On the Culture Front: Sting at the Met, She & Him, Wolf Parade, and The Pretty Trap

It's been a busy week or so on the culture front. Last Tuesday, I saw She & Him play an absolutely enchanting and sold out show at Terminal 5. There's something about Zooey Deschanel that's effortlessly stunning. In their cover of Skeeter Davis' "Gonna Get Along Without You Now," with the simple intonation in her voice, she turns a kind of lament into a perky answer to the blurred lines of the expectations of "friends with benefits." Other songs written by Zooey, like "Me and You," have the well-worn familiarity and charm of a '60s classic. It's uncanny the way they move between the two so effortlessly. For about an hour and a half, they went through just about every song off their two albums. Matt Ward was happy to stand off to the side, plucking away thoughtful guitar accompaniments for "She" (who also played keyboard) and the rest the band. They closed the show with Screamin' Jay Hawkins' "I Put a Spell on You," allowing Zooey to let loose her normally restrained voice and belt out some awesome, resonant notes. I was entranced for sure.

Less magical was Tuesday's Wolf Parade show. It could be because it felt like about 100 degrees in Terminal 5, but something was lacking. They played most of their new album, Expo 86, while leaving out a couple of the best songs: the rifftastic "Oh You, Old Thing" and anthemic "Yulia." Spencer Krug, Dan Boeckner, and the rest of the group played with expert precision, and there were moments of intense frenzy - I spotted a particularly enthusiastic fan trying to crowd surf - but parts of the set in the middle seemed to blur together. They kicked off the encore with "Cloud Shadow on the Mountain," which begins with a mock David Byrne talk-singing intro. It's also the first track on the album, and I usually skip ahead to the second ("Palm Road") when listening at home. Luckily, they played it along with a couple from the previous albums. I'd love to hear them play Apologies to the Queen Mary in full sometime. Maybe next year at All Tomorrow's Parties Catskills bash?

Speaking of things you hardly ever see, I was lucky enough to see a reading of a rarely produced Tennessee Williams play. While he was writing The Glass Menagerie, Williams penned an alternate, lighter take on the third act - basically where the unicorn doesn't shatter into a million pieces and end all chance for happiness - called The Pretty Trap. It's a short one-act that takes its title from the overbearing matriarch's belief that "all women are a pretty trap." This rarely seen spin-off on Williams' classic was given a star-studded reading on Monday night with Elaine Stritch as Amanda and theater critic Michael Riedel (full disclosure: I've appeared on his show Theater Talk and think he's pretty cool) as her son, Tom. Stritch is such a natural that even when she loses her place in the script, she never misses a beat, and Riedel delivers his lines with a witty acerbity that channels the playwright on who the character was based. Trap starts off with some choppy dialogue - and it's clear that Williams was still trying to find the rhythm of his characters' voices - but once Tom brings in his friend Jim (Jake Robards) from the warehouse to meet his shy sister, Laura (Tasha Lawrence), the sparks start to fly as she's gradually brought out of her shell. Knowing the classic (and tragic) story of Menagerie, it's a pretty cathartic experience seeing it rewritten before your eyes, and watching Laura bloom into the kind of character she always had the potential to be. We can only hope Williams' archivists will dig up similar spin-offs for Streetcar's Blanche!

Lastly, I saw Sting (for the first time) on Wednesday night at the Metropolitan Opera backed by the Royal Philharmonic clad in unusually casual threads for one of the most respected orchestras in the world. The horn section even doubled as backup singers at one point in a bizarrely wonderful twist. I love when musicians combine genres. I was thrilled when I found out that the Doors' keyboardist Ray Manzarek released an electronic version of Carmina Burana, and one of my favorite musicians is Jacques Loussier, a jazz pianist who plays swing versions of Bach, Ravel, Debussy, and many other venerable classical composers - sometimes I have to remind myself that the Goldberg variations weren't written for drums and bass! So, when I heard Sting was playing at the Met, I thought I'd better check it out.

I've always liked the Police and Synchronicity in particular, but never became a rabid fan, though i did once play an ill-advised drinking game to "Roxanne." Hearing the richly orchestrated songs at the grandest space in the city was like hearing them for the first time. At one point, Sting said that there were two types of love songs: one where both people love each other and the other where one person loves someone and but he/she loves someone else. They then played conductor Steven Mercurio's lush arrangement of "When We Dance." Outside of the creepy brilliance of "Every Breath You Take," I never realized how many nuanced love songs Sting has written. It's nice to see someone so recognizable in a new light.