Monday, September 19, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SIGNIFICANT Performance

Joshua Harmon’s SIGNIFICANT OTHER is an actor’s dream. The quirky play (@ SpeakEasy Stage through Oct. 8th) has it all: an unusual number of dicey monologues which can make or break an actor; optimum face time; and the play comes with a rep: Harmon takes it to Broadway after the SpeakEasy run, sadly with another cast.

Greg Maraio should be going. His tour de force, as the gay everyman who just wants to get married and have kids, is the main reason to see the production. His misadventures fill the play with hilarious disasters, like the overwrought e-mail he should never, never have sent (which turns out to be one of the best physical bits in the show). His “wallowing and spiraling” is the stuff of classic comedy. Maraio turns out to be a master of the soliloquy (one of which is wordless!) as well, but as funny as he is, he makes us care for this hapless romantic.

Harmon gives him three best friends, all female, all of whom (unintentionally, of course) will neglect him when they find someone and get married. (Why Harmon doesn’t give him male friends is a mystery to me. He lives in New York City for heaven sakes. There must be a zillion gay bars and I know there are a zillion theaters, but I digress.)

Back to the play: Maraio gets to be plenty serious as well, pouring out his heartand his resentmentto one of the deserters at her bachelorette party. Jordan Clark gives as good as she gets in a nifty, angry monologue/response.

Director Paul Daigneault gets strong comic performances from the rest of the cast, too, from Sarah Elizabeth Bedard and Kris Sidberry (as his BFFs), from Kathy St. George as his wise Jewish grandma, and especially from Eddie Shields, superb in three different roles, with charisma to spare. When you triple roles, each has to be distinct. (Alas, the other triple performer seemed the same each time). Shields is a bona fide chameleon but anyone who saw SpeakEasy’s Casa Valentina last season knows that. He’s an asset to any production.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Kindness of Time

Before the brilliance of STREETCAR or SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER or any of his full length masterpieces, Tennessee Williams collected characters: crazy, genteel ladies, kindly doctors, coarse, greedy brutes, tormented alcoholics, failed writers and absent men who “fell in love with long distance,” to name but a few of his recurring themes. It’s clear he abhorred men of “force and power” and vain, domineering women. He certainly wrote what he knew best, basing many characters on his own mother and sister.

Zeitgeist Stage Company’s EIGHT BY TENN (playing through Oct. 8th) presents eight One Act plays with characters you will recognize at once from his exceptional full lengths: the women committed to mental institutions, the compromised women reviled by society, husbands ejecting their wives’ relations, characters living by the parliamentary “code” of the old guard, characters grappling with their sexuality, the colorful residents in the close quarters of New Orleans’ Vieux Carré, and the woman-child he calls “Baby Doll.”

What EIGHT BY TENN ends up confirming is the power of those full length dramas, not so much his shorter works. What I wish I had learned from EIGHT BY TENN is how the luminous full lengths evolved from these flawed character studies. To me, many of the short plays seemed disjointed and overblown. Where did he learn the rich narrative form which burns like a fire in NIGHT OF THE IGUANA or CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF? Was it simply the fullness of time or experience?

Director David Miller embraces the exaggerated, outsized tone (of a good many) of the One Acts by presenting stylized, larger than life portrayals for the characters. This is punctuated by Matthew Good’s very loud, bombastic music from the classical canon to introduce each one, like Saint-Saëns Danse Macabre for the vulnerable, doomed MADONNA of the evening’s last play. A few of the vignettes are more accessible, in my opinion, because they feature more naturalistic acting. (One of Williams’ women fittingly delivers a line condemning “abstract expressionism” as passé.)

I’m afraid I think it’s awfully difficult to relate to characters who are lurching about and practically screeching their dialogue. (They’re not “real” enough to identify with… and what’s more, I don’t understand why some actresses raise the pitch of their voices to “grating” in order to portray Southern belles.) I do understand the concept of matching the production to the hysteria of the writing but it’s just so distracting when it’s over the top. The style which I think works best for Williams, and worked best for Zeitgeist (alas, employed only in a couple of the pieces) is “heightened realism.”

For heightened realism to work, however, you need actors the caliber of Michelle Dowd and Damon Singletary. It was a master class in suspense and restraint when they were on stage. The material worked through them and you were focused only on their dialogue, only on the horrific tragedy about to take place.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Prime Directive

Memory isn’t what it used to be… or rather, the lack of memory isn’t. Now it’s a crisis. Used to be what happened to your aging grandparents. Nowadays everyone is deathly afraid of losing their memory. Alzheimer meds are big business. Brain studies drive Big Pharma research, which translates to big bucks… and maybe a cure. There’s that hope anyway.

We now know how memory is stored and retrieved… and altered every time it’s called to mind. Here’s a genuine surprise: It turns out that memories are far from static. They’re reassembled with every recallwhich may be what got Jordan Harrison thinking about how we’ll handle memory loss in the future. Harrison’s quirky, wildly imaginative play called MARJORIE PRIME (playing through Oct. 9th) is getting a thought provoking production at the Central Square Theater, sensitively directed for the Nora Company by M. Bevin O’Gara on a stunning set designed by Sara Brown.

Harrison gets at some thorny issues in MARJORIE PRIME, chiefly, how does one go on after the death of a loved one? The remedy, in the widow Marjorie’s case, is to have her husband back, recreated via Artificial Intelligence. This may seem capricious and harmless to us but some scientists (including theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking) see the potential for destruction if the very machines we’ve invited in to help us, end up viewing humans as the problem.

Marjorie is lovingly portrayed by Sarah deLima: She intuits the fragilityand the witof an 85 year old, capturing the woman’s keen awareness of her own frailty. Marjorie offhandedly suggests that losing memories is nature’s way of un-burdening us, making us lighter and thereby making it easier to leave this earth. (Come to think of it, what a lovely way to look at senility!) When she reminisces about the violin, though, tracing a Vivaldi melody in her mind and hands, our hearts are broken over the loss of her beloved music.

Alejandro Simoes is thoroughly delightful as her cheery “prime computer,” (i.e. the sophisticated robot programmed to be a youthful version of her late husband.) His charming performance is a delightful mixture of bewilderment, earnest determination and the eagerness of a puppy.

The playwright takes several side trips with the plot, introducing a big dose of family pathology, which in one instance is transferred mother to daughter for two different generations, and another which insures a legacy of relentless suffering and guilt. (I’m trying not to divulge particulars.) Once the play is concluded, we’re able to see the through line, but each jog is a bit of a jolt until you catch the rhythm. Lee Mikeska Gardner wears her daughterly exasperation like a heavy winter overcoat she cannot remove. The oppressive weight on her slender shoulders is palpable.

Perhaps the most difficult role in the play is Barlow Adamson’s as the kindest of son-in-laws, the long suffering husband and desperate help mate to the two women (and one more, an unseen daughter) at the center of his life. Adamson and deLima have a charming interplay and the drama’s sweetest moments.

Happily, director O’Gara manages to stave off gloom and doom in a play primarily about death, not an easy feat. Harrison ends the piece with a whimsical, even amusing interlude for the replicants. Or maybe Hawking was right. These artificial beings don’t need their humans any more to justify their existence.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Life Trumps Art

Jamie Pachino’s THE RETURN TO MORALITY (a Titanic Theatre production in Central Square through Sept. 25th) is a timely tale of an author embraced by the ultra right for his slick new book on “old fashioned” morality. Trouble is, the work is satire… but the publicists promoting it warn the writer to keep his mouth shut, all the way to the bank. He does and becomes the darling of the alt-right. They even want him to speak at their national convention.

One might imagine what that does to his soul. We do learn what it does to his marriage but the playwright doesn’t dwell on his inner life so much as the outward effects of his newfound celebrity. His wife goes so far as to blame the book for stoking the climate of hate in the world.

IRNE award winning director Michelle Aguillon has a crackerjack cast headed up by Adam Siladi and Alisha Jansky as the conflicted author and his horrified wife. The humor in the piece is provided by the secondary characters, who double and triple roles: especially Phil Thompson as a spectacularly ruthless, wheeler dealer publisher/and a scary right wing operative (and more), and Laura Baronet as a posture coach/a quirky hair and make-up stylist/and a seductive student with an agenda of her own.

Jennifer McCartney provides laughs as the production assistant with an unintelligible French accent/as the always polite and a little bland Meredith Viera (and more). But it’s Regine Vital who lights up the stage with the plum role of the indignant (at last, someone can recognize the truth!) talk show host/and as the respectful cop in the “good cop-bad cop” scenario (and more).

Alas, the height of the ceiling in the black box space caused some of the softer dialogue to float up, up and away, as did the two-sided playing area when the actors faced away from one side. (It’s an easy fix to have the women speak louder and have the actors “cheat,” that is, to turn three-quarters so both sides of the audience can hear.)

More problematic, for me anyway, is that real life right now is much more outrageous and downright dangerous than any fiction could portray. While the play presents clear parallels to Mr. Trump and his ilk, it only serves to distract me away from what’s happening on stage, to focus my mind on the most current shockwave. I’ll borrow from Dorothy Parker: One can barely keep up with the “fresh hell.” I’m afraid it’s the law of unintended consequences that Pachino’s play pales in comparison.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

NMST Delivers Invigorating 'Singin’ In the Rain' By Mike Hoban

'Singin In the Rain' - Screenplay and Adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; Based on the MGM film by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. Directed and Choreographed by Richard Stafford; Music Direction by Milton Granger; Scenic & Lighting Design by Jack Mehler; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg; Costume Coordination by Mark Nagle. Presented by The North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, through August 28.

It’s always tricky to bring a musical first created for the movies to the stage, and when it’s an iconic one on the scale of “Singin’ In the Rain” – regarded by many as the top musical of all time – it can be particularly challenging, especially when you consider that not only one, but two of the show’s dance numbers are the signature pieces of two of Hollywood’s most celebrated male hoofers. But powered by an outstanding cast, the North Shore Musical Theatre does not disappoint with this terrific production. 

'Singin' In The Rain' centers around the transition from silent films to the “talkies” by the major movie studios, and is also a sendup of the celebrity worship culture (yes, even then) of that era. Don Lockwood (Mark Evans) and Lena Lamont (a very funny Emily Stockdale) are America's favorite onscreen couple, making ridiculous silent romantic costume pieces for Monumental Studios. The pair are linked romantically in the tabloids as well, but it is all just part of the studio's publicity machine, as Don wants little to do with the beautiful but vapid Lena. 

Following the world premiere of his latest film, Don tries to escape from his adoring fans by ducking into a coffee shop, where he stumbles upon stage actress Kathy Selden, whom he uses as cover to avoid being mobbed by the hysterical crowd. After initial niceties, she tells him she isn't impressed by him or the movies in general because the acting is second rate. Don is insulted, but “true thespian” Cathy gets her comeuppance when she later pops out of a cake at the premiere party and is greeted by a smiling Don. The two spar, and since this is a musical comedy, he falls for her like a ton of bricks. Hilarity ensues. 

With the exception of dance number “Moses Supposes” the musical numbers in the original movie (and the theatrical production) were all taken from previous MGM musical films, and knitted together to fit the story developed by screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but what a score! This show is chock full of great song and dance numbers like "Good Morning", “Broadway Rythym” and the title tune, and are executed superbly. But the comedy works equally well, especially the filmed sequences where the dialogue is being dubbed in with mixed (and very funny) results. 

Although the show opened a bit sluggishly on the night I attended, by midway through the first act it was firing on all cylinders. The ballads were especially well done, beginning with Tess Grady (as Kathy) and Evan’s duet “Lucky Star”, and Grady also does a wonderful rendition of the musical question “Would You?” Grady (who last season did a nice job as Stephanie Mangano in NSMT’s “Saturday Night Fever”), really owned the Cathy Selden role, playing it with a committed determination rather than the pure spunk of Debbie Reynolds, all while preserving the All-American girl sweetness. She also absolutely nails the difficult tap numbers. Evans also created a fresh Don Lockwood characterization, while Sean McGibbon (as Cosmo Brown) does a virtual carbon copy of Donald O’Connor, right down to his comic mannerisms. Evans and McGibbon bring down the house with the aforementioned “Moses Supposes” tap number, and both shine in their respective solo interpretations of “Singin’ In The Rain” and “Make ‘Em Laugh”. And as the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard voiced Lena, Stockdale is a gem, with her performance growing stronger as the show went on, including the comical number, "What's Wrong with Me?" (a song that was scratched from the movie version).

The show ends with the full company version of “Singin’ in the Rain” – complete with actual “rain” and it’s a great way to end the evening. This is a great show for both musical lovers and anyone who likes great theater. For more info, go to:

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rockin’ the Boat at Club Café

The Heart & Dagger romp at Club Café this Tues, Wed, Thurs only (ending the 25th) melds the naughtiness of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY to the gender bending of a SPLIT BRITCHES parody, glued together by the audacity of Mickey and Judy’s “Hey, kids. Let’s put on a show!”

Their spoof called DOLLS AS GUYS (which marries GUYS & DOLLS to WEST SIDE STORY) makes for a wild and wooly mash up. Heart & Dagger showcases some of Boston’s best chameleons… make that comedians… but definitely make that “some of.”

Joey Pelletier is always grande as a dame and his Adelaide’s Lament is a delight, as is his indignant duet with Lindsay Eagle as Nathan Detroit. Eagle is spectacular in drag. Cam Cronin (in six-inch, strappy, bright red stilettos) steals the show with his “I Feel Pretty,” high notes and all! And music director James Sims is drop dead gorgeous as the Salvation Army doll.

I should add that the men are forced to sing in an uncomfortable high range – which they do without any visible effort – and the women visa versa, in a successful, unnatural low range. Melissa Barker as Nicely-Nicely pulls it off, well, nicely, and she brings down the house with a rousing “Sit Down.”

A little (well, maybe a lot of) make-up and the guys are really attractive women. (Alas, the opposite is not true.) Take Mike Budwey. His Melania Trump – you knew politics would infiltrate this mob – pouts and struts her stuff like a pro. Only one of the goodfellas let his guard down and didn’t that ol’ tune just give him the slip! Well, never mind. With the exception of the notes that got away, this DOLLS AS GUYS is a harmless, mostly hilarious and much appreciated diversion to the harsh world outside.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Gloucester Stage’s “Songs for a New World” A Treat for Musical Theater Devotees By Michael Hoban

Songs for a New World – Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by Robert Walsh; Music Direction by Bethany Aiken; Choreography by Sarah Hickler; Sound Design by John David Eldridge; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St. Gloucester through August 27. 

It is rare that I read the notes before going to any theatrical performance (with the exception of Shakespeare), but for “Songs for a New World” I wished I had. I say this because it probably would have made the numbers even more impactful had I viewed the production as a theatrical whole rather than just as a (very good) revue. Which is not to diminish in any way the hugely entertaining production being mounted by the Gloucester Stage Company (running through August 27th). 

“Songs” is a theatrical song cycle composed by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown, and features a cast that seamlessly blends Broadway veterans with local talent with no discernible drop in performance level. As the company sings in the rousing opening title number, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." So while that may have been the theme that ran through the show, each of the story-songs – whether sung solo or in ensemble – work very well on their own. These are well-crafted theatrical pieces that are even more remarkable when one considers that Brown wrote them when he was only 25 (I did eventually read the notes). And while not quite as adventurous as “Jacques Brel” (which GSC did a brilliant job with in 2014), it’s a winner.

Following the rousing opener, the company launched into "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" – a gospel-styled number in which the captain (Chris Pittman) prays for the souls of his passengers. But not all of the numbers are so overarching. There are numbers about failed romantic relationships as well as life events, with “Stars and Moon” being the highlight of the solo performances. The ode to regret is an absolute gem as sung by Broadway performer Barbara Walsh, who was equally engaging in the very funny "Surabaya Santa", about a very unhappy Mrs. Claus, who is tired of spending Christmas alone. Wendy Waring, another New York import, is terrific in “Just One Step” about a married woman threatening her husband “Murray” with suicide by jumping from a ledge (although it wasn’t clear that was her intent until late in the song due to the staging), and she also shone in several other numbers, including “I'm Not Afraid Of Anything” as a young wife who clearly is afraid of quite a bit. The rakishly handsome Jack Donahue deftly handles the role of suave crooner in several numbers, and really hits the mark with “The World Was Dancing”. 

The homegrown talent more than held their own in this production. Pittman delivered a powerful rendition of “King of the World” (about a man spending his life in prison) and brings da funk in “Steam Train” about a basketball hotshot. I was also surprised to read that Nyah Macklin was an undergraduate at Brandeis, as her beautiful soprano augmented her more experienced female counterparts in several numbers, including her work in “Flagmaker 1775” about the anguish of a woman whose son and husband are fighting in the Revolutionary War. 

Not every number is a home run, but this is a consistently entertaining production, and a great night (or afternoon) out for musical theater fans. For more info, go to: