Reviews and Profiles
STORY OF SOUTH SIDE AT STEPPENWOLF
By Kerry Reid
December 21, 2005
"Someone sweet, someone smart, come and heat this frozen heart," ran the lyrics to one of Louis Rosen's songs at the Steppenwolf Theatre on Sunday afternoon. No worries. Capathia Jenkins' soaring voice — sweet, smart, sassy and full of soul — warmed the hearts of everyone in the audience for "South Side Stories," the finale to the company's ambitious three-week "Traffic Jam" series of new music, theater and performance.
For two hours, composer/singer Rosen and vocal force of nature Jenkins (with able piano assistance from David Loud) performed numbers ranging from the poems of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, to selections from Rosen's "Book of the Night," produced in the early 1990s at the Goodman Theatre, to the twelve-song cycle that gave the program its name.
In "South Side Stories," Rosen tackles the rosy nostalgia of his bungalow-belt upbringing, the joyrides in beater cars and first romances of a 1960s coming-of-age, and the change in racial makeup in South Side neighborhoods that caused many whites to leave.
But though there are deeply personal echoes in the songs, Rosen's newest work, which received its first public performance here, isn't guilty of Boomer navel-gazing. Instead, he has created a fine and sometimes somber portrait of heartbreak and survival, joy and its absence, and love that endures even when the objects of that love are long vanished.
Rosen has been collaborating with Jenkins for years, and he's lucky to have her. The Brooklyn-born singer and actress, veteran of several Broadway shows, including "Caroline, or Change" and "The Civil War," has an uncanny ear for the droll irony and naked emotion of Rosen's work, and a vocal range that brings out every shift in tone without bombast or pathos. It's a no-brainer that Rosen would set Angelou's rollicking ode to plus-size confident women, "Phenomenal Woman," to music for Jenkins.
But it was in the quieter moments Sunday when the audience fell into the palm of her hand, happy to nestle in as she worked magic with songs about a light-skinned black girl discouraged by her family from marrying the darker-hued boy she loves, about the eternal struggles between mothers and daughters, and about growing old and facing the fact that the people we love and who grew up with us are no longer around for the end of our own journey.
This is intelligent and moving work that deserves further development and a wider audience. As it is, the appreciative crowd at Steppenwolf (which, to judge from the overheard conversations and joyous cries of recognition, was made up of many South Side or former South Side residents) received an early holiday present, thanks to Rosen's moving music and Jenkins' astonishing vocal gifts.
Jenkins Makes Old Friends of New Songs at Joe's Pub
By Jeremy Gerard
Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Eight times a week, Capathia Jenkins belts out a funny, show-stopping number late in Martin Short's Broadway show, ``Fames Becomes Me.'' But there's more here. If you want the thrill of discovering an enthralling new talent, spend next Sunday evening at Joe's Pub in Manhattan's East Village.
Jenkins will knock you flat. Her gifts go well beyond gospel-inflected roof-raising. I've never been so seduced by music completely new to me yet as embraceable as any from the classic American songbook.
She is the muse to Chicago composer-lyricist Louis Rosen. The two have already collaborated on a dozen poems by Maya Angelou set to Rosen's music. Now they have recorded his ``South Side Stories,'' a song cycle that betrays influences as diverse as Harold Arlen and Rickie Lee Jones. Yet what is so memorable about this pairing is how unselfconscious and confident both are, Rosen as composer and songsmith, Jenkins his joyous, hand-in- glove interpreter.
For an appetizer, she opens with Rosen's exuberant scoring of Langston Hughes's equally exuberant ``Harlem Night Song'':
``Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing/I love you.''
They follow with several songs from the Angelou cycle, ranging from humorous (``Preacher, don't send me/When I die/To some big ghetto in the sky'') to ``Poor Girl,'' a torchy ballad in the tradition of ``My Man.''
The ``South Side Stories'' songs are scored in a more pop idiom. Rosen, who accompanies on piano and guitar, has a James Taylor-like talent for setting intimate lyrics over facile, catchy melodies. This cycle includes numbers about the changing social landscape of Chicago's South Side; the first teen-love song I can remember that ends not in tragedy but in enduring friendship; the complicated relationship between parent and child. The most beautiful number is "The Peace That Comes,'' about the death of a father and the ambivalent feelings engendered.
Jenkins, 40, is at home with her audience (which included, on opening night, Short, his show's composer, Marc Shaiman, and the entire cast and crew), speaking briefly and charmingly about each song. In addition to Rosen, 51, her accompanists included David Loud on piano and Dave Phillips on bass. Don't miss this show.
Capathia Jenkins & Louis Rosen
Capathia Jenkins is gifted with one of those rare voices that makes pouring out one’s soul into music seem effortless. And when she is singing the music of Louis Rosen, she makes that soul into a thing of rare beauty and power. Whether the lyrics are based on poems by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou or are penned by Rosen himself, the songs and their singer are perfectly married, expressing every imaginable emotion with a simple, beautiful clarity.
In their concert at Joe's Pub, promoting their new album South Side Stories, Jenkins and Rosen create musical images of life on Chicago's famed South Side. Whether celebrating youthful abandon or mourning heartbreak, the songs are as intelligent as they are soulful, appealing to the brain as much as the heart. Rosen sings several songs himself, allowing for some nice variation in style and tone. The evening, ultimately, is a wonderfully emotional celebration of life that can appeal to every musical palate.
October 29, 2006
SOUND ADVICE CD REVIEW
By Rob Lester
Published Friday, November 10, 2006
CAPATHIA JENKINS & LOUIS ROSEN: SOUTH SIDE STORIES
Early relationships and experiences that leave their long-lasting marks on one's heart and mind are the focus of the songs that make up South Side Stories. South Side refers to the area of Chicago. Composer-lyricist Louis Rosen also used growing up white and Jewish there during the sometimes uneasy ethnic neighborhood changes of the 1960s as his point of reference for his 1999 book "The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood," for which he interviewed a number of fellow residents. In his original songs, the experiences are specific in their storytelling detail, but the tugging bittersweet emotions attached are universal. And they sure come through, whether told in first person or third. The writer evokes a mix of deeply etched memory and latter-day perspective in the lyrics. Rather than having the music show a searing, very present passion, it's more muted and subtle. Much of it is tender, although there's more of an edge and sense of irony in the three pieces he takes as vocal solos. Capathia Jenkins, bringing an enormous amount of warmth and humanity to the project, has seven solos and they duet on just two tracks.
In the duetted tale "Fast," the "nothing seemed impossible" mindset of impatient teenaged lovers is effectively expressed and looked upon with grown-up understanding. It's typical of the approach on much of this collection: there's nothing condescending in the looks back at younger outlooks, but there's a sadder-but-wiser wisdom in the writing and interpretations that steers clear of gazing through rose-colored glasses. Serious reflection - make that analysis - about the past, making sense and understanding pervade the proceedings. It doesn't take away the sadness inherent in the situations presented; it just creates some intellectual distance. The other duet is the soothing "Lullabye for Teddy," a soothing and lovely embrace that ends the CD. It has one of the most memorable melodic lines, whereas the strength of many of the other compositions comes in the details: it's often the catchy shorter phrases and licks that captivate.
Capathia Jenkins' musical theater resume includes the current Fame Becomes Me starring Martin Short and Caroline, or Change. This recording shows her tender side rather than sass or brio. Her performance shows impressive vocal control and attention to detail. Floating head tones are especially pleasurable to hear. I find myself returning to the CD's opener, her solo "Lucky, Lucky Girl" over and over. It's one of the seven tracks where the pianist is David Loud is featured. (He is musical director of the current Kander and Ebb production, "Curtains," and of "The Look of Love" where Capathia was in the cast). Louis is pianist on the other cuts and also plays organ and guitar, as well as providing the instrumental and vocal arrangements. The arrangements and sound mix favor the voices over the instrumentalists (also vibes, marimba, bass, percussion, drums) who seem far back at times. A layering of voices. letting the singers harmonize with themselves, is perhaps overdone; it's often musically attractive, but sometimes seems to work against a theatrical immediacy.
Showing a modest but effectively crisp singing voice, Louis is the vinegar to contrast with Capathia's honey tones and gentler persona. In "If I Were a Reincarnationist," he rattles off the resentments and real hurts in generational interactions - here he creates his own balance by somewhat cutely/sarcastically imagining the point of view that might let him see things differently.
Following the world premiere of the concert of these songs at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theater, the pair have been performing South Side Stories in New York City recently, with a final performance this Sunday night at Joe's Pub. Capathia and Louis have worked together before, with sets of songs musicalizing the writings of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou. They make a noble and noteworthy team.
WASHINGTON JEWISH WEEKLY
Our Story: South Side Stories' Chronicles Changing Neighborhoods
by Lisa Traiger, Arts Correspondent, March 28, 2007
Louis Rosen grew up on Chicago's South Side. But his story of the turmoil and racial divisiveness that uprooted his middle-class neighborhood of plain, boxy bungalows is my story, and yours, too, if you happen to be 65, or 44 or 29.
And if you happened to come of age during the 1940s, or '50s, or '60s or '70s, in any major American city or suburb. Because, Rosen contends, the story of immigrant and ethnic neighborhood transformations is the story of America, from Chicago to Baltimore, Washington to New Haven.
Rosen, a composer and writer, looks back in wonder at his own experience as a child of the 1960s. He watched his neighborhood change from predominantly Jewish to predominantly African American.
"That event had a tremendous impact on my life," he said recently, speaking from his home in the racially integrated Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. "It contributed to the shaping of my perceptions about people and communities and race relations and religion."
And, ultimately, it became a series of projects, including South Side Stories, a full-length song cycle set against the backdrop of the racially charged Chicago South Side during the 1960s and '70s.
Sunday, at the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in the District, Rosen will bring to life this cycle of songs joined by Broadway singer/actress Capathia Jenkins, who in New York recently recreated the role of midcentury African American film actress Hattie McDaniel and also appeared in Martin Short's Fame Becomes Me.
Rosen will accompany Jenkins on piano and guitar, joined by a second pianist and a bass player. Rosen, too, will sing, though it's Jenkins and her nuanced honey-and-vinegar voice with a powerful belt that he calls the centerpiece of the program.
In fact, in the past few years, Rosen has written scores of songs for Jenkins, among them a song cycle based on the poems of Maya Angelou, another on poems by Langston Hughes and Giovanni Songs, featuring words by African American poet Nikki Giovanni. Excerpts from these three works will comprise the first half of Sunday's program.
Before Rosen wrote his song cycle focusing on Jews and African-Americans on Chicago's South Side, he wrote a book, The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, which took an in-depth personal look at Rosen's home turf. He interviewed residents and former residents to cull personal stories about the block-busting campaigns that took place there as early as 1965-66.
Those conversations were astounding to him: "There was a sense of powerful emotion and memory of perceptions and understanding that literally bubbled up at that moment, the present looking at the past."
Ultimately, the interviews and book were revised into a stage play, which had an early reading eight years ago at Theater J. Theater J director Ari Roth, also a Chicago native, will reprise the reading on Monday at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center's Goldman Theater.
Rosen continues to admire the personal stand his parents took back in the day. His father, an optometrist, and his mother, an office and accounts manager, remained in their home on the South Side until their children left for college.
"They thought the move was rather shameful and they didn't want to participate in it," Rosen said of the reason his parents remained in the old neighborhood long after most Jews had moved out to the suburbs. "I think the reason they finally did leave is that after about five years of the neighborhood truly being a different neighborhood, my mom felt that all the shops she went to closed or changed."
She could no longer find challah on Fridays in the South Side.
But The South Side, Rosen insists, is not a Jewish story, nor is it an African American one.
"We're just not interested in the color lines. We're not a black act. We're not a Jewish act. The music crosses barriers: Some of it is bluesy, some jazz-based, some pop or folk-based. For us, it's been a joy linking up as partners. Ultimately, I think the audience for this is all Americans Š so many of us have lived this experience Š and it's not over yet. It's still happening."
On the South Side and beyond.
THE JEWISH EXPONENT
South Side Story, October 26, 2006 - Michael Elkin (print and online)
The South Side of Chicago has provided a North Star of soundly satisfying stability in the melody line that is composer Louis Rosen's life.
In a way, Rosen's collaboration with singer Capathia Jenkins, his musical muse, gives voice to two peoples, blacks and Jews, in a harmony rarely heard offstage.
"Capathia Jenkins and Louis Rosen: South Side Stories," their first CD together, joins them at the hip and the haunting as they prepare performances of their work the next three Sundays at New York's Joe's Pub.
Black and Jewish pub soul food? It eats away at differences as each song on the CD seizes opportunities to reflect and replenish.
For Rosen, a neighborhood by any other name is just a neighborhood. The South Side, where blacks and whites alternately sidled up to each other and took opposite sides, is a memory.
"You had to acquire street smarts," says the smartly raised Rosen. "It's part of the romance of the area."
But some jilted lovers were left at the crossroads when white flight from the region took its toll. If it's a road less traveled now, it certainly wasn't back then. Rosen, who "grew up in a square-mile Jewish enclave, surrounded by various ethnicities," became aware that, more so than anything else, class cleaved the groups from each other.
The real villain may be real estate. Now a resident of Park Slope in New York, Rosen views geopolitics as more in a slump than slope. "What Park Slope has shown," says the showman and composer of class acts and theatrical musicals, "is when class is not the issue, diversity is possible."
Rosen's protean talents are obvious to all but the oblivious. With a CD, new show and a book -- The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood -- as his source and inspiration, Rosen does more than talk a good game; he writes it, composes it and performs it, too.
Indeed, being part of a black and white environment leaves him with an ebullient ebony state-of-the-art attitude: "When I'm in an environment where there are only affluent white people, I don't feel particularly comfortable."
His comfort cadence cascades through his rendition of "South Side Jew's Blues" on the album and in his act. "I feel blessed to have found Capathia," says the composer, who must be echoing the same sound sentiment of producers of "Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me," whose show she serves as a shake-her-hips showstopper.
"We are musical soulmates."
Musical soul mates -- "not in any romantic sense" -- and sole mates, too, with separate scintillating careers and families. They have mated on professional projects before; indeed, this is their third club collaboration.
A "South Side Story" with the two as a platonic Tony and Maria? Their partnership is part artistry, part philosophy, says Rosen. "We don't pretend that color doesn't exist, but we don't want to be defined by it."
Definitely, they mean business. But it's an easy, accessible relationship, he adds of working with a woman he considers the "anti-diva."
Do audiences divine the divine relationship they share? Not all get it, he says, facing social facts, which is one reason both their faces are on the CDs, to show "a black woman and a white man -- and a team."
He's certainly not timid about taking it to the masses. But then, Rosen rises to the occasion." Being Jewish," he says of his punchy pitter-patter before audiences, "is always good for a few jokes."
Indeed, more than anything, there's a rhyme and reason to the team, especially the rhyme. "We did a benefit for St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, which is a school with a 95 percent African-American student body."
He stops a beat. "It's the first time I played for an audience that knew to clap on 2 and 4."
For the record, do Jenkins and her Jewish counterpart socialize much offstage? Real life reels him in: "My wife and I hardly have any social life at all; she's an actress and we have a child," so they rarely go out with others to begin with but do see Jenkins on occasion.
And when he does see other adults, it's usually from a blackboard or a bimah. Rosen is an instructor in musical theory and music history at New York's 92nd Street Y.
Why he does what he does is also obvious from a visit to his Web site (http://cdbaby.com/ cd/jenkinsrosen), and also helps explain why this practitioner of what he calls "guerrilla Judaism" is a soulful street warrior whose "South Side" shows his best side.
AMERICAN UNIVERSITY PAPER - THE EAGLE
Issue date: 3/29/07 Section: The Scene
"South Side Stories" is a song cycle adapted from Rosen's play "The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood." It depicts the south side of Chicago as it changed from an upper-class Jewish neighborhood to a middle-class African American one.
Rosen calls it a story of "youth, innocence, coming of age and experience." These songs speak of drug abuse, family ties, parental relationships, falling in love and sexual experiences. College-aged audiences can relate to this show because it deals with many of the issues they face everyday.
"South Side Stories" also inspired some students to think, "Wow, my life story could be a bestseller."
The song that connected best with students was "Mae's Chevrolet," which spoke about a car that "blew heat in the summer and air in the winter." It illustrated the joys of cruising in a car with friends, singing without inhibition and carelessly forgetting the pains of life - pleasures most students have enjoyed.
"South Side Stories" gave audiences a new admiration for poetry and music. The songs and lyrics were moving, emotional and truly touched the audience.