Tuesday, August 12, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Emperor of the Absurd



John Kuntz’ epic history of our United States (from a rodent point of view) is a hefty undertaking. Circuit Theatre commissioned Kuntz to write them a play and the result is THE ANNOTATED HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN MUSKRAT (scurrying around the BCA through Aug. 16th). Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA separates Part 1 from Part 2 but Kuntz’s “Muskrats in America” stretches out from Part 1 to Part 17 in one sitting. (There may be in fact more than seventeen divisions but I lost count in the frenzy and Kuntz didn’t even include furrier king John Jacob Astor’s rise to power (literally on the backs of the muskrat and the beaver.)

Kuntz leads us on a mad (practically endless) journey from moonwalks to mass murder, from the first Thanksgiving to the latest slaughter on the “Hunting” channel. We meet harried presidents, their agitated wives (although he leaves the last six presidents out of his “history”), restless patients under video surveillance and best of all, a raccoon remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s REBECCA.

Director Skylar Fox’s consummate cast jumps effortlessly from one absurdist scene to the next. You can’t blink or you might miss a flock of flamingos riding across the stage. Then you’re treated to Simon Henriques as Dame Judith “raccoon” Anderson. Simply hilarious! But Kuntz can just as easily depart from his comic stream of consciousness to reference manifest destiny, Wallace Stevens, Trayvon Martin, Lewis and Clark and dubious behavioral science experiments. Then it’s back to the Captain and (Allison Smith’s) Tennille (for their muskrat song, of course!).

Fox (the director, not one of Kuntz’s anthropomorphized characters) adds delightful, whimsical touches like animal appropriate spit takes or a window (with flower box) which zooms in the moment it’s mentioned in the dialogue and yet he can stop our laughter cold when Jared Bellot applies blackface and tells us “the history of Black people in America.”

Kuntz’s “cautionary tale” (or “tail” as the case may be) embraces Justin Phillips’ depressed Pat Nixon, Smith’s manic Betty Ford, Anna Nemetz and Henriques’ crazy cat owners with semi-automatics, Sam Bell-Gurwitz and Alexis Scheer’s disturbing fantasy lives and Edan Laniado’s dreadfully ineffectual attempt at talking down a suicide. Who would combine all this Americana in one play? John Kuntz, of course.

Monday, August 11, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SUMMA CUM LAUDE



Scientists studying brain function have discovered that what makes a work of art compelling are its mysteries. You’re drawn in as your brain struggles to understand. Scholars say that what makes a great work of art is its transformative power. Brian Friel’s TRANSLATIONS is all that, and more: You are transported, transformed and even transfigured by one extraordinary play.

Bad Habit’s TRANSLATIONS (playing through Aug. 17th) is one of the loveliest productions of the play I’ve seen. Moreover, the Bad Habit production itself is a bit of a miracle. An accident sidelined one of the principal actors on opening weekend and Victor Shopov stepped in, heroically learning the role in three days. The rest of the cast transformed to fit Shopov’s interpretation into theirs—and I’m happy to report that the transition is seamless. Shopov adds an air of elegance to the scholar/elder statesman teaching Greek and Latin to a colorful group of locals at an Irish “hedge” school.

They’re all in for a change because the British army surveyors have arrived to turn their little village (and the whole country) upside down. Place names will be anglicized and borders restructured. The tenant farmer system, too, will be overhauled, explains the stiff, unbending army captain (Bob Mussett at his no nonsense best) through an interpreter (Matthew Barrett as the schoolmaster’s enterprising son, hilariously mistranslating on purpose). Friel brilliantly encapsulates 200 years of English-Irish strife in a sweet, funny, sorrowful story of one little hamlet.

Friel’s ingenious conceit wherein the Brits cannot understand a word that the Irish are speaking (and visa versa) but the audience is able to understand them both (because the play is in English) creates a charming breeding ground for an awkward, captivating romance. Sarah Elizabeth Bedard as the spunky Irish lass and Patrick Varner as the idealistic British engineer capture our hearts as they fumble toward comprehension.

Director M. Bevin O’Gara has a game cast to seize Friel’s words and turn them into flesh and spirit: From Kevin Fennessy’s fantastical old dreamer to Gabriel Graetz’ unhappy, unfulfilled teacher (except with Margaret Clark’s eager, innocent learner), from Gillian Mackay-Smith’s cheery but worried student to Greg Maraio’s handsome, playful bounder: Every performance is folded beautifully into the dynamic ensemble. Don’t deny yourself this experience.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS By Beverly Creasey SUMMER MUSICAL FRENZY




Alons enfants de la Patrie

There are so many reasons, so many lovely moments that make Company Theatre’s LES MISERABLES (through Aug. 17th) a must see this summer, that I hardly know where to begin. Even if you’ve seen your fair share of LES MIZ productions (and I’ve seen more than my share) you’ll be surprised and immensely pleased to see how Company Theatre’s fresh, new approach enlivens the hit Boubil/Schonberg musical.

Directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman add delicate, subtle but profoundly moving touches in almost every scene. The ensemble numbers swell with such excitement and urgency that you’re swept into the whirlwind of revolution from the get-go. (Even the scenery appears and disappears in a trice so as not to interrupt the flow of the material.) Sally Ashton Forrest contributes smart, lively choreography, so that, for instance, the “Beggars at the Feast” scene features genteel celebrants hilariously adopting the tacky Thenardier dance!

Each character is drawn in full relief, with first rate performances all around, from Michael Warner’s thoughtful, noble Jean Valjean to Bill McColgan’s saintly Bishop, from Jessica Golden’s doomed Fantine to Erin McMillen’s gentle Cosette, from Brendan Paine’s dashing young student to James Fernandez and the other student revolutionaries on the barricade.

Everyone loves to watch the nasty Thernadiers hold sway and they’re played full tilt by Maryann Zschau and Christopher J. Hagberg but what makes this LES MIZ intensely compelling are two characters who drive the plot: The instant Andrew Giordano arrives as Valjean’s nemesis, Javert, you are keenly aware of the threat. His crisp, sure military bearing and powerful presence (not to mention his very tall hat) set the outsized operatic standard for the musical. Jennifer Glick, too, as Eponine, moves the love story along with her unrequited affection for Marius. When she lies dying, at last in his arms, we feel the full cathartic weight of the Victor Hugo epic.

What struck me, even more than the superb staging, are Company Theatre’s choral singingand the gorgeous orchestrations, music directed by Michael V. Joseph. This is the third iteration of the Broadway score, one which pares down the strings and seems to support the lyrics (rather than overwhelming them). For example, Valjean’s final reprise of “Bring Him Home” where he asks God to “take me now…to thy care” is accompanied simply and elegantly by solo cello (Kett Lee). The effect is breathtaking. Joseph turns LES MIZ into an oratorio with the emotional impact of a masterful choral work.

DRENCHED

Reagle Music Theatre is revisiting one of its more successful ventures (I’ve seen their three previous productions of the musical), with the stage version of the Gene Kelly/Stanley Donen movie, SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (playing through Aug. 17th). It’s a huge undertaking because they have to install a trough for the rain to exit in the big number and because of the B&W film the company has to shoot from scratch to jumpstart the plot. (Silent movies are left behind by the “talkies” and the reigning leading lady sounds like a truck driver!)

The love story at the heart of the movie matches the Gene Kelly character (Sean Quinn) with a young chorine (Gillian Mariner Gordon) who has her mind set on a Broadway career. She gets her break, of course, (and the man, to boot). A parallel phenomenon is at work in real life because this is Gordon’s big break, playing lead opposite two Broadway veterans. She shines every step of the way, radiating warmth and effortless poise.

You’ll recognize Reagle regulars Beth Martin as an erstwhile Hedda Hopper, Daren Kelly as the old school movie director, R. Glen Michell as the studio boss, Daniel Forest Sullivan as the cop on the beat (not to mention the charming Joseph Caliguri as a flustered technician in the demonstration film). These versatile actors always turn in solid, vibrant performances, whether leads or supporting characters. Christopher A. King, too, as the production tenor in this run (in the ‘Beautiful Girl’ cavalcade) and Katelyn Prominski channeling Cyd Charisse in the “Gotta Dance” sequence (choreographed by Eileen Grace and Kirby Ward), add considerable depth to the production.

The two Broadway performers in the lead (Quinn and Edward Tolve) dance like gangbusters but something was amiss the night I attended. They just didn’t seem comfortable in the Kelly and Donald O’Connor roles (Who would, you might ask!) “Make ‘Em Laugh” didn’t and although “Good Morning” did, the “Singin’ in the Rain” number seemed forced to me. (Microphone problems didn’t help Ward’s production, either.)

Noreen Hughes as the gravel voiced silent movie star was all over the map, as if she just picked up the script. Some of the time the gruffness in her voice just vanished leaving me wondering why none of the studio people noticed this. Alas, the uneven production felt tired and worn to me, just like the creased and peeling backdrop rentals that have seen better days.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Gloucester Show gets Extra Mileage with Nancy Carroll



Playwright Amy Herzog has been lauded for her poignant family dramas: 4000 MILES was a Pulitzer finalist in 2012. In Gloucester Stage’s gentle production of the “cross country” play (running through August 17th), a sensitive young man has biked all the way from Washington state and found refuge from the slings and arrows of truly outrageous fortune in his grandmother’s New York City apartment. The cantankerous 91 year old is delighted to have his company. In the course of the play the two form an indelible bond.

The slowly meandering play gradually unfolds its secrets to reveal what drove the young man from home (although the information is at best scant) and what keeps him from returning. The back story lurks just out of reach, under the surface of the play as if Herzog is loath to go into detail. In the most touching scene of the play, the grandson finally recounts what really happened on the road but Herzog undercuts this lovely moment with a joke. (It’s a joke we’re all familiar with from countless scenes of cinematic confessions when the confessor discovers that the other person was asleep the whole time.) Director Eric C. Engel creates such an intimate, delicate connection between the two, that it’s a shame to throw it away for a laugh.

Nancy E. Carroll gives a brilliant physical portrayal etched in arthritic fingers, wobbly knees and bent spine but it’s her exquisite comic timing which carries the play, especially when the two celebrate the autumnal equinox with a little buzz. Thomas Rash is just vulnerable enough for us to plainly see he’s at odds with the world and himself. Herzog brings in two romantic possibilities for the grandson, one just ending (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) and one going nowhere (Samantha Ma) but it’s the affection we witness when he pats his grandma’s head, or she pats his, that’s the love story we care about in 4000 MILES.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey RIOTOUS ROGUERY AT CLUB CAFE



The Hub Theatre is fortunate to have three superb mischief makers to make hay out of Shakespeare. The poor Bard is sliced, diced, drawn and quartered for our amusement in THE COMPLETE WORKS OF WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE [ABRIDGED] running full tilt at Club Café through August 2nd.

Patrick Curran, Will Moore and Brooks Reeves do what the authors of the piece didn’t when I saw them perform it themselves eons ago. The current cast, under the effervescent direction of Lauren Elias, keeps the silliness light and saucy and deliciously topical. Who would have thought that Ru Paul or Donald Sterling would stand side by side with Titus Andronicus in a Shakespeare production?

The piece de resistance is the fifteen minute HAMLET, reduced to five, then performed backward! Best of all, is the fact that Hub Theatre presentations are always pay-what-you-can all the time. No hugger mugger: There’s no better bargain in town…and I do know a hawk from a handsaw: One’s a scary bird of prey and the other an elegant, rather shy, non-violent marsh heron.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey FLYING HIGH



The enormous effort involved in creating a musical is nothing to sneeze at. The hard work Kevin Cirone has put into his new musical, CREATIVE LICENSE (@ Davis Square Theatre through Aug. 2nd) shines through in the ingenious songs (lyrics by Cirone, music by Kevin Cirone and Spencer Elliott, with additional music by the show’s music director, Dan Rodriguez). The songs in CREATIVE LICENSE build character: Sometimes they shout it out so audaciously that you really do leave the theater humming. Case in point is a spectacular nose to nose confrontation song (“Delusional”), where the leads insult each other with glorious rhymes.

The story melds a “Hey, kids. Let’s put on a show” plot with the BoHo (and rock) sensibility of RENT. The twenty-somethings in CREATIVE LICENSE want more than “mere survival.” They want to “create.” Curiously, rather than building suspense over the course of the musical, each crisis in Cirone’s script is quickly followed by a solution in the next scene. ‘Can they stave off foreclosure of the family bar?’ is answered immediately with ‘We’ll put on a show to raise the money.’ Then ‘Where do we find backers for the show?’ is solved post haste when the heroine unearths a slew of willing investors. (Who knew it was that easy!) This stop/start pattern of quick resolution for the characters’ problems works against a fluid, accumulating momentum for the piece. (It’s something to do with the “law of physics,” to borrow from one of Cirone’s extremely clever lines.)

This is only CREATIVE LICENSE’s first (professional) outing and in developmental theater, it takes a village, as they say. Let’s get back to those lovely songs. There’s the resonant anthem for the show, “What Are We Here For?” …and a shimmering “This is Not That Story” delivered by Michael Levesque as the hero and playwright of the play within the play. (Coincidentally Levesque brought his brooding leading man charisma to RENT a few seasons ago.)

Ashley Levesque has a sensational show stopper in the sexy, take-no-prisoners “Give Your Love To Me” although she’s not the romantic match for Levesque’s writer (which wasn’t evident until the end, I’m sorry to say). Sarah Leary is the gal he can’t live with/or without. She has the powerful reprise of “Take That Away.” Kevin Groppe as the forgetful professor gets a touching song about dementia, “More and More I’m Less and Less.” (By the by, I wasn’t clear how he beat the brain robbing disease.)

In a romantic subplot, Varsha Raghavan and David Lucey get to be “Flying High” on the expectation of love. Kudos to the band for some righteous rock (without overpowering the singers). Ross Brown makes the most of his role as barkeep/everyone’s confidant and best of all, he gets to star in the musical within the musicalwhich is a side-splitting Monty Pythonesque send-up of the Scottish play with hilarious, over the top choreography by Rachel Bertone. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Titanic Theatre’s CRACKPOT ADVENTURE



The TITANIC THEATRE COMPAY prides itself on producing bold, cutting edge plays. Naturally playwright David Lindsay-Abaire came to mind. He’s equally adept at absurdist humor (like FUDDY MEERS) as he is with pathos (THE RABBIT HOLE). His wild WONDER OF THE WORLD (@ Arsenal Arts Center through Aug. 9th) falls into the FUDDY MEERS category, with escaping wives, a trailing husband, bumbling private detectives and a plunge over Niagara Falls.

Titanic director Adam Zahler has assembled a crackerjack cast to navigate the swirling waters of upstate New York and although WONDER has its madcap moments, it doesn’t quite reach the comic pitch of FUDDY MEERS. Where the latter is refreshingly zany, WONDER is creepily bizarre at times. I know, the playwright is just pushing the envelope but for me to laugh at a Joseph Mengele reference, it has to be more than a cheap joke. (Mel Brooks proved that Nazis can be funny but Brooks has a point on the axe he’s grinding.) The same can be said for the icky Barbie material: gross, yes; hilarious, no.

Mind you, there’s a lot of WONDER that does hit the mark, chiefly because of the cast’s spot on, tongue-in-cheek delivery. Alisha Jansky, who plays the jaded “Gabby Hayes” sidekick to Meredith Saran’s nutty wanderer, has as Hayes would say “the beauty part.” She’s the character who moves the (watery thin) plot along by obsessing about the Fallsand by spilling the beans midway through, she brings all the parties together.

Laurie Singletary and Damon Singletary are a delightful duo as the Keystone Cops on the scent of Johnnie McQuarley’s missing wife; Alissa Cordeiro is a treat as the dubious shrink/clown (and wiseacre waitresses) but it’s Matthew Zahnzinger whose tour de force as Cap’n Mike makes WONDER work.

The Titanic Theatre Company’s WONDER OF THE WORLD ought to be a barrel of laughs. Instead it’s a mixed bag of chuckles.