Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Bent" Straightens Out Some Misconceptions About The Holocaust: Zeitgeist Stage Company Continues To Challenge and Amaze

Scene from "Bent"
Zeitgeist Stage Company
Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images


Under the courageous leadership of Artistic Director David J. Miller, Zeitgeist Stage Company continues to fulfill its mission to tell the story of the struggle for homosexual rights through many periods of history and in many locations.  Building on the huge success of last year's production of "The Normal Heart," Zeitgeist unblinkingly presents a 35th anniversary production of Martin Sherman's shocking play, "Bent."  When it was first produced in the late 1970s, the play created a great deal of "drama" and controversy. For it was the first production to focus the spotlight on the Nazi persecution and murder of many homosexuals beginning in the mid-1930s.  This play shows in graphic detail the terror and tedium of life in Dachau by those forced to live wearing the Pink Triangle - the lowest rung of the concentration camp's pecking order that also included Jews, Gypsies, mentally deficient, and political prisoners.

The play begins on the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when Hitler ordered Himmler to use his SS troops to purge the Third Reich of perceived enemies, including openly homosexual Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA or Brown Shirts.  A gay couple in Berlin are recovering from a night of drinking and partying when were are shocked by the appearance of a third party in the apartment - a naked young man (played with appropriate swagger and insouciance by Diego Buscaglia) who had been brought home as a "boy toy."  Unfortunately for the couple, the young man they invited home is the boyfriend of one of the SA Leaders, and he has been targeted for arrest.  Max and Rudy get swept up in the purge and are interrogated and beaten.  Rudy, played by Mikey DiLoreto with his usual steady hand and dramatic range, dies of the injuries sustained in the beating/interrogation.  Max, a schemer and survivor finds himself en route to Dachau.  On the train he learns that to be forced to wear the Pink Triangle is the worst possible way to be categorized.  He finds a way - a grotesque and macabre plot twist that I will not reveal here - to have himself classified as a Jew so that he can wear the less odious Yellow Star of David.  The man on the train who helps him to figure out what is really happening in the camps is Horst, who wears the Pink Triangle.

Max is portrayed by the astounding Victor L. Shopov, who impresses each time he steps on a stage in whatever role he has been assigned.  Elliot Norton nominee and IRNE Award winner Shopov is rock solid as the conniving and often heartless Max who against all odds sees the bud of real love begin to bloom in the desert that is the Dachau rock pile where he labors twelve hours a day with Horst.  Horst is played no less impressively by the gaunt Brooks Reeves.  The haunted look in Hortst's eyes and the shrunken posture that Horst displays allow the audience to believe that this is a man who has been worn down to almost nothing by the horrors and deprivations of the camp system, a system that gives only watery broth to those who wear the Pink Triangle, while the others get a scrap of meat in their soup.

Through another act of manipulation that is revealed in Act II, Max manages to get Brooks re-assigned to work with him on the rock pile.  Their job is to move a pile of rocks from one corner of the yard to the opposite corner - and then to repeat the process ad infinitum under the glaring scrutiny of the camp guards.  They are not allowed to talk to one another or to touch one another.  The meaninglessness and the monotony of the task is intended to drive the prisoners into insanity.  The entire second act of the play consists of watching Max and Horst move the rocks while surreptitiously conducting a long-playing conversation that turns into a friendship and then into something approaching true love - despite all the obstacles that should have quenched any spark of life or humanity.

Josh Clary as Guard
Victor L. Shopov as Max
Brooks Reeves as Horst
Ronald Lacey as SS Officer
Zeitgeist Stage Company
Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images



The pace of the second act is tedious - and rightfully so - for the playwright forces the audience to begin to feel at a very visceral level what it must have been like to subsist in such a dehumanizing environment and system.   For most of Act II, Max and Horst are alone on stage, very much like Estragon and Vladimir in "Waiting For Godot" - endlessly awaiting a salvation that will never come. The only other characters to appear are guards changing shifts - to give the audience a sense of the monotonous and tedious passage of time., and then a crucial confrontation in which Horst is forced to play the "Hat Game."

Victor L. Shopov as Max
Brooks Reeves as Horst
Ronald Lacey as SS Officer
Zeitgeist Stage Company
Photo by Richard Hall/Silverline Images
The denouement of the play is shocking, inevitable and heart-breaking.  This tragedy is as much a love story as it is an exposé of the dangers of being born gay.  One of the collateral tragedies is that this 35 year old story is still timely in 2014.  Even in an age when gay marriage is a fact of life, homosexuals are still being bullied and arrested and killed - at home, in Russia, Uganda, Saudi Arabia and anywhere in the world where the bent human heart still feels the need to hate.

Anther cast member of note is Ben Lewin as Greta, the transvestite owner of one of Berlin's seedier night clubs.  She appears periodically during Act I, singing plaintively and in increasing states of inebriation and disarray, symbolizing the slow decay and devolution of German society.

Robert Bonotto, Lucas Cardona, Thomas Grenon, Josh Clary and Ronald Lacey fill out the cast, very credibly playing a variety of supporting roles that help to create the sense of oppression and horror that was the Third Reich.

Kudos to Mr. Miller and his team for continuing to carry the torch and to shine the light into dark corners of our collective souls.

The play runs at the Boston Center for the Arts through October 11.

Direction:David J. Miller

Cast (in order of appearance):

Victor L. Shopov, Mikey DirLoreto, Brooks Reeves, Ben Lewin, Robert Bonotto, Diego Buscaglia, Ronald Lacey, Matthew Fagerberg, Joshua Clary, and Lucas Cardona

Scenic Design: David Miller

Lighting Design: Michael Clark Wonson 

Sound Design: J. Jumbelic

Costume Design: Tyler Kinney

Stage Manager: Aaron Leventman 

Fight Director: Danielle.Rosvally

Bent is a 1979 play which revolves around the persecution of gays in Nazi Germany, and takes place during and after the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler purged the SS of suspected homosexuals. 
The title of the play refers to the slang word "bent" used in some European countries to refer to homosexuals. When the play was first performed, there was only a trickle of historical research or even awareness about the Nazi persecution of homosexuals. In some regards, the play helped increase that historical research and education in the subsequent decades.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Carolee Carmello: The Boston Concert Presented by F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company - A Veritable Master Class In How To Tell A Story Through Song

The Radiant Carolee Carmello
Earlier this week, F.U.D.G.E. Theatre Company, is association with Matt Phillipps, pulled off a stunning coup.  They managed to schedule the illustrious Broadway actor Carolee Carmello to grace the stage at The Arsenal Center for the Arts for a one-night-only concert.  Having watched Ms. Carmello light up the stage night after night as Madame du Maurier in the current A.R.T. production of "Finding Neverland," I made my way to Watertown with high expectations.  I came expecting a very entertaining concert, but what I experienced was far deeper and longer lasting.  Carolee Carmello shared with the audience an intimate invitation to walk with her down the memory pathway of her Broadway career.  The evening was nothing less than a Master Class in how to relate to an audience and how to tell riveting stories through a seamless weaving together of anecdote and song. Each song was placed in a dual context.  She told us how the show fit into her long journey from Upstate New York and SUNY Albany to Broadway and multiple Tony nominations.  Then she set the song and the character in the context of the play's narrative arc.  So we were not just hearing beautiful isolated songs, we were being introduced to real characters who were telling us a key part of their story through this particular melody.  I have seen and heard Audra McDonald do the same thing in concert.  And that places Ms. Carmello in very good company!

  • Very ably accompanied by her Music Director, the talented Phil Reno, she eased into the journey by recounting her role as an understudy in "Les Miserables" - 27 years ago!  Her rendition of "I Dreamed A Dream" was as heart-rending as the composer intended it to be.  Victor Hugo would have been proud of this Fantine.
  • I have heard the iconic "Broadway Baby" from Stephen Sondheim's "Follies" sung by Barbara Cook, Bernadette Peters and other titans of the Broadway and London stage.  Ms. Carmello's rendition was as saucy and delightful as any I have heard before.
  • A highlight of the evening was the cleverly written ditty from "City of Angels" "You Can Always Count On Me."  Singing the roles of two women who always manage to attract the wrong kind of man, Carolee was appropriately seductive and ironic as she sang about attracting the "men who are longing to do my hair"!
  • As the bar maid Nancy in "Oliver," she was simply mesmerizing in "As Long As He Needs Me" - trying to convince us why she had stuck with the abusive Bill Sykes for so long.
  • Another highlight of the concert was her portrayal of Audrey - another abused woman - in "Little Shop of Horrors."  Her Skid Row accent was pitch perfect, and she made the deliberately kitschy lyrics touching as she crooned "Somewhere That's Green."
  • The concert continued with the gorgeous "When I Look At You" from "The Scarlet Pimpernel."  I had seen her perform this song on Broadway, and this evening's version was particularly poignant as she lamented losing the husband she had fallen in love with and who stood before her - distant and mysterious and changed.
  • "You're Just in Love" from "Call Me Madam" and "Trip To The Library" from "She Loves Me" demonstrated still more colors in the full spectrum of Ms. Carmello's singing and acting range.
  • "Our Story Goes On/Patterns" gave her an opportunity to reprise two roles she had played at different poles in her career in two productions of "Baby."  She was believable both as the young first time wide-eyed mother-to-be and the stunned empty nester who finds herself once again in the family way.
A wonderful surprise and a touching moment was calling her father from the audience to sing with her a duet that they had begun to sing when she was a girl back in New York.

We took a short break to stretch our legs and to give Ms. Carmello a chance to change into a stunning crimson evening gown.  Most of us spent the Intermission congratulating ourselves on our good fortune to be present at such a memorable and stunning event.

  • "Why Can't I" from "Scandalous" kicked off the second half of the concert, followed by the powerful "I Haven't Got A Prayer" from "Sister Act."  This may be the best song written for a Mother Superior since "Climb Every Mountain," and Carolee's interpretation of the number was - well, Superior!
  • "Crimson Kiss" from the short-lived and all-too-mortal "Lestat" allowed her to show her maternal side in talking about the impending death of a key character in the story.
  • The next song was set in the context of the 9/11 tragedy.  Broadway was shut down for several days, and on the first night that shows re-opened, only a handful of stalwart theatergoers made their way to the Great White Way that had been darkened by the terrorist attacks.  Carolee recounted how terrified she was to step back on the stage to sing "So In Love" from the revival of Cole Porter's "Kiss Me Kate."  By the time she began the song, I think most of us were caught in a reverie of where we were during those tragic 2001 September days.
    • I do not believe that Ms. Carmello was aware of how close to home she was hitting in reminding us of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  For the Arsenal Center for the Arts sits just a few hundred yards from the staging area that police used in their manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers.  I am sure that I was not the only person in the audience who made that connection.
  • The beautiful "All The Wasted Time" from "Parade" gave way to "I'm Going Back" from "Bells Are Ringing."  The song was a rousing tour de force of comic timing and Mermanesque belting out a great tune.
  • Her valedictory number, "The Winner Takes It All" was presented as a celebration of "Mamma Mia!' as well as of her career and of the wonder of musical theater as an art form.

  • The icing on the cake was two encores.  Finishing with "Don't Rain On My Parade" from "Funny Girl" sent us all out into the street with heads held high and hearts beating with joy and appreciation for what we had just witnessed.
If you ever have a chance to see this gifted performer- in concert or in a musical - it is worth moving heaven and earth to get to any venue that tries to contain this enormous talent.  Boston was blessed to have a small taste of that talent this week, and for the past several weeks in Cambridge in "Finding Neverland."

What a splendid evening!

Al



Thursday, September 25, 2014

SpeakEasy Stage Company Presents "Far From Heaven" - A Powerful Production of a Mediocre Musical



It turns out that you can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear!  Let me begin by saying that there are enough good things about the current SpeakEasy Stage Company production of the new musical "Far From Heaven" to warrant buying a ticket and enjoying an entertaining evening of theater.  The acting and singing are excellent, and the set and costumes are eye-catching.  The problem lies with the very pedestrian book by Richard Greenberg, the sophomoric and simplistic lyrics by Michael Korie and the soporific music by Scott Frankel.  Using some theatrical alchemy, Director Scott Edmiston has managed to take the leaden source material and transform it into a golden production that delights the eye and ear at several key moments.

The talented and enthusiastic cast is very well served by the Musical Direction of Steven Bergman, Choreography of David Connolly, the simple and elegant Scenic Design of Eric Levenson and the stunning Costume Design of Charles Schoonmaker.  Lighting by Karen Perlow and Sound by Noah Thomas are also excellent.

The thin plot revolves around the plastic and apparently happy lives of the junior executive class of Hartford, CT's young and ambitious insurance bosses and their fashionable and often vacuous Stepford - I mean Hartford - wives.  The rub lies when the Ken and Barbie dolls of the social set, Frank and Cathy Whitaker, have secrets that will eventually be revealed and will cause their standing in the community to unravel along with their marriage.  In short, Frank is a closeted gay man who does not know how to deal with his perverse proclivity in an era when psychotherapy and shock treatments were being used to "fix" men cursed with this unfortunate bent.  Cathy, in a loveless marriage, confides in the Negro gardener, Raymond Deagan.  A deep friendship develops, the town is scandalized and all hell breaks loose.

Jared Troilo as Frank Whitaker
Jennifer Ellis as Cathy Whitaker
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
Let's talk about the cast members whose performances call for special recognition.

Jennifer Ellis as the complex and struggling Cathy Whitaker is masterful in portraying a wide range of emotions.  Her voice soars in the opening musical number, "Autumn in Connecticut," as she sings of the promises that the season offers.  The Autumn Promises soon give way to a Winter of Discontent as her world begins to crumble piece by piece.  Ms. Ellis wonderfully portrays the changing emotions that Cathy struggles to hide - from herself, from Frank, from her children, from her friend Eleanor and from the gossip mongers of Hartford.  Her smile that radiates with the message that all is right with the world, gradually loses its luster, and becomes almost a grimace as Cathy figuratively whistles past the graveyard of her marriage and her dreams of a perfect life.  This is a stunningly effective and griping performance.

Jared Troilo plays the closeted and conflicted Frank.  As was the case when he recently played Stone in "City of Angels," his voice soars in the songs "Secrets" and "If I Hadn't Been."  The palpable coolness and lack of chemistry between Cathy and Frank is no surprise, given the fact that Frank's subterranean passions lie in other directions than his wife.

Amy Doherty turns in her usual steady and impressive performance as Cathy's best friend, Eleanor. Ms. Doherty's acting chops really shine in the scene in which Cathy reveals to Eleanor that she has been confiding in the Negro gardener, Raymond.  Eleanor's changed body language, pursed lips and overall discomfort and cold as ice demeanor reveal that Cathy has lost a friend, despite Eleanor's previous protestations that "You can tell me absolutely anything."

Maurice Emmanuel Parent portrays the widowed gardener, Raymond Deagan.  Raymond and Cathy sing a duet entitled "Sun and Shade" which highlights the differences in their two worlds.    While this role does not showcase Mr. Parent's protean talents as fully as did his portrayal of Mister in "The Color Purple," he does a good job in portraying a character who figures out long before Cathy does that the climate of the world of 1957 Hartford will not allow a romance - or even a platonic friendship - to blossom between them.

Kerry A. Dowling is memorable as Mrs. Leacock, the gossip columnist you love to hate.

Tyler Lenhart plays the role of Chase Decker, Frank's young love interest.  Although he has few lines, he speaks volumes with his posture and his eyes, especially in the Latin number "Wandering Eyes," sung in Desi Arnaz crooner style by Darren Bunch.

Will McGarrahan plays multiple roles, but the two that stand out are the role of Frank's German psychiatrist and the smarmy art critic who visits the art gallery in Hartford where some of the play's action is framed.

Jennifer Ellis as Cathy WhitakerMaurice Emmanuel Parent as Raymond Deagan
Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo
"From the creators of the musical Grey Gardens and Tony Award-winning playwright Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out) comes a lush musical adaptation of Todd Haynes’ acclaimed romantic melodrama of private longings and social taboos. A 1950s Connecticut housewife’s perfect life is shattered when she discovers her husband’s shocking secret and then seeks comfort in a forbidden relationship that dramatically alters her view of herself and the world."

Featuring:

Darren Bunch… Gus / Band Crooner / Ensemble
Aimee Doherty*… Eleanor Fine
Kerry A. Dowling*… Mrs. Leacock / Doris Decker / Ensemble
Jennifer Ellis*… Cathy Whitaker
Audree Hedequist… Janice Whitaker
Tyler Lenhart… Chase Decker / Ensemble
Michael Levesque… Dick Dawson / Ensemble
Sophia Mack… Sarah Deagan
Carla Martinez… Esther / Ensemble
Will McGarrahan*… Dr. Bowman / Morris Farnsworth / Ensemble
Jennifer Mischley… Doreen Dawson / Sheila Decker / Ensemble
Terrence O’Malley*… Stan Fine / Ensemble
Maurice Parent*… Raymond Deagan
Ellen Peterson… Mona Lauder / Ensemble
Carolyn Saxon*… Sybil
Josh Sussman… David Whitaker
Rachel Gianna Tassio… Nancy / Connie / Ensemble
Jared Troilo*… Frank Whitaker
"Far From Heaven" will run through October 11.

SpeakEasy Stage Website









Monday, September 22, 2014

Commonwealth Shakespeare Company Hits A Home Run At Fenway With "Shakespeare At Fenway"



Last Friday evening, Fenway Park was buzzing with a new kind of drama and energy.  The usual Fenway Grounds Crew had given way to the Groundlings who filled the seats along the first base line to enjoy "Shakespeare at Fenway," presented by The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company as part of their 20th season celebration.  It was a night to remember.

The idea for such an event - the first such endeavor to take place in any major league baseball stadium - had been planted by former Boston Mayor Tom Menino, who told Larry Lucchino that Fenway should host more cultural events.  Our beloved former Mayor was clearly avoiding "the insolence of office and the law's delay."  Friday night's festivities represented Menino's "consummation devoutly to be wish'd."  Red Sox Chairman Tom Werner threw out the first verbal pitch when he offered several poignant quotations that proved that there had to have been baseball in the days of Shakespeare: "Fair is foul; foul is fair,"   It was a chilly evening in Boston, but the enthusiastic crowd of several thousand were happy to bundle up for the Bard of Avon.

Bundled Up For The Bard

CSC Founding Artistic Director Steven Maler now shares a rare distinction with Red Sox Outfielder Daniel Nava: they both hit a grand slam in their first at bat at Fenway!  The evening was a rousing success by any measure - or "Measure for Measure."  The program that Mr. Maler created was a wonderfully entertaining patchwork quilt of ten iconic scenes from Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies, with an intermingling of Broadway tunes from shows inspired by Shakespeare plays.  The evening was a perfect pastiche of high brow drama and low brow shenanigans.  As Mr, Werner prepared to exit - stage right - he was accosted by a group of six actors portraying the Rude Mechanicals from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."  They are Larry Coen as Nick Botom, Peter Cambor as Peter Quince, Will LeBow as Tom Snout, Rick Park as Francis Flute, Paul Melendy as Robin Starveling and Mike O'Malley as Snug the Joiner.  This motley crew may have washed ashore at the L Street Beach, for they spoke the Queen's English in flawless Southie accents: "Mistah Warnah, I hope you plan to re-sign Lestah!"  Play ball!

The program that followed included:

Hamlet - the soliloquy scene and confrontation with Ophelia.  Christian Coulson and Kersti Bryan were brilliant and as unflappable as Big Papi at the plate in a World Series game.  During their scene, a fire alarm was sounded and strobe lights illuminated the Park, but they soldiered on, not wearied by bearing the fardel of this burdensome interruption.

Much Ado About Nothing - Playing the reluctant lovers Benedick and Beatrice, James Waterston and Bianca Amato were convincing as the couple just figuring out how to get to First Base!

Othello - This dark tragedy was represented in two scenes.  In the first, Desdemona and Emilia converse about man's treachery in love.  Kersti Bryan and Zuzanna Szadkowski played off of each other in this moving scene that foreshadows Desdemona's murder.  Later, Seth Gilliam as Othello and James Waterston as Iago powerfully discuss and argue the evidence of Desdemona's suspected infidelity.

Romeo and Juliet - In the famous balcony scene, Rupak Ginn as Romeo and Jenna Augen as Juliet delighted the crowd with their portrayal of the cursed lovers, whose family rivalry and mutual disdain surpassed even that of the Red Sox vs. the Yankees.

Musical Interlude - Jason Butler Harner, accompanied by the Mill Town Rounders, sang a song inspired by the lyrics from Tweflth Night.

Twelfth Night - Viola, disguised as Caesario, pleads the case for his master, the Duke, who is in love with the mourning Olivia.  Marianna Bassham and Kerry O'Malley both were artfully deceitful in these delicious roles.

Musical Interlude - Kerry O'Malley - who sang the National Anthem from Home Plate just a few weeks ago - rocked the house with her interpretations of "Sing for Your Supper from "The Boys From Syracuse" and "So In Love" from "Kiss Me Kate."

Macbeth - In this scene from the Scottish play, Jay O. Sanders as Macbeth and Maryann Plunkett as Lady Macbeth begin to melt down as the blood shed when Macbeth murdered King Duncan begins to haunt both husband and wife.  Not since Curt Schilling's "Bloody Sock" game in the ALCS in 2004, have we seen such a letting of the sanguinary substance on a baseball diamond.

Taming of the Shrew - When Peter Cambor as Petruchio confronted Jenna Augen as Katherine in order to tame her and disabuse her of her unladylike ways, I was reminded of 2004 once again.  In this case, the scene was reminiscent of Jason Varitek in July of that year, taming that bitch, A-Rod, with a shot to the mouth with his catcher's mitt.  In both cases - 2004 and 2114 - the crowd roared its approval of the fisticuffs.

Musical Interlude - Max von Essen delighted and enchanted the crowd with his renditions of "Were Thine That Special Face" from "Kiss Me Kate," and the rousing "Something's Coming" from "West Side Story."

Grand Finale - All of the evening's performers returned to the stage to observe or to enact the play-within-the play scene from "A Midsummer Night's Dream." the story of Pyramus and Thisbe.  Our Southie denizens - the Rude Mechanicals  - re-appeared, now costumed as the characters they will play in the melodrama: Larry Coen as Pyramus, Peter Cambor as The Prologue, Will LeBow as Wall, Rick Park as Thisbe, Paul Melendy as Moonshine, and the indomitable Mike O'Malley as roaring Lion. Much merriment ensued.  It was a perfect way to end an unforgettable evening.  Thanks to Paul Melendy's distinctive enunciation, I will never again hear the world "lantern" without thinking about this moonlight night on the Fens.

Rick Park as Thibe
Larry Coen as Pyramus

Kudos to our home town team - The Commonwealth Shakespeare Company.  On this night, they bathed themselves in glory.  Ben Cherington, GM of the Red Sox, could learn a thing or two from Steve Maler when it comes to assembling a winning team.  Friday evening's cast was a cunning combination of home-grown talent and a few free agents flown in from NYC, LA and London.  That is not a bad formula for rebuilding the Red Sox from this season's long-playing tragedy to next year's team that will strive once again to win the crown.  Let us hope that the upcoming "Hot Stove League" will not prove to be "The Winter of Our Discontent"!

Go Sox!

Al


A Charmingly Calculating Woman: Nora Theatre Company Presents "Émilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight"

Steven Barkhimer as Voltaire
Lee Mikeska Gardner as Emilie
History as we tend to study it has largely glossed over the astounding accomplishments of Émilie, La Marquise du Châtelet.  She was a collaborator with and lover of Voltaire.  She was an intellectual sparring partner with the ideas of Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz.  She published a French translation of Newton's watershed work, Mathematica Principia - adding some of her own improvements to Newton's equations.  She was a shining star of the Age of Enlightenment, yet her memory is dim in our age.  Playwright Lauren Gunderson and Director Judy Braha have done their best to ensure that those of  us who live and work in the shadow of the MIT dome do not forget her life and her work.  The play, "Emilie: La Marquise du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight," is part of the longstanding collaboration between MIT and Central Square Theater known as The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT.

The audience enters the performance space at Central Square Theater and is immediately swept into the world of the charmingly calculating woman that was Emilie.  Mathematical equations based on her notebooks line the floor and run up the back wall.   A complex and beautiful wooden structure that resembles an 18th Century scientific instrument covers the opposite wall, and becomes the place from which Emilie delivers several of her speeches - and the place where she keeps score on how her life is going in the realms of love and of philosophy.  For this is a play about her striving to find the proper balance between her head and her heart.

Steven Royal's brilliant scenic design and Chelsea Kerl's sumptuous costumes help to set the stage for the telling of this tale of exploration and explanation of Emilie's elusive "Force vivre."

The story is cleverly told as Emilie, long dead, has been allowed by "space and time" to return to defend her life.  Cast members play several roles in flashbacks that highlight important chapters in Emilie's life and work.  Lee Mikeska Gardner, Nora Theatre Company's Artistic Director, is a revelation as Emilie.  She shows La Marquise in several lights - collaborator, coquette, dispassionate scholar, passionate lover. It is a tour de force performance that should not be missed.

She is very ably supported by a strong cast.  Steven Barkhimer is mesmerizing as Voltaire - in his ascendancy and in his dotage.  Soporo Ngin plays the young and alive Emilie with a gleam in her eye that hints of the complex calculations being solved in that fertile brain.  Lewis D. Wheeler plays Emilie's cuckolded husband and several other roles with understated elegance and grace.  Michelle Dowd plays the Madame and several other characters, and has a wonderful scene in which her vocal and emotional strength shine through.

The emotional center of the play for me was a simple moment near the end of the play.  All evening, we have been looking at a simple formula that indicates Emilie's elusive "Force vivre: F = mc.  With a flick of her wrist and a stroke of her pen, she transforms the equation into the familiar E = mc2

The audience responds with a knowing "Aha!"  Emilie turns, breaks the fourth wall and proclaims: "I don't know what that means, but you do!"  In that moment, with those simple words, she helps us to grasp the truth that she has laid the foundation for scientific understanding that is now common knowledge in our century.  It is a wonderful and moving moment.

This play, which caps the 10th anniversary celebration of The Catalyst Collaborative @MIT, also signals a strong beginning for the leadership of Artistic Director Gardner.

The play will run at the Central Square Theatre through October 5.

Enjoy!

Al

Central Square Theater Website


Tonight, Emilie du Châtelet, leading physicist (before there was such a word), card shark and all-around bad ass during the Age of Enlightenment returns searching for answers: Love or Philosophy? Head or Heart?


Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Directors Company Presents the World Premiere of "Almost Home" by Walter Anderson


Thursday evening marked the World Premiere of Walter Anderson's play, "Almost Home," presented by The Directors Company and Directed by Michael Parva at the Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row on 42nd Street.  This new play is a crisply told story about a wounded Vietnam vet - a Marine sergeant returning home to the Bronx and to some undeclared wars on the home front.

"Almost Home" is the first drama written by Playwright Walter Anderson, former Chairman and CEO of Parade Magazine.  Anderson draws from his own experience as a Marine sergeant in Vietnam and his roots growing up near White Plains Road to tell a very gritty and authentic Bronx tale.  He knows full well that the men returning from 'Nam did not return to ticker tape parades, but to parades of nightmarish images and sounds beating an incessant tattoo of accusation and self-doubt inside their heads.  One of the fellow veterans of Vietnam who collaborated with Mr. Anderson in fine-tuning this play was former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, who was in attendance at last night's opening performance.

The play is carefully and beautifully written, speeding along at a sparse eighty minutes.  Within those precious minutes, Mr. Anderson weaves a complex tale of the homecoming of Johnny Barnett, who has been granted a 72-hour leave before having to report to Camp Pendleton, California.  Mr. Anderson uses an economy of words and of action that propels the play at a brisk pace.  The only exceptions are a handful of scenes between Harry Barnett, Johnny's father, and NYPD Captain Pappas that could be tightened up a bit.

Even before the actors take the stage, the audience has been successfully transported to the 1960s. Harry Feiner's splendidly gritty set reminded me of the flat occupied by Ralph and Alice Kramden in "The Honeymooners." From the enameled stove to the besmudged Frigidaire, we have a sense of time and place and even an approximation of which rung on the Bronx socio-economic ladder that the family occupies. The framed photo of JFK peering out at us from over the refrigerator reminds us that even though Kennedy is dead and gone, his legacy lives on in many ways, including the war that LBJ inherited when he took the oath of office aboard Air Force One in Dallas.  Quentin Chiappeta's Sound Design kicks in and we are treated to a couple of period songs that reinforce the fact that we are back in the days when Camelot was being replaced by The Great Society.  The costumes of Michael McDonald and the Lighting of Graham Kindred complete the picture.

In a prologue, the scene is set for tensions that will rise between Harry Barnett and his family and Captain Pappas.  Harry, played with perfection by Joe Lisi, has been arrested for DUI.  Mr. Lisi is himself a former Marine and former NYPD cop, so there is a deep and palpable genuineness  to his portrayal of the WWII vet who struggles to hide his inner battles with alcohol and compulsive gambling.  James McCaffrey sounds all the right notes as the smarmy and belligerent corrupt NYPD Captain who rules as 47th Precinct as if is were his personal fiefdom.  Like a Mafia don, he values unquestioning loyalty and he expects it from Harry and Johnny, both of whom are in his debt.

Johnny returns from Vietnam, beginning to heal from wounds both physical and psychic.  Jonny Orsini portrays the Marine sergeant in a bravura performance that is magnificent.  He returns to the Bronx apartment in which he grew up to find his parents still squabbling as they have always done.  He harbors secrets that he is reluctant to reveal, so he skims along the surface - distributing gifts to his parents and to his former teacher and muse, Miss Jones. He shares with them his tentative plans. The Marines have offered him a chance to become a Drill Instructor at Camp Pendleton or Camp LeJeune should he choose to re-enlist.  But he has decided to attend junior college in Fullerton, California. His mother, the long suffering Grace Barnett, is played by Karen Ziemba.  Ms. Ziemba has us believing that this traditional stay-at-home submissive housewife and protective mother is able to summon the strength to confront her husband and force him to unburden himself of secrets he has carried with him since returning from the Battle of the Bulge and a scarring POW experience.  Grace wants Johnny to go to college, but not in California.  Harry wants his son to stay in the Marines and make something of himself as a DI.  Miss Jones wants Johnny to dream of limitless possibilities, as he had begun to do when he read the books she introduced to him when they were teacher and pupil.

The wild card in this equation is Captain Pappas, who shows up to make Johnny an offer he can't refuse. In exchange for forgiving debts owed to him by Harry and Johnny, the Captain has arranged for Johnny to attend the NYPD Police Academy and to join the elite Internal Affairs Department.  He has ulterior motives, as always,  With the immanent swearing in of reformist Mayor John V. Lindsey, there will be investigations of the goings on at Precinct 47 and elsewhere in the vast landscape of the NYPD.  Captain Pappas wants Johnny to be his man inside the IAD to warn him of impending investigations.  In a climactic scene that takes place on Captain Pappas' turf at the 47th Precinct House, Miss Jones confronts Pappas.  Broadway veteran Brenda Pressley summons up several layers of attitude befitting a lioness protecting her cub from a predator when she lets loose with a tirade aimed at Pappas that draws from colorful vernacular from the mean streets.  It is a memorable moment in the play.



Beginning with Mr. Anderson's inspired writing and Mr. Parva's clear direction, the quintet of actors tell the story of Johnny's homecoming in a compelling and moving way.  It is clear that we are being told a complex tale of wars being fought in many theaters and at many levels.  There are the literal wars from which both Harry and Johnny have received wounds and collateral damage.  WWII and Vietnam have taken their toll and embedded secrets only reluctantly told.  Then there is the undeclared war that breaks out in frequent skirmishes between Harry and Grace, and the asymmetrical conflicts between Johnny and each of his parents. The battle between Miss Jones and Captain Pappas is a tug of war for Johnny's very soul and future.  I was reminded of the cartoons many of us watched back in the day - an angel perched on Johnny's right shoulder whispering words of encouragement to do the right thing.  A demon lurking on the left shoulder screaming that Johnny would never be anything but a street punk.  And those conflicting messages set up the final war - the civil war raging within Johnny's mind and spirit, wondering who he really is and who he is destined to become.

A further word about the performance of Mr. Orsini in conveying these swirling emotions.  I have had the privilege of watching this actor develop since his days as a student at Boston's Suffolk University.  I have seen him perform in film, on Broadway, Off-Broadway and "in the Regions"!  It has been an arc of consistent growth and ever-deepening gravitas.  In much the same way that he did in portraying a wounded warrior in the short film "Cigarette Candy," Mr. Orsini has created in Johnny Barnett a man who is grappling at the most profound levels with volcanic eruptions of thoughts and feelings that are often at odds with each other.  Within the space of less than an hour and a half, he successfully opens windows that allow the audience to see and feel anger, fear, doubt, self-castigation, guilt, gratitude, hope, despair, defiance, and ultimately intrepid determination. It is a bravura performance of the highest order.

The play will run in a limited engagement through October 12.

Schedule & Ticketing:
ALMOST HOME will play Wednesday – Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets are $46.25-$61.25 (including a $1.25 facility fee) and are available at Telecharge.com, by calling Telecharge at 212-239-6200, or in-person at the Theatre Row Box Office (410 West 42nd Street) Monday – Saturday from Noon to 6pm and Sunday from Noon to 3pm.
For more information on ALMOST HOME, visit www.directorscompany.org.
Follow The Directors Company on Twitter @thedirectorsco and Facebook.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Memorable and Moving First Novel by Ron Irwin: Review of "Flat Water Tuesday"



Ron Irwin has written a remarkable first novel, "Flat Water Tuesday," that is more than just a coming of age saga.  Speaking largely through a combination of flashbacks to his prep school days at Fenton School and real time struggles in New York and on location in Africa, narrator Rob Carrey recounts his post-graduate year rowing for the Fenton "God Four" varsity boat.  It was a tumultuous and life-changing year for each member of the crew - Carrey, John "Jumbo" Perry, Connor, Wadsworth and Ruth - the only female coxswain in the history of Fenton rowing.

The tone and substance of the piece reminded me a bit of several books I have treasured over the years that also have sought to capture something of the ethos and tensions of prep school life: "The Art of Fielding," "A Prayer For Owen Meany," and "A Separate Peace."  Irwin has composed a piece the fleshes out quite well the characters of Carey, Connor, Perry, Ruth and their crusty coach, the enigmatic and inscrutable Channing.  These were individuals similar to ones I had come to know during my own prep school days.  The author captures the below-the-surface undercurrents and tensions that exist within the typical prep school community.  The reader feels the divide that can never be truly crossed between the privileged Ivy league legacy kids who fly off to Aspen for the weekend, and the working class stiffs who have been invited to the party because they excel in academics or an particular sport that is valued in the Ivies.  Crew is one such sport.

Although I could sense the tragedies that lurked just around the next bend in the narrative, I read voraciously to see what would happen to characters whose fates I had come to care about and identify with.  The feel of Irwin's beautiful prose is in evidence in this passage near the end of the story.  Carrey has gone for a run by himself at the end of his class's 15th reunion - a weekend that includes a memorial service for a fallen classmate and member of the God Four crew.:

"And then a miracle.  A boat was making its way down to me.  A small skull, the oars pressing into the water evenly, rhythmically, driven by a good hand.  I waited to hear the sounds of the oarlocks, hear the exhalation of the rower, the backsplash of the blades, but it moved in silence.

It wasn't a sculler.  It was a bird flying out of the sun and over the surface of the water, skimming it, just touching before lifting up and out of the river valley.  I watched it fly over the mountains, wings beating.  I looked once again at the river, but the sunlight had shifted and the surface had become a cool shadow.  And I knew for sure that the bird would continue on and make its way to the ocean.  On its journey it would fly over millions of us.  It would soar over broken hearts and broken bodies and ended relationships and new beginnings and sons and daughters and parents and rivers and boats and schools and kids free for the summer and it would just keep going.  It would fly over cemeteries and cars and houses and fields and roads and highways and then into the clouds, through shame and longing and regret and grief and forgiveness and laughter and childless love." (page 305)

Wow!  That pretty much sums up much of this lovely book and the arc of many of our lives.

Enjoy!

Al

Friday, September 12, 2014

An Astonishingly Timely Production of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Huntington Theatre Company




As I made my way toward the Huntington Theatre Company's home on Boston's "Avenue of the Arts" to see the inaugural play of the 2014-2015 season, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," my thoughts turned to the 1967 film that won multiple Academy Awards and filled theaters across the country.  Back in those troubled times leading up to the explosions of 1968, the tectonic plates of racial tension were grinding away at one another beneath the surface.  We came to the neighborhood theaters and screening rooms to see the flickering faces of Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier.  We came to see how Hollywood would deal with the hot potato issue of inter-racial marriage at a time when such unions were finally legal across the land, thanks to a recent Supreme Court landmark decision. We came to be reassured the the "problem of race" need not be a long-running Greek tragedy.

As I entered the theatre last evening - almost fifty years after having seen the film version of this story - I arrived fully aware of how many changes have taken place.  After all, we have a man of color sitting in the Oval office - something unthinkable in the 1960s.  I came expecting to observe and to admire a quaint museum piece of a story.  How wrong I was!  This production of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" hit me between the eyes and grabbed my heart and my mind.  This production pays homage, certainly, to the film and in may ways stands on the shoulders of the William Rose's screen play.  But under the wise and skillful re-working by playwright Todd Kreidler and Director, David Esbjornson, this iteration of the classic tale takes more risks and is more honest about nuances of racial tension than Hollywood dared to be back in those days.

So I took my place in the orchestra section and began to examine the set for clues about how this version of the story would be told.  Dane Laffrey's scenic design is brilliant.  I first noticed the tension between the contemporary architecture of the sumptuous home of the Drayton family - perched high on a hill overlooking San Francisco - and the home's furnishings.  Scattered throughout the home were antiques from an earlier century.  The home spoke of order, tradition, modernity and the tacit desire to straddle changing times and tastes.  And then later in the play, at a crucial moment of tension, I was shocked to see the set begin to revolve - offering a fresh perspective to the characters and to the audience members.  That ability to revolve and to view things from a different angle served for me as a metaphor for the kind of flexibility that each character in the play would need to demonstrate if they were to be part of the solution to the "problem" that arose when Dr. John Prentice was ushered into the unsuspecting home of the militantly liberal Draytons.

The arena having been prepared for the battle to come, the combatants entered one by one.  Mr. Esbjornson has assembled a cast that bring not only individual acting ability of the first order, they also bring the ability to play off of one another with the kind of genuineness and spontaneity that occurs when families let it all hang out in the heat of battle.  The tensions felt real, often conveyed with gestures, raised eyebrows, scornful stares and exasperated sighs.  I was spellbound throughout the play.

The segues between scenes were handled creatively, with actors in shadows moving in slow motion, emblematic of the shadow world of honest thoughts and feelings that cowered beneath the carefully guarded speeches that characters made to one another.  Credit for these effects belongs to Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes.  Sound Designer Ben Emerson adds period Top 40 Hits that set the time and the mood to perfection.  Costumes by Paul Tazewell finish the job of character definition.

Let me share some thoughts about specific cast members:

Lynda Gravatt plays the Drayton's cook, Matilda "Tillie" Binks.  She gets more mileage out of a shrug of a shoulder or a scornful leer than most actors.  She is magnificent in this role.  She straddles two eras. She lives in the present, but she brings with her from the South an ante bellum sense of a Mammy protecting the white child she helped to raise.  Her distrust of Dr. Prentice, whom she views as a dangerous con artist, adds a layer of tension that propels the narrative forward at several points in the play.

Wendy Rich Stetson plays Hilary St. George, the woman who runs the art gallery that is owned by Mrs. Drayton. She is the lighting rod for Mrs. Drayton's outburst when Christina hears the blatant racism coming from Hilary, disguised as "concern."  Ms. Stetson is wonderful in this role - all coiffured elegance combined with awkward entrances and exits that serve to highlight the absurdity of the situation in which the characters find themselves.  She has a memorable scene in which she is carrying easels out of the Drayton home.  That scene defined the character of Hilary for me, for she serves as a sort of human easel, displaying in its proper light and framing the assumptions and prejudices that are only hinted at and sketched out by others.

Julia Duffy is Christina Dayton.  She is torn between conflicting maternal instincts to both protect her daughter from harm and to promote her daughter's happiness. She is also torn between duty to her daughter and to her husband.  Ms. Duffy conveys the essence of her character's struggles brilliantly through her physical demeanor and her facial expressions.. We are convinced that is is on the verge of fainting when Dr. Prentice, speaking from his medical expertise, instructs her to sit down as she begins to confront the reality that her precious daughter "Joey" has fallen in love with a man whose skin is black!

Will Lyman as Matt Drayton
Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta
Will Lyman portrays the father, Matt Drayton.  Workaholic, lion of journalistic liberalism and inclusion, he is recovering from a heart attack.  His values and very identity are challenged when he is confronted with the logical conclusion of the liberal values he has inculcated in his daughter, Joanna.  There are good reasons why Mr. Lyman has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Elliot Norton Award.  He is the ultimate professional actor and story teller.  He is both magisterial and vulnerable at the moment in the play when he tells the others what his day has been like in dealing with one unexpected blow after another.  It is a moving moment in this play, and is a perfect example of the writer and actor being in perfect harmony with one another.

Meredith Forlenza plays Joanna Drayton skillfully as a complex amalgam of passion, realism, optimism, hard-headed determination and courage.  She navigates the turbulant seas among the rocky islands of her parents, her finance, her beloved Tillie and her recalcitrant future in laws.  She herself is an island of calm in the midst of several tumults.  We are rooting for her to find a way to go off to New York and Geneva with her dark knight without having to alienate her family.  Her character is defined when she notices the cactus blooming on the patio at a particularly difficult time in her negotiations with Dr. Prentice about whether their relationship has a chance to bloom in the desert of opposition that stretches out before them.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner is Dr. John Prentice, acclaimed expert in tropical medicine, and the proximate cause for all of the conflict that is the essence of the play.  The young man many of us first met as Theo Huxtable has grown into a very skilled actor. Mr. Warner commands the stage from the moment of his entrance.  Particularly in his confrontation with his angry father, his character is able to convey a broad spectrum of emotions - from being intimidated to forcefully proclaiming his right to create a new world.  It is a praise-worthy performance.

Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta


His father, John Prentice, Sr., is played with withering rage by Lonnie Farmer.  Mr. and Mrs. Prentice enter the scene and the fray late in Act II.  Their shock at learning that their precious child plans to embark on an inter-racial marriage mirrors the shock that the Draytons had broadcast in Act I.  Their introduction into the narrative serves a purpose similar to the Yin and Yang of the two acts of "Clybourne Park." In that play as well this present play, it is clear that the fears and defenses and hatreds of racism flow from both sides of the racial chasm of America - a chasm that has been carved over the centuries by the rivers of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and lingering prejudice.  Mr. Farmer is effective as the hard working man who has labored too hard to provide an education for his son to see him thrown it all away by exposing himself to the inevitable opprobrium that will befall him and Joanna should they go through with their foolhardy plan to wed.

Mrs. Prentice is played with quiet dignity by Adriane Lenox.  Physically spare and almost frail, she emerges as a tower of strength in listening to her son's cry from the heart, and in mediating between the son and the father's long-smoldering animus for one another.

Rounding out this stellar cast is Monsignor Ryan, played with pitch perfect elan by Patrick Shea. Full of both platitudes and Platonic wisdom, the good Reverend serves as gadfly to the State that is Matt Drayton - challenging his hypocrisy and inconsistency as no one else could who has not been a life long golf partner.  Intoxicated by equal parts of Spirit and spirits, he hovers over the household like a dipso-maniacal guardian angel.

The Cast of
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Adriane Lenox as Mary Prentice
Lonnie Farmer as John Prentice, Sr.
Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice
Meredith Forlenza as Joanna Drayton
Patrick Shea as Monsignor Ryan

Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta
The racially diverse audience responded with enthusiasm to the play.  There were moments of tension and sudden hushed vocal outbursts from the audience when a character would utter a word or phrase that was less than politically correct.  In the discussion period following the performance, it was clear that audience members across a wide racial, generational and socio-economic spectrum found the play intriguing, challenging and very timely.  I found it to be all of those things, as well as deeply moving.

"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" will run through October 5.  I suggest that you get your tickets now before they are all gone. Don't be late for "Dinner"!

Huntington Theatre Website

Enjoy!

Al

Thursday, September 11, 2014

A Bloody Good Show On Clarendon Street - A Razor Sharp Production of "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston


For those of us who are at all conversant with the recent history of live theater in Boston, we hold this truth to be self-evident: that Spiro Veloudos knows how to mount a first-rate production of a musical! With the inaugural offering of the 2014-2015 season at the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, Spiro and his team present Stephen Sondheim's acclaimed musical thriller: "Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

If you are a regular reader of The White Rhino Report, then you know something about theater.  So I will not bore you or insult your intelligence by giving a detailed description of the plot of this Grand Guignol tale of revenge.  Simply put, a naive London Barber by the name of Benjamin Barker is unjustly convicted and transported to Australia for life so that lecherous Judge Turpin is free to pursue Barker's lovely wife, Lucy.  Fifteen years later, Barker has escaped, taken on the identity of Sweeney Todd, and returns to London full of rage and revenge, a full blown misanthrope who believes that "they all deserve to die!"  As the plot develops, he teams with the widow, Mrs. Lovett to create a "joint venture" that allows "those up above to serve those down below."  Throw in some attempted blackmail, a few bloody murders, some unrequited love, a touch of cannibalism-cum-entrepreneurship and you have the recipe for a jolly good night at the theater.

There are several traits that make Mr. Veloudos such a successful director of musicals.  His creative team finds ways to use the limited space at the Lyric to everyone's advantage, playing up the opportunities for intimacy and nuance rather than the broad and grand gesture.  He knows how to cast good actors and singers and to use their unique talents in roles that allow them to shine. He offers them suggestions and options for how to build their characters, then he molds the cast into a cohesive unit that together can tell a convincing story.  And then he gets out of their way and allows them the freedom to soar.  All of these things are true of this current production of "Sweeney Todd" that is satisfying on many levels.

Music Director Jonathan Goldberg has created a musical foundation that under-girds the cast's interpretation of Sondheim's challenging rhythms, melodies and harmonies.  The two-story set designed by Janie E. Howland gives the actors plenty of room to roam and to create settings such as Mrs Lovett's Pie Shop, the Bake House, Fogg's Asylum for the Insane, and Sweeney's Tonsorial Parlor.  Rafael Jaen's costumes enhance each of the character's traits, personalities and social status. Franklin Meissner, Jr. has designed atmospheric lighting that limns each scene with its proper mood and chiaroscuro of shadow and brightness.  Sound design by Andrew Duncan Will ensures that each character is heard when we need to hear them, as well as adding the spice of shrill factory whistles and other sounds suggestive of a bustling London neighborhood.

The cast are wonderful actors and singers, filling the stage and performance space with Sondheim's hauntingly evocative minor chords and complex harmonies.  Here are some of the highlights of the performance that stood out for me.

Amelia Broome as Mrs. Lovett
Christopher Chew as Sweeney Todd
"By The Sea"
Photo by Mark S. Howard
  • The chemistry that develops and then dissolves and detonates between Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett is a strength of this production.  Christopher Chew initially plays Todd as more understated than I have come to expect, but I grew to appreciate his unique approach.  I could feel the rage he harbors inside his betrayed heart build from a slow simmer to a volcanic eruption that became all-consuming.  Amelia Broome brings her own brand of coriander to this delicious role of Mrs. Lovett.  Anyone who ever saw Angela Lansbury play this role in her virtuoso performances cannot help but begin by comparing the incumbent with Ms. Lansbury.  Amelia Broome need not worry about such comparisons, for her Mrs. Lovett is a tour de force - a clean sweep by this Broome.  Her interpretation of the song "By The Sea" is a revelation, showing the innocent and hopeful girl who still lingers beneath the painted hussy of an accomplice to serial murder.
  • Todd and Lovett's duet that closes Act I - "A Little Priest"  - is one of the great songs in the history of musical theater, and these two fine actors carry off this complex number with aplomb and a gleam in the eye that matches the glint from Todd's razor.
  • The role of Tobias is crucial to any production of "Sweeney Todd" that aspires to greatness. The show rises and falls on a few key elements, and the song "Not While I'm Around" is one of those elements.  Phil Tayler was born to play this role.  I am quite familiar with Mr. Tayler's growing list of roles, and I see this as his finest work to date.  From the opening number, Tobias demands attention - a physically awkward and asymmetrical street urchin who will do anything to gain acceptance, a few pence in his pocket and a toothful of gin.  Watching him absorb the madness that surrounds him and become ever more unhinged is part of the wonder of this performance.  From his two-sided patter songs hawking two very different products - Pirelli's Miracle Elixir and Mrs. Lovett's Meat Pies - to his heart-breaking duet with Mrs. Lovett, this Tobias knows how to grind out his part of the story - smoothly and slowly.
Phil Tayler as Tobias
Amelia Broome as Mrs. Lovett
"Not While I'm Around"
Photo by Mark S. Howard
  • The role of Johanna, Barker and Lucy's daughter and Ward of Judge Turpin, can be a very challenging one to sing and to act.  Meghan LaFlam is undaunted by these challenges and sings her way into the heart of the handsome sailor, Anthony Hope, and into the heart of each audience member.  Her interpretation of the lilting "Green Finch and Linnet Bird" is lyrical and flawless.  As an actor, she walks a very narrow tightrope - fending off the lecherous advances of Judge Turpin while bursting at the seams with sexual longing for Anthony.  In this aspect of the role, Ms. LaFlam is more physically aggressive than many Johannas I have seen, but it is an approach that works and adds depth to this key character in the play.
  • Playing her love interest of Anthony is the very capable Sam Simahk.  His soaring tenor voice matches well his viral and swarthy sailor who serenades her from beneath her window, vowing "I'll Steal You, Johanna."  As an audience, we are convinced that this earnest and smitten young man will find a way to overcome the obstacles that Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford have placed in his path.
  • Paul C. Soper plays the cradle-robbing Judge Turpin.  Mr. Soper is an accomplished and acclaimed operatic singer and actor.  The beauty of his vocal instrument is on full display in the duet "Pretty Women" that he shares with Todd.  If I can find any fault with his performance - and I am quibbling here - it would be to observe that I found his acting to be less than convincing in the scene in which he is struck with self-loathing and self-flagellation because of his lust for Johanna.  I was simply not persuaded that he was whipping himself - physically or spiritually.  With that one exception, he carries himself well in the robes of the conflicted judge.
  • Remo Airaldi is a staple on Boston area stages, and he brings a very distinctive style to each role.  The Remo style pairs well with the role of the clownish sycophant Beadle Bamford.  A highlight of his performance is the scene in which he sits at Mrs Lovett's prized harmonium torturing her with songs that his mother adored.  These parlor songs go on forever, but he keeps us in stitches through each excruciating verse.
  • The role of Beggar Women is written as that of a one woman "Shriek Chorus," perpetually warning of the evil that lurks in the miasmal London fogs and smoke that emanates from Mrs. Lovett's ovens.  Lisa Yuen is well cast in this role, and her line "Don't I know you?" is heart-rending and pivotal in ushering in the denouement of this grizzly tale.
  • Davron S. Monroe plays a wonderfully flamboyant and smirking Pirelli, the mountebank barber who attempts to blackmail Todd.  His signature song, "The Contest" is a highlight of high comedy and low humor.
  • The rest of the very fine cast consists of Rishi Basu, Teresa Winner Blume, Shonna Cirone, Serge Clivio, Christina English, Sarah Kornfeld, Aaron Michael Ray and Matt Spano.
The play must close October 11, and tickets will be going like - well, hot meat pies - so order them.
now.


Enjoy!

Al

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

An Inspiring and Sobering Look at The Intersection of Modern Medicine and Pre-Modern Medicine: Review of "God's Hotel" by Victoria Sweet


Dr. Victoria Sweet, MD, Ph. D., has penned a book about her twenty years as a staff physician at the legendary Laguna Honda Hospital, the last remaining "Alms House" in the U.S.  Her journey through those twenty years of tumultuous change has been framed as a pilgrimage in which she has learned lessons from her patients, her colleagues, and the ancient practices of Sister Hildegard of Bingen, Germany.  And is is fitting that she should choose this format to share her thoughts, lessons and experiences, for she spent several summers making an actual pilgrimage in Europe - the legendary Compestela Pilgrimage.  It is clear that she took those spiritual and practical lessons she learned along those treks and integrated them into the ways in which she interacted with her patients and with her colleagues.

As soon as I was a few pages into this book, I knew that I could not wait to share its many insights with two close friends - one a practicing physician and the other an applicant to medical school.  The three of us had lunch last week, and Dr. Tony began to describe his frustration in trying to treat a young schizophrenic patient who refused medication.  It was an exact parallel to a case that Dr. Sweet had described in a chapter of "God's Hotel."

Dr. Sweet's holistic approach to medicine can best be summoned up in this quotation from an early chapter in the book:

"He [Dr. Curtis] reminded me of an aphorism I loved but had never understood it. 'The secret in the care of the patient is in caring for the patient.'  I'd always assumed that it meant caring about the patient - loving or at least liking the patient - but when I saw Dr. Curtis rushing off to put shoes on a patient he barely knew, I thought there must be more to it than that.  So I tracked down the quote and found it in a talk by Dr. Francis Peabody to the graduating medical class of  Harvard in 1927.  It turned out that Dr. Peabody didn't mean caring about a patient but caring for a patient, which he explained, meant doing the little things, the little personal things that nurses usually do - adjusting a patient's bedclothes or giving him sips of water.  That took time, Dr. Peabody admitted, and wasn't, perhaps, the most efficient way for doctors to spend their time.  But it was worth it, he told his students, because that kind of time-costly caring was what created the personal relationship between patient and doctor.  And that relationship was the secret of healing." (pp. 91-92)

Malcolm Gladwell makes a similar point in his book "Blink" in discussing why some physicians are never sued for malpractice.

I found this book both thrilling and sobering.  Thrilling to think that there was a team of physicians earnestly trying to hold back the tide of impersonal Managed Care.  Sobering to learn that they were losing that fight to a tsunami of consultants, government inspectors, efficiency experts, bean counters and marketing gurus who were pushing for more efficiency and quicker healing and discharge of patients.

This book is a must read for anyone practicing health care, and for anyone concerned about the future of medical practice.

Enjoy!

Al

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Three Extraordinary Women Turn Ogunquit Into Coven-try: Review of "The Witches of Eastwick" at the Ogunquit Playhouse



Ogunquit Playhouse has been delighting Northeast audiences for over 80 years with Broadway quality shows. As the 2014 season nears it conclusion, the current offering is the Northeast Premiere of the Cameron Mackintosh produced musical, "The Witches of Eastwick."  The show is based closely on the John Updike novel.  The action is set in 1967, a time when women are beginning to assert themselves into a more prominent and aggressive role in society.  All Hell breaks loose when three bored women in sleepy Eastwick, Rhode Island met more than the man of their dreams in the person of Daryll Van Horne - the Devil incarnate.  The plot rises and falls on Van Horne's seduction of these three women and subsequent supernatural feats he empowers them to perform.




This production is delightful largely due to the powerful performances of the actors portraying the witches and the actor portraying Van Horne.  Nancy Anderson as Sukie Rougemont, Sara Gettelfinger as Alexandra Spofford and Mamie Parris as Jane Smart are simply stunning and enchanting as the three women whose troubles with men make them particularly vulnerable to the wiles of Darryl Van Horne, played with leering charm by golden-voiced James Barbour.  He sounds like a Faustian Robert Goulet, and takes command of the stage in each scene in which he sings, dances and preens.  The sexual tension and chemistry among Van Horne and the three women is the engine that drives this show.

Adding a layer of conflict is the town busybody, Felicia Gabriel, played by Sally Struthers, who has become a summer favorite among Ogunquit audiences.  Those of us of a certain age remember Ms. Struthers as Gloria in "All In The Family."  The Struthers of 2014 is not the same actress we came to admire.  She has a hard time keeping up with the true Broadway professionals who anchor the show, and the costume designer did not do her any favors by dressing her in a very tight outfit that had me wondering why there was a senior US Airways flight attendant in the opening number.

An intriguing subplot is the budding romance between Alexandra's son, Michael and Felicia's daughter, Jennifer.  Played convincingly by Joey Barriero and Brittney Santoro.  The two of them convey a nice refreshing touch of innocence in contrast to the devilish shenanigans in the air - until they are separately enticed to the dark side by Van Horne.  There is a rousing production number, "Dance With The Devil," set in the town's dowdy diner.  Van Horne bedevils many of the townsfolk - causing them to part with most of their bowling night apparel in a rollicking dance number that has the denizens of Eastwick approaching "Full Monty" state of undress.  During the number, Michael succumbs, allowing the audience to appreciate the results of the many hours of work that Mr. Barriero has put in at the gym.

Dance With The Devil
James Barbour as Van Horne
Joey Barriero as Michael
Photo by Gar Ng

Another aspect of this production worth highlighting is the beautiful and flexible set designed by Michael Schweikardt.  There is a strong feeling that we are in a 1967 New England seaside village, with weathered clapboards and gables.  Lighting is by Paul Miller, Costumes by Dustin Cross.  Book and Lyrics are by John Dempsey, Music by Dana Rowe.  Musical Direction by Julian Bigg, Choreography by Lisa Stevens and Directed by Shaun Kerrison.

The Saturday matinee audience loved the show and gave the cast a rousing standing ovation.

The play runs through September 27.

Next up to close the season will be The Addams Family.

Enjoy!

Al

Ogunquit Playhouse Website