Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Last Five Years and Valentine's Day

Greetings, everyone!

One of the finest musical theatre works of all time, Jason Robert Brown's "The Last Five Years", is being released as a movie this weekend.  I will be seeing it tomorrow in NYC and then staying for a Q and A session with Brown and director Richard LaGravenesse afterward.  To say I am stoked would be an enormous understatement.  

I intentionally have not watched or listened to a single "teaser" clip from the movie, and I have not watched the theatrical trailer.  It has been tough, with the soundtrack having been available for download for four days now.  I know the music and the show inside-out, and I really cannot wait to hear how the music has been adapted for the big screen.  While I have my skepticism about how an artistic piece so intimate and personal can be blown up into a full-length movie, particularly given that several extras (including JRB himself) are featured in the movie, I want to go in with a completely clean slate tomorrow.  Will I love it?  Will I hate it?  Will my reaction be somewhere in the middle?  I don't know and I won't know until tomorrow, but the initial buzz seems to be overwhelmingly positive, so I am optimistic that I will love it.  And I really should, because an encounter between JRB himself and Stephen Sondheim has made us consider the possibility that the only acceptable thing to say to a composer after seeing his or her work is "I loved it". (Go Here to read the full story; it's quite interesting and my opinions and thoughts after reading it are mixed.)

 Given that JRB will be at the showing I will be attending, I really hope to be able to shake his hand and (honestly) tell him "I loved (it)", and I really do think I will be able to do that. 

I couldn't resist reading an interview of sorts with LaGravenesse (the director) today, though, and this quote of his expertly sums up what I have felt about the musical almost since I first was exposed to it.  You can read my complete thoughts on the musical version here.  Here, he speaks of the "Shmuel Song", which itself is a metaphorical story written for Cathy by Jamie as a way to show her just how much he believes in her and loves her.  

"I went back and excavated the song and realized it wasn't what he was singing, it was why he was singing it. And once I unlocked that secret or that intention, I understood how to do it," LaGravenese says. "It's a very important song because it's the one time you much he loves her and how much he will go through and the efforts he will make to boost her morale and to make her feel good about herself and how much he believes in her. The problem in their marriage —??where she's more neurotic and more in her own way and he's so supportive, so later on when he sings 'Nobody Needs to Know' and he sings, ['We build a treehouse / I keep it from shaking'] while he's sleeping with other women —??the 'Schmuel' thing is the kind of thing he's been doing throughout the marriage. That just doesn't work, and he can't do it anymore. That song became really important once I understood why it was there."

There really are two sides to (nearly) every story and situation and, while I know for a fact that it is impossible to truly understand a particular situation unless you are immersed in it, it is often easy to form a solid allegiance to one party in a situation like this.  Several people side with Cathy because, well, Jamie cheated on her and broke up with her by leaving her a note.  It's true.  He did.  I don't condone cheating (or breaking up any way other than in person).  Jamie is an immature character, and he could have handled the end of the relationship differently.  

However, it is important to look at what, for lack of better words, drove him to act out in such a way.  I really do think that, as LaGravenesse suggests above, the Shmuel song is representative of what Jamie has been doing throughout his and Cathy's relationship -- trying desperately to help her believe in herself and boost her self-esteem.  On the other hand, while Cathy is clearly proud to be dating (and later married to) such a successful author, I am not sure she ever explicitly gives JAMIE HIMSELF any emotional support.  Imagine busting your ass for the one you love, constantly being his or her cheerleader and support rock, and not receiving any support or encouragement from him or her in return.  Yes, Jamie was considerably more successful than Cathy from a professional standpoint, but her lack of support shown to him (and I mean HIM as a person) combined with his feeling that his efforts to boost her up are going nowhere......left him feeling like there was no good way out.  Driven by this dearth of emotional support and availability from his own wife, and lacking the maturity to make a better decision, Jamie sought out his publisher (Elise) to have his physical and emotional needs met.  

I don't condone cheating and I don't doubt that Jamie's decision to cheat on Cathy was the nail in the coffin, but I have no doubt in my mind that, as much as ANYTHING, Cathy was responsible for the failure of their relationship.  No, she was never a particularly confident character to begin with, and yes, it can be argued that some of that could stem from mental health issues and thus debated that to some extent she may not be at fault.  Regardless, though, both partners need to support and be available to each other in any romantic relationship.  If it is, or becomes, a one-way street, as was the case with Jamie and Cathy, it won't work.  

How does all of this relate to Valentine's Day?  Regardless of whether or not you are romantically involved with someone, I have two things to ask of everyone.  Be supportive and emotionally available to those near and dear to you (be they friends, family, or romantic partners), and be grateful to those who have been supportive and emotionally available to you.  Yes, The Last Five Years is a piece of musical theatre with fictional characters, but I really feel like it is a terrific reminder to all of us to remember how much of a MULTIPLE-WAY-STREET every relationship (romantic or platonic) is.  The support and emotional availability have to come from both directions.  It's not easy, but we all need to make that effort.  There's no way around it, because that, at the core, is what love is.  

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Quick Update

Hi Everyone,

I know it has been two weeks since I last posted.  In that time, I was hoping to write a theatre review, write another auto review, or share one of my recipes.  Those updates will come when I have the mental energy to do them well.  However, because I am beyond exhausted at the end of a SNOW DAY and have to rest up for a before-school jazz band rehearsal tomorrow, I will limit tonight's update to two points.

1.  I will be playing an acoustic gig with my cousin, Jacob Patenaude, at Chatham Brewing on Saturday, February 7th from 6 to 8 PM.  I'm beyond excited for this, and we'll be playing a huge variety of music, including some favorites of mine that I have yet to perform for an audience.

2.  I learned two days ago that, at age 28, despite using ample flour and liberally oiling the baking sheet, I still lack the ability to make a pizza that does not stick to the pan.

Ok now that I got that off my chest, it's time to pass out.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Car Review -- 2015 Acura TLX V6 FWD Tech

As promised, here is my weekly update.  This one obviously steers toward the automotive side of things, and the next one will be related to "chow" or "so much more" (most likely a musical theatre review).

I referenced in my last post my decision to replace a four year old car with an eleven year old car with higher mileage.  Well, my 2003 Acura 3.2CL was one of the vehicles affected by the massive Takata airbag recall, and I had to take it in to the dealer for a new driver's side airbag inflator.  Given that the car was also due for an oil change, I left it with the kind folks at Northeast Acura in Latham and drove a 2015 TLX for the few hours that mine was being worked on.

For those not familiar with Acura's history, Acura is Honda's luxury division.  The brand debuted in 1986 with the Legend luxury sedan and coupe, and the Integra sport hatchback.  Since then, the brand has evolved in many ways.  What it has not done, however, is ventured as far upscale as its competitors in Japan and Europe.  While its SUV lineup has been highly successful for the last decade or so, its sedan lineup has, well, not been so successful.  At this time last year, Acura offered four sedans.  The ILX, its entry-level model, was little more than a warmed-over Honda Civic with a few more creature comforts and a few more soft-touch interior surfaces.  The TSX was a rebadged European-spec Honda Accord.  In many ways, it was an absolute steal in terms of dollar value, and it was quite a fun car to drive.  However, it was not quite a competitor to vehicles such as BMW's excellent 3-series and Audi's A4.  Acura's next step up, the TL sedan, was a bit too large to compete with these vehicles and too shy on prestige to fully battle the next class up (BMW's 5-seires and Audi's A6, for example).  The RLX, Acura's top sedan, had just debuted, and was quite impressive.  While not a true competitor to the BMW 7-series or Audi A8, it offered similar interior space for about two-thirds of the price, albeit with fewer luxury features and lower performance limits.

The net effect is that Acura was straddling the luxury sedan classes that already existed, and despite most of the vehicles being generally good, not effectively competing in any of them.  Acura's solution was to simplify the lineup to a three-sedan one by replacing both the TSX and the TL with the TLX.  I was skeptical, as I feel the TSX and TL were the strongest of Acura's four sedans.  Size-wise, the TLX split the gap between both of those sedans, aiming to combine the TSX's trim exterior size with the TL's larger interior volume.  Acura generally succeeded, though rear seat room is not offered in abundance by any stretch.

Another goal was to combine the tossable, fun-to-drive character of the TSX with the refinement and maturity of the TL.  To achieve this goal, Acura decided to offer the TLX with a choice of 4-cylinder or V6 engines, and (on V6 models) with front wheel drive or optional SH-AWD (super-handling all wheel drive).  However, Acura made a major faux-pas in not offering ANY variant of the TLX with a true manual transmission.  This is particularly disappointing, as both the TSX and TL offered stick shifts (and VERY good ones at that) on some trim levels.  Disappointment aside, the goal was for the 4-cylinder TLX to appeal to those seeking economy and nimble handling, the front wheel drive V6 model to appeal to luxury customers, and the SH-AWD V6 model to appeal to thrill-seekers (the SH-AWD system vectors torque to the outer rear wheel when cornering to help neutralize understeer, providing a feeling that the car is on rails).

So how good of a car is the TLX?

I drove the front wheel drive V6 model, equipped with Acura's Technology Package (navigation system, premium audio, real leather on the seats, etc.).  It's a really, really nice car.  That said, it's not perfect.  So, in no particular order........

The 3.5L V6 engine is extremely powerful and this car is QUICK.  However, the nine-speed automatic transmission it mates to is disappointing.  It shifts slowly and not very smoothly, and its gimmicky push-button gear selector (in lieu of the traditional shift lever found in the four-cylinder car) takes a second to engage the gear after pressing the button.  This is partially why I prefer manual transmissions.  There's no waiting.  Perhaps, given that a true manual isn't on offer, the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic used in the four-cylinder car would work better here, as physically it is an automated manual transmission and thus would provide a more direct feel and quicker shifts.

The car rides very comfortably and is very quiet (easily the most silent Honda/Acura product I've driven to date).  It also handles quite well given its sheer mass, and the steering is pleasingly direct.  The car offers a customizable system known as IDS that varies steering effort, suspension firmness, shift timing, etc. to match a driver's desires.  I left it in Sport mode for most of my driving, but briefly sampled Normal mode and Sport Plus mode.  All were more than acceptable.  I can only imagine how sweetly the lighter four-cylinder model feels in the twisties (especially with that quick dual-clutch gearbox), and how steroidal the SH-AWD model must feel when driven aggressively.

On the technology front, the car is impressive.  It comes with Siri Eyes-Free, which enables the driver to tap into Siri on his or her Bluetooth-tethered iPhone by holding down the steering-wheel-mounted talk button.  It worked very well for me.  However, the Bluetooth Audio music search function did not work, but I think that that's related to Apple's iOS 8 update, as this feature worked well on my parents' 2014 Honda Odyssey EX-L (which uses the same infotainment system) until I updated to iOS 8, when it stopped working.

 Additionally, it comes with a "lane keeping assist" system that can read lane markings and steer the car through moderate curves, provided the driver makes occasional steering inputs.  I tried it out.  It's really, REALLY cool, and not once did the car leave its lane with the system doing the steering.  However, it does not keep the car perfectly centered in the lane, which is a bit disconcerting and can make other drivers assume that the driver is drunk, high, texting, or otherwise distracted.  

The audio system was Acura's 10-speaker ELS surround system.  I have sampled the ELS system on several Acuras over the last few years, and have usually come away incredibly impressed with the systems' clarity, power, and immersive listening experience (despite weaker-than-expected bass response).  The system in the TLX was a disappointment.  While my compressed music playing through Bluetooth probably showed its "compression" more obviously through this high-end system than it normally does in lesser systems, this system, while quite clear, was not nearly as impressive as the other ELS systems I sampled......and honestly not much better than the (admittedly good) six-speaker Bose system in my 2003 CL, and barely better at all than the (fantastic) eight-speaker Monsoon system in my 2002 VW Passat wagon.  Perhaps playing a non-compressed CD would have showcased this ELS system much more effectively.

Very little stood out to me otherwise or varied from what I'd expect of an entry-level luxury sedan.  The expected creature comforts were there, the infotainment system was somewhat ergonomically ass-backward, and the car didn't demand very much of its driver.  Actually, from a value standpoint, this car had far more features per dollar than almost any of its direct competitors.'s a nice car, and it is quite a good value.  That said, while it does many things well, the V6 model needs the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic from the four-cylinder car (along with its conventional shifter in place of the push-button nonsense).....or better yet, a true manual gearbox, the ELS stereo was quite disappointing, and the back seat could be more cavernous, among other things.  Does it more effectively assault the mid-luxury market than its TSX and TL predecessors did?  I'm not so sure it does.  I test-drove a 2010 TSX six-speed a few years ago and, while that car was not as quick or refined as this one, and while it lacked some of the TLX's modern technology, it was a far more pure, enjoyable drive, felt more "natural" to sit in, and had a superior ELS stereo.

Don't get me wrong, the 2015 Acura TLX is not a bad car, and for those of you who want maximum features-per-dollar, a very good ride/handling/quietness balance, Honda reliability, and a premium badge, it will serve you very well.  However, aside from Honda reliability and features-per-dollar, I somewhat inexplicably wouldn't see myself buying one of these over any number of competing entry-luxury sedans.  And I am certainly in no hurry to ditch my 2003 CL six-speed for one of these, and I realized that the instant I picked my car up.