Jamaica, in the seventies in a neighborhood infested with drugs. Orphaned at an early age, he was raised by an older brother he admired, Jerry (Everaldo Creary).

Besides serving as a surrogate father, Jerry was a peacemaker who risked his life pressuring the gangs ruining the community to end their bloody turf war. But Dennis was left traumatized at 13 when his sibling was shot and killed by Clancy (Raheem Edwards), a young member of the Tappa crew. more