Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tastes like spring.

My devotion to Ina Garten, celebrity chef, is well known. Her most recent cookbook, barefoot contessa at home, is a treasure trove of more delicious, simple recipes. We tried one tonight that tastes like spring. Here's the skinny:

Fresh Pea Soup
2 T. unsalted butter
2 c. chopped leeks, white and light green parts (2 leeks)
1 c. chopped yellow onion
4 c. chicken stock
5 c. freshly shelled peas or 2 (10 oz.) packages of frozen peas
2/3 c. chopped fresh mint
2 t. salt
1/2 t. black pepper
1/2 c. creme fraiche
1/2 c. chopped chives

Melt butter in large saucepan; add leeks and onion and cook over medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Add chicken stock, increase heat to high, and bring to a boil. Add peas and cook 3-5 minutes. Off the heat, add the mint, salt, and pepper.

Puree the soup, either in batches with a blender or using a immersion blender. Whisk in the creme fraiche and chives. Serve.

We LOVED this. I couldn't find creme fraiche, so we used dollops of sour cream on each serving. I worried that the mint might make the dish less savory, but it only imparted a wonderful freshness. This soup would make a delightful first course at a spring lunch. YUM!


Hubby and I went to see the Kessler production of Wonderful Town on Monday night, and we really enjoyed it. I came into the theatre knowing very little about the show, which is unusual for me. Most of the time, I'm familiar with the book and music, so I wasn't sure what to expect from Wonderful Town. A quick synopsis: sisters Eileen and Ruth of Ohio come to New York to try and make it. Ruth, the intellectual, ishoping to write for a newspaper, while the lovely Eileen has her sights set on a performance career. The sisters rent a unpromising cellar apartment and get on with pounding the pavement. Pretty soon, they've made friends, made memories, and made it in New York.

Wonderful Town was written in the early 1950s, and it was based on a collection of stories written in the late 1930s. It very much reflects the sensibilities of a bygone era. Ruth is the smart, but not so pretty sister, who seems to lose men by refusing to minimize her own brainpower. Eileen is the pretty, but dippy, younger sister, who coasts through life on the adoration of men. Sexual innuendo is minimal and innocent, with the girls turning suitors out of their lives for getting fresh.

The absolute standout in the cast was Deborah Lynn as Ruth Sherwood. A versatile actress, she played her voice like an instrument to achieve the desired effect, whether it was smooth ballad style or "hep" scat. In addition, she was confortable enough with movement to be both sultry and hilarious during dance numbers. Lastly, some scenes saw her changing in and out of characters like scarves. Hands down, she was the best performer on stage. One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man, Conga, and Swing were some of my favorite numbers in the show.

Allison Berry as Eileen was also good. She had a strong soprano voice. However, I thought she threw some of her funniest lines/situational comedy away. But this did not detract from one of my absolute favorite songs in the show - My Darlin' Eileen - in which a group of devoted Irish policemen serenade the lovely girl to show their affection. SO CUTE!!

I felt that Matthew Sean Callahan, playing newspaper editor Bob Baker (who later falls in love with Ruth), was more of a singer than an actor. His movement work was minimal, and most songs were sung straight out to the house with little internal motivation or emotional inflection. He has a wonderful singing voice, to be sure, but I would have loved to hear more of the inner workings of the character in it.

Trey Mitchell, playing Eileen's Walgreens suitor Frank, was another standout. With few lines and no songs, he managed to milk his role for every laugh it was worth. I enjoyed watching him.

Costumes were cute and fun, sets were versatile and workable. I REALLY enjoyed the choreography at the top of the Swing number, when two couples dancing in a club do some of the steamiest (not raunchiest) movement work I've seen in a while. I'm assuming this is the original choreography by Kathleen Marshall, but it may bear influence of co-dance captains Andy Bero and Beth Crandall. Whoever was responsible, they deserve a pat on the back.

All in all, though the book and songs are a bit dated, it was a great show!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Did it Deliver?

I went out last night, enjoying a mezze of appetizers at Keifer's with a fried before attending the Ballet Magnificat! performance of Deliver Us! Dinner was wonderful - a seat outside in the gorgeous spring air, a table full of small plates (pita feta, hummus, cucumber and onion salad), and a glass of lemonade. We ate, talked, soaked up the sunshine.

Once we'd had our fill, we headed over to Thalia Mara Hall for the performance. The first half of the program, titled Freedom, is inspired by 2 Chronicles 20. The pieces therein are set to Irish-inspired music. Although there were some jumps that weren't landed solidly, a few odd extensions, and one shaky lift, all in all this portion of the program was BEAUTIFULLY done. Wonderful music and costumes, very well-rehearsed dancers, great music and production values. I really enjoyed it. And you've got to give props to company founder Kathy Thibodeaux. The woman is somewhere over 50, and she's still out there, cutting the mustard with all of those dancers half her age. PLUS she handles all the extra duties of choreography, company management, etc. The woman's a wonder.

After a brief intermission, the Deliver Us! section of the program was underway. This program wisely uses music from the Dreamworks production of "The Prince of Egypt," and the high quality of the music definitely adds oomph to the familiar story of Moses. I was very impressed with all of the pieces early in the program. The costumes were beautiful, the dancers looked fabulous, and the pieces were emotionally moving.

There were a few things that didn't work for me towards the end, though, as sometimes happens when I attend Ballet Mag productions. First of all, in "The Burning Bush" piece, in which Moses literally sees a physical manifestation of God, there was a fabulous prop used to signify the burming bush (which I LOVED). In addition, one dancer, dressed in bright red, yellow, and orange, stood in for flame as God's voice came over the theatre's sound system. What I would have changed - God's voice was one voice. I much preferred the treatment in the Prince of Egypt movie, in which God's voice was many voices. I think this choice would have better conveyed God as an all-encompassing entity, rather than just a white guy's voice coming over the loudspeaker. Secondly, I felt that perhaps three dancers should have been used to signify the flames. It would have given them more choreographic options (as opposed to the one lonely girl, shaking her arms wildly quite a bit), and they could have all interacted with Moses more directly. Also, it might have been nice to have streams red/orange/yellow of fabric hanging from their wrists, as it would have produced a more "flame-like" effect. Why am I nitpicking this? Well, this is God we are talking about here. And as my companion mentioned, if there's anytime to go over the top, this is it.

The remaining pieces (Playing with the Big Boys, Plagues, Passover, and When You Believe) were all very well done, with Passover being particularly moving for me. However, then the show took an odd turn. With no explanation, we jump forward nearly 1500 years to the crucifixion scene. Wha? Where was the parting of the Red Sea, the wandering in the desert, the Ten Commandments? While I understand that communicating the message of Christ is a mission of Ballet Magnificat!, the audience and the production were quite underserved, I felt, by skipping out on the rest of the Moses story. I think some highly arresting and inventive things could have been done with the portions of the story that were left untold. Boo. Hiss.

Anyway, other than that, I really enoyed it. Up next, a review from the Wonderful Town performance, scheduled for tomorrow night.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Upcoming events in Jackson

Just a quick note about some upcoming events:

Ballet Magnificat! of Jackson will present Deliver Us, which dramatizes the story of Moses, at 7 p.m. on March 24 and 2 p.m. on March 25 at Thalia Mara Hall. Tickets range from $10 to $30, and you can find out more by calling 601-977-1001 or visiting the company's Web site. The show is set to the music of Dreamworks' "The Prince of Egypt," and is highly dramatic. I have tickets for the evening of March 24, and I am heartily looking forward to it.

Also, another Kessler production is coming up. Wonderful Town tells the story of two sisters, Ruth and Eileen. They're fresh off the bus from Ohio, ready to follow their dreams, fall in love and take New York by storm. Thought I'm not familiar with the show, it sound slike a good time. Score by Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden and Adolph Green and book by Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov. I have great seats and can't wait! It's not too late to get tickets; the show runs March 26 and 27 at Thalia Mara Hall. Call 601-960-1535 (M-F, 9 a.m.- 4 p.m.) to see what's still available.

Retail damage in Birmingham

I spent the past weekend in Birmingham, doing major retail damage in honor of my 30th birthday. To clarify - I turned 30 in January, and one of my closest friends will turn 30 in May. We decided to split the difference and choose March as the month for our 30th Birthday Throwdown.

First of all, we got a room at the Birmingham Mariott. Why, you ask? Frankly, it's one of the closest hotels to The Summit, and huge shopping complex with oodles of stores that we don't have in Jackson - Saks, Swoozie's, Private Gallery, Anthropologie, the list goes on (and on and on). We spent about a day and a half combing the place, snapping up deals and splurging on to-die-for clothing and acessories. I shopped until my feet ached, until I began wandering the parking lot in a credit card-induced coma, wondering where I'd parked my car or even if I'd driven myself there at all. It was pure bliss.

And how did we fuel such shopping frenzy? We ate at The Highlands, of course. A fabulous restaurant owned by award-winning chef Frank Stitts, The Highlands can sometimes be a difficult place to get into. On previous trips to Brimingham, I'd been unable to secure a reservation. However, by calling about a month in advance, I scored us a cozy table for Friday night. We started with the frito misto, a gorgeous plate of fried assorted seafood and vegetables. Most of the items were fried in a light tempura batter, which kept the dish from being too heavy. In addition, several inventive items, such as fennel, red bell pepper and even sliced lemon, were fried as part of the mix, providing interesting little surprises throughout the dish. (The fennel was divine.) The remoulade sauce served with this dish is almost worth killing for.

I followed the appetizer with a perfectly cooked lamb loin, served on a bed of amazing and original asparagus, sugar snap, and sweet pea farro "risotto." What was even better was that there was almost EXACTLY enough of the "risotto" to have a bit accompany each bite of lamb. Attention to detail, I'm tellin' ya'!

To finish, I ordered the almond dacquoise, a creamy concoction of buttercream, almonds, and cake. What a wonderful end to a wonderful meal.

Service was unsurpassed, with our friendly server providing guidance and recommendations from the menu as well as prompt attention to all of our needs. The restaurant itself is cozy and warm-feeling, although I don't advise a trip to the bathroom (located at the top of some rather steep stairs) after a few drinks.

Other pursuits in Birmingham included a visit to Whole Foods, a FABULOUS organic grocery chain. The Birmingham store had just opened (Feb. 28), and I was duly impressed with its design, product line and amazing execution of concept. There was a gorgeous cheese counter with varieties I'd never seen, an extensive wine shop, a sit-down eatery, a mouth-watering bakery (with beautiful and delicious artisanal breads, pastries, and chocolates - yes, I sampled), and a fairly comprehensive vitamins collection for customers to peruse. And the place was PACKED; people were buzzing around everywhere, buying everything they could get their hands on. I think there is an enormous pent-up demand for organic products in the South. I hear that the chain may be looking to open a store in the Jackson area. I can only hope and pray the powers that be decide it's good business sense. I would certainly become a loyal shopper. There's a vacant grocery building not far from my house . . . .

Lest you think we did nothing more redeeming than shopping and eating, we also hiked in Oak Mountain State Park, which is very well maintained and just plain gorgeous. We tried out the Treetops Trail, where you can see all manner of birds, then took the trail the rest of the way to the Wildlife Center. One of the functions of the center is to serve as a "hospital" for injured and baby animals that have been abandoned or had their habitats destroyed. We loved looking at the baby squirrels, the teeny baby chipmunk, the little bunnies, and all of the other temporary residents. The next time I'm in Birmingham, I will definitely return. The park offers horseback riding and paddleboating as well, and we didn't even scratch the surface of the trails available.

All in all, it was a very pleasurable trip.

Well, that's an understatement.

I can hardly wait to go back!