On a recent Saturday afternoon in June, I begrudgingly trudged downtown to SubCulture, the intimate, posh venue housed at 45 Bleecker Street. It was one of the first gorgeous days of spring that New Yorkers had the opportunity to savor and I regretted my decision to spend it in a dark basement with Astor Piazzolla.
“Who is Astor Piazzolla?” you might ask? The question itself would undoubtedly make the late, legendary composer wince. After all, there was no shortage of bravado and ego from this Argentinian legend.
Piazzolla is widely considered the father of modern tango. Originally born in Argentina, he immigrated to Greenwich Village in 1925 where he picked up the bandoneon, an instrument similar in look and sound to an accordion. As he matured, he became an arranger and composer, blending styles of classical and jazz to what would be known as Nuevo Tango.
Lesley Karsten is obviously a bonafide Piazzolla fan. So much in fact that she portrays the musical God in gender-bending fashion in That’s Not Tango- Astor Piazzolla, A Life in Music. Karsten also created and co-wrote the show which played a limited run last month. Next week, it will play four additional performances. The overall verdict: It’s worth skipping the tan for this tango.
Over the course of the show, Karsten, as Piazzolla, describes the trials and tribulations that life has brought him. From tense relationships with women, family, and other band members, no stone is left unturned.
There is stylish swagger in Karsten’s performance. Like the maestro himself, she seems to care less what people think, maintaining a cool, confident air throughout.
In between the life stories, audiences have the added bonus of listening to exceptional musicians: Brandt Fredriksen (piano), JP Jofre (bandoneon) and Nick Danielson (violinist) transport listeners to a soul-filled realm of nirvana. Their exquisite flair makes one seem that this was music they were born to play.
Director and co-writer Stephen Wadsworth helms the production, but it would benefit from some visual stimulation and variety. For nearly two hours, Karsten never leaves her downstage right chair. Were there more interaction with the musicians or even some projections, it would add a simple but much-improved touch to what is currently a solid show.
Wadsworth and Karsten have exhaustively researched their subject and most people should walk away with a well-rounded portrait of a complex figure. Undeniably, they’ll leave with either a newfound or renewed love for Tango music.
That’s Not Tango- Astor Piazzolla, A Life in Music at SubCulture (45 Bleecker Street, NYC). Now through July 26. Performance schedule varies. For tickets, visit here.