Wednesday, December 7, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Captivating, Urgent FIDDLER



New Repertory Theatre’s FIDDLER ON THE ROOF (extended through Jan 11th) is not the same FIDDLER you may remember from years ago. Director Austin Pendleton adds lovely symbolic touches to the “traditional” staging for timely effect. For one, the fiddler isn’t on the actual roof (generally visible at the start and the end of the musical), he’s omnipresentin Tevye’s imagination, perhapsor ours. He follows the milkman around and once, even nudges him to look toward the heavens. He constantly reminds us of Tevye’s opening words about the difficulty of keeping one’s balance in changing timessomething we’re about to experience politically and very personally in our own country.

 Pendleton gets even more resonance from the storyline as we watch a whole community becoming refugees, dispersing in all directions. Tevye’s family stands in for every Jewish family in Anatevka just as the open set (designed by Stephen Dobay) stands in for the whole village. (It’s framed high above by adjoining rooftops out of which grow leafless, wintering trees reminiscent of THE CHERRY ORCHARD.) The musical itself is so beautifully rendered, (book by Joseph Stein; songs by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick) that the residents of Anatevka stand in for any persecuted people and Tevye’s strained relationship with his daughters reflects any child’s struggle to separate from a previous generation.

The New Rep production features Jeremiah Kissel as a longsuffering Tevye, a little more prone to depression than some, with Amelia Broome plenty feisty as his wife, Golde. Bobbie Steinbach, too, makes Yente, the matchmaker pretty cagey. The daughters are all delightful with each completely different from the other. Of the suitors, Patrick Varner as Motel, the tailor stands out for his joyous transformation from mouse to lion. Kelli Edwards’ choreography is effervescent, with the requisite thrill from the bottle dance. Music director Wade Russo gets wonderful singing all around, with an exquisitely moving “Sabbath Prayer” one of the many reasons to see New Rep’s striking, rewarding production.

Monday, December 5, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS By Beverly Creasey From MAYHEM to MAME



Mash-ups from Heart & Dagger Productions are always a hoot: Cross dressing performers skewer popular musicals without mercy, so I assumed they would be sending up SWEENEY TODD with the usual suspects. Not so! SWEENEYwhich, alas, ends this weekendis their first legit musical with a professional orchestra AND they put it all together for a song. When you don’t have a lot of money to throw at a project, you rely heavily on invention and imagination. You don’t need bells and whistles. (Well, you do need that bone chilling whistle, I grant you that.)

Mind you, Heart & Dagger still has a few tricks up their collective sleeves (like an actress playing the bloodthirsty Sweeney). The story is well told, extremely well sung and the toddler swing set (with slide), it turns out, is all you need to set up a barber shop. Just to be clear, Kiki Samko doesn’t make Sweeney female. She sports a male costume, fluffy sideburns like the caricature on the Broadway playbill, and she’s lowered her voice an octave (which is mighty hard on the tonsils). Even though I knew from the press release that it was Samko, it took me a few seconds to wrap my mind around the absolutely male character in front of me. It was she, almost completely unrecognizable.

Director Joey C. Pelletier is fortunate to have singers with wide ranging capabilities, like James Sims who can carry off the high soprano role (Johanna) as well as the tenor part (Anthony) and this being Heart & Dagger, they have him sing both, sharing the gender bending with Meghan Edge since Johanna and Anthony have a bunch of duets. Wigs are the big indicator in this production.

Music Director Michael Amaral has a modest five piece ensemble (and a nifty kettle drum which does double duty when Mrs. Lovett rolls out her piecrust on it) sounding like a whole orchestra. Best of all, H&D has Melissa Barker as the purveyor of “the worst pies in London.” I’m still amazed that they pulled off one of Sondheim’s most difficult and dissonant musicals with sheer will and an abundance of talent.

When you do have the money for a lavish musical like MAME, (playing @ Stoneham Theatre through Dec. 23rd), you can afford to throw a dozen Equity performers at it. Director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins has rounded up a passel of Boston’s best character actors to punch up the creaky Jerry Herman musical: We’re supposed to be scandalized when an innocent child is handed over to his boozy, bohemian aunt. And we’re supposed to be shocked when the boy’s nanny throws caution to the wind and winds up pregnant, (gasp) out of wedlock but it’s pretty hard to shock an audience nowadays, when marihuana has been legalized for recreational use.

What makes Stoneham’s MAME tick despite the dated story, are the familiar songs (Kathy St. George as Mame and Mary Callanan as Vera sing the heck out of “Bosom Buddies” and St. George delivers a lovely “If He Walked into My Life”) AND the familiar stock characters, chiefly Ceit Zweil as the frumpy nanny and Margaret Ann Brady as the ferocious, prospective mother-in-law. Will McGarrahan, especially, adds warmth to the production as the Southern gent smitten by St. George.

Robbins and music director Matthew Stern get fine work, too, from Cameron Levesque as the little boy who comes to live with and love his Auntie Mame. Having seen the ten year old give stellar performances in several musicals of late, I can say without reserve that he’s an actor who’s going places. As they say, children and animals always steal any scene they’re in so I have to mention a little fox who manages to escape the hunt and wag his tail as the humans set about to ride to the hounds. (I haven’t been so amused by a fox since THE RULING CLASS!)

Monday, November 28, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey A La Mia Lista



Moonbox Theater puts its heart where its art is: With each new production, Moonbox finds a community non-profit to partner with. This holiday season it’s a food bank called FOOD FOR FREE, reclaiming food from restaurants etc which might otherwise be discarded (www.foodforfree.org). There are but a handful of arts organizations truly committed to making a difference in the world by reaching out beyond performance and Moonbox is top of the list. (Hub Theatre also comes to mind for its all performances-pay-what-you-can program to make theater accessible to everyone. I’m sure there are others. I hope there are others.)

Moonbox, you may recall, produced last year’s THE WILD PARTY, certainly the most exciting musical of the season. They’re always on my list of companies who can deliver solid, well made theater… so here’s my dilemma. AMADEUS is not, despite a tour de force from Matthew Zahnzinger as Antonio Salieri. Even though AMADEUS is named for Mozart, Peter Shaffer’s exacting play is centered on his celebrated rival.

The play is entirely Salieri’s: He’s obsessed with the “boy-genius” whose father paraded him across Europe and who now could threaten Salieri’s reign as court composer. When Salieri realizes he is no longer “God’s chosen composer” and this man-child Mozart is, he sets about to ruin him. What’s more, he feels betrayed by God and declares war on the almighty!

Zahnzinger’s physical performance is impeccable, seamlessly moving from an invalided quavering of aging voice and body to a flourishing and robust middle age. And Zahnzinger’s emotional performance shifts from thriving confidence to crumbling corrosion in a breathtaking transformation. Director Allison Olivia Choate and music director Dan Rodriguez create a heart-stopping moment to illustrate the damage Salieri has caused: At the very moment he crushes a page of Mozart’s gorgeous Requiem in his fist, the music stops cold.

The role of Mozart isn’t an easy one. The historical facts are that Mozart’s childhood was stolen when his father exploited his children to enrich his own fortune and fame. Mozart grew into a merry prankster, with a penchant for scatological humor (as evinced in his fond, naughty letters to his sister) and scant knowledge of how to survive on his own without his father.

Shaffer makes his Mozart brash and completely unconcerned with proper social behavior, so much so that Salieri is scandalized that the most sublime music in the universe could emanate from this unruly, irritating creature. Whoever portrays Mozart must convey a lot more than rudeness and silliness. He must portray Mozart’s warmth and vulnerability. Otherwise why would Constanze (Caroline Keeler in a lovely, spunky performance) give him the time of day! Alas, Cody Sloan’s Mozart is one note.

Shaffer was never finished with the play, writing several endings. Alas, Moonbox has chosen the longest and least effective dramatically (in my opinion). It distresses me no end to be writing this, knowing how much work Moonbox put into this production: gorgeous costumes (David Lucey), sensational wigs (Peter Mill) and most importantly, smart direction which allows an audience on three sides to see and hear clearly. (Sightlines are a tricky business. I can think of at least three shows this year when I couldn’t hear from where I was seated.)

Alas, although it’s an inspired idea to use historically informed instruments for the soundtrack, they come through sounding garbled and muted some of the time. When Shaffer wanted those bone chilling chords from DON GIOVANNI to scare the heck out of us, he didn’t envision two emasculated chords which land practically without impact.

Alas, although the program “beg[s] our indulgence” if some of the French or Italian is amissand I must say the conversational French and Italian both sounded excellent to methere’s a glaring mispronunciation of an Italian opera which set my teeth on edge. Since the play is about composers of opera, I would think correct titles would be paramount.

If you can overlook my list of complaints, and this really is just my opinion, you will be amazed by Zahnzinger’s stellar performance.

Friday, November 25, 2016

CD REVIEW: AMERICAN PLACES Musical Travels New Release from American Music Recordings Collection American Music Preservation.com Rediscovering AMERICA with Margaret Ulmer By Beverly Creasey



 One of the pleasures of a new concert season is hearing Margaret Ulmer play ragtime. It’s not just feeling the rhythmand you do start to swayUlmer’s hands seem to be dancing. That’s the jazz component of rag: You can’t help but move with the music, and ragtime is Ulmer’s beat. In fact, she was instrumental in creating a program for American Classics called One Hundred Years of TREEMOMNISHA to commemorate Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking ragtime opera.

You can hear Ulmer and her infectious ragtime on a new CD called AMERICAN PLACES (Musical Travels) recorded for American Music Preservation. The CD not only celebrates ragtime but a wide swath of historical, distinctly American material from a Cape Cod sea chantey to the cowboy laments of the California territories… with composers from Edward MacDowell whose reverent, painterly New England Memories evoke a solitary country walk, to Roger Lee Hall’s remarkably inventive, surprisingly impressionistic Seven Variations (on a Shaker Marching Tune) which bring Debussy to mind.

Ulmer is joined on the recording by bass-baritone Eric Sosman for gems like their exquisitely mournful Shenandoah and an odd, amusing theatrical composition by E.T. Paull, which takes the form of a musical dramatization of Sheridan’s “heroic” Civil War ride to the battlefield. The Descriptive March Gallop is narrated directly over the music, with hilarious, redundant commentary like “Bugle sounding” over the sound of a bugle and then over the pianissimo bugle call, “Bugle in the distance.”  I can’t help but recall what critic Richard Dyer opined about an effusive Russian concert: “Dogs would weep.”

Ulmer can make a tune like Yankee Doodle Dandy (Benjamin Carr’s 1804 Rondo version) sound like pure Mozart embellishment. She can make John Philip Sousa’s very last patriotic march, Hands Across the Sea, sound like a duet for four hands as the thrilling music tears up and down the keyboard! She fuses two versions of Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, transforming it with chilling, sorrowful chords into a dark, despairing memento.

The CD visits the Missouri Valley, specifically St. Louis, for a sweet two-step rag by an itinerant, blind pianist named Charles Hunter… and of course Ulmer is in her element in a playful, jaunty Cake Walk by Scott Joplin and his student, Arthur Marshall. And she honors female composers with a majestic funeral march dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln by Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst, (as the sly CD commentary tells us) “of parlour song, temperance and spiritualist fame.”

The recording is full of treasures: folk arrangements by Ruth Crawford Seeger, compositions by Steven Foster and Paul Bowles and achingly sad settings for the familiar western songs, Streets of Laredo and Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.

In her CD notes, Ulmer quotes Alan Lomax from his prodigious Folk Songs of North America: “The map sings.” I’ll add that in Ulmer’s AMERICAN PLACES, the piano sings.   

Monday, November 21, 2016

DOUBLE QUICK TAKES By Beverly Creasey BLISS TIMES TWO



When you see a lot of theater, for the most part it’s hit or missbut this past week it was downright thrilling: Two companies delivered flawless productions, one here in town and the other in Rhode Island. Alas, the R.I. show closes Nov. 20th but the Huntington production runs through Dec. 11th.

The Huntington’s BEDROOM FARCE is… what else can one say… pure perfection top to bottom. Director Maria Aitken’s staging for Alan Ayckbourn’s delicious comedic four-part disharmony is spot on. Speaking of spots, there’s even lighting laughter (from Matthew Richards) when one of the three bedrooms on Alexander Dodge’s set is momentarily inactive. It’s lit for a nanosecond, then hastily departs for more prolific terrain.

Ayckbourn has intentionally avoided the traditional bedroom conventions: No one is getting any sleep in these three bedchambers. What they do get are endless invasions by unwanted guests. Never has physical comedy been so sublime, especially in the hands of Nael Nacer, as the impatient husband whose only desire is to immobilize his bad back in bed and read. You know that book will go AWOL and he will have to maneuver a painful inch at a time to retrieve it. And you know that someone will arrive to ruin his repose.

It’s the great stuff of an Ayckbourn script. If you haven’t seen one of his plays, don’t miss this chance. If you have, you will delight in the magnitude of the mirth Aitken and company have uncovered in this Ayckbourn treasure.

Ocean State Theatre Company’s riveting production of John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT (A Parable) aims for the solar plexus and it delivers: There’s a popular priest and an exacting nun and a school full of children she wants to properly educate. But there’s a suspicion she has about this priest and that’s Shanley’s brilliant play in toto. He isn’t going to tell you who’s in the right or who is wronged. You will have to decide for yourself.

I’ve seen one version of DOUBT where the sister was an out and out monster and I was convinced the young priest was her victim. I saw another version where I was certain he was a molester, all with the same script. Aimee Turner’s production for Ocean State adds an element I hadn’t seen before. This Father Flynn is an older priest and he towers over the nuns physically, tipping the scales dramatically.

Shanley supplies the given hurdles for Sister Aloysius: A hierarchy prevents her from going to the Bishop with her concerns. She must proceed through channels and Father Flynn outranks her. Turner supplies another. Donna Sorbello’s Sister Aloysius is dwarfed by Greg London’s Father Flynn. And he’s not only more powerful in physique, London makes him a powerful presence… and a spellbinding speaker. His sermons are mesmerizing. You clearly see why he’s so well liked. (Unfortunately we don’t come to the theater without our prejudices and it’s the older pedophile priests who are in the news and in the movies so London has an uphill battle to convince us that Father Flynn singled out a child solely to protect him from being bullied.)

Sorbello in a tour de force makes Sister Aloysius a formidable match for the priest, plotting to “outshine the fox in cleverness.” Sorbello’s nun speaks in a commanding low voice that demands obedience…and scares the devil out of her young charge, Sister James. Caitlin Davies as the sweet James unwittingly sets the plot in motion when she gives Sister Aloysius a reason (and ammunition) to take on the priest. Lovely Hoffman supplies the play’s surprise when, as the mother of the boy in question, she comes to the table with her own priorities. Hoffman makes the mother’s position understandable, something I’ve always had difficulty swallowing in other productions. Kudos to Ocean State for a gripping and gorgeous (an exquisite set by Erik D. Diaz) presentation of Shanley’s compelling play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SHAKE-TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey All The World’s His Stage



Everyone, it seems, is celebrating Shakespeare, this being the 400th anniversary of the Stratford man’s death. (Even Oxfordians are getting props as part of the Boston Public Library’s thrilling panorama.) The BPL is showing historical films, hosting myriad performances and for the very first time, exhibiting the exceedingly rare Thomas Barton collection of precious First, Second, Third and Fourth Folios as well as the infamous will and testament (the one that mentions his “second best bed” and no manuscripts!). Their “Shakespeare Unauthorized” Exhibit will run through March of 2017. All free and open to the public!

In an increasingly bookless age, the BPL is offering a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Bard’s world and his legacy first hand. You’ll see the many versions of his plays and many mentions of them in books by his contemporaries. Then you can place the work in topographical context in the library’s map gallery, where an exhibit highlights the locales of the plays, almost half of them in Italy. You can peruse authentic 16th century depictions of the globe as Elizabethan mapmakers imagined it.

Local companies like Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Bridge Rep, Company One and Boston Lyric Opera are contributing classes, lectures and performances. Esteemed playwright Ken Ludwig will visit Boston in May to speak about introducing Shakespeare to children, having won the Falstaff Award for best Shakespeare Book of 2014 about instilling a love of Shakespeare in the very young. In addition to the central exhibits, Shakespeare performances will travel to the BPL Branches: Celebrated Walt Whitman lecturer/impersonator, Stephen Collins, turns his attention to the characters in Shakespeare and takes his moveable feast from BPL Central to the West End, North End, Dorchester and W. Roxbury branches, among others, from October through March.

You can explore the birds mentioned in Shakespeare and those you will find here in Boston, or you can learn about the influence of classical literature on Shakespeare’s writings: Many of his plots were lifted in toto from Italian and Greek texts! You can enjoy Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquiesand you even can hear Shakespeare translated into hip hop! Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the BPL’s exhibit is the exploration of the debate over what Shakespeare actually wrote… and who really wrote the most treasured canon in Western literature.

NOTHING IS TRUER THAN TRUTH is Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s film (screened last week at the BPL) about Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, a favorite at Queen Elizabeth’s court, versed in the law, medicine, Greek and Latin, who traveled to Italy and beyond, learning about commedia dell’ arte and collecting the experiences which are told in the Shakespeare plays. Renowned Shakespeare scholars in the film, including Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, present a preponderance of evidence to link Oxford (known to Elizabethans for his pseudonym, “Shake-speare”) to the works.

Donovan’s film mentions, among other evidence, that deVere’s Geneva Bible has his own notes in the margins indicating verses he would use in his plays. His travels took him to Titian’s salon where he saw the master’s first rendering of the painting, Venus and Adonis, inspiring him to write about it, in detail, including features which disappear in Titian’s final version. The man from Stratford, who never traveled outside of England, could not have known about the painting’s early features.

Computer analysis, unavailable to early Oxfordians like Emerson, Whitman, Twain and Freud, can now make the case that the Earl of Oxford is the true author. Because of the strides in Shakespeare research, more and more books and films are chronicling the life of deVere. Who would have imagined the excitement that now surrounds the work four hundred years later!

Of all the performances swirling around the 400th anniversary, perhaps the most unexpected so far, and the most fun by far, was last weekend’s SHAKESPEARE IN SONG, presented by American Classics. You might think they’d be performing songs from the Elizabethan era, did you not know that American Classics is devoted to the American Songbook… So with Shakespeare as inspiration, they embraced WEST SIDE STORY (of course) and KISS ME, KATE (to be sure) but also THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE and an obscure little show called GRAB ME A GONDOLA (Who knew?).

Highlights were Eric Bronner’s breathy, breathtaking “Maria” and Ben Sears’ melancholy, heartbreaking “So in Love am I” (with Brad Conner’s gorgeous phrasing underneath). Caroline Musica waltzed through “I Feel Pretty” and Cynthia Mork and Sears delivered the exquisite “One Hand, One Heart.” Mork’s lovely, ethereal “Somewhere” was lifted by Carol Epple’s lilting flute and Elizabeth Connors’ supple clarinet. And it wouldn’t have been right to neglect those adorable thugs from New York. As the lyrics insist, we were indeed “wowed” when they sang “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!”

Monday, November 7, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey No Man Is An Island



Reasons to seek out Hub Theatre’s lovely production of Margaret Edson’s WIT (playing through Nov. 19th): First, Liz Adams’s astounding performance as the fearless professor ambushed by terminal cancer. Adams always gives her all to a role (her magnificent performance in DOG ACT comes to mind) but she delves so deep into the imposing professor’s psyche that her anguish is palpable to everyone in the room.

The next reason: Hub offers pay-what-you-can tickets for every performance. The Hub folks are committed to presenting theater that matters and is accessible to everyone. And they’ve been doing it successfully since 2013. WIT won the 1999 Pulitzer and just about every other critical award for its raw intensity and its stunning universality. (Don’t we all know someone with cancer?)

Professor Vivian Bearing is an expert on the works of John Donne, specializing on the Holy Sonnets. Donne scholarship is her life’s work, examining every nuance in every line of poetry, down to every choice of punctuation. How ironic that she has made herself into an island: Parents dead, no children, no friends to rely on now that she is out of her depth.

She still has her acerbic wit and her fierce intelligence but they’re no match for this foeand they don’t impress her doctors, one of whom (Tim Hoover) was her student years before. It’s not that they’re callous. They see her as a biological being, whose data may contribute to cancer research. Come to think of it, a lot of them are callous. Only one of her caretakers isn’t: Lauren Elias as the professor’s sweet, compassionate nurse gives Bearing (and us) welcome respite from the protracted suffering.

Robert Bonotto commands the stage as the formidable chief of surgery, surrounded by quaking, intimidated interns. But as Bearing’s father, in a brief, immensely touching scene, he shares a tenderhearted moment with his five year old daughter, teaching her a new word. (And now we understand her love for language and literature.)

Director John Geoffrion gets stellar work from the entire ensemble of techs, orderlies, etc., especially Dayenne C.B. Walters as the teacher who mentored Bearing early on.

Don’t miss this play!