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December 09, 2016
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Are the grateful dead? Nothing could be “furthur” from the truth

Somewhere in the dark recesses of my sick and twisted mind, everything makes sense. To me. Sadly, the rest of the world is often clueless when it comes to my thought processes, but the kind folks at TRR allow my eccentricities to flourish, and this week I whirled a bit.

It all started innocently enough, with my bimonthly trek to the Forestburgh Playhouse (www.FBPlayhouse.org) to check out their interpretation of the musical “Jekyll & Hyde” based on the “Strange Case Of” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Although the show enjoyed a modest Broadway run of 1,500 performances, it was never a financial success and there are several different versions floating around out there, waiting for the fog to lift.

Tossing other critics’ (not-so-humble) opinions aside, I found the show entertaining, and suspect that the over-hyped original version might have enjoyed a longer run if it hadn’t been missing a key ingredient—the incandescent presence of the electrifying Jessica Wagner.

Yes, the show was tautly staged by Sarah Norris, as well as keenly lit and dramatically designed by Tim Barbiaux and Michael O’Connor. Michael Padgett (in the tough-to-pull- off dual role) was good. Kevin Loreque (as John Utterson) has a beautiful voice and the show is supported by a few memorable tunes, written by Frank Wildhorn, with lyrics by “What Kind of Fool Am I?” showman Leslie Bricusse. But Jessica Wagner (in the role of Lucy) is more than enough reason to go see this show. Wagner’s voice is (IMHO) amazing in range, subtlety and versatility. Her acting reflects innate ability that cannot be learned, but apparently can be trained to attain heights reserved for a very few. I’ve seen this woman perform in the past and have always been impressed, but had no idea that she could literally breathe life into what once was dead. Worth the price of admission to observe Jessica Wagner weave her spell over an audience. Go.

In case anyone out there thought the Grateful Dead were gone, look no “further,” since the Dead (and traveling circus that followed them) are very much alive, with the ongoing exploits of original band members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh leading the way with “Jam Band” Furthur. The music world mourned the death of founding Grateful Dead band member Jerry Garcia in 1995, but his spirit lives on through Weir, Lesh and their cohorts, including Sunshine Garcia singing backup. The Bethel Woods Performing Arts Center (www.bethelwoodscenter.org) once again hit home by hosting Furthur, while remnants of Jekyll & Hyde still reverberated, lurking in the shadows.

As the sun set over the Pavilion at Bethel Woods—and the light-up jewelry could be spied through the haze—my mind wandered back to the songs in the show I had previously seen. Titles from “Jekyll & Hyde” like “I Must Go On” made me think of Garcia, whose legacy most definitely lives on through the experience that is Furthur. Other song titles from the show haunted me (was it the vibe or was I on to something?) “Letting Go” of the Grateful Dead (formed in 1965) is not an option for these devotees and “A Streak of Madness” is definitely par for the course at a Furthur concert. “First Transformation” made total sense as I scanned the deadheads all around, dancing, singing, swaying and swinging to hit after hit that made the entire crowd, as a whole, feel very much “Alive.”

The signature song from Jekyll & Hyde (“This Is the Moment”) could easily be the anthem for Furthur, which continues to evolve via the Grateful Dead legacy, fusing elements of rock, folk, jazz, blues and country into what is now called “psychedelia” that somehow manages to draw lawyers, school teachers, hippies (old and new) into the same arena, at the same time, with accountants, bikers, and some life-forms that were hard to identify—all there for the same reason: the music.

The Grateful Dead produced more than 130 albums, the majority recorded live in concert, and there are literally thousands of songs that bring millions of fans out to mingle as a whole, while celebrating the intricate diversity that only a band like Furthur can attract. Make no mistake, Furthur is not a tribute band, but rather pays tribute, while continuing to evolve, to the higher power that was (and is) the Grateful Dead. Now, if only Furthur could hook up with Jessica Wagner. Jekyll & Hyde meet the Grateful Dead? Hmmm... Long may they live.