Saturday, July 23, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey MOTHERS AND SONS, Irish Style



BRENDAN (presented by Happy Medium Theatre @ BCA thru July 30th) is Ronan Noone’s sweet tragic-comedy about a shy Irish immigrant who would rather roll with the punches than direct his own life. He meanders about, never straying far from the other Irish ex-pats at the bar where he works.

Co-directors Brett Marks and Victor L. Shopov concentrate on the lovely character work by the Happy Medium folk and less on their Irish accents, which come and go (but I quickly forgot about the lapse because the quirky story is so compelling).

When you become familiar with local actors, it’s a treat to see them stretchand Happy Medium regulars Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Mikey DiLoreto do, in roles they don’t often get to play. DiLoreto is a deft comedian but here he shows what he can do with several spot-on serious turns. Sylvia gives a tour de force as the hooker with a heart of gold. She’s so delightful in the role, I wished she’d gotten the guy!



The guy is played by Avery Bargar: Sometimes he’s a sad sack and sometimes he’s so earnest and bashful that it breaks your heart. Just when he learns that his mother has died back in the old country, doesn’t she just show up as a sort of ghostly life-coach! Happy Medium’s Kiki Samko gives a canny, sometimes tongue-in-cheek performance as the long suffering mum Brendan misses terribly but wishes would leave. (Samko plays niftily against type and age as the frumpy matriarch.)

Happy Medium’s Michael Underhill gets to strut his stuff in a number of showy roles, as does Mike Budwey, among them playing brother to Lesley Anne Moreau as Brendan’s almost-not-happening love interest. Part of the fun in BRENDAN comes from the characters who surprisingly intersect… especially with Sylvia’s hooker.

Marks and Shopov get fine performances all around, from the HM regulars to newcomers Jay Street and Melody Martin. Oh, now don’t be alarmed but opera figures important in Noone’s play. It’s because Brendan yearns to see a production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. We hear snippets of oratorio/ opera throughout: Carmina Burana, Il Trovatore, Madame Butterfly, Tales of Hoffmann, La Wally, etc.

Only one aria, “La Donna è Mobile” from Rigoletto, has a direct bearing on the play: Brendan might well conclude that “Women are Fickle” when the woman who buys him very, very expensive Metropolitan Opera tickets breaks up with him over his taste in friends. Not to worry,  it all shakes out in the end… and we even get to see an immigrant’s dream come true, to the strains of the gorgeous Pachelbel Canon.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Gloucester Stage Delivers Hilariously Dark Comedy with ‘The Last Schwartz’ (4.5 Stars) By Mike Hoban



 The Last Schwartz – Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer; Directed by Paula Plum; Set Design by Jon Savage; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Sound Design, Andrew Duncan Will; Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito; Presented by the Gloucester Stage Company at 267 East Main St., Gloucester, through July 30th.

When it comes to family gatherings, nothing quite ensures the probability of a miserable time being had by all as a domineering control freak – especially one that sees herself as the matriarch of said clan. Fortify that controlling behavior with the kind of self-righteousness that only a blind allegiance to an orthodox religion can provide, and you’ve got the makings of a holiday dinner/wedding/funeral with all the serenity of a Trump rally at a Jack Daniels factory. 

So when the Schwartzes gather at the family’s summer home in the Catskills for the yahrzeit (a Jewish religious ritual recognizing the one-year anniversary of their father’s death), oldest (and only) daughter Norma is ready with an iron fist to make sure that everything and everyone honors dear old dad in the manner that she sees fit. Such an occasion is trying even for the healthiest of families, but with a family unit teeming with varying levels of dysfunction and trauma, the stage is set for a potential family explosion. And when an unexpected guest shows up for the weekend, the detonator that will blow the lid off this uptight bunch is provided in this dark and very funny comic drama.

Gloucester Stage has again paired playwright Deborah Zoe Laufer and director Paula Plum, the same duo that brought us the outstanding production of Out of Sterno on the same stage last year, and they again craft a gem. Unlike “Sterno’s” surreally dark “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse” feel, however, The Last Schwartz is more grounded in “traditional” family problems like money, infidelity, and failure to live up to expectations. 

The play opens with Norma, her brother Herb, his wife Bonnie, and Simon, the autistic brother, awaiting the arrival of Gene, the freest spirit of the siblings. The family dynamics are quickly established as Norma repeatedly chides Herb for putting his feet on a beaten up old coffee table, while Bonnie prattles on about an episode of Oprah featuring “Siamese twins” co-joined at the head while Herb ignores her. Simon, an astronomer who is losing his eyesight, sits quietly in a corner, “looking” through a telescope. Within minutes, Norma’s brow-beating causes Herb to explode, and the recounting of the Oprah episode has triggered Bonnie into a hysterical memory of her five miscarriages and stillborn death of her son. This is every horrible Thanksgiving story we’ve ever seen on stage or screen, and just as things begin to cool, Gene shows up with his latest girlfriend Kia – a ditzy, suggestively dressed bombshell who is appearing in a commercial as the spokesmodel for the “Fat No More” weight loss product.

The unexpected guest is a huge surprise – both pleasant and horrifying – to everyone but the seemingly oblivious Simon. Norma is appalled at the perceived breach of etiquette for the solemn occasion, and makes it clear that if Kia stays, she’ll be sleeping on the couch. Herb is delighted, obsessively fawning over every inane utterance by the California beauty, while Bonnie fades (temporarily) into the background. Party girl Kia has absolutely no filters, bringing a new meaning to the phrase “out of the mouths of babes”.  Her clueless observations are not only the source of a ton of laughs, they also frack the family structure wide open as the play unfolds. And while the first act is largely a comic setup, the second act is much weightier (while still hilarious), and that’s what separates “The Last Schwartz” from standard comic fare. 

Laufer has a great ear for unconventional dialogue (primarily by Kia and Simon), and really knows how to deliver a joke in the context of the overall work. She also knows how to temper her comedy with the right dose of pathos, as we see early on, when Norma makes a desperate plea to Simon to come live with her, after she has driven away everyone else in her life. Plum extracts good performances from a solid cast, and the pacing is very good, especially in the comic scenes. 

Veronica Anastasio Wiseman does a nice job of keeping Norma from devolving into a caricature, and we genuinely feel for her as she pays the price for her sometimes ruthless behavior. Andrea Goldman looks every bit the part of the lingerie model – all legs and boobs – and is a riot as the gaffe-prone Kia. Paul Melendy evokes a more comic version of Dustin Hoffman’s Rain Man as Simon, and the rest of the cast is solid as well. Set designer Jon Savage makes an interesting and imaginative choice with the set, with the walls of the summer home stripped down to its lathing (bare wooden slats), which may be a harbinger of what is to come following an explosive revelation late in the story. 

Gloucester Stage’s ‘The Last Schwartz’ is more than just an entertaining comedy. It delves deeper into the twisted dynamics of ordinary appearing families than most dramas, while still providing plenty of laughs. It’s well worth the (scenic) drive) to Gloucester. For more info, go to: http://gloucesterstage.com/the-last-schwartz/

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Bo Do De Oh


THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (@ Reagle Music Theater through July 17th) is an old fashioned, “homage” musical celebrating the roaring ‘20s. Don’t look too deeply at the setting for MILLIE, which involves abducting “white girls” and transporting them to Hong Kong for the “slave trade,” or you’ll be sunk. I know, I know, this sounds completely horrific but human trafficking has nothing to do with this silly send-up – and the nefarious “Asians” involved in the crimes either aren’t Asian at all or they’re victims too. (I could expound on actual tabloid abduction claims from the ‘30s and ‘40s, whose intent clearly was to stir up anti-Asian sentiment, but that would be a research paper and not a review.)

Suffice it to say that Richard Morris’ kidnapping plot for MILLIE is only there to hang Jeanine Tesori and Dick Scanlan’s delicious music on, winning six Tony awards when it debuted in 2002. Music director Dan Rodriguez gets sensational singing from the entire cast. Reagle is fortunate to have Broadway veteran Cynthia Thole stage directing the production, keeping it lighter than air and moving it along so fast that you don’t notice (or you don’t care if you do notice) that the set pieces are pretty spare… but Reagle impresario Bob Eagle has just purchased the Broadway costumes, so MILLIE looks, as they say, like a million bucks.

Susan M. Chebookjian’s choreography and a horde of crackerjack dancers make this MILLIE thunder across the stage. It’s a thrill to see forty-two dancing feet in perfect precision and a joy to watch Chebookjian’s hip, stylized nod to Busby Berkeley. The wacky plot has the new girl in town meet (well, actually trip up) a boy, then set her sights on another boy, only to realize the first boy is the real thing. Gabrielle Carrubba makes Millie plucky and vulnerable in a star turn that got me to the edge of my seat, waiting for her next showstopper. She delivers from the get-go with a rousing “Not for the Life of Me” and polishes off the musical with a stunning “Gimme, Gimme.”

Like Carrubba, Andrew Tighe as “the boy” who literally falls for Millie when she sticks out her foot, has Boston Conservatory roots and they sure know how to grow musical theater performers. He gives a solid turn as her love interest…as does Robyn Payne as the jazz singer who ties the plot together. Mark Linehan gets lots of laughs as Millie’s frenetic boss, as does Maryann Zschau, who reprises the role of the evil “laundry goddess” which won her accolades when Reagle first staged MILLIE.

Caitlyn Oenbrink lights up the stage as Millie’s roommate and the object of affection for both Linehan and Kai Chao (who, along with Eiji Miura are the dragon lady’s reluctant henchmen). Tesori and Scanlon’s hilarious, shameless “Chinese” songs are some of the show’s funniest moments. For Gilbert & Sullivan fans, there are three G&S references in this MILLIE, reason enough to go for us Savoyards!

If you need an escape from the mad and frightening world we live in, may I recommend Reagle’s thoroughly delightful THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

God is the Unwelcome Guest in “Ultimate Things” 3.5 stars By Michele Markarian

“Ultimate Things”, written by Carl Danielson.  Directed by Carl Danielson and Amy Bennett-Zendzian.  Presented by Unreliable Narrator, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston through July 9.

“Which one of these guys is Carl Danielson?” I wondered as I scanned the audience at intermission of “Ultimate Things”, an evening of two one-acts, or in the words of Unreliable Narrator, “Comedies About Religion, Atheism, and the Stuff People Do With Both”.  I wanted to meet the man whose thoughts ran the gamut from Jesus to politics to guns to self-doubt to the anti-Christ and back again, in two short and often very funny pieces. 

In “Jesusness”, the world is disrupted when a man claiming to be Christ descends into Washington DC from a space pod and delivers a message of The Rapture on YouTube, as well as through all of the major news stations.  Despite witnessing Jesus turn water into wine, Peter (Nick Bennett-Zendzian), a devout Christian and principal of a Christian school, believes Jesus to be an imposter from outer space.  His wife Holly (Kitty Drexel) thinks otherwise, and when she takes a bus trip to Washington to see for herself, Peter, against his better judgment, has no choice but to follow her.  I won’t give away the ending, other than to say that Peter and Holly, against all odds, retain their Christian convictions.

The piece, directed by Danielson, has some very funny moments, with spot-on political commentary from Barack Obama – whom the Christians blame for everything – and Ted Cruz.  As Peter, Nick Bennett-Zendzian is terrific, giving an honest and nuanced performance as a man torn between his faith and his gut.  Cari Keebaugh plays military woman Beth with nice understatement.  Eva Bilick is appropriately uptight as Christian mom Scully, and patronizingly charming as the alien Krebthar.  Just when “Jesusness” starts to get exciting – “It’s a metaphor for the blindness of the Christian right!” I thought – it veers into silliness with a UFO theme that was lost, at least, on this reviewer.
“Hellancholy”, despite the considerable talents of its female lead, the engaging Caroline Keeler as mentally unstable TV producer Maggie, is less pointed, more amorphous, which after awhile gets tedious.  To counter writer’s block and impending depression, Maggie invites her childhood friend Sophie (Cari Keeburgh) to spend a month at her home in Los Angeles.  Maggie is responsible for creating an HBO show about a deviant priest, hilariously played by Nick Stevens.  As someone who has strayed from her faith, she is also haunted by God – literally, in the form of a white-robed man (Tom Russell).  Maggie does a lot of drugs, and as someone who managed to live through the 80s, I had problems with the verisimilitude of the coke scenes.  Not only is Maggie’s coke transported n a plastic baggie the size of four eight balls, it also manages to have a trippy effect on Sophie.  And when Maggie purchases another hefty lunch baggy – ingesting the first would have killed her – I was pretty incredulous.  By the time that Maggie almost writes to Sophie, “Never mix coke and alcohol” I had to wonder if I lived through the right decade.  Director Amy Bennett-Zendzian makes good use of the space, despite one too many set changes. 

“Hellencholy” has its moments – it touches upon issues of aging and appropriateness, and reserves of energy one no longer has.  And just when you think that you’ve had all you can take of the self-absorbed, unhappy Maggie, she looks at the audience and says, “And if you ask me, alive is always better than happy”.  I would have to agree.

 

Friday, June 24, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SHOWBOAT’s Comin’ to the Shubert



SHOWBOAT sails into the Shubert Theatre this week (a new home for the Fiddlehead company), to churn up the waters through July 3rd. It’s a vast undertaking for co-directors Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens, with a cast of thousands, well it feels like thousands, when over 60+ actors fill the stage to bring Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel to life. Oscar Hammerstein II tweaked the novel quite a bit to get a handle on the innumerable characters spanning three generations of performers, town folk and dock workers who made the Mississippi riverboats bustle.

What makes SHOWBOAT a classic of the American theater is the memorable music. Jerome Kern’s score and the clever Hammerstein lyrics can take your breath away. Music director Charles Peltz, choreographer Wendy Hall and the vibrant performers on the Shubert stage make the Fiddlehead version feel fresh. The production overflows with standout performances, especially Jeremiah James as Gaylord Ravenal, the dashing riverboat gambler who steals the heart of the Captain’s daughter. Kim Corbett as Magnolia Hawks and James make the operatic “You are Love” one of the show’s highlights. (James’ extraordinary voice has a lustrous range which thrills with its sonority and singularity.)

Brian Kinnard’s resonant bass for Joe’s anthemic “Ol’ Man River” sets the emotional tone that guides the sorrowfully familiar story of bigotry in the South. Sarah Hanlon as the hounded Julie breaks your heart with her bittersweet rendition of “Bill.” Lindsay Roberts as Queenie not only anchors the chilling “Misery” in Act I, she dances up a storm in the “Ballyhoo.” (I used to view Act II as rather scattered and inconsequential but Hall’s vivacious choreography makes you forget altogether what doesn’t jibe dramatically.)

Your head will spin trying to negotiate the math to figure out how some of the characters are still the same age some forty years hence – which the directors expand with an additional character (Kathy St. George) silently reflecting on the story. My advice is, don’t try. Just concede… Perhaps they’ve paid a visit to BRIGADOON! I suspect the Captain’s wife dipped her toes in the TUCK EVERLASTING fountain. She looks three decades younger at the end of the show! (OK. It’s Stephens’ snazzy costumes for the jazz age that do it.)

John Davin follows in the famous footsteps of comedians Joe E. Brown and more recently, Tom Bosley, as the antic Cap’n Andy, pursued at every turn by the delightful Dawn Tucker (against type) as his shrewish wife; with more charming comic relief from Lindsay Sutton (affecting a hilarious squeak) and a cheeky Carl-Michael Ogle as the “featured performers” on the Cotton Blossom stage. You don’t have to “Make Believe.” This SHOWBOAT delivers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Memorable Merry-Go-Round at Reagle

Some of Rogers & Hammersteins’ best songs are in their CAROUSEL. Even if you’ve seen the musical (many times) before, The Reagle Music Theatre’s version (playing through June 19th) offers up some irresistible performances – and spectacular choreography from director Rachel Bertone.

The elephant in the room—and it will be until someone figures out a way to fix the book – is the domestic violence which is passed down from mother to daughter, from an abusive father who gets way too many chances to redeem himself. Let’s put the elephant aside for the moment and tell you what makes this production worth the visit: it’s the women who carry the show!

With this CAROUSEL, Reagle’s artistic director Bob Eagle proves that local performers (including local director Bertone, as well as local music director Dan Rodriguez) can stand shoulder to shoulder with the New York people Reagle usually imports for the leads. This is not to minimize the star performance of Ciaran Sheehan as Billy Bigelow. He has the frame and the charisma of a guy who can attract every mill girl in Maine – but it’s his voice that seals the deal: a gorgeous, silky tenor with mesmerizing low notes. And he acts the heck out of his “Soliloquy.”

Again, it’s the locals who give the show substance. Jennifer Ellis gives one of the best performances of her career as the gal who falls for, marries and bears the brunt of Billy’s frustration. Ellis plays Julie with enormous quiet strength and an enduring will which mitigates the dialogue explaining away Billy’s nasty temper. And you can’t get enough reprises of Leigh Barrett’s powerful “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” You may have heard it a million times, but Barrett astonishes. (Yes, tears every time, despite myself.)

Jessica Kundla provides gentle humor as Ellis’ flighty friend and Todd Yard makes his mark as the slimy villain who “brings out the brute” in Billy. BUT oh, the choreography: Bertone’s lusty hornpipe for the sailors, her frolic for the impressionable young girls, her nightmare carnival sequence, and most of all her touching, vulnerable ballet for Billy’s troubled teenage daughter (exquisitely danced by Kyra Christopher). Quite a ride on this CAROUSEL.

Monday, June 13, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Tragi-Comic Déjà Vu



Patrick Gabridge’s political send-up, BLINDERS (@ Flat Earth Theatre through June 25th) features an outsider candidate for President (a scientific twinship, actually) who appeals to the lowest common denominator, promising to eradicate poverty by imprisoning poor people and to silence dissenters by walling them up. Believe it or not, BLINDERS was written when Bill, not Hillary, was running for President, at a time when Gabridge thought such comic ideas were too outlandish ever to come true. Let that be a lesson to all.

Director Korinne T. Ritchey’s intense, well oiled production for Flat Earth features nine on-the-money actors, led by Kimberly McClure as the one courageous woman in America who won’t be sold a bill of goods. As good as McClure is, the most fun in BLINDERS comes from the double, triple and quadruple casting, with hilarious performances from Glen Moore as a mad scientist, a dimwitted mailman, a nasty policeman and a conniving Southern Senator (Is there any other kind?) and from Marge Dunn as an airheaded shopaholic, a crazy psych patient, an ecstatic whiner and an operative named Fat Dominic.

Alas, the law of unintended consequences after the massacre in Orlando early this morning kept me from finding gunshots (intended as outrageous satire) amusing.

There is no satire in gunfire anymore. As one of the survivors sadly said, “There is no going back.”