Wednesday, April 29, 2015

"Finding Neverland" and The Lost Boys Find A Home On Broadway - Audience Response Trumps The Critics

I am writing this review of "Finding Neverland" on the day in which this musical failed to received a single Tony Award nomination.  I fear that many of the critics and Tony voters were not able to calibrate their sextants and find the "second star to the right - and straight on 'til morning."  I think they missed seeing the show that I have fallen in love with, and I am unashamed in writing in praise of this remarkable musical.

Before you read much further, you may wish to consult my review of the A.R.T. production of "Finding Neverland" that played to record-breaking audiences last summer in Cambridge.  There have been significant changes since the show has moved to Broadway, but many of my comments and observations about the show remain germane.

Blog Review of the Cambridge Production of "Finding Neverland"

I will assume that you have now read my review of the earlier iteration of the play.  Allow me summarize the most significant changes as the show moved from Cambridge to NYC:

  • There are dramtict cast changes.  Matthew Morrison replaces Jeremy Jordan as J.M. Barrie, Kelsey Grammar replaces Michael McGrath as Producer Charles Frohman/Captain Hook.  Porthos is now an actual canine, rather than a human actor.  Teal Wicks now plays Mary Barrie.
  • The opening number and the closing number have been changed - for the better.
  • A quirky scene early in Act I that showed Mary Barrie's OCD tendencies has been cut.
  • New songs have been written for the four Llewelyn Davies boys, further highlighting their talents.
How do I feel about the changes?  For the most part I agree with them, for they make for a cleaner and tighter story.  Matthew Morrison is a perfectly fine J.M. Barrie, but that role will always belong - in my mind and in my heart - to the incomparable Jeremy Jordan who brought a warmth and vulnerability to the role that is not always in evidence in Mr. Morrison's interpretation of the role. Who can argue with casting Kelsey Grammer, who seems to being having a wonderful time as Captain Hook.

Laura Michele Kelly and Carolee Carmello continue to be luminous in their mother and daughter roles of Sylvia Llewelyn Davies and Mrs. Du Maurier.

The four Llewelyn Davies boys came intact as a package from the Cambridge production, with the addition of a few actors to spell them for the eight-show-a-week endurance test that is a Broadway schedule.  The new faces are Jackson Demott Hill, Noah Hinsdale and Christopher Paul Richard. These newcomers to the cast have been added to the pioneering quartet of Alex Drier, Aidan Gemme, Sawyer Nunes and Hayden Signoretti.  These young actors do not seem at all intimidated to have made the leap to the big stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, and they work the crowd at the Stage Door with the confidence of Broadway veterans.  Selfies, screaming girls and autographs abound.

Cast of "Finding Neverland"
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre

I have a good friend who is a Tony Award winning producer as well as a director, writer and actor. After seeing "Finding Neverland," my friend wrote me and said: "Diane Paulus is a genius!"  I would agree enthusiastically with his assessment.  In the case of this musical, she has assembled disparate elements - including composers and a choreographer new to Broadway - and from those parts has fashioned a cohesive narrative of a classical story that still has the power to move all except those whose hearts have been hardened.  This show moves me each time I see it.  My own reaction to the musical and my observation of the enthusiastic response from each audience I have been part of  leads me to the conclusion that this is a show that is "critic proof."  I believe it will run for a long while on Broadway and touch the hearts of those who live in NYC and who travel there to be enchanted.

Clap if you also believe - in the power of story and fairy tales well told!  And click on the link below to book your ticket to Neverland!

A Harvard professor has weighed in on the power of this musical to tell a vibrant story that is part myth and part dramatized biography.  Her Op-Ed piece for Variety is linked below.

Variety Op-Ed Piece about "Finding Neverland" by Harvard Professor



Finding Neverland Website

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wheelock Family Theatre Closes Its Season With "Shrek The Musical" - A Total Delight For All Ages

There is another Green Monster lurking in the Fenway neighborhood these days.  It is not the one in Left Field at Fenway Park off of which baseballs bounce.  It is the ogre Shrek off of whom emanate monstrous and swampish miasmas and B.O.  Yet, in his own way, he is charming as the star of "Shrek The Musical," currently on stage at the Wheelock Family Theatre.  This production is a total delight for audience members of all ages.  Children will delight in the mash-up of many familiar fairy tale characters who have been evicted by Lord Farquaad and forced to relocated to the swamp where Shrek hangs out in isolation.  He is not pleased to have his privacy invaded, and as a consequence, entertaining shenanigans ensue.  Adults will enjoy the same tale, but will also note the many references to the world of Disney that are poked at and satirized by the writing of the brilliant David Lindsay-Abaire.

Shelley Bolman magnificently helms this production as Director, herding a large menagerie of actors playing roles that we are all familiar with - Donkey, Pinocchio, Fairy Godmother, Captain Hook, Wicked Witch, 3 Little Pigs, Goldilocks' 3 Bears, 3 Blind Mice, Ugly Duckling et al.  The large ensemble move fluidly on the Wheelock stage using Mr. Bolman's blocking and the nimble choreography of Patricia Manalo Bochnak.  The production comes to life, as well, due to the artistry of Musical Director Matthew Stern, Set Designer Matthew T. Lazure, Lighting Designer Scott Bolman, Sound Designer Roger J. Moore and Costume Designer Charles G. Baldwin.  I must note that the spectacular costumes by Mr. Baldwin have a real sense of authenticity to them.  In a previous lifetime, Mr. Baldwin worked for Dreamworks on the original Shrek film.

In addition to offering up a menu of Disney parodies, this show addresses important themes of what it means to find a place in the world when you are somewhat different from those around you.  Issues of acceptance and self-acceptance run throughout the tale, poignantly asking the question: "What is real beauty, and who gets to define it?"

Standing out among the strong ensemble cast of adults and children are the following:

  • Christopher Chew is the wonderfully frightful ogre Shrek.  He simultaneously scares and charms as he seeks to evict the characters trespassing in his swamp, and tries awkwardly to navigate a romance with Princess Fiona.  His singing is strong, especially when he is paired with his nuisance traveling companion Donkey and when singing with Fiona.
 Shrek and Fiona during the final number of Shrek the Musical with Christopher Chew and Shonna Cirone.
Photo by Kippy Goldfarb
  • As Fiona, Shonna Cirone is luminous, projecting an inner beauty that allows Shrek and the audience to see beyond her coarse ogre features to the winsome human being who dwells beneath the surface.  Her trio, "I Know It's Today"with Young Fiona (Audree Hedequist) and Teen Fiona (Erin McMillen)  is a highlight of the show.
  • Maurice Emmanuel Parent has some tough shoes to fill as Donkey, for in the film version, Eddie Murphy created an iconic and indelible character.  Mr. Parent manages to put his own stamp upon this key role, with his acting, movement and singing and stage presence.  His song, "Don't Let Me Go" is another highlight.
  • Mark Linehan almost steals the show as the diminutive and dictatorial Lord Farquaad (a parody, I am told, of Disney's Michael Eisner!)  He is forced to play the role on his knees,and his agility from that posture is a wonder.  He provides many of the best moments of comic relief.
  • Cheeyang Ng is a very believable Pinocchio, whose nose expands and retracts in response to the level of veracity contained in his statements.
  • Brittany Rolfs provides the voice for the fire-breathing dragon - a beautiful design  of a huge puppet that fills much of the stage.  She also doubles as Fairy Godmother and Bishop, and is strong in all three roles.
This FABULOUS Dragon was designed and built by the artist Marge Lusignan; a magician in the studio and WFT is so grateful indeed to have her working on this and so many other projects. But this... this Dragon is just DA BOMB! Marge, you rock! — with Lexi Ryan,Gracie BrakemanJeffrey SewellJessica Ayer andHannah McLaughlin.

Other cast members include:Amy Barker, Stephen Markarian, Matthew Kossack, Carla Martiez, Jillian Couillard, Andy Garcia, Brad Foster Reinking, Alexander Eisenberg,
Zachary Eisenberg, Gamalia Pharms, Annie Kerins, Jane ELizabeth Bernhard, Aaron Michael Ray and Sammy Haines.

Fairy Tale Creature Ensemble: Jessica Ayer, Grace Brakema, Millie Chew, Hannah McLaughlin, Julia Paolino, Lily Ramras, rew Ridell, Joanna Rosen, Lexi Ryan and Jeffrey Sewell.

Do not make the monstrous mistake of missing this show, which will run through May 24.  Click on the link below to secure your tickets.  Act fast before the box office is "swamped"!



Friday, April 24, 2015

Emerson Stage Presents Stephen Sondheim's "Merrily We Roll Along" - A Rare Treat On The Cutler Majestic Stage - Through April 25 Only

The evening began with a presentation by the Emerson College community to Broadway star and Tony nominee Norm Lewis.    How fitting.  Mr. Lewis recently played the title role in "Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway.  "Merrily We Roll Along" is full of phantoms of failed friendships and failed marriages.

And then the orchestra sounded the first notes of the rousing Overture to Stephen Sondheim's seldom-performed musical "Merrily We Roll Along."  And what an orchestra!  Under the direction of Jonathan Goldberg, this 12 piece combo anchored a terrific professional-level production with Emerson students serving as the cast and crew.  The orchestra sound was among the best I have heard on a Boston stage - or, technically - under a Boston stage! I knew we were in for a terrific evening of musical theater.

One of the reasons that this musical is not often performed is that it was a flop on Broadway. The book uses the technique of telling the story of three friends in reverse chronological order.  Broadway audiences were apparently not ready for that kind of innovation, and the show closed after only 16 performances.  Many tweaks and re-writes later, the revised version won an Olivier Award in London.  It is this revised version that the Emerson Stage team is presenting with great success. Directing a show of this nature requires teaching the cast members to drive the story forward while looking in the rear view mirror.  The actors have to age backwards, becoming less worldly, less cynical, less jaded as they grow younger with each scene transition.  Scott Lafeber has done a fabulous job in working with this gifted ensemble, and the story is believable as it unfolds and rewinds.

Virtually everything about this production is Broadway quality.  The versatile set composed of multiple levels of sliding panels and elements that fly in and out of the stage is brilliantly designed by Charles E. McCarry.  There must be hundred of costume changes, and each piece designed by M.A. Walsh speaks eloquently of the period being represented in that particular scene.  Lighting by Scott Pinkney and Sean Pieroth, Sound by Arshan Gailus and Projections by Christopher Ash all enhance the telling of this heart-breaking story of the consequences of selfishness on relationships..

The story revolves around the career of composer turned movie mogul Franklin Shepherd and his bosom buddies, Charlie Kringas and Mary Flynn.  When the play begins, everything is falling apart. Franklin is throwing a Hollywood party to celebrate the opening of his latest movie.  In the midst of the celebration he breaks up with his wife in order to take up with the film's starlet, and Mary, in an alcoholic rage, writes herself out of the script of Frank's life.  Charlie has long since departed the friendship after a fatal schism opens between the former partnering composer and his lyricist.  As action rewinds in time, we see how the fissure began to form and we eventually go back to the night in 1957 when the three friends bonded on the roof of a NYC apartment building to try to spot Sputnik.,

There is an important element of the story that is greatly and subtly enhanced by the scenic design. One of Frank's issues is that he has abandoned many of his first loves to chase fame and fortune.  One of those loves is the piano.  As the play opens, an old upright piano is dangling by ropes from the top of the stage - hovering downstage right.  As the action begins, the piano is retracted back into the space above the stage - emblematic of Frank's passion for piano evaporating into an ether of selfish ambition and betrayal.

The ensemble singing and movement are first rate, as Director Goldberg and Choreographer Jennifer Farrell have the groups that surround Frank move like blobs in various formations that hint at the vacuousness of their lives and values and adoration of the hot composer/producer.

Cast members include: principals Tyler Simahk, Michael Albert, Simone Les, Michelle Martinelli, Sam Weisberg and Danielle Bowen.

Cast of "Merrily We Roll Along"
Emerson Stage
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through April 25

Ensemble members are Kathryn Kilger, Brooke Farnum, Hayley Moir, Jamie Zeidman, Alexis Harter, Amy O'Neill, Claire Hilton, Talia Robinson, Dana Gates, Rob Yonkers, elix Teich, Ryan Juda, Joseph Keiserman, Andrew Flynn, Michael Lamar, Gian Raffaele DiCostanzo, Rhys Scheibe, Devin Cortez

Here are some of the highlights that stood out for me in the performance I attended.

  • Tyler Simahk as Franklin commands the stage from the first moment we see him seated at his piano plunking out a tune.  Ms. Simahk is the younger brother of Boston actor, Sam Simahk, who recently starred in the SpeakEasy production of "Big Fish."  It is clear that there is some strong creative DNA in the Simahk gene pool,  Tyler will be graduating soon and heading to Maine for a professional role in Ogunquit Playhouse's upcoming production of "Sister Act."  He shines vocally whenever he sings, and the blend with Charlie and Mary in "Old Friends" and "Our Time" is vibrant and beautiful.  Even when not speaking, Mr. Simahk is effective, particularly in the scene when Frank and Charlie are being interviewed live on TV, and Charlie uses the occasion to tell the world what a bad partner Frank has become.  Tyler's slow burn, conveyed through ever-darkening facial expressions and body language, communicates as loudly and clearly as the actor's speaking and singing voice.
  • Michael Albert portrays Charlie.  His gorgeous singing voice and impressive acting chops are most strikingly on display in the scene I just described, singing the very difficult number "Franklin Shepherd, Inc."  The song is a tour de force performance.
Michael Albert as Charlie
Tyler Simahk as Frank
"Merrily We Roll Along"

Emerson Stage
Cutler Majestic Theatre
Through April 25
  • The third horse pulling this doomed friendship troika is Mary Flynn, played by Simone Les. Her character must traverse a difficult reverse dramatic arc - going from an angry drunk who has given up on life and love to a perky young naif who is waiting for her dreams to go into orbit like the recently launched Sputnik that she observes as she and Frank and Charlie begin to orbit around one another. Ms. Les pulls off this difficult task with aplomb.  She is most poignant sitting by herself, lovesick for Frank, as she adds her third wheel vocals to the duet that Frank and his bride, Beth, sing - "Not A Day Goes By."
  • The role of Beth, Frank's first wife and first love, is played by Danielle Bowen.  The song mentioned above, " Not A Day Goes By" is one of Sondheim's most beautiful, haunting and brilliant.  It is sing twice in two diametrically opposite contexts. We first hear it when Beth sings it in despair outside the courtroom where she and Frank are divorcing and fighting for custody of their son.  We hear it again at their wedding, sung with hope and confidence by Beth and Frank, and with despair by Mary.  It is as brilliant a piece of writing that one can find in the Sondheim oeuvre.  Ms. Bowen has a soaring operatic soprano voice that captures all of the nuance of this powerful number.
  • Among the ensemble, I was impressed with Joseph Keiserman, who played Jerome, Frank's attorney.  It is not easy for a college age actor to portray an older character, but Mr. Keiserman carries himself in a way that he was believable as a thirty-something lawyer.  He has a fine singing voice to complement his strong stage presence.
I am not sure how many tickets remain for the final two performances, but if you are a fan of Sondheim, and want to witness the next generation of stage actors honing their craft, go on the website linked blow and get a ticket to see "Merrily We Roll Along."  This show and this production of it represent a rare treat for Boston audiences.



Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mini-Review of "No Good Men Among The Living" by Anand Gopal - Pulitzer Prize Finalist for 2015

It is no fluke that this book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.  In "No Good Men Among The Living" by Anand Gopal, the writing is superb, as are the insights offered through the eyes of three Afghanis who reflect on how they experienced America's intrusion into the world of the Taliban , the Pashtun and other warring Afghani tribes.  Particularly moving is the story of a woman whose husband was taken away and killed after the couple pushed the margins of proper behavior too far in their small, isolated and fundamentalist village.  Her plight as a widow is pitiable, with her brother-in-law claiming her property after the husband's death.  Her rise to a place of prominence in the Afghan Senate is a remarkable story of courage and strength that serves as an inspiration to all.

The book was recommended to me by an American Special Forces soldier who said that it gave him a whole new perspective on the role of  U.S. troops in the region.



Friday, April 17, 2015

The Huntington Theatre Company Presents "Come Back, Little Sheba" by William Inge - A Remarkable Achievement - Now Extended Through May 2

It is worth noting when a theatre company is able to take a classic of the stage, dust it off and present it as fresh and relevant to a new generation of audience members.  Such is the miracle being repeated with each performance of "Come Back, Little Sheba" at the Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA by the Huntington Theatre Company under the inspired Direction of David Cromer.  This play is one of the highlights of the Boston theater season.  Audience reaction has been so strong that the run of the show has been extended through May 2, so get your tickets while there are still some to be procured.

The success of this production begins with the timeless writing of William Inge.  The characters in this play are partly inspired by an aunt and uncle whose lives he observed when he was young. Issues of a childless and stagnant marriage were ones he observed in his relatives.  His own struggle with alcohol informed that part of this powerful play's script. Inge has created a menagerie of colorful characters, each of whom I found myself caring about.  The cast of this production is stellar, with a few performances that will be remembered for a long while to come.  The creative team have transformed the theater into a reproduction of a 1940's kitchen and living room that is so authentic that it took my breath away.  Stephen Dobay as Scenic Designer is at the top of his game here.  Before the action began, I turned to the person sitting next to me - a woman of a certain age - and we reminisced together about all of the elements of the set that reminded us of the homes where we had grown up or where we had visited our grandparents.  Further enhancing the feel of the period are Costumes by Sarah Laux, Lighting by Mike Durst, and Sound by Jonathan Mastro.

The "action" of the play begins brilliantly with almost no action at all.  Doc enters the kitchen alone early in the morning, and slowly and methodically washes dishes, lights the gas stove, prepares the coffee in a period percolator, and goes through a silent litany of reciting the Serenity Prayer to start off another day of sobriety.  The silence hangs in the air as a pregnant pause.  The audience leans forward to try to grasp what is happening - or is about the happen.  It is said that animals can sense a coming earthquake even before subterranean tremors can be recorded by seismographs.  The audience in the opening scene of "Come Back, Little Sheba" is the same, wondering what kind of tectonic plates may be silently grinding away underneath Doc's placid exterior.  The silence is shattered when a human dynamo, the perky Marie, comes bursting through the kitchen door.  She is a boarder whom Doc finds intriguing and alluring, and whose youth and exuberance Doc's wife, Lola, both admires and resents.  And we are off to the races.

Each actor in this cast has earned special mention.

Derek Hasenstab is a powerful presence as Doc, carving out a dizzying dramatic arc.  In Act I, he holds himself uncomfortably together in a corset of daily routine that obscures evidence of a dry drunk.  That quotidian routine of morning solitude, platonic pecks on the cheek with Lola, trips to his chiropractic office and perusal of the evening newspaper in his chair serve as an exoskeleton that props him up and keeps him from either collapsing into a puddle of self-pity and dissolution or erupting into a volcano of drunken rage. In Act II, he has thrown off the girdle of sobriety and restraint and has fallen off the wagon.  The scene in which he attacks Lola after his return from an all-night bender is one of the most dramatic played out on the American stage, and Mr. Hasenstab handles it with stunning brilliance and force.

Marie Polizzano is Marie, the only apparent spark of life and passion in an otherwise dour household.  She enjoys the fatherly attentions of Doc, not fully realizing the hold she has on him - her youth and beauty a stark contrast to Lola's decay and lethargy.  She is engaged to be married to Bruce, but is carrying on with Turk, who serves as a "life model" for her art studies.  Her libido causes problems for Doc and for Lola.  Ms. Polizzano is perfect in this role, alternating between calculating and innocent, seductive and sweet.

Adrianne Krstansky as Lola is the emotional heart - or the emotional sink hole - of this play.  Her first entrance tells us much of what we need to know about this woman.  She has let herself go and is hanging on by a thread to sanity and the pretense of a marriage.  She is so hungry for meaningful human interaction that she invites in the milkman, the postman, the harried neighbor, Mrs. Coffman - anything to find a human connection..  Her hair is in disarray, her house is a mess, she has gained weight and shuffles around her domicile in a drab house dress.  She is as lost as her poor dog, Sheba, who has apparently run off.  Lola's frequent plaintive cries "Come back, little Sheba" serve as emblematic of her futile attempts to call back the lost years of youth, vitality, hope, passion and meaning.  Those cries for little Sheba serve the same purpose here as does the incessant fog horn in "A Long Day's Journey Into Night." They are both constant reminders that the lady of the house is hopelessly lost and wandering around in a fog.  Ms. Krstansky offers a poignant performance that is pure genius in its ability to break our hearts and to cause us to ache for her emptiness and loss.

Adrianne Krstansky as Lola
Derek Hasenstab as Doc
"Come Back, Little Sheba"
Huntington Theatre Company
Calderwood Pavillion at BCA
Extended through May 2

Max Carpenter is Turk - part-time artist's model, javelin tosser and full-time narcissist and Lothario. Mr. Carpenter does a nice job of showing off both his chiseled body and the flabby soul of Turk, constantly pushing Marie to "put out," even as she awaits the arrival of her fiance.

Max Carpenter and Adrianne Krstansky 
in the Huntington Theatre Company’s production of William Inge’s 
Come Back, Little Sheba, directed by David Cromer, 
playing through May 2
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA. 
Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

Adam Kahler as The Postman does a very nice job of conveying his pity for Lola's loneliness, caving in to her entreaty to come in for some liquid refreshment.  He listens sympathetically as she inappropriately talks about her husband's history of alcohol abuse and his one year of sobriety.

Maureen Keiller is Mrs. Coffman, the neighbor with seven children to feed and clothe.  Ms. Keiller gives this character a nice dramatic arc, In the first act, she is aloof and mildly contemptuous of Lola.  But by Act II she has observed Lola's abusive treatment at the hands of the drunken Doc and steps up to serve as a support and ally for Lola.

Michael Knowlton is the Milkman.  He at first blows off Lola's attempts to engage him in conversation and a cup of coffee.  But her interest in his body building creates an amusing co-dependent bond between these unlikely comrades.  Mr. Knowlton takes a small role that could have been skim milk and churns it into satisfying buttermilk!

Nael Nacer plays the cuckolded finance, Bruce, with the  same quiet elegance and savoir faire that he brings to every role he portrays.  He is a solid professional who can always be counted on to do excellent work on the stage.  He makes good use of his limited time on the stage in this production.

Christopher Tarjan and Jeremy Browne serve as Ed Anderson and Elmo Huston, Doc's AA sponsor and fellow recovering alcoholic.  Their role in the most dramatic scene is key, for they physically intervene to stop Doc from furthering abusing Lola and forcibly remove him and take him to the rehab facility where he clearly belongs.

Boston audiences have been given an extra week to soak up the brilliance of this play and these performances.  Come back - to the BCA, to the professionalism of a Huntington production, to a classic American play.



"The God Box" by Antonia Lassar at New Rep - Storytelling of the Highest Order - Through April 19

In her one woman show, "The God Box," under the Direction of Christine Hamel, Antonia Lassar conducts a Master Class in storytelling.  Using her own personal spiritual pilgrimage as a launching pad, she tells the tale of a young woman who begins with Judaism and ends up having explored a widely divergent potpourri of religious expressions and belief systems.

The conceit is that this pilgrimage has been very private and under the radar of her Jewish parents. The mother only discovers what path her daughter had trod after the daughter's sudden death.  Cleaning out the daughter's apartment, the mother discovers a "God Box" full of mementos of the various stations of the cross of her daughter's spiritual journey. Each item becomes a totem that sends the mother on her own exploration to try to understand what her daughter had been searching for - and with whom.

Ms. Lassar portrays each character with enough differentiation that we know exactly who is speaking at any given moment..  She begins the play by recounting an old Yiddish tale about a village of idiots, Chelm, and the chief idiot, Schlemiel.  It is a wonderful tale that foreshadows a moving denouement when the mother finds something written in a Bible her daughter had placed in the God box..

Antonia Lassar
"The God Box"
New Rep
Through April 19

The storytelling was so good that it immediately made me think of the legendary Sholom Aleichem - pen name of Russian storyteller Solomon Rabinowitz, some of whose tales were the basis for "Fiddler On The Roof."

This play is not only technically brilliant, but also emotionally and spiritually rich.  One cannot put God in a box, but one can certainly place there icons of one's search for the deity.

If you can find your way this weekend to Watertown and New Rep's Black Box Theatre, you just may have a spiritual experience.

New Rep Website



Thursday, April 09, 2015

ArtsEmerson Presents "Needles And Opium" by Ex Machina/ Robert Lepage - Like Nothing You Have Ever Experienced Before On Stage! Through April 12 only!

I knew that I must speed to my computer as soon as the T's balky Green Line and Red Line could get me there so that I could begin to recount what I just experienced at the Cutler Majestic Theatre - before the effects of the drug have worn off completely.  The drug I reference is the intoxicating elixir of ingenious creativity combined with world class story telling and theatrical leger de main that has my head and heart and brain spinning.  My thoughts about tonight's performance of "Needles And Opium" are still in an inchoate form, but I will spit them out as they bubble to the surface lest they evanesce into the ether and I lose them forever.

I have never spent a more disequilibriating evening at the theater, and I am still on "pins and needles" from the effect of watching the conjoined stories of Miles Davis and French poet Jean Cocteau told through the words of Writer/Director Robert Lepage and acted out by Marc Labreche and Wellesley Robertson III.  In 1949, Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau were artists embarking on parallel journeys that constitute an altered state Tale of Two Cities - New York and Paris. Having experienced the highs and lows of life in NYC, Cocteau used his time aboard a flight back to Paris to pen his iconic "Letter to Americans," chronicling his fascination and concern with the American experiment.  Around the same period of time, Miles Davis is tasting Paris for the first time, inhaling the freedom and exhilaration of being received as an artist first, rather than marginalized as a Negro. Their parallel journeys also included seasons of dealing with the many layers of creative genius marbled with despair,  Davis self-medicated with heroin - Cocteau with opium.  Using the words of Cocteau and the music of Davis, Labreche and Robertson invite us on a journey to simulate what the inner lives of the two genius artists may have felt like.  Up is not always up.  In a set designed by Carl Fillion, the two men navigate the hollow inside of half a cube that becomes a hotel room, a recording studio, a post-production film facility, a New York subway, a streetscape, the Milky Way.  Much of the magic is provided by the brilliant projections of Lionel Armoud, Lighting of Bruno Matte, Music and Sound of Jean-Sebastien Cote.

Marc Labreche
"Needles And Opium"
Through April 12
Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon

Marc Labreche
"Needles And Opium"
Through April 12
Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon

As the cube rotates in three axes, the actors stand, lie, float, fall, roll and loll - depending on how the tectonic plates of their inner and outer worlds are grinding against one another.

There comes a moment at the climax of the evening when M. Labreche seems to be hovering above the cosmos reciting excerpts from Cocteau's letter.  He is speaking of the sounds of Louis Armstrong's trumpet as a cry ascending to heaven, wondering what that cry might be saying.  I was tempted to shout out: "It is saying 'I can't breathe!'"  And suddenly a far away world of jazz and Film Noir and bebop and dope injected themselves into the vein of our current struggle with police brutality and needless death.  Art frees us up and propels us to make connections that do not occur on a purely rational and cognitive level.  And that is why, for me, theater is as addicting as the high that Davis and Cocteau experienced from their opiates.

Wellesley Robertson III as Miles Davis
"Needles And Opium"

Through April 12
Photo by Nicola-Frank Vachon
This show is a brilliant work of art.  The audience was mesmerized and electrified.  ArtsEmerson - thanks for getting under our skin!''

This show has a limited run and must close on Sunday.  Do not miss this unforgettable walk on the wild side of theater and magic.

ArtsEmerson Website



Moonbox Productions Presents "Kimberly Akimbo" by David Lindsay-Abaire - Much Food For Thought In This Excellent Production

I have long been a fan of the plays of David Lindsay-Abaire.  "Fuddy Meers" made me laugh.  "Wonder of the World" was wonderfully madcap and "Rabbit Hole" was deep.  So, I was excited when I learned that as part of their 2015 season, Moonbox Productions would be presenting "Kimberly Akimbo."  I went to the theater with high expectations, and I was not disappointed.  This is a well written play beautifully realized by the Moonbox team of creatives and actors.

The action centers on Kimberly, a teenager who suffers from a rare genetic condition that causes her to age at 4.5 times the normal rate.  So, at age 13, instead of experiencing menarche, she went through menopause.  As the play opens, she is sixteen and looks 65.  Her dysfunctional family does not quite know what to do with her. knowing that she will inevitably die soon, they treat her as if she were already a ghost,.while expecting a baby that they pray will be normal.  Into this happy household comes Aunt Debra, a wildly inappropriate free spirit who drinks too much and plots get-rich schemes that involve Kimberly and her geeky boyfriend, Jeff.  Debra had created some problems for the family in their last home, so they beat a hasty retreat and settled in Bogota, New Jersey, where they try very hard to keep a low profile.

Allison Olivia Choat directs this excellent cast in non-stop action that is never boring.  The characters are vibrant as written, and convincingly enacted by the cast of five.  John Paul Devlin's set screams "Trailer Trash"!  Costumes by Susanne Miller, Lighting by Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Projections by Matthew Houstle and Sound by Joel Abbott  create the universe that the playwright imagined these characters would inhabit.  Dan Rodriquez has composed original incidental music that underscores much of the action of the play.

Sheriden Thomas as Kimberly
Lucas Cardona as Jeff
"Kimberly Akimbo"
Moonbox Productions
Through April 25

Each cast member makes a significant contribution to the success of this production.

Sheriden Thomas has the very difficult task of making Kimberly believable as a girlish spirit trapped inside a prematurely aged body. Her mastery of this complex role is marvelous.  Mr. Lindsay-Abaire has written a three-dimensional character who is part old soul and part insecure adolescent.  Ms. Thomas beautifully mines both ends of that spectrum with her vocal inflections, physical movements and a sparkle in her eyes that tell us that she is figuring things out for herself as she observes the crazy world in which she lives.  Her performance alone makes a trip to the BCA's Plaza Theatre a trip worth taking.  But she is supported by a quartet of other ensemble players who in their own right deliver memorable performances.

As Aunt Debra, Shana Dirik is a revelation. Whether she is hauling a mailbox into the family abode as part of a complex scheme to defraud a bank, or defiantly ignoring her brother-in-law's orders to get out of his house, she serves up an over-the-top performance that is simultaneously hilarious and heart breaking.

Sheriden Thoms as Kimberly
Micah Green as Pattie
Shana Dirik as Debra
Lucas Cardona as Jeff
"Kimberly Akimbo"
Moonbox Productions
Through April 25

The long suffering husband and nominal head of this family is Buddy, played with great skill by Andrew Winson.  This working class stiff is overwhelmed by life - an ailing daughter, a hormonal pregnant wife, a sister-in-law who keeps turning up like a bad penny.  He tries hard to keep everything together, but you sense that he never really has a shot at living a normal life under these circumstances.

Micah Greene is Pattie, Kimberly's accident-prone and hypochondriac mother.  It becomes clear that she will do almost anything to ensure that the next child - who could arrive at any moment - will be normal and healthy.  Her emotional neglect of Kimberly and Buddy, and her toleration of Debra's presence sets the stage for complications that are classic Lindsay-Abaire in their level of absurdity and hilarity.

Rounding out this terrific cast is young Lucas Cardona as Jeff.  This student from Boston Arts Academy holds his own on a stage with seasoned Equity Actors.  He brings a nuanced approach to Jeff that is a delight to observe.  He becomes a rock and a refuge for Kimberly, and eventually takes some risks that allow her to take wing and fly out of the cuckoo's nest that is her family.  He is at the wheel of the vehicle that takes him and Kimberly through the drive-through Safari at Six Flags Great Adventure. It is a wonderful denouement to this entertaining play that provides much food for thought about the nature of family and acceptance and what is means to fit in.

Micah Greene as Pattie
Andrew Winson as Buddy
Sheriden Thomas as Kimberly

"Kimberly Akimbo"
Moonbox Productions
Through April 25
"Kimberly Akimbo" will run through April 25 at the Plaza Theatre at Boston Center for the Arts.  Do not miss this play!

Moonbox Productions Website



Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Central Square Theater Presents "The Edge of Peace" - The Final Installment in the World Premiere of The Ware Trilogy by Suzan Zeder

If you have read my reviews of the first two segments of Susan Zeder's breathtaking Ware Trilogy, you already have some sense of how much I admire these gripping tales of the lives of simple folks scratching out a life and a living in Ware, Illinois during the Great Depression and the war years that followed.

If you did not see the first two plays, or have not yet had an opportunity to read my reviews of "Mother Hicks" and "The Taste of Sunrise," then it may be worth your while to take a moment to bring yourself up to speed so that what I have to say about "The Edge of Peace" will make more sense.

Blog Review of "Mother Hicks"

Blog Review of "The Taste of Sunrise"

The mounting of these three plays that comprise The Ware Trilogy represents a praiseworthy and signal achievement brought about through the creative collaboration among three organizations: Emerson Stage, The Wheelock Family Theater and Central Square Theater.  In addition, this World Premiere event was also made possible through a breakthrough sense of cooperation and communication between the world of the Hearing and the Deaf Community.  Those of us who are accustomed to experiencing theater with our eyes and ears were given an opportunity to begin to appreciate how richly American Sign Language (ASL) can convey a complex and moving narrative.  This trilogy and the way in which it has been presented to the Boston and Cambridge communities not only reaches across a chasm of time to help us to feel what the denizens of Ware must have felt, but it also builds what we must hope is a more permanent and sturdy bridge between the local Deaf community and those of us who communicate through spoken word.

Throughout the trilogy, Ms. Ware writes brilliantly and evocatively - weaving from language and ASL signs characters we come to care about at a deep level.  Through the course of the three plays, we see them develop, handle conflict and deprivation, challenges and disappointments, doubt and ignorance.  Some grow to a place of understanding, others retreat, still others die or move away.  And we care about each of their fates.

In this final installment, many of the seeds that the playwright has sown in the earlier plays come to full flower.  Ricky Ricks has gone off to Belgium to fight in WWII, and has been counted as Missing In Action.  His little brother, Buddy, refuses to believe the his big brother is never coming home, and busies himself in frenetic activity - looking to spot German planes, trying to capture an escaped prisoner.  Nell Hicks, often taunted by the town folk as a witch, remains in isolation on Dug Hill, monitoring German language short wave broadcasts - deepening the suspicion of the citizens of Ware that she is up to no good.  She harbors many secrets, some of which she shares in confidence with deaf Tuc, who feels the need to betray that trust and alert Girl that she is needed back in Ware.  Tuc is offered a lucrative position as a mechanic in a factory in far away Akron, Ohio, and has to make a gut wrenching decision between clinging to the past or venturing out boldly into the future.  Each character, in his or her own way, teeters on a knife edge between strife and peace.  It is Mother Hicks who articulates this truth, but it applies broadly to each of the principal characters.  The resolution of the various tensions and dilemmas is deeply touching.  I not only wept - I sobbed.  The telling of the story is that moving.,

Directors Lee Mikeska Gardner and Maggie Moore Abdow tease out of this fine cast some memorable and moving performances.  They are supported ably by John McGinty as Director of Creative ASL, who helps to turn the use of ASL in these performances into a thrilling art form. Lighting is by Taylor Hansen, Sound by Nathan Leigh, Costumes by Nancy Ishihara and Set by Janie Howland.

Cast members for "The Edge of Peace" are:

  • Elbert (EJ) Joseph as Tuc
  • Stewart Evan Smith as Voice of Tuc
  • David Sullivan as Buddy Ricks
  • Veronica Anastasio Wiseman as Nell Hicks
  • Nile Hawver as Ricky Ricks, Soldier
  • Alan R. White as Clovis P. Eudy
  • Gale Argentine as Izzy Ricks
  • Stephanie Cotton-Snell as Alma Ward
  • Christie Lee Gibson as Margaret
  • Kristen Leigh as June
  • Kelly Chick as Girl
  • Elizabeth Keegan as ASL Performer
  • Adrianna Kathryn Neefus as ASL Performer
Standing out among the strong cast are a few individuals.  EJ Joseph played Tuc in all three of the plays, and as such, is both the anchor and the emotional heart of this trilogy.  Ms. Zeder has written most of Tuc's lines in verse,  As Mr. Joseph signs them, we realize how rich a language ASL can be. We can tell by the many different looks in his eyes, his posture, the speed and intensity of his signing just what he is thinking and feeling.  We know perfectly well exactly what "tone of voice" he is intending to project.  Seeing the development of this character over the course of the three plays speaks loudly to Mr. Joseph's acumen as an actor. Stewart Evan Smith as the voice of Tuc is wonderfully expressive, as well.

David Sullivan comes close to stealing the show as young Buddy Ricks.  This fifth grader commands the stage each moment that he stands upon it.  His mastery of complex dialogue and physical actions is smooth and professional.  He has a bright future ahead of him, and Boston audiences will be able to delight for years to come in his growing artistry.

Veronica Anastasio Wiseman portrays a stoic Nell Hicks in a fashion that allows us to sense the heart beating beneath the rough and calloused exterior.  It is a strong performance,. Nile Scott Hawver as Ricky Ricks helps us ask more deeply the question:"Who suffers most in war, and who are the true prisoners of war?"  As the worried mother of an MIA son, Gale Argentine makes us feel her pain and worry.  Christie Lee Gibson displays a broad range of emotions as she returns to Ware harboring a painful secret and looking for Tuc.  Her arrival sets in motion changes in several lives. Kelly Chick as Girl swoops down out of the sky as a visiting angel to attend to a problem that Tuc has asked her to help with.  She is like a stream that runs cool and deep.

There remain only six more performances of this remarkable work of art.

I shared with EJ Joseph after the performance I attended my feelings: "I am going to miss Tuc!" Don't you miss Tuc and his fellow citizens of Ware.  They are simple people whose collective stories are profound and instructive.  They are together a shimmering mirror in which we see aspects of ourselves that need to be attended to.

Here is a link to make it easy for you to secure tickets to this week's final performances..



Hub Theatre of Boston Launches Its 3rd Season With "Loot" by Joe Orton - Through April 12th

The Hub Theatre of Boston has inaugurated its third season with Joe Orton's farcical black comedy "Loot."  The sardonic British playwright left us early when he was murdered by a deranged lover, but his acerbic tongue still speaks through the scripts that he penned in his brief lifetime.  In "Loot," he spares no one as he skewers many institutions and numerous individuals with equal glee and cleverness.  He pokes at the Catholic Church, British government officials, the police, mourning rituals, marriage, fidelity, and English ambivalence toward closet bisexuality.

The plot of this play is quite convoluted, but involves a grieving widower, a much-married private nurse who has her eye on  the widower as her next husband, a grown son of the widower who is hiding many things in his locked "closet," an undercover police detective, and an apprentice undertaker who is buttering his bread on both sides  The resulting antics are outrageous and entertaining.

Under the direction of Daniel Bourque, the action is fast paced.  Set and Prop Design are by Mark Ewart, Lighting by Evan DelGaudio, Sound by Elizabeth Havenor and Costumes by Erica Desautels.

The cast of six actors are:

  • Thomas Grenon as McLeavy
  • Meredith Stypinski as Fay
  • C.J. David as Hal
  • Kevin Paquette as Dennis
  • John Geoffrion as Truscott
  • Sean Cooper as Meadows
Marilyn Stypinski as Fay
John Geoffrion as Truscott
"Loot" by Joe Orton
Hub Theatre Company of Boston
Through April 12

The trio of Mr. Grenon, Mr. Geoffrion and Ms. Stypinski set a high bar.  Their use of nuance and timing in delivering Orton's verbal barbs and quips are flawless and drive the action of the play briskly forward. As the devious young partners in crime and part-time loves, Mr. Paquette and Mr. David work hard and are winsome, but are a bit overshadowed by their more experienced cast members.

The overall experience of watching this play is delightful.  Each year of its existence, Hub has ratcheted up their level of professionalism a notch.  As the only professional theater company in the Boston area to offer each performance on a "Pay What You Can" basis, they serve an important role in the local theater ecosystem.

You have a few more opportunities to take in "Loot" this weekend.  I encourage you to do so.



Monday, April 06, 2015

Actors' Shakespeare Project Presents "God's Ear" by Jenny Schwartz - A MUST SEE!

Under the visionary direction of Thomas Derrah, the current Actors' Shakespeare Project production of "God's Ear" by Jenny Schwartz is an absolute MUST SEE!  Ms. Schwartz has taken the topic of grief - in this case two parents grieving the loss by drowning of a young son - and examined the phenomenon through distorted lenses that bring the truth into focus in new ways.

The playwright uses language - cliches, bromides, corny jokes, tasteless comments - and stitches them together using the sharp needles of her characters' tongues.  They construct a patchwork quilt of often thoughtless and meaningless utterances.  That quilt of language serves both as a covering for the grieving parents to hide beneath - separately - and as a source of warmth in the cold postmortem world in which they wander.

This play - part farce, part theater of the absurd, part tragedy - has been constructed on several levels by a succession of brilliant creative minds.  Ms. Schwartz's use of the banal and familiar patterns of language forces us to look in fresh and un-cliched ways at the unique manner in which each person processes grief.  Director Thomas Derrah has imparted to Set Designer  Christina Todesco and Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg a vision for how to create a physical space that enhances the telling of this heart-rending story of loss and isolation.  Each element of the spare set seems shrink-wrapped and hermetically sealed - echoing the shrink-wrapped luggage that Ted, the grieving father, carries with him throughout the play.   These elements seem to reinforce one of the messages of the play that I gleaned: "I will not allow you close enough to get inside and examine the 'baggage' of grief I am carrying."

The frosting on top of this multi-layered creative cake is the superb acting by each member of the ensemble.

  • Tama Hickey portrays Mel, the bereaved mother.  She copes with her devastating loss in a variety of ways.  The show opens with a prolonged frenetic rant with her repeating the aforementioned cliches and tropes in a futile attempt to Spackle over the gaping crack that has been cleft in her soul by the death of her son.  She appears as if she had recently been excavated from a sepulcher without benefit of a resurrection.  She clings to her surviving daughter, Lanie, as if she were a life raft.  Ms. Hickey's performance is astoundingly good and haunting.
Tamara Hickey as Mel
Ann Carpenter as The Tooth Fairy
Josephone Elwood as Lanie
"God's Ear"
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Through April 12
Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

  •  Gabriel Kuttner is Ted, Mel's husband and co-celebrant in this Black Mass of Mourning.  He attempts - quite futilely - to cover his grief with absence - both physical and emotional.  He travels for his job, but stays away from home much longer than business would require, filling his hours by spending time with drinking companions like Guy, and loose women like Lenora. He lamely tries to bridge the gap between himself and Mel by bringing home pathetically inadequate gifts from his travels.  Mr. Kuttner's depiction of emptiness is tragically convincing. As is the case with much of the action in this play, the playwright has intentionally made it unclear whether all of Ted's absences are real or whether some are flights of fancy.
  • Presiding over Ted's "flights of fancy," is the remarkably versatile John Kuntz, doubling as a transvestite flight attendant and a GI Joe action figure come to life.  In cahoots with The Tooth Fairy, and sporting combat fatigues and lacquered hair, he often provides advice and solace to young Lanie, who is forced to grow up long before she should have to do so in order to keep things together in her fractured family.

John Kuntz as Flight Attendant
Gabriel Kuttner as Ted
"God's Ear"
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Through April 12

Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

  • Josephine Elwood is very convincing as young Lanie, handling her own grief and that of her wildly dysfunctional parents.  She uses music as one of the ways to sooth herself and to process what she is thinking and feeling.
  • Ann Carpenter sets just the right tone as the flighty Tooth Fairy.  Her costume is a work of sheer genius by costumer Gail Astrid Buckley.

Tamara Hickey as Mel
Ann Carpenter as The Tooth Fairy
Josephone Elwood as LanieGabriel Kuttner as Ted
John Kuntz as Flight Atendant
"God's Ear"
Actors' Shakespeare Project
Through April 12
Photo by Stratton McCrady Photography

  • Dave Rich does yeoman duty as Guy, Ted's drinking buddy and pool table companion.  He is a cliche-spouting Every Man, filling the air with meaningless chatter when he does not have anything meaningful to add.  His is a tacitly accusatory character - the playwright scolding us all for those times when we have settled for surface chatter in lieu of meaningful conversation and connection.
  • One of the highlights of this impressive production is the work of Marianna Bassham as Lenora.  From her crooning into a microphone in bad karaoke fashion to her sloppily athletic romp with Ted, she projects a presence that keeps each eye riveted on her.  It is a bravura performance.
You may by now get the picture that I feel that this is an extraordinary play presented in an unforgettable way.  Knowledgeable fans of great theater will be discussing this production for a long while.  Do not miss out on being able to participate in those conversations.  You have this week only to catch one of the remaining performances in Davis Square of "God's Ear."

God's Ear

Mar 25, 2015 - Apr 12, 2015
Davis Square Theatre
Somerville, MA
by Jenny Schwartz
directed by Thomas Derrah
God's Ear is presented by special arrangement with SAMUEL FRENCH, INC
"And I said, 'Bunnies aren't domestic.'
"And she said, 'Neither are you.'"
-God's Ear, Act I
The manifestation of grief is a wily snake that assumes unpredictable forms. Through a most unusual use of language, Jenny Schwartz guides us through a window of loss that may appear at first opaque but, in fact, cuts to the bone.
Featuring ASP company members:
Marianna Bassham* (Lenora)
John Kuntz* (Flight Attendant/GI Joe)
Additional cast:
Ann Carpenter (Tooth Fairy)
Josephine Elwood (Lanie)
Tamara Hickey* (Mel)
Gabriel Kuttner* (Ted)
David Rich (Guy)
Cristina Todesco** (scenic)
Jeff Adelberg** (lighting)
Gail Astrid Buckley** (costumes)
Edward Young (sound) 

Friday, April 03, 2015

Oberon Presents Gilbert & Sullivan's "The Mikado" - Chicago-based Hypocrites Once Again Take Cambridge By Storm!

The Hypocrites
Cast of "The Mikado"
American Repertory Theater
Through April 5

Last season, the American Repertory Theater invited Chicago-based Hypocrites to perform their madcap version of "The Pirates of Penzance."  They won the hearts of Cambridge audiences and Gilbert & Sullivan aficionados who came in droves. They have returned to renew their love affair with area audiences with an equally saucy interpretation of "The Mikado."

Under the superb Direction of Sean Graney and Thrisa Hodits, The Hypocrites manage to walk a very fine line between lovingly curating the well know and well worn material written long ago by Gilbert & Sullivan, and adding ironic wrinkles and contemporary allusions that freshen up the presentation for 21st Century audiences.  It would be equivalent to painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa without harming the original work of art, and without upsetting DaVinci purists.  During the show at the Oberon, I paid attention to those who were mouthing all of the words - a significant percentage of the full house.  They seemed to be having the time of their life, as were all of the rest of us who gladly allowed ourselves to fall under the winsome spell of this troupe that I can only describe as "organic, free-range minstrels"!  How appropriate for Harvard Square..

The Hypocrites
Cast of "The Mikado"
American Repertory Theater
Through April 5
As you can see from the photo above, this production of "The Mikado": is a fully immersive experience.  Acting and singing take place throughout the Oberon performance space.  If a performer needs to use the space where someone is sitting, he simple points to the person who needs to move or she taps that person on the shoulder, and things flow smoothly.

These women and men - actors and musicians - are professional performers of the highest order.  They told the story with relish, panache and a joie de vivre that spilled over to each audience member - from the youngest child to those of us who were almost contemporaries with Sir Arthur Sullivan.  By the end of the evening, there was enough goodwill flowing through the house that it could have effected a rapprochement between the feuding Gilbert & Sullivan had not the actual writing of "The Mikado" had not already accomplished that task and healed their rift.

Performing members of The Hypocrites include:

  • Shawn Pfautsch as Nanki-Poo and Katisha
  • Emily Carey as Yum-Yum and The Mikado
  • Rob McLean as Ko-Ko
  • Matt Kahler as Pooh-Bah
  • Ryan Bourque as Pish-Tush
  • Lauren Vogel as Pitti-Sing
  • Dana Omar as Peep-Bo
  • Doug Pawlik as Mouse 1
  • Erik Schroader as Mouse 2
  • Kate Carson-Groner as The Barker
Andra Velis Simon serves as Music Director.

As Spring weather finally begins to settle in to our region, I can think of no finer way to finish the job of defrosting your soul and spirit than by making a pilgrimage to the Oberon this weekend to join the party and share in the fun.

At this writing, all remaining shows are sold out except for the Easter Sunday matinee.  I suggest that you hop on the link below to secure one of the few remaining tickets.

Link for Tickets to The Mikado