Tuesday, February 9, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Melts Like Butter

Kirsten Greenidge’s deeply flawed but endlessly charming characters in MILK LIKE SUGAR (@ BCA through Feb. 27th) win over your heart even as you hope against hope they won’t repeat the mistakes of an earlier generation. Greenidge’s dialogue just melts in their mouths and bounces against our eardrums, as three bright high school girls pledge to be friends forever, sharing birthdays, shopping, tattoos and, sadly, pregnancy.

Greenidge was inspired by news headlines a couple of years back which reported that students at Gloucester High had joined a “pregnancy pact.” The rumors were false but the idea for a play stuck. The three teenagers in MILK LIKE SUGAR know what’s trending on the net. They know a “Coach bag” is high on “the list” of what’s in. So are tattoos and clubbing. Even old school magazines like Vogue pitch to teenagers now, with page after page of models with tattoos and expensive handbags, not to mention the flagrant influences in pop music and on television.

What these sixteen year olds don’t know is the sobering side of motherhood. Their emotions are overwhelmed by outrageous notions of baby showers and oodles of gifts. The future for them means a newer version of an iphone. They think a baby will provide unconditional love: Talisha (Shazi Raja) says it outright. “What else we got?”

College isn’t even on the table for economic reasons and when a classmate voices his plan to get an education (with good grades and financial aid), Annie (Jasmine Carmichael) doesn’t believe him. And she doesn’t heed his warning about getting pregnant. Even Annie’s mother (Ramona Lisa Alexander) tries, having been there herself. Why isn’t anyone getting through? A teenage brain is developing. It doesn’t have impulse control… and Greenidge doesn’t offer up any rosy, “feel good” solutions… but she does give us hope. There’s always hope.

The best thing Greenidge gives us is a delightful window into popular culture. These are good girls, smart girls. They’re not into drugs. They drink a little but that’s not what drives them. They want something out of life. They just don’t know how to get it. Greenidge’s play doesn’t feel like a cautionary tale. It doesn’t feel like we’re watching a train wreck. We’re in on their spontaneity and their joyous, hilarious (but shortsighted) innocence.

Booker T. Washington famously said that “Character is power.” These girls have character to spare. They just don’t recognize their power. Greenidge creates powerful characters all around, like Alexander’s stressed-to-the-max mother who takes righteous umbrage at Shanae Burch’s evangelical pronouncement, “Jesus will provide.” Her reaction is priceless and so are the performances of Raja, Carmichael and Carolina Sanchez in director Bevin O’Gara’s hip, hopping, heartbreaking production.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016


Picketing The New Repertory Theatre for its production of THE TESTAMENT OF MARY (playing through Feb. 28th)? Why in heavens’ name? Because it blasphemes? First of all, it doesn’t. Playwright Colm Toibin paints Mary as a mother….who, like any other mother, would rather not see her son crucified. In director Jim Petosa’s take on the (one woman) play, Mary is already defeated. She tells us she thinks she’s being watched: “They” want the story to have a particular slant but her “memory is a jumble of confusion.” She feels guilt and she feels resentment because her son was “used” by those who wanted change. She struggles under the burden of a mother’s grief but she doesn’t rail against God or the Church or the movement.

Secondly, the New Rep version never reaches fever pitch. You’d be hard pressed to find anything stronger than a mother’s lament that it wasn’t worth the pain. Paula Langton plays her as the frailest of creatures with barely the strength to go on. Langton shows us her profound suffering with one gesture, not with words. She wishes, she says, with all her heart that she could have held him after they took him down from the cross. Then she outstretches her empty arms, lingers in the pose and we see Michelangelo’s Pieta. We’re moved by that gesture alone to feel the sacrifice. Isn’t that what religion is about? Making us feel? And by the by, since the gospels were written eighty years after the fact, when witnesses and disciples were long gone, who’s to say whose version is sacrosanct!

As for picketing, I remember Christopher Durang’s wonderfully outrageous farce, SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU, which was the first in a long line of “nun” send ups (which no one thinks a second thought about now). They picketed in New York. They picketed in Boston. I saw both productions. As I recall, the picketers did not know it was satire. I presume The Catholic Church understands satire now, as various incarnations of NUNSENSE play their church basements. And not a peep was uttered when Tir Na mounted THE RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER (Yes, that winemaker.) a few months ago.

There are lots of injustices in the world to protest about. This molehill is no mountain by any stretch of the imagination.

Saturday, January 23, 2016


What a coup for SpeakEasy Stage. Director Paul Daigneault, who brought the Off Broadway version of VIOLET to Boston back in 2000, has found a way to make the current production soar even higher. (The musical’s creators had been reconfiguring it over the years and in 2014 VIOLET played Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award in the Best Musical Revival category.) The new version is now at the BCA through Feb. 6th. SpeakEasy’s production features a real gospel choir for the (religious) “revival” where Violet implores a charismatic televangelist to heal her of her scars. In fact eleven local choirs were recruited so that each performance has a different chorus to make a joyful noise. And do they ever!

VIOLET is billed as a story of hope and renewal, mainly because Violet finds strength as she journeys from her small rural home in North Carolina to the big city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And she finds someone to love her despite a disfigured face. The Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley songs are catchy, uplifting and often, delightfully funny. We meet young Violet (the spunky Audree Hedequist) and there’s a grown up Violet (a fiery Alison McCartan) often together when memory and the present collide. Daigneault’s cast is perfection, from Tyla Collier’s star turn as a music hall singer to Carolyn Saxon’s show stopping church soloist to Kathy St. George’s hilarious turns as a gossipy old lady one second and a drugged out, liquored up hooker the very next second!

John F. King cuts quite a swath as the bombastic faith healer who only ministers to the needy when the cameras are on. He’s callous at first but King gives him a sympathetic streak when he turns Violet down but ultimately lifts her up with some sage advice. Nile Scott Hawver, too, impresses as the headstrong white soldier only interested in a one-night stand, until he undergoes a conversionbut it’s Dan Belnavis who gives a powerhouse performance as the Black soldier who accepts Violet for what’s beneath her scars. As Fats Waller famously wrote about prejudice, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case.” Belnavis’ sergeant has experienced his share of rejection, as Waller’s Black and Blue says “for what is on [his] face.”

It seems to me that the musical attempts to make the case that he and Violet are an ideal fit because both are “damaged.” For me, that’s what disturbing about the story. I can accept that both are hurting. Women are still judged by their face (value) and African-Americans, Lord knows, are targeted because of the color of their skin, but skin color is not a deformity. I’m afraid I think it’s a false equivalency.

So see VIOLET for the stirring performances, for Matthew Stern’s fine music direction, for potent songs like Belnavis’ remarkable “Let It Sing” or the choir’s rousing “Raise Me Up.” Then you be the judge about the subliminal (or not) message in VIOLET.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


You can’t best Imaginary Beasts for sheer joy and inventiveness. You might say the foot is on the other shoe for IB’s mismatched mash-up of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, their Winter Panto 2016 playing at the BCA through Jan 30th. Matthew Woods plunders all (and there are many) Frank L. Baum’s OZ books for characters who didn’t make it in to the Judy Garland movie version. Then again, he plunders Judy Garland movies for songs which don’t belong, traditionally speaking, in the story. Now they do, along with a passel of songs from myriad sources including Edvard Grieg, which will have you giggling over the cheekiness of their choices. By the by, this is now my favorite version!

You can’t top their gender bending (which is typical of the British Panto): Joey Pelletier as Auntie Em, (who seems a lot like Dorothy for some reason and wears the ruby shoes), has the hots for the slightly flustered Tin Man (Nick Chopper). Amy Meyer as the charming scarecrow is smitten with Molly Kimmerling’s Patchwork Girl (Who isn’t? She’s adorable and spunky, to boot… and a feminist in her own right!) Woods himself gets to play the deliciously ferocious Wicked Witch of the West. And talk about bending, Michael Underhill is the (slightly sleazy) meandering Yellow Brick Road.

Bob Mussett takes the cake as all the (tall, small and in between) Munchkins, that is, when he’s not the royal historian. Patchwork Girl goes to great lengths to point out to him that for us women, it ought to be “herstory.” Thank you, Patchwork Girl. Now even though Pelletier wears the braids, the shoes and the blue checkered dress, there is a Dorothy, in kneepants, portrayed with immense earnestness, by Sarah Gazdowicz. William Schuller is hilarious as an erudite, philosophizing Toto. If only they would listen to him.

Elizabeth Pearson is the enormously resilient Wicked Witch of the East. Since Pantos require audience participation to be truly authentic, we have to keep reminding this witch of her demised status. The kids in the audience loved doing it. Kiki Samko, fluttering in and out with bubbles (and that wonderfully vague Billie Burke voice) is the always helpful Glinda (not really but we won’t go there. Gregory Maguire has taken her to task enough in WICKED.)

Cameron Cronin gets the plum role of the loveable Cowardly Lion and Mikey DiLoreto flies away as a winged monkey, via Noah Simes’ strong back. Everyone is resplendent in Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s extraordinary costumes (which put the movies’ duds to shame). She manages to fit personality into each and every stitch. Word to the wise: Don’t miss the Beasts’ magnificent, irreverentand yet somehow faithful WIZARD OF OZ.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Apollinaire Theatre’s wildly bizarre holiday offering, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES (playing through January 16th), perches somewhere between a big bowl game and the traditional, dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner.

Have you ever imagined, in the midst of a contentious family celebration with relatives you haven’t seen in ages, what would happen if the surreal goings-on were televised? If your answer is no, then skip to paragraph 3. If yes, read on. Kate Benson’s odd mash-up tickled me no end because I’ve experienced countless Thanksgiving dinners which I thought could be transferred directly to the stage. (In fact, I suspect that Ionesco and the Absurdists must have known my family intimately.)

Benson introduces two play-by-play announcers, high above courtside, to cover the meal. She very cleverly focuses on the minutiae of the day so that the smallest of details flourishes to illuminate a character’s essence: Positioning the table just so or putting English into mashing the potatoes tells you who’s in charge.

Three of the dueling matriarchs (all named after desserts) bicker and snipe while the commentators give us a “blow by blow” of the preparations for dinner. Worlds collide as the women move like linebackers deflecting passes, blocking touchdowns and managing a lateral or two as they prep the meal. Aunt Cheesecake (Mariela Lopez-Ponce in a tour de force) even exits en pointe. Then she reappears as a smashing Flamenco siren.

My favorite bit is the table leaf ritual, which I know by heart, whereby grown women lie on their backs and slide under the dining table like mechanics on creepers to secure the leaf in place. Pegs have to fit into holes and ropes have to be tied in case the pegs come loose, all this under a table, at right angles, with very little light to see what you’re doing. (I hadn’t thought of that harrowing undertaking in years!)

Just basting and turning the turkey becomes a perilous contact sport. Steve Auger provides the best moment in the show, wrestling the bird into submission. Because they can, Apollinaire has an actor stand in for the poor turkey. Michael Kelly makes a superb fowl… and he makes the wrestling match a righteous, albeit hopeless, rebellion. The actors are all top notch mimes: We know in a trice that Kelly is a turkey by his gait and by an unfurled palm which niftily stands in for tail feathers.

Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques (and movement choreographer Danielle Rosvally) have a smart cast in tow who can personate one character, then become another without leaving the stage, a feat which is both impressive and entertaining at the same time. Jade Guerra and Jeff Marcus are highly amusing as the broadcasters. Liz Adams and Dana Block are masters of the slow burn and who knew Ann Carpenter could rap (“Potatoes and Gravy”)!

Emily Edstrom excels in the quirky role of the outcast and Floyd Richardon tries to bring calm to the proceedings as grandpa. Sylvia Sword and the aforementioned Kelly are twins, siblings, spouses and Republicans, all of whom get their comeuppance via a plot twist no one will see coming, I’d bet on it.

If you enjoy theater of the absurd, then Benson’s oddball BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER will provide you with lively diversion and amaze you with its twist.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


When you think of WAR AND PEACE, you imagine the sheer heft of the novel with its massive cast of characters. You wouldn’t think Tolstoy’s masterpiece could even be contained in a modern (pop opera) musical. Well, it can. Director Rachel Chavkin’s extraordinary production of Dave Malloy’s adaptation, called NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, has completely transformed the American Repertory Theater into a 360 degree, very Russian, opulent playing spaceand you’re right in the thick of it.

You’re surrounded by characters who crave meaning, intensity and desire…who are devoted to the pursuit of passion: Sometimes hopelessly, sometimes perilously, sometimes for the better. Malloy’s lyrics employ, and pay homage to, Tolstoy’s text, even as they’re winking at the folly of the characters’ stilted, nineteenth century notions.

Chavkin and company fuse music, text and creative design into one all encompassing concept, swirling around the audience. The result is thrilling. Throbbing, electronic chords match the urgency of the characters’ pursuits and a cast of twenty two (plus a ten piece orchestra) feud, fight and love, the Russian way, with all their heart and soul. Malloy’s seductive music pulses with familiar Russian rhythms, reaching fever pitch in the wildly entertaining drinking scenes.

The characters may be facing Tolstoy’s obstacles but they struggle like Chekov’s disillusioned Muscovites: Natasha (the lovely Denee Benton) is engaged to the patriotic Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton in two impressive roles, the Prince and his addled father) but while he is away in the army, Natasha is swept off her feet by a handsome cad (Lucas Steele in a tour de force). His scheming sister (a vibrant Lilli Cooper) conspires with her brother to deceive the innocent country girl. Her husband, the Pierre of the title (the immensely sympathetic Scott Stangland) drinks to forget he is married to her.

The plot may seem familiar but the staging isn’t. You’re immersed in a unique world with audacious stagecraft, dazzling costumes (Palomoa Young mixes 19th and 21st centuries to create hip, amusing hybrids) and cheeky songs like “Andrey Isn’t Here” or “We Write Letters” and gorgeous ballads like “I Will Stand Outside Your Door” for Sonya (a luminous Brittain Ashford). It’s an exhilarating experience. Don’t miss it.

Word to the wise: Friends who sat on the floor in the middle or in the newly fabricated banquette seating to the rear of the playing area couldn’t hear as well as we, in the old permanent A.R.T. raked seats, did. It’s location, location, location as they say in the old country.

Monday, December 14, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Delightful Shenanigans @ Lyric and Tir Na

If naughty really is the new nice, as they say, then I have two irreverent theatrical treats for you this holiday season. Tir Na’s RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER (@ Davis Square Theatre through Dec. 20th) and Lyric Stage’s BUYER & CELLAR (through Jan.3rd) will give you enough giggles to forget (momentarily anyway) the troubles of the world.

Bernard McMullan’s wild “Irish Christmas Comedy” introduces yet another Messiah myth to the canon: This time out, Mary and Joseph stop into an Irish pub to find a place for Mary to give birth. She does, and the two high-tail it out of town, leaving the infant Jesus in the care of a childless barkeep and his wife. At first, the couple is overjoyed. Then they’re overwhelmed by Jesus’ vexing propensity for trouble. The poor child lacks good judgment and any sense of decorum. But when he ruins their water heater by turning its contents into wine, they begin to see the light. Problem is, now God wants the winemaker back.

Carmel O’Reilly directs the lively spoof with special attention to character detail. Derry Woodhouse as Jesus does not disappoint: From toddler to teenager, each new phase of his development is a vision of spectacular ineptitude. And Stephen Russell’s God is a rock star. What else can you say: the Dude abides.

Nancy E. Carroll has several hilarious roles, as adoptive mother, as Jesus’ sovereign step-mother and as a scheming old nun. Colin Hamell runs roughshod over the lot as the deliciously unconscionable barkeep…who fully intends to outwit God in a battle of wills. (And he can dance a mean gigue.) It’s all blissfully silly and you get some nifty songs (including an Irish favorite) in the bargain! What’s not to like?

Jonathan Tolins’ one man show about meeting Barbra Streisand has Phil Tayler front and center in a tour de force as an out of work actor employed by the superstar to manage her shops. (People who need people are out of luck unless they have limitless funds to hire someone to amuse them.) Streisand does have a personal shopping mall in the cellar of her barn. That’s a fact. The rest of the play isn’t factual. Tolins stresses this point because the last thing he needs is trouble from “someone so famous, talented and litigious.”

Tayler has a twinkle in his eye and a seductive slow motion double take to make us complicit in his adventure. Tolins’ script has Tayler totally smitten with Barbra but his boyfriend is decidedly not. Tayler plays Barry, the boyfriend, as the devil’s advocate (sounding suspiciously like David Sedaris). The battle over Barbra is half the fun. The other half is comprised of everyone else, Herself included (which he achieves by miraculously lengthening his finger nails and drawing them over Barbra’s imaginary tresses).

Courtney O’Connor directs the piece with breakneck speed: Tayler turns on a dime to become a different character. It’s quite an “aspirational” feat, to borrow one of Tolins’ clever viewpoints. You’ll be wowed by Tayler’s transformations and highly amused by his chutzpah. What’s not to like?