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Friday, October 7, 2016


While the rain falls outside, attendees of the 2016 Tacoma Film Festival won't even notice. Nothing distracts from what's happening outdoors like the indoor pleasures of flickering movie screen and the smell of hot, buttered popcorn. Then there is the excitement of being part of the exclusivity, the chance to meet the filmmakers in person, and being among the first to see independently created films that might go on to become legendary. From Oct. 6-Oct. 13, you can choose from a delicious smorgasborg ranging from serious drama to humor, from flights of fancy to breathtaking documentaries. Take a look at this trailer for the film Ocean Stories: the Halls— 

Some of the films you will see have been hits at other film festivals, domestic and foreign; some are complete surprises; some even involve virtual reality. You can see local selections, shorts, and children's films, like the best films gleaned from the New York International Children's Film Festival. 

My dictionary defines "independent" as "not subject to control by others," and in the world of film, that translates to artistic freedom, the unleashing of creativity. Now more than ever, our society needs fresh voices and more honest ways to look at life, our world, and the real human experiences hidden behind headlines. This event, however, is a challenge for the indecisive. How does a person selection from 150 films and 13 special events? I'm going to see as many as I can.

You can start by looking at this online version of the program. Then, buy your tickets. You don't want to miss this!

Monday, October 3, 2016

"JOYFUL NOISE" at Taproot Theatre — a review

Jim Gall in Joyful Noise at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug

Christmas is still nearly three months away, but if you are one of those people who love Handel's Messiah and can hardly wait to sing along with the Hallelujah Chorus, you can do something right now to make one of your favorite holiday experiences more meaningful. Attend the play Joyful Noise at Seattle’s Taproot Theatre, running now through October 21. It reveals the dramatic story most people do not know about the creation of this particular piece of classical music.

Under the guidance of Producing Artistic Director Scott Nolte, Tim Slover’s book, lyrics, and music bring the history of George Frideric Handel’s most famous and beloved musical composition to life on the Jewel Mainstage Theatre’s stage. While being entertained, you will discover things about Handel your childhood piano teacher never taught you. Perhaps you will even find yourself motivated, as I was, to research not only Handel’s life, but also the lives of the other historical characters portrayed by this talented cast. 

Jim Gall in Joyful Noise at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Born in Germany in 1685, Handel was a child prodigy. By the age of 10, he could compose for several instruments. As a young adult, already devoting his life to music, he produced his first opera, Almira, which immediately became a great success.He spent three years immersed in the Italian opera scene before leaving Venice in 1710 to move to London. There he composed his opera Rinaldo in two weeks’ time and saw it performed during the 1710-1711 opera season. It, too, was a major success, launching his career. He became a citizen of England in 1726, composing music for royalty and generally enjoying his status as a celebrity. However, he would soon face struggles, and Joyful Noise opens in the middle of this chaos. 

The play is set in London and Leicestershire, England, in the time frame of 1741 through 1743, during the reign of King George II (Frank Lawler). The glitter of Italian opera, and the previously brilliant career of Handel (Jim Gall), had begun to tarnish. He lacked financial backing, caused himself embarrassment by ranting publicly about the rejection of his operas, and an ongoing feud between two women singers, Kitty Clive (Molli Corcoran) and Susannah Cibber (Allison Standley) made life more than stressful.

Jim Gall, Molli Corcoran, Chris Shea and Allison Standley in Joyful Noise at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

It was also during this time that a wealthy fan, the librettist Charles Jennens (Kevin Pitman) asked Handel to compose an oratorio about the life of Jesus Christ based on Jennens’ carefully arranged passages from scripture. This composition, finished in a few weeks, was as unique as it was brilliant. Although based on religion, it was to be performed not in a church but a concert hall, (for Easter, not Christmas).

As if the issue of performing a religious work in a secular setting did not raise enough controversy on its own, scandal surrounding Cibber, an accused adulteress, fueled moral outrage as well. However, when Messiah debuted in Dublin, Ireland, her emotional singing endeared her to all. The oratorio dazzled audiences, who were deeply moved by the powerful music that recognized the truly human side of religion. Things did not go so well back in London however. Bishop Henry Egerton (William Kumma) had his own career goals in mind when he became a force that nearly destroyed Messiah’s chances for success in London. The ugliness of church politics contrasted with the uplifting quality of Messiah was a striking point in this play.

William Kumma in Joyful Noise at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The play examines this intertwining of subplots in an arresting way in a short two-hour time span, although at times some of them felt too condensed. The acting was excellent in all cases. Gall gave Handel so much personality. You come to see how his passionate nature and determination to do things his own way might have enabled him to create such a masterpiece. I loved his attitude about God not being remote and inaccessible to human beings, but out in “the mud” of their existence. Lawler was a delight as Charles II who, like Handel, contributed humor and humanity to the story. Kumma’s performance as Bishop Egerton showed us a character with a calm, pious exterior hiding typically self-serving human motivations. Pitman, as Jennens, succeeded giving an edge to the real tensions that can result in situations of collaboration. Actor Chris Shea was wonderful in his role of John Christopher Smith, Handel’s copyist and secretary, but also a composer in his own right, I learned.

Nolte, too, brought humor and smiles to the stage with her portrayal of Mary Pendarves, Handel’s greatest fan. A poet, music patron, and kind benefactor, she is overly dramatic and probably too nice for her own good. She protects and sympathizes with Cibber, who always portrays herself as a victim, even though obviously opportunistic and manipulative. Standley develops this character with such skill that the viewer sees both sides of her personality. While we feel for her over her separation from her child, we watch her physically assault competing songstress Clive, who, in real life, was considered London’s most popular woman actress and singer at the time. One weakness of this play is the rapidity of the eventual reconciliation between these two women, after being bitter rivals for so long. It felt unbelievable. I also wished the script would have revealed more about Clive, a role Corcoran played so well, instead of a mere glimpse into her side of the story.

Jim Gall, Molli Corcoran, Chris Shea and Allison Standley in Joyful Noise at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

The versatile set design, by Don Yanik, made a perfect framework for this play, allowing it to move quickly and smoothly from one situation to the next. (Actually, dates and locations projected onto a surface above the stage, for our enlightenment, flashed on and off a bit too quickly for me to jot down in my notes, which was frustrating.) Nanette Acosta’s beautiful costumes added so much with their historical accuracy and attention to detail. Kudos to everyone on the production staff for a job well done. Another aspect of the production that was especially effective was the way some scenes split into different bits of dialog, where some actors froze in their exchanges while, on another part of the stage, we could eavesdrop on a separate conversation.

I highly recommend Joyful Noise. Go see it, and next time you hear Handel’s Messiah, you will have a greater appreciation for the near miracle of its existence, in spite of human dramas, politics, and all else that would have squelched creativity in anyone less amazing than Handel. 

Here is your link for tickets:

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


Members of Embla Lodge No. 2 Daughters of Norway Leikkaring dance group. Photo by Sue Benz

Even if you don't have a drop of Nordic blood in your veins, you will feel as welcome as any Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Finish, or Icelandic American at this delightful event. On October 8, 2016, Tacoma's Embla Lodge No. 2, Daughters of Norway, will again present the annual Nordic Festival at Edgemont Jr. High School,  2300  110th Ave. E., Edgewood, Washington, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

For those living in the Puget Sound area's crowded urban environments, imagine a fun event for the whole family with plenty of FREE PARKING and an admission price of only $2.00. Better yet, children under 12 get in FREE. When was the last time you treated your loved ones, or yourself, to so much fun for such a low cost?
In addition to enjoying dance, live music, demonstrations, and more, you can eat and shop all day. Discover items you just don't see in stores (except for the few and disappearing Scandinavian specialty shops). Everything from imported foods and ingredients to handmade needlework and crafts, household items, vintage Nordic collectibles, sweaters, and even reproduction Viking artifacts will be available.

As a matter of fact, so are some Vikings (or at least those who preserve Viking history). 

Plan to have lunch at the Nordic Café, because it isn't often you can dine on freshly prepared traditional Nordic foods. Close your eyes and imagine the aroma of tender meatballs in savory gravy...mmmmm. For dessert, visit the baked goods table, where you can purchase those famous butter-rich cookies at a ridiculously low price, to take home.
These ladies have been busy preparing lefse, just for you.

Cookies for sale! Photo by Sue Benz.

Listen to the Normana Men's Choir as well as some lively folk music played in the authentic style. 


A warm welcome awaits you, so please put this on your calendar. 
You will thank me later!

I hope you will visit and like Good Life Northwest on Facebook. Thanks!

Friday, July 29, 2016


Chris Ensweiler and Zeb Kovell in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

If you need a break from politics or horrible news of the terrorist attack or shooting of the day, I have a suggestion. Go see a delightful new adaptation of the Broadway musical Big Fish at Taproot Theatre, in Seattle. It's a worthy way to celebrate the 40th Anniversary Season of one of Seattle's best theaters. You might remember the novel, by Daniel Wallace, or the Columbia Motion Picture (book written by John August, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, as in the case of this adaptation as well). However, if you haven't seen this version, well, you haven't seen it and might be sorry if you don't. This talent filled production, under Scott Nolte's fine direction, is waiting for you in Taproot's Jewell Mainstage Theatre now through August 13, 2016. Beyond the light-hearted entertainment to be had, this musical will take you on a more profound and touching journey than you expect. 

Sarah Russell and Margaret Lamb in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Too many musicals I've seen have great songs and dances wrapped around a shallow plot. You won't find that in Big Fish, in spite of its fanciful set of characters. They include a giant (Nick Watson), a mermaid (Carly Squires Hutchison), a witch (Sarah Russell), and other fun personalities who appear in the stories traveling salesman father, protagonist Edward Bloom (Chris Ensweiler) tells his young son, Will Bloom (Zeb Kovell on the night I was there, but also played by Teigun Pesce). In all of them, he is suspiciously the hero. He presents these stories as fact, but they sound too outlandish. Although entertained by his father's tales while still a boy, Will would trade all of them for more time spent together. The adult Will Bloom (Tyler Todd Kimmel) comes to have distain for what he believes is just his father's overactive imagination and a poor attempt to make himself impressive to the son he leaves alone too much of the time.

Nick Watson and Chris Ensweiler in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.
When the musical opens, Will has grown up to be a rather serious and pragmatic young adult, inclined to pessimism, who worries that his father's outlandish stories will be an embarrassment at his upcoming wedding to the soon-to-be Josephine Bloom (Emily Shuel). We can sense the disconnect right away and it becomes the primary conflict of this tale. When sadness befalls the family, both must finally face head-on, and try to resolve, their differences. 

Loving them both is Edward Bloom's ever-devoted wife and mother to Will, Sandra Bloom (Chelsea LeValley) and Will's bride, Josephine Bloom (Emily Shuel). Both were charming in their roles. Unlike Will, who sees himself as misunderstood, these two women embrace Edward's personality and do their best to bring the father and son together. The fact that Josephine is pregnant introduces a whole new dynamic, with Will anticipating his own role as a father.

Chelsea LeValley and Chris Ensweiler in Big Fish at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Perfectly cast, Ensweiler's energetic and charismatic stage presence gives the show its most memorable vibe, but I was delighted to discover the talents and beautiful singing voice of LeValley in her role as his wife. This is her first production at Taproot, and I trust she will return since she did such a great job. I also especially enjoyed Kimmel's fine voice. Although there were times when I felt certain voices did not mesh well, and heard a few flat notes, overall, they were very good, as was the acting.

A simple, but well designed and flexible set served the production's needs perfectly. Colorful and clever costumes brightened the stage and gave personality to the characters. I loved the way Costume Designer Sarah Burch Gordon (whose work I have always admired), handled the challenge of having a mermaid walk around on stage and how she made Watson into a convincing giant. I also enjoyed the excellent live music under the direction of Edd Key, with the volume at just the right level. 

Big Fish has been advertised as a tale about how every father wants to be a hero to his son and how a man will be remembered for his stories. I see an equally universal message but far deeper truth—we never really, truly, know our parents. As children, and even adults, most of us are guilty of viewing those who brought us into the world only through the filter of our own vanity and as if their lives, too, began with our birth. I don't have my parents any longer. Now, through their diaries, old photos, and the words of others outside the family who knew them as young people, I try to discover the big picture of their personalities, motivations, and dreams. They really were much more than simply my mom and dad. I wish we could have stepped out of our generational roles and formed truer friendships.

Will Bloom also discovered some truths too, and surprises, both of which the love in his heart finally allowed him to see. Maybe those stories his father told weren't so outlandish after all.

Give yourself or someone else the gift of a ticket to Big Fish. Call (206) 781-9707 or click here. It's the perfect feel-good summer production.

Friday, January 15, 2016

"WAYS OF WHALES WORKSHOP" — Make Plans to Attend This Event on Jan. 23, 2016

photo courtesy of Jill Hein/Orca Network

All around us in the Salish Sea—the combined inland waters of Washington and British Columbia—live whales called "orcas." Soon, you will have a great opportunity to learn more about them. A thrill to see, their problems are less visible and they themselves generally misunderstood. They are known as "Killer Whales" to many, but rather than being a threat to humans, these graceful creatures face devastating threats to their well-being and survival because of humans. Environmental pollution and a decrease in the salmon upon which these Pacific Northwest whales feed are manmade problems that can only have manmade solutions. 

photo courtesy of Jill Hein/Orca Network

Orca Network wants to give you plenty of reasons to care about the region's whales during the organization's annual "Ways of Whales Workshop." The 2016 event takes place on Saturday, January 23, at the Coupeville Middle School Performing Arts Center, 501. S Main St. Coupeville, WA, on Whidbey Island. Between 9:30am and 4:30pm that day, attendees can hear fascinating talks about the endangered Southern Resident Community of orcas, the Transient/Gigg's Keller Whales, Humpback whales, and more. 

Whenever I receive press releases from Orca Network, I am once again awed by the dedication of Co-Founders Susan Berta and Howard Garrett. With the help of many volunteers, they dedicate countless hours of their lives to educating the public and getting people engaged in the effort to protect these marine mammals and their habitat. By reading the Orca Network website, I recently learned how human-like these aquatic neighbors are. They have complex societies, strong lifelong family bonds, distinctive dialects and hunting practices, and other aspects of whale culture that are passed down through each subsequent generation of their families. 

photo courtesy of Jill Hein/Orca Network

Orca Network has a slogan: Connecting Whales and People in the Pacific Northwest. Wouldn't you like to make this connection? Here is a sampling of the expert speakers you can hear and topics covered in the Ways of Whales Workshop:

Howard Garrett, Orca Network - Lolita/Tokitae Update                                                      
Deborah Giles, Center for Whale Research - Southern Resident Orcas                                
Juliana Houghton, ELISS - Transient orcas in the Salish Sea                                             
Fred Sharpe, Alaska Whale Foundation - Humpback Whales                                                 
Treaty Talks: Paddling up the Columbia River for People and Salmon - short documentary 
Dana Lyons, the Great Salish Sea songEnvironmental education displays and materials will be available throughout the day, including a table from Orca Network's Langley Whale Center gift shop, with whale books, DVDs (including our NEW Fragile Waters DVD!), CDs, field guides and more.

And special this year is an additional talk on Humpback whales by Fred Sharpe on Sunday, January 24, 4 pm at the Langley Whale Center, 115 Anthes, Langley, WA.

Cost of the workshop is $35 ($25 for Students/Seniors), and a hot lunch is available for purchase for an additional $10  
(for those who pre-register, or on an as-available basis).

Pre-registration is highly recommended, as seating is limited and likely to sell out.
Further information and online registration are available at Questions? Contact Orca Network at or 360-331-3543 or 1-866-ORCANET.

photo courtesy of Jill Hein/Orca Network

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