Squonk Opera gets good vibes in Big Apple

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Squonk Opera's eye-catching mashup of visual mecia and original music has been attracting positive buzz in New York, where "Mayhem and Majesty" is playing through Dec. 29 at the 59E59 off-Broadway theater.

The show takes its names from reviews of the Pittsburgh troupe's shows in Scotland, where its innovative theatrical presentations were dubbed "masterly mayhem" and "insane majesty." "Mayhem and Majesty," which played the New Hazlett Theater just last month, poses the question, "What does music look like?"

The answer has impressed New York critics, who haven't seen Squonk on their home turf since an off- and on-Broadway run of "Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk" in 1999-2000.

In a 2000 Playbill article titled "It Came From Pittsburgh: Downtown Devoured, Squonk Puts the Bite on Broadway," Squonk artistic director and flutist Steve O'Hearn expressed that perhaps New York wasn't ready for his group's unusual notions of entertainment. "We have had hecklers, who feel that what we're doing is an affront to Broadway and high-art performance," he said.

This time around, New York seems to be ready for Squonk Opera, which appeared on the TV competition show "America's Got Talent" in 2011.

Kristin Morale, writing for the website Broadway World, delivered a rave that included: " 'Mayhem and Majesty' is an eclectic mix of styles, sounds and talents that, when combined, cannot do anything but amaze those who bear witness to one of the most unique shows New York has ever seen. Essentially, audiences watch as this assortment of 'stuff,' seemingly random at first, is magnificently transformed into a show that creators Jackie Dempsey and Steve O'Hearn should be very proud of indeed."

The New York Times' Laura Collins-Hughes described the work as "a small spectacle of a show occupying that hard-to-classify intersection where live music meets visual art. ... With video screens and flashing lights, pounding drums [Kevin Kornicki] and wailing electric guitar [David Wallace], the show feels at times like an arena-rock concert, drastically compacted.

"But Squonk's music, most of it written by the pianist Jackie Dempsey, dips into classical and art-rock, too." The review notes that "Anna Elder's ethereal voice is a unifying force," and draws a conclusion about that initial question, "What does music look like?"

"Often it's more fun to watch the band, especially Ms. Dempsey, a placidly elegant and unfailingly pleasant presence in long red skirt and long fingerless red gloves. She and her band mates appear to be having fun up there. Sometimes, that's what music looks like."

"Mayhem and Majesty" continues through Dec. 29 at 59E59 Theater, 59 E. 59th St., New York, N.Y. More information at 1-212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org.

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