Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Wheelock Family Theatre Soars To New Heights - "In The Heights" by Lin-Manuel Miranda

I was so inspired by the Opening Night performance of Wheelock Family Theatre's "In The Heights" that I decided to make a pilgrimage to Uznavi's neighborhood. I am writing this review sitting next door to a bodega very much like the one at the center of the action of the musical. I am at the intersection of 181st and Broadway in Washington Heights - in the shadow of the GW Bridge. Lin-Manuel Miranda captured the ethos of this neighborhood in the show that won the Tony for Best Musical - several years before he immortalized the life of Alexander Hamilton.

Director/Choreographer Rachel Bertone has assembled a diverse cast and creative crew to bring the Heights to Boston's Fenway neighborhood. Dan Rodriguez leads a wonderful 9 piece orchestra.  Jenna McFarland Lord's set is a perfect evocation of this block of Washington Heights in the height and the heat of the NYC summer and of 4th of July. Lighting is by Franklin Meissner, Costumes by Marian Bertone, Sound by Andrew Duncan Will.

In contradistinction to a recent controversial production north of Boston, Wheelock has been faithful to the roots of this show and its conception by casting a multitude of ethnicities, as well as first generation college students and recent grads - mirroring the neighborhood that sits high above the banks of the Hudson River. The result is a rich tapestry of voices and accents and dancing styles - all pulled together with zest by Ms. Bertone.
  • Diego Klock-Perez is terrific as Usnavi, struggling bodega owner who longs to return to his roots in Cuba. He shines in the opening production number as well as in "Alabanza."
  • Laura Lebron Rojas is radiant as Nina, the great hope of the neighborhood. She has returned in disgrace after losing her scholarship to Stanford. Her rendition of ""Everything I Know" is a highlight.
  • Nina is in love with her father's young assistant, Benny, played to perfection by Darren Bunch. He and Ms. Rojas pair together for two memorable duets, "Sunrise," and "When The Sun Goes Down."
  • The emotional heart of the neighborhood is Abuela Claudia. She provides many forms of support to Nina, Uznavi and others. She has a large heart that is wearing out. Johanna Carlisle Zepeda brings Abuela to life in "Paciencia Y Fe."
  • Luis Negron is Kevin Rosario, who is willing to do anything for his daughter, Nina. Life is not easy for him, having come to the U.S. to flee an abusinve father. His rendition of "Inutil (Useless)" is heart rending.
  • Rosi Amador is strong as Nina's mother, Camila Rosario. "Siempre (Always)" is her moment to shine.
  • As Sonny, Uznavi's cousin and put-upon assistant, Diego Guevara almost steals the show. He provides much needed comic relief, as well as making sure that Uznavi and Vanessa meet over more than morning coffee.
  • Iliana Garcia is sultry as Vanessa, intent of getting out of the Heights to move downtown to the West Village. She combines with her beauty parlor sisters and Nina for a rousing "No Me Diga." They are Yewande O. Odetoyinbo as Daniela, the shop owner, and Kira Troilo as Carla, the Bible spouting assistant.
  • Tony Castellanos is a strong presence as the ubiquitous Piragua Guy, hawking his refreshing shaved ice treats.
  • David Alea is Graffiti Pete, who ends up crafting a fitting tribute to Abuela Claudia.
  • The strong ensemble consists of Ceci Cipullo, Marshall Joun, AJ Manuel Lucero, Zachary D. McConnell, Selena Mercado, Malik Mitchell, Katrina Z. Pavao, Ryoko Seta, Lance-Patrick Strickland, Alexa Wang, Kelton Washington, Caroline Workman.
Diego Klock-Perez as Uznavi
"In The Heights"
Wheelock Family Theatre
Through November 19th

"In The Heights" will run through November 19th at Wheelock Family Theatre.



Wednesday, October 25, 2017

"Commanding Excellence" by Gary Morton - Studies In Leadership That Matters In The Military and In The Business World

"Commanding Excellence" by Gary Morton is a brilliant parallel analysis of excellence in leadership in the military and in the business world. Over the course of his career as a tank officer in the Army, and as a medical device executive with Stryker, Morton had the privilege of serving under two extraordinary leaders. In the case of Task Force 4-68, the leader was Lt. Colonel Alfred L. Dibella. At Stryker, it was CEO John W. Brown. Mr. Morton, a distinguished graduate of West Point, does a very effective job of painting a clear picture of the leadership traits and techniques that allowed both Dibella and Brown to extract extraordinary levels of performance and achievement from the troops that they led.

In the case of Task Force 4-68, Dibella took a group that had been rated as one of the poorest tank units in the U.S. Army, and transformed them into a fighting machine that set records in defeating Opposition Forces 9 out of 9 times in the grueling National Training Center battle simulations in the Mojave Desert. The achievement of that unprecedented perfect record was no accident. The commander had set 9/9 as a goal from the beginning of his time in leadership with the 4-68. Over the course of several months, he worked with each member of the unit to achieve this extraordinary level of perfection. Elements of his leadership style included Absolute Clarity of Purpose, Empowered Obsession, and Unleashing Creativity. He understood that in order to achieve the unit's goal of 9/9 against the OpFor, they would have to break some tried and true rules of how tanks prepare for battle and engage in battle. He and his team developed a playbook that essentially boiled complex tactics and maneuvers down into six basic plays, and they drilled every possible permutation of those plays until each man understood his role under every circumstance. Lt. Colonel Dibella gave explicit permission to his soldiers to be creative, and to risk making mistakes. He backed them up when it came time to write the evaluations, giving the highest marks to those who innovated, and taught those innovations to others.

In like manner, Stryker CEO John W. Brown set a goal for the company to achieve at least 20% growth each year. Every employee was taught that mantra upon being hired, and it was drilled into them every day in a multitude of ways. The result was a stunning track record of 28 straight years of growth for each quarter. Although Brown's leadership style and personality were distinctly different from Dibella, in his pwn way, he used the same building blocks to set his team and his company up for unusual levels of success. He made it abundantly clear that failure to achieve 20% growth was not an option, he and his teams obsessed over how to overcome obstacles, and he freed individuals up to be creative in solving problems in R&D, manufacturing and sales.

In both cases, the pressure to succeed was relentless, as was the commitment to assess all weakness and find ways to overcome them. The book's subtitle is an excellent summary of the ethos of both Task Force 4-68 and of Stryker: "Inspiring Purpose, Passion, and Ingenuity through Leadership That Matters."

The author shares a very personal vignette that highlights the brilliance of Brown's leadership at Stryker. Morton was being asked to consider taking on an assignment that he was reluctant to accept.. There was an urgent need to solve a critical problem within the Patient Care Division, and Morton was asked by his direct boss, and by Mr. Brown, to undertake the daunting assignment. Here is how Morton recalls the pivotal exchange with Brown:

"Brown met with me in his corner office at the building by the airport. The conversation was short, cordial, and focused. Wrapping it up, Brown said something along the lines of 'I would like you to go into that office next door and think about it, then call Harry and let him know whether you will be joining Patient Care.'

. . . As I sat down in the adjoining office, next to the phone was one of those multi photo wooden frames. At the bottom was an engraving that read 'Stryker's Champions of Innovation.' In the frame were pictures of Dr. Stryker, William Chang (VP of R&D for Endoscopy), Jim Evans (VP of R&D for Instruments), and two of the ingenious R&D and science leaders from Osteonics.

In the last frame was my picture.

Being grouped with these incredible engineers and scientists was both humbling and inspiring. I was hooked and made the call to Carmitchel immediately. John Brown knew that truly engaging people is not about commanding them to do something; it is about getting them to command themselves to do it." (pp. 160-1)

The book is full of examples like this of how both Brown and Dibella engaged individuals and teams to command themselves to achieve unimagined levels of excellence and perfection. I look forward to sharing this powerful book with leaders in business and the military. The lessons that Morton has shared are equally applicable in both worlds.



"Creating Great Choices" by Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin - A Leader's Guide To Integrative Thinking

"Creating Great Choices" is one of the most impactful books I have read this year. In offering numerous examples of how diverse leaders have utilized the techniques of "Integrative Thinking," authors Jennifer Riel and Roger L. Martin make it easy for the reader to apply the insights to their own leadership challenges. This book stands on the shoulders of "The Opposable Mind," that Martin penned ten years ago. In the intervening decade, Martin and Riel and other members of their team have taught the principles to a broad variety of students - from corporate executives to grad students to high schoolers. The lessons learned from these teaching and learning interactions have been used to craft the structure of this present book.

One of the book's first case studies of how Integrative Thinking works in the real world is the story of how the CEO of Lego solved what appeared to be a binary problem. In setting out to have a feature film made about Legos, should the company hire Hollywood A players to craft the film, thereby relinquishing creative control and protection of the Lego brand? Or should they settle for lesser film makers who would allow Lego to retain final script and editing approval.

The CEO realized this this was a false dichotomy, and led his team through a series of four steps to come up with a creative and integrative solution that would mine the best of both binary choices. The four steps of Integrative Thinking are:

1) Articulate Opposing Models
2) Examine the Models
3) Generate Possibilities
4) Assess the Prototypes

Utilizing this four stage approach, the LEGO CEO came up with a fascinating and ingenious solution. He invited a team of top Hollywood filmmakers to meet with his staff. They made the following proposal: "If we were to grant you complete creative control over a Lego film, would you first agree to spend time with the most passionate Lego customers - at conventions and elsewhere?" The CEO was willing to bet that by hanging around passionate Lego users, the filmmakers would be infected with the enthusiasm and love for the brand of its most loyal customers. He was right, and the result was a film that entertained audiences and enhanced the LEGO brand.

This type of Integrative Thinking is a form of metacognition. "The notion of metacognition - the process of thinking about thinking - is very old. Philosophers like Aristotle, Spinoza, and Locke helped lay the groundwork for metacognition as they attempted to explain the nature of the mind. Saint Augustine, more than fifteen hundred years ago, wrote of the mind's search for its own nature, arguing that the mind that seeks to know itself must already know itself in some sense. At the very least, it knows itself as seeking." (p. 43)

This book is not just an examination of the philosophical aspects of how the mind of the leader works, but provides practical tools so that a self-aware leader can learn to think in an integrative manner. It is important for the leader to involve other members of his/her team in the process of finding integrative solutions to complex problems. Insights from the realm of design inform much of the thought processes behind integrative thinking.

I have already begun to recommend this book to clients, friends, and proteges.It is impactful and potentially game changing if one is willing to be stretched in new directions. Reading this book will represent a Great Choice!



Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Huntington Theatre Company Continues Its Stellar Season With "A Guide For The Homesick" by Ken Urban - Drama At Its Best

Ken Urban's new drama, "A Guide For The Homesick," the current Huntington Theatre Company production running at the Calderwood Pavilion is a gripping drama that must be seen. I will offer little in the way of describing plot, for fear of ruining some wonderful twists. Simply put, two young Americans meet in a bar in Amsterdam and get to know each other over the course of a rocky night of drinking, talking, and much more.

Mr. Urban, currently in residence at MIT as a Senior Lecturer in Dramatic Writing, dips into the cistern of personal experiences and deep research to explore the phenomenon of what we experience when we travel overseas, hoping to do good, but not always succeeding. Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine) has fled Uganda after finding himself caught up in an escalating round of violence against gay men, including a young Ugandan man he has tried to help and to protect. He has attempted to intervene in his role as a volunteer nurse at a medical clinic in Uganda. But things get ugly, and he ends up asking, "What happened?" Teddy (McKinley Belcher III) is a Citi employee in NYC who has come to Amsterdam with his friend and co-worker Eddie to give the groom-to-be a good time before his impending marriage. Things do not go as planned, Eddie goes off the deep end, and Teddy is in despair, asking himself, "What happened?"

Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III
Huntington Theatre Company
A Guide for the Homesick by Ken Urban

Directed by Colman Domingo
Playing October 6 - November 4, 2017,
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

As the action progresses, Teddy and Jeremy strip off layers of clothing, as well as layers of each other's masks - sometimes brutally - sometimes gently. Speaking of layers - the playwright deftly layers into the narrative additional characters. Some serve as off stage ghosts - Eddie's fiancee calling frantically to ask where he is. Eddie appears (also played by Mr. Levine), as does Jeremy's troubled Ugandan friend (portrayed by Mr. Belcher).
Samuel H. Levine and McKinley Belcher III
Huntington Theatre Company 
A Guide for the Homesick by Ken Urban
Directed by Colman Domingo
Playing October 6 - November 4, 2017,
South End / Calderwood Pavilion at the BCA
© Photo: T. Charles Erickson.

The artistry with which the multiple layers are treated - by the playwright, actors, lighting and set designers, and stage manager handling the split-second cues, is part of the genius of this play. There are rapid switches in time, place, and character that are initially disorienting to the audience, but which begin to make sense as the action unfolds. This is a complex and skillfully wrought production. Mr. Urban treats some of the themes addressed a few years ago at the A.R.T. with "Witness Uganda" (reborn in NYC as "Invisible Thread."

White Rhino Report Review of "Witness Uganda"

Mr. Urban uses a nuanced blend of humor and shock to draw us into the worlds of Teddy and Jeremy - and of their ghosts. The scenic design by Williams Boles brings us to dingy Amsterdam on a rainy night, but then invites us to visit the clinic in Kampala with the aid of Russell H. Champa's brilliant Lighting Design. Costumes are by Kara Harmon, Original Music and Sound by Lindsay Jones, and crucial Dialect Coaching is by Amy Stoller.

The themes of feeling unsettled in returning from a developing nation in turmoil hit close to home with me. I was reminded of my own pilgrimage after serving for a year in a hospital in rural Haiti, at roughly the same age that Jeremy is when the play takes place.

Eventually, Teddy and Jeremy hammer away at each other to unearth the demons, fears, and regrets that haunt each of them. They dig deeply to discover who they really are. I ended up caring deeply about the fate of each character. This is a telltale sign that I had been in the presence of great writing and equally great acting. Mr. Urban invites the audience to take a similar agonizing journey of discovery, asking,"What happened?" and "Who am I?" 

This is one of the finest dramatic pieces offered this season, and should not be missed. It will run at the Calderwood Pavilion through November 4th.



Saturday, October 07, 2017

Heart & Dagger Productions Displays Its Plumage In A Revival of "Hair" - Through October 20th at Club Cafe

The original rock musical, "Hair," is back in all of its color, zest, and glory in the fun-filled revival by Heart & Dagger Productions - through October 20th at Club Cafe. I saw the original Boston production at the Wilbur Theater in 1970. Some may recall that it took a Supreme Court ruling to get the Boston production opened after the State Attorney General Garrett Byrne had ordered it shut down for desecration of the flag and lewd and lascivious content. This current version is tame by comparison, and the hippy-oriented content seems almost quaint all of these years removed from the protests against the war in Vietnam.

The show features book and lyrics by James Rado and Gerome Ragni, with music by Galt MacDermot.

Director Joey C. Pelletier has attempted to make the content of the show contemporary by using projections that remind us that we are still fighting battles to protect the environment, and to avoid the scourge of nuclear war. A good example is the use of images of recent hurricanes during the singing of the anti-pollution anthem "Air."

Musical highlights of this production include "Manchester, England" sung by James Sims, who is a very sympathetic Claude, the Tribe member most desperate to avoid the draft. Bailey Libby is terrific as Crissy in lamenting the loss of "Frank Mills." As Woof, Brad Reinking is sultry and sassy in "Sodomy." In the title song, "Hair," he is joined by Mr. Sims as Claude and Melissa Barker as Berger. "Easy To Be Hard" is another highlight as Tamani Jayasinghe portrays Sheila bemoaning mean girl Berger treating her cruelly.

Other members of the tribe, who hang out in the East Village protesting the war, scaring tourists, and looking for love in its various permutations, include:

  • Lauren Foster as Hud
  • Erin Rae Zalaski as Jeanie
  • Aaron Dill as Margaret Mead
  • Jessie Bull as Charlie
  • Elizabeth Battey as Helen
  • Doug Dulaney as Benny and Lead Guitar
  • Jane Ko as Daisy
  • Ava Maag as Natalie
  • Neon Calypso as Dionne
  • Jeomil Tovar as Ronny
  • Jocelin Weiss as Suzannah
Lighting is by Geoff Hoyt, Keyboard is Kenneth Griffin, Drums Evan Kesel, and Bass Guitar is Sam Chussid.

My one suggestion for improving the audience experience is to ask that members of the tribe project their voices more strongly and energetically. Sitting in the front row of the intimate Club Cafe space, I was not always able to hear clearly, especially during several of the segments that were being sung in falsetto. Sell it, folks!

There are four more opportunities to time travel back to the '60s: this Sunday and next at 3:00, Wednesday, October 18 at 7:30, and Friday, October 20 at 7:30.

Enjoy! And Let the Sunshine In!


Monday, October 02, 2017

Zeitgeist Stage Company Presents the Brilliant "Faceless" by Selina Fillinger - A MUST SEE

Kudos to David Miller and the Zeitgeist Stage Company for producing one of the most memorable and impactful plays of this excellent theater season in Boston. Young playwright, Selina Fillinger, first penned "Faceless" as an assignment for a class she was taking at Northwestern University, winning a commission from Northlight Theatre to develop the play. She shows remarkable insight and sensibilities for a writer still in her early 20s. This production represents the New England Premiere.

In "Faceless," the playwright explores deeply several important and timely issues:
  • Who is the face of Islam, and of terrorism?
  • How does the persistent xenophobia in America impact individual lives?
  • What happens when a Muslim prosecutor tries to gain a conviction against a young white girl who has converted to Islam?
  • What is the role of social media in influencing religious and political beliefs?
  • Who is the hero and who is the victim here?
  • How universal is the struggle for a meaningful relationship with a father?
The story is told through the eyes of five fascinating and well-developed characters. The five actors cast by Director Miller are powerfully effective in telling this complex story. They stand out individually and as an ensemble.
  • Victor Shopov brings his usual impressive tools to the role of Scott Bader, a politically ambitious Prosecutor who is intent on convicting young Susie Glenn of conspiring to travel to Syria to join ISIS. He cleverly coerces a female Muslim assistant prosecutor, Claire Fahti, to join him in this case. His closing statement at the trial of Ms. Glenn is particularly powerful and poignant.
  • Aina Adler is a dynamo as the conflicted Persian-American attorney, Claire Fahti. She initially wants no part of being used as the face of Islam at the trial, but she becomes passionate about bringing Susie to justice after meeting her. The always professional Ms. Adler is at the top of her game here, facing off against Bader and Glenn.
  • Ashley Risteen creates a very believable Susie Glenn. Naive, stubborn, rebellious, lost, determined - we see all of these traits in Ms. Risteen's eyes, voice and physical presentation. It is a strong performance.
  • David Anderson as Alan Glenn, Susie's widowed father, has lost a wife and is in danger of losing his daughter - "All he has left in the world." The scene in which this tough-as-nails first responder melts down over the prospect of losing his little girl represents some of the best acting I have seen on a Boston stage in a long while. It is a scintillating and award-worthy performance.
  • Robert Orzalli is perfectly cast as the Jewish defense attorney brought in to replace the ineffectual public defender. He spars - not only with the prosecution team - but with his own client.
Victor Shopov as Scott Bader
Aina Adler as Claire Fahti
Robert Orzalli as Mark Arenberg
Ashley Risteen as Susie Glenn
"Faceless" by Selina Fillinger
Zeitgeist Stage company
Boston Center for the Arts
Through October 7th

Mr. Miller's direction and blocking is flawless. The closing arguments by the two attorneys take place with them going from one side of the stage to the other in perfectly synchronized, countervailing movements. Another vivid image is the two Muslim women facing off opposite one another reciting prayers from the Koran - one in Arabic and the other in English.

Set design is by David Miller, Costumes Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan, Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson, and Sound Design by Jay Mobley.

This is the final week of this production, beginning Wednesday and running through Saturday. If you see any play this week, it should be this one. This play and this production moved me to tears and caused me to think deeply about important issues.