Friday, September 12, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Funnier Than Ever



Director Leigh Barrett’s production of the Maltby/Shire revue, CLOSER THAN EVER (playing @ New Rep through Sept. 28th) soars when the women are front and center. (Barrett has split the songs among two male and two female singers.) The men mostly have the angst ridden and sentimental songs but the women get the plum comic numbers. When you have Barrett and Kathy St. George interpreting the material you’re home free.

Well, not necessarily. A couple of months ago I saw an ill fated production of COMPANY. I could hardly wait for Barrett’s “Ladies Who Lunch.” It’s always the showstopper. I’m sure it would have been, were it not for a sinister sound system which entirely cut out the audio on the “Ladies,” leaving the audience in misery. So here’s kudos for New Rep’s acoustics and their impeccable sound system (something I used to take for granted).

Some of the songs are ho-hum but a few are inspired: Barrett’s cheeky “The Bear, the Tiger, the Hamster and the Mole” is a scientific rundown of the female of the (animal) species, where “the male has control for one moment only,” (and that would be the mating moment). We’re in hysterics even before the song arrives at the ambidextrous oyster who can fertilize her own eggs, thank you very much!

St. George acts the heck out of the not so demure “Miss Byrd” who flies away at lunchtime, unseen, to refresh her, let’s say, enthusiasm for the rest of the workday. And St. George sizzles in her sexy paean to the musicians who play the bass fiddle: She purrs, she scats and she playfully messes with John Styklunas’ hair as he’s accompanying her on base. The incomparable Jim Rice on piano makes the show tick and he even sings a little harmony.

Brian Richard Robinson gets laughs with “What Am I Doing” (up on her roof) as the guy who can’t move on and David Foley gets to tug at our heartstrings with the tender “Fathers of Fathers.” The singers spend a good deal of time pushing Jon Savage’s multiple doors into place or carrying on (what look like) heavy stuffed chairs and I began to worry that someone would pull a muscle. This is, after all, a show about “getting older” and one would hope, wiser than that.

See CLOSER THAN EVER for the ladies who are indeed funnier than ever.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SWEENEY TODD as EVERYMAN



A SWEENEY TODD without camp? Who knew Sondheim’s exquisite musical had so much to say about the human condition? Director Spiro Veloudos’ SWEENEY TODD (playing @ Lyric Stage through Oct. 8th) is still Grand Guignol but this Todd is human, a reflection of the sorry state of the world.

I’ve seen a passel of SWEENEY TODDs (It’s my favorite musical) and never once did I consider Todd to be anything but the bogeyman parents invoke to make naughty children behave. Never once did I connect myself emotionally with the “demon barber.” Not once did I feel he was real. The macabre material always felt like fantasy to me—which served to keep the horror at bay. The outrageous humor, too, allowed me to distance myself. Now the musical resonates way beyond Victorian England to our very own “desperate times.”

As I watched, I thought of the Innocence Project: Todd was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit. I thought about the corruption which eats through our justice system: The powerful judge in the musical has gotten away with rape and more. Even Ferguson came to mind when the parish officer instructs a policeman to clear the street and “bash” a passerby’s “head” in. And I thought about the depth of Todd’s pain, losing his whole family. When Christopher Chew as Todd discovers too late a loved one’s true identity, you cannot stop his despair from passing across the footlights and into your stomach. Chew makes Todd’s descent into madness the only path he has.

As much as Todd wants to “wish the world away,” it intrudes at every turn. He’s come home from Botany Bay to find his wife and child and instead finds that Mrs. Lovett has kept his razors all these years. Amelia Broom as Mrs. L seduces him into resuming his old profession, lies about his wife and even initiates their cannibalistic partnership. (I had always accepted them as equals before. Now I’m much more keenly aware of Mrs. L’s machinations. What a difference a fresh approach can make!)

Music director Jonathan Goldberg makes Sondheim’s glorious dissonances soar. The singing is enhanced in the intimacy of the small Lyric stage and Janie E. Howland’s black, receding, almost disappearing set piece: The chorus becomes the set, moving about in Franklin Meissner’s foggy purples and muddied reds. Rafael Jean’s dark, layered costumes mirror the hues in Meissner’s lighting.

The singing is superb, with exciting performances all around but special attention must be paid to Phil Tayler as the innocent Toby who slowly realizes that Todd is killing his customers. Tayler makes Toby heroic and that’s a significant change from most productions. Davron S. Munroe, too, makes Todd’s mountebank rival a posturing know-it-all deserving comeuppance.

Sam Simahk and Meghan LaFlam are lovely together as the lovers in peril, at the hands of Paul C. Soper’s evil judge. Every musical number reverberates but I’m still humming the judge and Todd’s “Pretty Women” and LaFlam’s bird song and Simahk’s lovely “Johanna” and marveling over the two quartets. And of course, there’s the inimitable “A Little Priest.”


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Swinging for the FENCES



When you think of August Wilson, the powerful men in his plays spring to mindmen like Troy Maxson in FENCES, for whom life is an everyday struggle. There is, of course, Ma Rainey but aside from the Blues singer, you wouldn’t automatically cite him for his women’s roles. After watching Gloucester Stage’s sinewy production of FENCES (playing through Sept. 7th), I’ve changed my mind. He’s written a heck of a part for Rose Maxson, Troy’s invincible wife. (I’ve seen many productions of FENCES where Troy is the sole dominating force. The difference at Gloucester is Jacqui Parker.)

Rose’s towering presence informs every scene. Even when she’s not on stage, she figures in almost every conversation. It’s her strength, Troy says, that “carries me through to the next Friday.” And, when her faith is tested, it’s Rose who saves the family. After seeing Jacqui Parker’s tour de force as the rock solid Rose, I like the idea of “balance” in director Eric Engel’s production. It tips in Troy’s direction when he disciplines his son rather harshly, making family decisions on his own. Then it tips the other way when the “greater good” is in the balance.

There’s plenty of suffering to go around in FENCES. Daver Morrison as Troy captures the frustration and disappointment of being passed over (as a child, by his father; as a ballplayer, by the segregated leagues; at work, by his white bosses) and he manages to convey the fear of being abandoned (as his mother had done) all while he postures his braggadocio. You can see perfectly well where his past will lead him. Pity is, he can’t see it. Instead, he builds a fence to keep his family in. (Rose believes in spiritual fences; She sings “Jesus be a fence around me” as she hangs out the wash.)

Troy alienates just about everyone: He won’t listen to advice from his best friend (Gregory Marlow), he belittles his older son (Warren Jackson) for being “lazy,” and he denies his young son (Jared Michael Brown) the chance to play football, a decision which reverberates far beyond “sports.” He can’t see that he’s done to his son what racism did to him, denying him the chance to cross over from the “Negro Leagues.” The color barrier was broken but too late for him. “You’re born with two strikes on you,” he says, using baseball metaphors as if it keeps him in the game.

Wilson packs FENCES with metaphors, none so prevalent as Troy’s severely damaged brother, Gabriel, (Jermel Nakia) who in this production is physically disabled as well as mentally challenged. He’s usually portrayed as a sweet, childlike presence but at Gloucester he’s an unpredictable, flailing accident waiting to happen (which made me wonder why no one took him under their wing). One of the best performances in the play is turned in by Bezawit Strong as the character with the ability to heal any wound. She’s simply luminous.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey



THE LOWER DEPTHS

The subway was the A.R.T.’s brilliant choice for Beckett’s ENDGAME some years ago, although the playwright kicked up a fuss. George Bernard Shaw isn’t around to object to Flat Earth’s subway setting for PYGMALION (slumming through Aug. 30th) and indeed, I wouldn’t if it worked but it doesn’t.

Director Devon Jones sends a passing parade of transit transients through the London tube in his adaptation but they only serve to upstage (by rocking and mumbling to themselves) the toffs who inexplicably prefer the stench of claustrophobic tunnels to an aboveground carriage or hansom cab.

Every scene has been transferred to a subway station. Henry Higgins’ mother now holds court underground. So do the royals: Even the grand ball where Eliza passes for a duchess is six feet under! Aside from the foolishness of the reset, there’s the slap in the face to GBS. His whole point as a dramatist and social reformer is the deleterious effect of class distinction. Put everyone in the subway, elbow to elbow, and there isn’t any distinction.

Henry Higgins might descend the depths for his research but his mum never would in a million years, nor would the other upper crusters in the play. They would expire before dressing themselves in public. Higgins is lucky no one pinched the rented jewels he places around Eliza’s neck in King’s Cross station: He evidently didn’t hear the loudspeaker warnings which pepper the play.

I tried to suspend my disbelief but those announcements kept reminding me of the disastrous setting. Even a knockout performance by Stephen Turner as Eliza’s father and fine turns by Katie Bond (as Henry’s mother) and Tom Beyer (as Pickering) couldn’t bridge that famous gap.


SMILE AND THE WORLD SMILES WITH YOU

A much more successful use of cross gender performance can be found in the NEW EXHIBITION ROOM’s ironic SMILE (already closed). Half a dozen actresses portray both male and female roles with gusto in this raucous and moving tale of feminist empowerment. The young women have come together for a weekend of “defensive” yoga to center themselves and unnerve the enemy. The “downward dog” now has a nasty kick.

No longer do women have to “smile” when a stranger commands it. “No” means “NO” after this seminar. Pity is, it’s only fiction.

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.