Monday, February 5, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Mamet Meets Sondheim on the Road By Beverly Creasey

It’s almost the turn of the century (that is, the 20th) when two brothers set out to make their fortune and honor their father. They don’t and they don’t…Well, they do after a fashion, but no one (except a mother) would be truly proud. One brother could swindle P. T. Barnum out of a circus while the other peddles sketchy real estate in Florida (à la Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross Estates). They part ways, travel the world and catch the eye of Stephen Sondheim almost a century later. So many adventures! So much inspiration. You can see why Sondheim and John Weidman would write (and keep re-writing) ROAD SHOW and you can see why Lyric Stage would want to produce it. Sondheim is their bailiwick.

ROAD SHOW (running through Feb. 11th) is the sixth or seventh Sondheim show directed by Spiro Veloudos (co-directed, this time out, with Ilyse Robbins). While I was watching ROAD SHOW, I kept recalling snatches of those other wonderful Sondheim shows at Lyric because that’s where the music leads you. It’s almost impossible not to think of the more familiar song traveling along the same notes.

ROAD SHOW does have moments of its own, like the touching love song, “[You’re] The Best Thing That Ever Happened [to me].” Neil A. Casey and Patrick Varner, as the two lonely souls who find brief happiness, are the main reasons to see ROAD SHOW. (However, their story line is so dramatically fuzzy in the plot turn, that you suspect something was left out of this revision.). Nevertheless, if you’re a Sondheim fan, you don’t want to miss the chance to see even a lesser work by the master.

Jonathan Goldberg, who has shepherded many of the Lyric’s Sondheim musicals, makes the tiny three-piece orchestra sound like the full complement, so I’m inclined to conclude that whatever the Lyric team could accomplish with the musical, ROAD SHOW would still need massive infrastructure improvement before it’s reliably roadworthy.

Monday, January 22, 2018


The Imaginary Beasts are back with their annual Winter Panto (through Feb. 4th @ Charlestown Working Theatre). Not to be confused with a pantomime show, the Beastly entertainment is fashioned after the English Panto, a motley mixture of Commedia dell Arte and bawdy British music hall burlesque. This Panto features a nod and a wink to Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA.

The Beasts’ imagination is limitless, cobbling together outrageous comedy, popular song, merry dance and more plotlines than you can shake a (slap) stick at. The key for the audience is to play along, to hiss the villain, to boo their shameless puns, to warn the players when a baddie is approaching (the kids love that part)…and to grab onto as many allusions as you can. 

Mind you, these references gallop by faster than the brain can locate their origin but you may be able to snag a few TV salutes: “Kawabunga” was Chief Thunder Thud’s war cry on The Howdy Doody Show and “Papa Oooh Mau Mau” [The Bird is the Word] was the famous Ghoul’s siren song. Of course, in the Panto they’re just funny words all by themselves. You may hear a snatch of a tune that signals “The Poseidon Adventure” or a fleeting hint at Jacques Brel with the mention of “Matelot.”

Matthew Woods, The Beasts’ chief cook and bottle washer (and the narrator, to boot) points out that this is their first sci-fi Panto. Since a league is three miles, the Beasts plumb new depths of comedy, a marathon of 60,000 miles to be exact, ending up (or rather down) in the Lost City of Atlantis. I’m afraid the story line jumped ship way before we boarded the Nautalis, but the stock characters are all you need to keep your moorings.

The grand dame is always played by a man and Noah Simes is garishly, marvelously flirtatious as Mlle. Faux Pas, (that is, inexplicably, when he isn’t Raggety Anne). Luckily for mademoiselle, there are plenty of men, including audience members, for her to pursue. One of the cleverest bits is Faux Pas’ water ballet when she lands in the drink.

Michael Underhill as the loquacious, quote-acious copper is always stopping traffic à la Monty Python’s Graham Chapman. The only reference he doesn’t pinch is The Pirates of Penzance’s “Policeman’s Lot.” Kim Klasner is the sweetest of hapless heroes, who only wants to find her little, lost kitty cat, portrayed with a devilish curiosity by Molly Kimmerling. It’s the cat who almost dispatches them all, Trump-style, by pushing the big red nuclear button.

            Bob Mussett provides plenty of laughs as the pug nosed, seasick Bowery boy; William Schuller is delightfully dense as the explorer who would be adrift, if not for Jamie Semel as his doughty daughter. Amy Meyer is a ubiquitous double agent and Rebecca Lehrhoff floats effortlessly as a helpful choral nymph.

            Jennifer Taschereau first appears as a skipper with a gargantuan beard covering her whole face; then she’s transformed into a gleaming sea creature by Cotton-Minkin’s adorable octopus costume (with its manifolded skirt festooned with pom-poms). It’s Talbot-Minkin’s ingenious creations that make the show!

            The most compelling characters, of course, are the bad guys. The point of a panto is to restore “the right, the good, the true” so you know comeuppance is in the mix. Sarah Gazdowicz is a magnificent, lobster clawed “bottom feeder” who plans to scuttle the lot. Alas she can’t succeed, this being a panto whose point is that crime doesn’t pay…but I was rooting for the Lob Lady.

            She’s joined on the scoundrel side by a charismatic Kiki Samko as the diabolical Captain Nemo. Samko seemed to channel James Mason from the Hollywood movie… Or maybe I was just punch drunk from the long haul conscription. Their sea battle is spectacular but you’re under water for so long, you risk getting the bends.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey LOST and Found in Translation

There are a lot of smart plays about working class families but Take Your Pick Productions has found one with a nice kick for their second outing. (They scored last season with THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED.) John Pollono’s LOST GIRLS (playing at the BCA through Jan. 21st) is ostensibly about a runaway teen who may be making the same mistake her mother (and her mother’s mother) made. The wiseacre grandmother (a formidable Christine Power) quips that they’re improving with every successive generation: Her mother was fourteen when she became pregnant; She herself was fifteen but her daughter waited until she was sixteen!

The dialogue is saucy and sardonicbut also sweet. A sixteen year old boy (a charming Zach Winston), in love for the first time, tells the object of his affection (the brassy Lesley Anne Moreau) that it feels like “chewing on an electric cable.” Director Melanie Garber has a spirited cast to deliver Pollono’s punches, chiefly Audrey Lynn Sylvia as the intractable mother of the runaway, a woman who does not want to accept help from her ex (an earnest Terrence P. Haddad) and least of all, from his cloying new wife (a very funny Lauren Foster).

You’ll find that Pollono’s script keeps you guessing, not going where you think it will, which is a treat nowadays when most new plays are predictable and shopworn. Lucky us. Thanks to Take Your Pick, we get to see the New England premiere!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


How refreshing to find a smart new way to approach MAN OF LA MANCHA. The classic musical by Dale Wasserman, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion has been streamlined, simplified and tightened in director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s stirring new production for New Repertory Theatre. Please pardon me for saying I’ve found revivals of the musical rather stodgy in recent years but I’m delighted to find that this MAN (playing through Dec. 24th) works beautifully in New Rep’s mid-size, perfect-size space. (You can see and hear in every seat in the house.)

Ocampo-Guzman may call up allusions to Spain under Franco but the musical set during the Spanish Inquisition resonates right now with its “enemies of the state” mentalityand its sardonic take on the rule of law. Don Quixote’s “Facts are the enemy of truth” will have you thinking of the extreme right wing’s “alternate facts,” not to mention the travesties which now pass for truth. For example, the director silently indicts the Catholic Church for its collusion with torture and murder by having nuns accompany the police whenever a prisoner is summoned before the auto-da-fe.

Cast members play instruments (solving the problem of where to hide an orchestra), making this MAN much more intimate. Music director David Reiffel and choreographer Judith Chaffee move the performers around seamlessly, making the story much more cohesive. I’ve seen many a company knock themselves out with elaborate set pieces in an effort to make the “mirror” scene work (when the Knight is forced to see “reality”) when it turns out, less is more…and makes more sense.

And how brilliant is it to forego a chubby dolt of a Sancho Panza in favor of a clever secretary for Cervantes, who then becomes the compadre of Don Quixote. How lovely it is to see the devotion and friendship of the two. Kudos to Maurice Emmanual Parent as the foolish but noble Don and Michael Levesque as his thoughtful companion. When Levesque sings “I Like Him,” it’s touching and eminently believable. (And turning “A Little Gossip” a little vaudeville does the trick.)

How thrilling it is to go “operatic” with the musical: Sometimes it doesn’t pay to mix “regular” (pop) voices with full out operatic singing but it truly heightens the drama in this production. Ute Gfrerer is a stunning Dulcinea and Stefan Barner makes the Psalm aria downright chilling. New Rep has some of Boston’s best leading actors in secondary roles and that pays off, too. Shonna Cirone and Todd Yard are splendid as Inn Keepers; Paul James Lang is first rate as the Barber and Davron Monroe broods and frightens as the “Duke.”

I left the theater heartened that our current “unrightable wrongs” perhaps may be righted… Maybe the world can “be better for this.” Thanks, New Rep, for the engaging uplift.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey THE WHOLE TRUTH and nothing but

How many of us know about Gordon Hirabayashi…or for that matter, about the WWII internment camps for American citizens of Japanese ancestry? Hirabayashi said “no” to President Roosevelt’s order of internment, all the way to the Supreme Court. (One hundred and twenty thousand Japanese-Americans were incarcerated without due process.) The Lyric Stage is presenting Hirabayashi’s remarkable story in HOLD THESE TRUTHS, written by Jeanne Sakata, and playing through December 24th.

Sakata gives Hirabayashi an exquisite speech to open the play, in which he quotes the famous credo, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” He then questions our tacit acceptance of the phrase: If such incontrovertible truths exist, do they have the same meaning over time…are they set in stone? Certainly, in 2017, truth is elusive, elastic and worst of all, elective. Sakata’s play resonates like the Liberty Bell (if it still can ring), with our despicable culture of racial injustice, not to mention our impending constitutional crisis.

Director Benny Sato Ambush and company accomplish an impressive coup: All the dialogue is spoken by Michael Hisamotoas Hirabayashiand as every supporting character, as well. None of the secondary kurogos speak with their voices. In Noh Theater, these masked actors “speak” through specific, gestural movement. (Choreography by Jubilith Moore.) In traditional Noh, their gestures guide the principal character to understanding and action.

When Hirabayashi refuses to follow his family to the camp, it breaks his mother’s heart. A shrouded, masked Gary Ng (as mother) conveys every ounce of her pain, by bending slowly, slightly toward the earth with crossed, lowering arms. These secondary figures (the extraordinary Ng, Khloe Alice Lin and Samantha Richert) provide pathos, humor and anguish solely with body movement (and the expressive “language” of the Japanese fan.)

You quickly forget that Hisamoto is answering his own lines with theirs, because the kurogos are reacting as if they themselves were speaking. Curiously, they become a much more dramatic element than the main character. Hisamoto conveys Hirabayashi’s astonishing resilience over forty years of disappointment (reminding me of Voltaire’s CANDIDE) with his ever present optimism.

Hirabayashi’s small victories burst onto Hisamoto’s face with a joyous smile but the playwright doesn’t offer much chance for us to see his suffering. She paints a sweeping overview of his life as if he never agonized over the ordeals he must have endured. No, Sakata has him cheerfully trundling off to jail, even requesting a longer sentence at one point. There is so much I wanted to know about his heroic fight for justice but this is a different play, by design.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey CARRY ON, NURSE (as the Brits would say)

It’s no walk in the park for the two existential characters in NURSE PLAY (@ BPT through Dec. 17th), seemingly compelled to lacerate old wounds while trapped in a darkened, creaky Saran wrapped room. The happy news is that James Wilkinson’s tortured little play is a rousing walk on the wild side for the audience.

Wilkinson’s company, EXILED THEATRE specializes in dark, absurdist fare so it comes as no surprise that NURSE PLAY will remind you (briefly) of Sartre or Beckett or Stephen King, for that matter…but you’re soon caught up in Wilkinson’s fiercely intelligent dialogue and canny allusions, as nurse (Susannah Wilson) and patient (Cody Sloan) execute a gory, metaphorical chess game to determine who is in charge of the premises.

It’s clear that this “lady with the lamp” is no Florence Nightingale. Nurse Ratched is more like it, by way of Sweeney Todd! Nor is the patient himself without sin. Oh, no. No angels here. Revelations practically congeal your blood, even as you giggle at Wilkinson’s audacity. If you like your comedy on the grisly side, then NURSE PLAY is your tonic.

The most distressing discoveries in NURSE PLAY have a sublime sound track. There simply isn’t anything more delightfully funny than watching Susannah Wilson groove out to BLONDIE: “One way or another, [she’s] gonna get ya’…. get ya’ get ya’ get ya’ get ya’.” (Kudos to movement director Kayleigh Kane for the hilarious choreography.)

Director Joe Jukenievich cuts to the bone, the funny bone it turns out, with his take no prisoners staging. Every time Sloan’s gangrenous foot touches the floor, you wince from the pain but it’s always followed by Wilkinson’s biting satire.

My absolute favorite line in the play, having just experienced a real life NURSE PLAY (where, after surviving a near fatal car crash, I almost bled to death from flossing when prescribed way too much blood thinner) is Sloan’s “They never would have done this in a hospital.” I’m here to tell you, life is theater of the absurd and yes they would.

Wilkinson has so much meaty material in NURSE PLAY that my only quibble is that perhaps it’s too much muscle. I thought it had ended a couple of times before it really did but I couldn’t tell you what I would remove, it’s all so clever.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Even if you’re not a rabid fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s cheeky thrillers, your funny bone will be convulsing over the shenanigans in Moonbox’s production of THE 39 STEPS (@ BCA through Dec. 9th). British playwright Evan George Patrick Barlow’s 2004 adaptation of the Hitchcock classic won him all manner of awards, from London to Broadway. (Before it became the 1935 Hitchcock film, THE 39 STEPS was published twenty years earlier as a serial spy novel. Although its origins are endlessly fascinating, its delightful transformation to the stage is what makes it a knockout.)

You see, aside from the protagonist, a dashing Canadian who finds himself drawn into the thorny world of European espionage, all the other characters are portrayed by three actors for whom fast paced comedy is mother’s milk. Kevin Cirone oozes panache as the accidental hero, brandishing that emblematic wit that spits squarely in the face of adversity. Director Allison Olivia Choat stops just short of winking, as she maneuvers Cirone out of windows, off speeding trains and into rushing waters to escape the various clutches of villains, dolts and n’er-do-wells (all audaciously portrayed by Matthew Zahnzinger and Bob Mussett).

Sarah Gazdowicz is hilarious as a literal femme fatale and even more intriguing prospects for our hero. Huzzahs to dialect coach Daniel Blackwell. Gazdowicz’ provocative accents alone make her irresistible. And Zahnzinger’s left eye which overflows with greed, not to mention its Scottish owner’s impenetrable brogue is simply delicious… And Mussett’s curiously odd vaudevillian, key to the thirty nine ways to subvert Nazis and save the world is both delectable and disarming! I could go on and on, about the ingenious staging and brazen liberties taken to serve up a guffaw…

There you are. Laughing your self silly and forgetting all about present day Nazis and impending doom. Thank you, Moonbox.