Thursday, December 6, 2018

TWO STAGE REVIEWS By Beverly Creasey REDISCOVERING OUR HISTORY


Two companies cast fresh eyes on historical figures with strong ties to Boston this month. New Repertory Theatre gives 1776 the “Hamilton” treatment (through Dec. 30th) and Lyric Stage Company (in association with The Front Porch Arts Collective) remembers the extraordinary African-American tenor, Roland Hayes, with BREATH & IMAGINATION (through Dec. 23rd).

New Rep’s daring re-imagining of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 puts all of us on stage, in all our diversity, to tell the story this time out. Lin-Manuel Miranda created a theatrical revolution with his commitment to a theater which reflects society and, as John Adams famously says in 1776, “We’ve crossed the Rubicon.” There’s no going back. HAMILTON re-sets the bar. Hallelujah!

Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards beef up the choreography and tweak the focus, but otherwise, it’s the 1776 you know. Perhaps their biggest hurtle is the music. Because women are singing some of the male roles (and visa versa in one case), music director Todd C. Gordon had to rework the score, changing keys to accommodate the higher voices. He did. It works brilliantly and as a result of the new casting, you sit up and take notice!

The most conventional role (as in “traditional” casting) is Benjamin Evett’s as Adams and he gives a passionate performancebut swirling all around him is the brave new world reinterpreting the old white world of our founding fathers. You might not think it would work but it does and there’s resonance to be had that the old, pale version didn’t have. When Thomas Jefferson is played by an African-American actor, (a serene KP Powell as the quiet, cerebral author of the Declaration), you’re not about to forget that Jefferson kept slaves and fathered children with at least one slave. (The “Declaration Descendants” project at Ancestry.com has found twenty-nine living multi-racial descendants of the signers!)

The strange alchemy at work is that, at the same time, you forget the casting altogether and are swept up in the action of the musical. Bobbie Steinbach may be portraying Ben Franklin, but it’s still the cantankerous Ben Franklin out there. Shannon Lee Jones is delivering the “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” showstopper but Rutledge still takes your breath away with his indictment of the tall ships “out of Boston” (knowingly transporting slaves from the West Indies to the South). The entire ensemble is flawless, with Dan Prior a shimmering Martha Jefferson (the show’s most courageous role), with Rachel Belleman hilarious as the hard drinking R.I. delegate and Liliane Klein wonderfully acerbic as the Scotsman from Delaware.

 “Momma Look Sharp” (sung from the perspective of a dead soldier on the Lexington Green) is always devastating and Steven Martin’s gorgeous elegy is exceptionally sweet and powerful. Carolyn Saxon’s cheeky Abigail Adams contributes spice as well as salt peter to the revolution. You’ll relish Cheryl Singleton as John Hancock, Aimee Doherty as the conservative Pennsylvania holdout, Pier Lamia Porter as the preposterous Henry Lee (of the Virginia Lees), Luis Negron as the steady congressional secretary, Gary Ng as the delegate who saves the vote, and more, many more. Don’t miss out.

I recall a reenactment one July Fourth at the Old State House downtown wherein the Declaration of Independence was solemnly read aloud, followed by Roland Hayes singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It must have been well over forty years ago, yet it made an indelible impression on me. How sad it is that not many Bostonians remember the ground breaking tenor who lived in Brookline for the last fifty years of his life. Daniel Beaty’s BREATH & IMAGINATION is making some restitution (although the script only covers the early part of Hayes’ remarkable ninety year lifespan).

Davron S. Monroe gives a tour de force as the pioneering African-American singer in director Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s evocative production at the Lyric. The Beaty script focuses in large part on Hayes’ relationship with his mother: Yewande Odetoyinbo turns in a stellar performance as the tenacious woman who won’t give up easily on her dream to have a preacher for a son. Beaty takes liberties with timelines and omissions but manages to convey the hardships Hayes endured on his way to becoming one of the preeminent interpreters of both operatic and spiritual music in America.

In addition to Monroe and Odetoyinbo, both of whom are impressive vocalists, BREATH & IMAGINATION features Doug Gerber as Hayes’ kindly first voice teacher (who plays a life-changing recording of Enrico Caruso for the young Hayes) and Nile Scott Hawver who plays everyone else (including a “non-traditional” role like the ones in 1776). Music director Asher Denburg accompanies the singers on piano, no small accomplishment. His is quite a spirited performance, as well.

Hayes’ ties to Boston began in 1917 when he rented Symphony Hall and produced his own sold out concert. Six years later after major success in Europe, he made his “official,” invited debut with the BSO. He gave his last concert at the age of eighty-five at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Of course, his voice is the most important element in BREATH & IMAGINATION so we hear Monroe singing Scarlatti, Faure, Schubert and Donizetti as well as famous spirituals like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”

Monroe triumphs in Nemorino’s gorgeous aria from L’ELISIR D’AMORE, “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” when a tell-tale tear reveals true love. Every operatic tenor worth his salt covers the aria. Add Monroe’s name to that list. Kudos to the Lyric and Front Porch for reminding us of the treasure that was Boston’s for so many years.

 

 

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey PANdemonium at Hub


As the variegated pirates and wildly weird inhabitants of PETER AND THE STARCATHER are wont to say in the Hub Theatre extravaganza (@ The First Church downtown through Nov. 17th) :T T F N (Ta Ta For Now)… which means they’ll be back, again and again, swanning and swashbuckling to the delight of children, parents and ordinarily crusty reviewers. What’s not to like in Hub’s madcap mash-up of the tightly wound original PETER PAN.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz makes the production look like the inmates have taken over the asylum. The (barely) controlled hysteria reminded me of Imaginary Beasts’ free wheeling Pantomimes. Gazdowicz and several others in the Hub cast are stellar IB alumni, where imagination leaves no stone unturned. The best part of the PAN prequel is watching the characters wind up and then spin out all over the stage. Chief among them is Joey C. Pelletier’s nefarious Black Stache, arch-enemy of Peter. You know him as Captain Hook from the J.M. Barrie version. The clever children in the audience knew at once and said so out loud. (This version, imagined by comedian Dave Barry takes place before the other Barrie story. If this is confusing to you, just wait for the wacky exposition, which I still haven’t fully grasped)

Pelletier is a whirling dervish whose manic quips and quotes fly so fast, you can hardly keep up. He’s aided and abetted by Michael John Ciszewski as his right hand man who’s always right at hand, although the captain doesn’t notice him, thereby cementing his name. Pelletier bellows and Ciczewski answers frenetically “It’s me.” (Say this a few dozen times and you’ll see.)

Ciszewski specializes in running the best amok you’ll see all season. What’s more, you can’t wait to see Bob Mussett return as the elderly lady who thinks she might like to try romance again… even better still, she (in full beard, mind you) catches the eye of a gentlemanly seaman portrayed in marvelous deadpan by Lindsay Eagle! More delicious turns from Robert Orzalli as a Cosa Nostra chef with a menu you can’t refuse, from Jon Vellante as one of the lost, so hungry boys that he faints at the mention of sticky pudding, from David Makransky as the other lost boy who wants to be “leader” and from Molly Kimmerling as a nasty villain of a captain.

The plot is hung on the (mostly serious) characters… who don’t get to be funny but they do get to deliver some very touching moments. Claire Koenig as Peter is a wonder. We believe she’s the boy who doesn’t want to grow up (because grown-ups lie and cheat). Smart fellow! Lauren Elias as the Wendy stand-in (Please don’t ask me why she’s not actually named Wendy), does have some sport, challenging and besting the “lost boys” and some heartache when she leaves them. Liz Adams as her stalwart father oozes good breeding and fair play. Valera Bamgala, likewise, is the stand up captain of the ship with the wrong cargo. (Again, don’t ask me about the cargo. I completely lost track of the second treasure chest and I’ve seen the play before.)

Here’s the deal. The brilliant ensemble cast keeps you on your toes, expecting another surprise around the next corner. And the surprises keep coming. You’re laughing so hard, you’re afraid you’ll laugh over the dialogue so you try to squeal quietly, using your inside voice so you won’t miss anything. It’s exhausting, having such a grand time. Who cares about the silly plot anyway.

 

 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Capsule Review By Beverly Creasey ACCOMODATION COMPLICATION


One of the best performances of the season is Paula Plum’s as a lonely, timid soul who opens up to a ROOMMATE (@ Lyric Stage through Nov. 18th). The play turns on a very thin, implausible dime about half way through but director Spiro Veloudos picks up the pace and pulls it off, even as you shake your head in disbelief that it could work. The best line in the play is Adrianne Krstansky’s about children: “They don’t have to like us. They just have to live long enough to become us.”

 

 

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey CENTENARY CELEBRATION


American Classics’ revue, YIP! YIP! YAPHANK (Irving Berlin’s World War I Soldier Show) pulls out all the stops. Berlin became a citizen, became famous for his popular songs, got drafted into the Army and convinced the Brass he’d be more useful writing them a show. Everyone, not just the doughboys, knows Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning (Someday I’m going to murder the bugler…) The American Classics’ combo, led by Joe Della Penna, included drums (Dean Groves), and of course, a bugler (Jason Huffman)!

Since 2018 is the 100th anniversary of the “War to End All Wars” you’ll be seeing a lot of historical footage but American Classics’ effort, for my vote, hits just the right notes. It seemed like a cast of thousands (really only 17) but they packed the Longy Stage in Cambridge with precision marching, not to mention an impressive precision tambourine drill from one of Berlin’s Minstrel Shows.

Just like the boys at boot camp (near Yaphank in Long Island) donned wigs and pearls, the American Classics ensemble dressed up as the famous Floradora Girls, led by AC founder Brad Conner as Ethan Sagin’s sweetie in Sterling Silver Moon. Ben Sears kicked off the bittersweet songs Berlin wrote to buck up his fellow infantrymen, with the charming Smile and Show Your Dimple (Light your face up and brace up).

Narrated by Peter A. Carey, AC found delightful parodies and more than a few show stopping sentimental songs like Joel Edwards’ gorgeous (Dream on, Little) Soldier Boy, sung with a humming chorus. If Brian DeLorenzo’s letter home to mother, (I Can Always Find a Little Sunshine in) The YMCA, didn’t already have us in tears, the barbershop harmony sold it, sliding into a heart-wrenching finish. Then the soldier boys trooped off the stage with the sobering We’re On Our Way to France. They returned for an encore of the original 1918 version (two decades before Kate Smith’s smash hit) of God Bless America, written to a slightly different tune. For an hour or so, you felt hopeful for a world dedicated to peace and prosperity.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey UNSAFE At ANY SPEED


Theatre on Fire has a gift for finding cheeky, boisterous British comedies like Lucy Kirkwood’s naughty, savagely funny NSFW (playing @ CWT through Nov. 17th). NOT SAFE FOR WORK debuted in 2012 at the Royal Court Theatre in London and it couldn’t be more current now.

You know, of course, that the British are obsessed with sex… not just those cringe-worthy BENNY HILL comedies. Their daily rags sport titillating front page headlines like “House of Lords entangled in sex ring” and worse on line. It’s the way we’re obsessed with political conspiracies here (although thanks to this president, you’re hard pressed to find a respected daily that doesn’t reference his sexual assaults). We’re at last becoming British! Two wars couldn’t do it but this pathological narcissist has accomplished it without even trying.

Here’s the set-up for NSFW. A British version of PENTHOUSE named DOGHOUSE may have published something clearly illegal and we get to see A) How they try to wriggle out of it and B) How everyone, it seems, will compromise their morals when there’s a substantial payoff involved and C) We get to observe the inner workings of a creepy, sexist enterprise. In point of fact, we see it twice, when C) reverses itself in Act II, with turnabout/fair play except that nothing is fair in Kirkwood’s dog eat dog publishing world.

The dialogue is clever and heady, referencing everything from the latest endocrine research to Nancy Mitford’s code words to identify class. Director Darren Evans’ cast is spot on. The physical comedy is inspired, with one character’s humiliating journey from pillar to post (the hilarious Isaiah Plovnick) to another’s battle to the death (metaphorically speaking, of course) with Spanx. Anna Wintour can’t hold a candle to Becca Lewis’ man-eating managing director.

David Anderson turns in another tour de force (you may recall his dazzling work for Zeitgeist), this time as the sleazy head of DOGHOUSE magazine. He knows every dog whistle in a journalist’s lexicon, reducing each and every one of his employees to rubble. There’s Ivy Ryan in a nicely nuanced performance as his willing assistant (whose face and body language register “unwilling”) and Padraig Sullivan, utterly charming as a poor, benighted, Argyle (sweatered and souled) homebody totally unsuited for this kind of work.

Best of all, to my mind, is Dale J. Young as a wronged citizen, a father who just wants to bounce his little girl on his knee again, a wretched creature with no family now, no hope ahead of him and no way to prevail against Anderson’s cold-hearted, manipulating bastard.  

Saturday, October 27, 2018

New Review By Beverly Creasey Nunsensical Naughtiness


Who would have thought that a small, out-of-the-way theater like Curtain Call would have the answer to the overwhelming Sturm and Drang oppressing us daily! They’re offering the chance to escape the relentless political mayhem by embracing the comic mayhem of NUNSENSE THE MUSICAL (playing through Nov. 4th). Laughter, it seems, may be the only respite we have.

Audiences evidently adore nuns behaving badly… almost as much as misbehaving puppets: Dan Goggin’s musical has both, from an irreverent Reverend Mother to an unruly puppet called Sister Mary Annette. It seems the NUNSENSE franchise is going strong still, with sequels and spin-offs everywhere. But essential to a successful send-up are comic timing, truthful portrayals and crackerjack performers who can sing, dance and spoof. Director/choreographer David Costa has a professional cast who make it look easy, even the raucous tap number!

Mary Beth Murphy as Mother Superior reigns over her brood with a severe side glance that most school children instantly recognize… but you don’t have to be Catholic to be familiar with the stern stance of authority, or to delight in the Reverend Mother’s unintentional tumble from grace. Murphy’s momentarily lapsed Right Reverend is a hoot.

Christine Kenney as Sister Robert (with a decidedly broad Bronx accent) gets lots of laughs complaining about playing second fiddle to Mother Superior. She even gets a song about it. Nikita DaRosa gives a winning performance as the sweetest ballet dancing Sister Mary Leo I’ve encountered in many a NUNSENSE… and Kels Ferguson wins our hearts hands down, as the slightly vague Sister suffering mightily from amnesia. Ferguson and her puppet steal the show outright. Not only does she voice Sister Marie Annette without moving her lips, her own voice in their duet is a unique blend of Disneyfied warble and operatic Bel Canto. Bravo.

Rena Pemper-Rodriguez gets to fire up the audience as if it were a Revival Meeting with her Holier Than Thou hoedown. Music director Danielle Clougher steps up the tempo for a rip-roaring finish to the show. When I attended, the audience was responding to Sister Hubert like it was an evangelical service with call and response! David Costa and company have conjured up some virtuoso alchemy for a truly delightful NUNSENSE.

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Remembering and Revisiting Childhood


FUN HOME (@ BCA through Nov. 24th) is the kind of intimate, artful musical which is right up SpeakEasy’s alley. They take small works like Jason Robert Brown’s A New Brain or Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change and give them the definition that might be lost in a huge theater. That said, FUN HOME won a slew of Tony Awards in New York including Best Musical, being the first musical with a lesbian central character to do so.

FUN HOME (music by Jeanine Tesori/book and lyrics by Lisa Kron) is based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, which Bechdel sardonically calls “A Family Tragicomedy”… Tragic certainly as the loss of a parent can be to the survivors, but comic because she had inventive siblings for support. In the musical they make up a delightfully irreverent, faux advertisement for their father’s funeral home business (hence the title of the musical).

All isn’t fun for Alison and her brothers. Their father is remote and can be cruel on occasion. We meet Alison at three times in her life, as a schoolgirl (Marissa Simeqi), as a college student (Ellie van Amerongen) with Amy Jo Jackson as principal narrator of the musical at age 43. The trick is that they’re all sharing the stage together.

The forty three year old has a grown-up’s empathy for her gay, closeted father because “he didn’t know what to do… he wanted more out of life” but the eight year old didn’t understand why he constantly belittled her ideas. In fact both father (Todd Yard) and mother (Laura Marie Duncan) burden Alison with their problems. Both parents have musical moments where they lay bare their emotions but Duncan’s “Days and Days” about “the day you disappear” is a show stopper.

Director Paul Daigneault has a talented cast to bring home the coming of age story… and because music director Matthew Stern and the small-scale ensemble are on stage, FUN HOME becomes a cozy chamber musical. Tesori’s score ranges from mother’s classical etude to a wonderful rock n’ roll number, Ring of Keys featuring solid guitar work from Tom Young.

Van Amerongen totals up lots of laughs when she finally feels comfortable enough to come out, in the riotous Changing My Major [to Joan]. Desire Graham is a standout as the object of her affection, as are Cameron Levesque and Luke Gold portraying her precocious, younger brothers.