Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The British are coming – and it’s about time

E-mail this article \ Print this article

Photo courtesy of Jaron Berman
Peas on Earth: Danny Lapidus (right) and Francisco Cotto are Hot Peas ‘N Butter. The duo will perform music for children outdoors at Strathmore on Wednesday, June 25, to celebrate a new CD, ‘‘The Pod Squad.”
It’s a British invasion. Checky Chappy, The Captain and blokes dressed as babes – all singing ‘‘I’m the Pheasant Pluckers Mate” - have taken over Kensington Town Hall. But don’t be alarmed, the Queen isn’t interested in moving her kingdom to Montgomery County just yet. Instead, a group of hams, that is, local singers, dancers and comedians who prefer to be called the British Players, will present the 44th annual Old Time Music Hall though June 21.

‘‘This isn’t your usual dinner theater,” insists Music Hall producer Kim Newball. She believes it’s a ‘‘cut above community theater.”

For a couple of hours, the audience will return to a simpler time, when jokes weren’t ‘‘obscene, but risqué,” notes Ann Dempster, who has been attending these performances for more years than she can recall.To understand who and what these Brits are about, perhaps it’s best to start from the inception. In 1964 British Embassy staffers were homesick for their island home. Representing Britain in the U.S. meant proper manners and using the Queen’s English — even if it came with the slightest Cockney accent. Desperate for their local pubs, never ending pints and bawdy humor, they decided to bring a taste of uniquely British entertainment to America. And thus the British Players were born. Performing songs, dances and G-rated jokes, many of them with double entrendre, the group were housed at the British Embassy for some 40 years until renovations demanded a move to Kensington four years ago.

The evening begins with costumed wenches – their preferred title – serving beer, wine, soda and snacks – nothing fancy, mostly those ‘‘bright orange fish crackers,” Newball says.

No matter the carbs, for the next of couple hours it’s nonstop ‘‘high energy.”

And it begins with audience participation. The 21 cast members troop on stage and host an old-fashioned sing-along. Most folks are familiar with ‘‘Henry the VIII” and ‘‘Daisy, Daisy,” but cheat sheets are included in the program. With a six-piece orchestra, the Bow Belles dancers and Edwardian chorus and maybe 80 behind-the-scene volunteers, this is a labor of music hall love.In fact, the term ‘‘music hall is a genuine artistic artifact,” explains Ann Scherer, a native of Brighton, England, who became a volunteer five years ago after seeing the show. Music hall, a form of British theatrical entertainment similar to American vaudeville, was popular in England from 1850 through the 1960s. While it has mostly disappeared in England, Scherer believes, ‘‘You’ll see ghosts of music hall humor, but it is not in the culture anymore.”Here in the States, a small group of loyalists toil to keep the tradition alive. After a long day of working at the NIH, Neville ‘‘loses herself in musical theater. This is the highlight of my year.”

Former embassy employee Albert Coia has been a member of the British Players for about 40 years. This year’s director and the fun loving Cheeky Chappy, he spent a year preparing for the annual event. But it hasn’t been easy. With about half the cast members British and fewer embassy members involved, it has become increasingly difficult to cast the show, Coia admits.But the Players don’t ever consider quitting, with fans like Dempster, who love the ‘‘old familiar songs that we heard our parents sing.”

Dempster’s husband William concurs, noting ‘‘I like to be entertained, and not abused.”Besides, who can resist songs like ‘‘The Night She Cried in My Beer?”

The British Players will present the 44th Old Time Music Hall in Kensington Town Hall, 3710 Mitchell St., at 8 p.m. tonight through Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $27.50, with group rates available for 15 or more. Call 301-838-0042 or visit www.BritishPlayers.org.

Kids today.

Always looking for fun things to do in the summer — trying to find fun, free concerts where they can kick back and enjoy good music with their parents, siblings and friends. It wasn’t like that back in the day, when Francisco Cotto was growing up in the Bronx.

‘‘We used to play a game; it was kind of a rough game,” laughs the 38-year-old musician reminiscing about the city playground staple that involved a bunch of kids seeking a hidden belt. ‘‘The guy who was ‘it’ would say ‘hot’ or ‘cold,’ and if someone near you found the belt, you’d run like hell!”

The name of the game? Hot Peas and Butter, which also happens to be the name of the band Cotto formed with his best-friend-from-childhood Danny Lapidus. Both are dads now. Lapidus likes to test new songs on his 3-year-old — ‘‘If my daughter doesn’t dance to it, I get nervous,” he says, while Cotto’s 11–year-old occasionally handles percussion. Next Wednesday, June 25, the duo will put on a free concert in the Gudelsky Outdoor Concert Gazebo at Strathmore, with tunes from their latest disc, ‘‘Vol. 4 The Pod Squad” that the friends insist will appeal to all ages.

Songs about sneezing, dreaming and bike riding come in three languages, and every instrument from the piano to the electric guitar to the saxophone to the cuatro — courtesy of Puerto Rican samba legend Yomo Toro — fill the CD. And while song titles like ‘‘Aacchoo!” and ‘‘Jack-a-Lacka” may scream that this is music designed for children, the jazzy riffs and bluesy rhythms make ‘‘The Pod Squad” something adults may want to sneak out of the playroom.

‘‘We try to make it so the kids enjoy it, the parents like it, and we enjoy it, also,” says Cotto. ‘‘It’s sophisticated, but kids get it.

‘‘They’re always smarter than you give them credit for.”

Musical brotherhood

These particular kids were smart and talented enough to get themselves into New York City’s fabled High School of Performing Arts.

‘‘That was more important to me than college,” says Lapidus wistfully. ‘‘It was the most exceptional place — I sat in math class with Jennifer Aniston! — and everyone was involved in bands, in drama.

‘‘It was a profound experience.”

Lapidus has ‘‘always played music. My father inspired me.”

Born in Belgium while his jazz-loving dad was in medical school, he came back to Brooklyn with his family and started to play the clarinet.

‘‘When I was 9-years-old, I had a terrific teacher,” Lapidus remembers. ‘‘He got me my first clarinet, got me ready for auditions.”

Cotto had found a musical mentor, too. Born in Puerto Rico, he came to New York at age 7, and began studying classical guitar at 10.

‘‘I took private lessons at my church in Manhattan,” he explains, adding that he has ‘‘lived in every borough in New York City.”

Guitar came easily to Cotto, whose family liked to listen to salsa and Latin jazz, and he was chosen to audition for what is now known as the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts, the school made famous in the 1980 movie ‘‘Fame.”

‘‘From my junior high, there were eight of us trying out,” he remembers. ‘‘I was the only one who got in.”

Once in, though, he met Lapidus: ‘‘We’ve been best friends since high school, best man at each other’s weddings.

‘‘We’re like brothers.”

Poddy training

It’s a long way from playing in the senior jazz band to launching a band that’s a commercial enterprise with tours, CDs and videos airing on the PBS Noggin network. After high school, Cotto went to study music at conservatory — the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music — and later at Lehman College. Lapidus wanted a liberal arts experience and earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Binghamton University. Once both were in the working world, though, they found themselves gravitating separately to the field of musical education. Cotto was working for the Children’s Aid Society.

‘‘Entertainment education,” he says. ‘‘I fell in love with it; it was so much fun to do.”

Meanwhile, Lapidus — back from a post-college backpacking-through-Europe stint — was working with his dad’s best friend, a professional children’s musician known as Professor Louie.

‘‘I went around with Professor Louie, got my feet wet,” says Lapidus, who owns a recording studio called The Pod Audio Productions, LLC.

‘‘He related to the kids like no one I had ever seen, didn’t care about the adults. He was like an actor.”

Soon the two friends realized that between them, they had a plethora of ideas and material.

‘‘Danny and I always wanted to work on something together,” says Cotto. ‘‘We could never find the right thing, but this kind of music comes naturally to us.”

Lapidus concurs.

‘‘It was very organic,” he says. ‘‘We started getting calls to play concerts; then Frankie said, ‘We should record this, make up a name and record this.

‘‘It was his idea!”

The name, though, resonated with Lapidus, who had never played the hot peas and butter game as a child, but plays it, musically at least, as an adult.

‘‘We’re putting our hearts into it,” he says, and his best friend agrees.

‘‘It’s not just ‘kids’ music,’” says Cotto. ‘‘It’s entertainment for the whole family.”

Hot Peas ‘N Butter will perform at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 25, in the Gudelsky Outdoor Concert Gazebo at Strathmore, 10701 Rockville Pike, North Bethesda. Admission is free. Call 301-581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.