Wednesday, January 18, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Virtuoso Panto 2017



The Imaginary Beasts are renowned for their delightfully bizarre and totally kid-friendly takes on the historical British panto form. Imagine Italian commedia dell’ arte mashed up with Saturday Night Live’s irreverent brand of comedy (the old, really clever SNL). No stone is left unturned and no turn, as Diana Rigg famously said, is left unstoned.

Matthew Woods and company’s modus operandi is to pile contemporary politics, pop culture and slapstick comedy onto helpless fairy tales, then reap the whirlwind (as in gales of laughter). Even classical ballet makes an appearance from time to time. This year they thrash the alt-right, not to mention trashing plotlines left and right as they meander their way to the focal subject of THE PRINCESS AND THE PEA.

This year, instead of one villain, there is a village full. (The more the merrier, I say.) The nasty queen (Molly Kimmerling) has built a wall around her kingdom, no doubt planning to make her serfs pay for it. She spreads fake news and hangs around with a Nazi storm trooper named “Stompundstammer.” Did I hear someone say “No, he’s not”… Oh, yes, he is. (Not just the kids have a ball playing that game with the indignant Bob Mussett!)

The silly stuff entertains the children and the cheeky stuff keeps the rest of us happy… even nostalgic (when they sang David Bowie’s “If you say run, I’ll run to you”). And when Cameron Cronin’s naughty Nurse Nonny croons “Don’t Rain on my Parade,” even Streisand wouldn’t dare. Joey C. Pelletier’s baddie threatens to melt the polar ice cap while Matthew Woods’ Pirate captain disguised as a pirate captain threatens to demolish any hope of a foreign accent. Mayhem rules.

Fortunately, kindness saves the day. Sarah Gazdowicz minds her peas and queues as well as the underground gap and Amy Meyer brings reason to chaos. Melissa Barker and Alice Rittershaus leap on and off to strains of Les Sylphides, followed closely (and sometimes led) by the most adorable mice ever puppeted. Sarah J. Mann (as the prince) gets his princess (Rebecca Lehrhoff-Joy) now that the pea is at last spoken for.

There’s more shtick from sidekicks Tom Rash and William Schuller and mustache twirling (sans mustache) from Noah Simes, all while James Sims tickles the keyboard and tried to keep a modicum of order on stage… Not possible of course. Cotton Talbot-Minkin again proves she can sew rings around any costumer in town, with Mussett’s extremely loud jodhpurs taking the prize for best pants. (Possibly a new category at the IRNE Awards next year.)

Monday, January 16, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Double Indemnity



If Joe Orton and Martin McDonough had a love child, it would be Alistair McDowall. He’s the twenty-something British playwright hailed as the next important writer to come out of the U.K. Lucky for us in the colonies, Apollinaire Theatre Company is giving his gritty BRILLIANT ADVENTURES a bang up outing through Jan. 21st. And while you’re there, check out the flashy new spaces Apollinaire has opened up (including a new teen theater) in the Chelsea Theatre Works.

Here’s the skinny. Two brothers can’t live together and it seems they can’t live apart from each other either. The elder brother has always looked out for his fragile, younger siblingalbeit a bit unwisely since he’s a low level drug dealer who attracts unsavory customers to his brother’s flat. Think of the wonderfully funny but harrowing Guy Ritchie caper film, SNATCH, and there you have it.

A really nasty bloke wants in on a device invented by the sweet, geeky brother. He thinks it will make millions but the teenager says no. Brooks Reeves is even more frightening in BRILLIANT ADVENTURES than he was as the sadist in CLOSER. He says there are three ways (he’s got a cockney accent so he says “free”) to get what he wants: One is money which the teen refuses. Two is sex which doesn’t apply in this situation and free is violence. (I turned my head away for the torture bit but I could still hear it.) If it weren’t for the cheeky humor and blissfully bizarre characters, this would not be my cuppa tea. As it is so sardonically deft, I’d gladly have a second cup.

Reeves is superbly cold and creepy. Michael Underhill is perfection as the misguided older brother with Sam Terry and Eric McGowan thoroughly charming as the brainy teen(s). Geoff Van Wyck adds even more laughter as a completely unconvincing wannabe tough. Dev Luthra, who spends most of the play hunkered down out of the way, gets a show stopping monologue at the top of Act II.

The playwright makes things work that you wouldn’t think would, like Luthra’s curious character or the off the wall “invention.” Danielle Fauteux Jaques brilliantly directs the comedy as if it all were completely normal everyday farewhich is what makes it tick on so smashingly, like clockwork.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Unanimous Decision



When Thurgood Marshall was practicing law in the 1950s, ingrained racism lurked at every turn, in every town, in every school, in the Congress and the Supreme Court. When President Trump takes office in ten days, we will be hurled back into the fifties, without someone like Marshall to enforce “equality under the law.”

George Stevens, Jr.’s THURGOOD (at New Repertory Theatre through Feb 5th) is a chilling reminder of our country’s shameful pastand an alarming realization that the past has become the future. It’s exactly what Yeats predicted in his prophetic and apocalyptic poem, THE SECOND COMING: The present has given birth to the past.

When Stevens wrote the play, of course he had no idea it would resonate so terrifyingly now. He carefully chronicles the years in Marshall’s life: His rise from headstrong child into the determined lawyer who worked tirelessly for social justiceand who argued and won the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision before the U.S. Supreme Court (that “separate but equal” education is not equal under the law). To cap a remarkable career, he himself was appointed to the Supreme Court.

Director Benny Sato Ambush’s thoughtful production moves seamlessly from one adventure to another but Stevens’ script gets lost in the minutia. For one thing, it runs awfully long for a solo performancealthough Johnny Lee Davenport gives a tour de force as Marshalland the genuinely harrowing experiences, where Marshall’s life stood in danger, are given short shrift. As are his personal crises. He touches briefly, for one sentence, on his “drinking” and his “love of women” but that’s it. It would have been a much fuller portrait of the great man if we heard how he overcame his own personal trials and tribulations. As the play exists, it’s a charming history lesson, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just that in my opinion it could have been much more.

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.