Friday, October 29, 2010

Body Politic By Beverly Creasey

Walt Whitman sang the body electric and now Annie Baker offers up BODY AWARENESS in her award winning play of the same name (running through Nov. 20th as part of the SHIRLEY, VT. PLAYS FESTIVAL). What makes BODY AWARENESS cheeky and smart are her quirky characters: They’re delightfully self-absorbed and at the same time, lovingly human. Baker manages to spoof political correctness and work in a nifty conundrum about the politics of art ...without us really noticing. We’re too busy giggling.

Paula Plum plays one half of a hip lesbian couple and doting mother to an extremely bright but noticeably strange child. Gregory Pember is nothing short of brilliant as the toothbrush sucking twenty-one year old who seems to be an emotional twelve. The remarkable Plum pulls off “saintly” and “funny” without batting an eyelash. Her partner (the always compelling Adrianne Krstansky) is hosting a conference at her women’s college in observance of “eating disorders week.” Their son is not the only obsessive. The professor has changed the name of the conference to “Body Awareness Week” so that the students can “reclaim their body image” from those who seek to “objectify” them.

Into their out of control but tightly knit little family unit marches a guest artist (a droll Richard Snee), a macho, new age, male photographer who specializes in nudes (female only). Even worse than the exploitation factor the professor infers, he calls her ‘honey’… Even worse for the uninitiated son, he imparts some hilariously appalling advice to him about sex. Baker has the perfect setup to whirl into motion – and does it ever in director Paul Daigneault’s deft, seemingly effortless production. BODY AWARENESS pleases, from Nathan Leigh’s spot on (laugh out loud) musical interpretations to Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s collegiate garb to Cristina Todesco’s sophisticated, book filled, light filled (Jeff Adelberg) apartment.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

She’s Back! By Beverly Creasey

It’s A Hard Knock Life. Tomorrow. You know the show by heart: A dozen adorable little girls, one nasty matron and a cute dog. The Wheelock Family Theatre’s production of the famous musical is not your grandmother’s ANNIE. It’s still plenty sweet but director Jane Staab’s version is more than timely, with its Depression ethos. The Wheelock’s ANNIE (playing thru Nov. 22nd) has satiric bite.

It’s almost inconceivable that the 1930’s are back, with unemployment skyrocketing and foreclosures exploding across the country. When ANNIE first took Broadway by storm in the ‘70s, its creators had no idea that the stock market crash of 1929 would resonate in our time. Staab and company highlight the politics of poverty for maximum effect, from the billboard outside the radio studio proclaiming “The World’s Highest Standard of Living” to the breadlines forming outside Daddy Warbucks’ Christmas celebration.

Anita Fuchs’ suggestive expanse of skyscraping iron and glass easily accommodates a broadcast studio, a high rise orphanage and Daddy Warbucks’ Fifth Avenue mansion. Staab’s clever “radio serial” frame for the musical is a perfect fit, since Chauncey Moore’s corny radio show is already part of the musical. The cast, too, is perfection, from Grace Brakeman’s spunky Annie to Cheryl McMahon’s villainous Miss Hannigan. Aimee Doherty makes Daddy Warbucks’ Gal Friday irresistible (especially when she’s excited) and Timothy John Smith adds dash to the character of the charismatic billionaire industrialist.

John F. King brings style and pizzaz to the featured role of Rooster: Easy Street gives him plenty of opportunity to show off Laurel Conrad’s smart choreography. The orphans do her proud, as well, in the bucket slamming, floor scrubbing Hard Knock number. Music director Steven Bergman keeps all the orphans (and adults, for that matter) on pitch, not an easy task for children. Lisa Simpson’s costumes not only suit each role. They clearly define the chasm between the haves and have-nots, the former sparkling under Daniel H. Jentzen’s lush lighting while the latter suffer the dark.

Here’s why you should give ANNIE another turn around the block: Each scene, each character has new meaning for us watching what we thought was so familiar, thanks to Staab’s brilliant, audience friendly staging. The children in my party were delighted and the adults were moved.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Legends at Reagle By Beverly Creasey

Reagle Music Theatre hosted Broadway legend Leslie Uggams over the weekend and she showed why her star shines just as bright today as it did when she appeared weekly on the Mitch Miller television show. She can bend a note, rocket that note to the stratosphere and bring it back with a whisper safe and sound. She delivers gorgeous standards and familiar show tunes but most impressive is her magical ability to take a pop tune like the Drifters’ Up On The Roof and turn it into the sweetest of dream songs, as if “On the Roof” were “Over the Rainbow.”

If you missed her UPTOWN, DOWNTOWN cabaret at Reagle, you may be able to see her as Lena Horne on Broadway in STORMY WEATHER, the new tribute musical she hopes to bring to New York.

The next legend coming to Reagle is Patti Page, queen of the airwaves in the fifties and early sixties. She “owned” songs like Old Cape Cod, The Tennessee Waltz and of course, that little Doggie in the Window. Radio had just begun to play Top Forty music and Page came of age with Elvis, believe it or not. Imagine hearing Les Paul, Mary Ford, Page and Elvis, one right after the other on the radio. Then rock n’ roll transformed inventor Les Paul’s electric guitar into a weapon for social change and the crooners were crowded out. I knew all the lyrics to the “doggie” song but Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino were irresistible to us teenagers. When we were coming of age in the sixties, we never imagined we’d be sixty! Now nostalgia reaches back to those days by the radio when it all started. It’ll be lovely to hear those old songs again. Page comes to Reagle November 21st.

Murder Most Foul By Beverly Creasey

Used to be, every school, every town had a couple of scary guys… but they couldn’t wreak much havoc on their own. Now they can hook up on the internet and find a cluster of other like minded fanatics. And as we’ve witnessed, the mayhem is far more serious.

David Gow’s play, CHERRY DOCS, focuses on one instance of racially motivated violence perpetrated by a white supremacist. The skinhead is now on trial for murder and has been assigned a public defender… who is Jewish.

The stunning New Repertory Theatre production of CHERRY DOCS (playing through Nov. 7th) is helmed by David R. Gammons who directed their heart stopping production of THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE two seasons back. Gammons extracts all the physical intensity he can from CHERRY DOCS (named for a pair of steel toed Doc Marten’s boots). Voices scream, bodies flinch and chairs fly.

Gow’s script elegantly traverses the evolving relationship of the two men: their growing dependency and their dual transformations. Both change: one for the better and one for the worse or should I say for the “sadder but wiser.”

Gow uses Judaism and the Bible as touchstones for redemption and forgiveness, with lovely metaphors sewn into a prayer shawl belonging to the lawyer’s father. If only the defendant’s turnaround didn’t seem so contrived. Tim Eliot and Benjamin Evett suffer and spar for ninety minutes in tour de force performances, heightened by Adam Stone’s startling sound effects and Jenna McFarland Lord’s claustrophobic cell/set, lit without mercy by Karen Perlow.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Here Comes the Sun Again By Beverly Creasey

When it premiered in 1973, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (playing at the Cambridge YMCA thru Oct. 23rd) was unique for its unusual score, in 3/4 (waltz) time and for its overture, sung by the chorus. Thirty-seven years later, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC is a guilty pleasure: a hearty helping of sardonic Sondheim wit served over James Lapine’s lovely book (inspired by the Ingmar Bergman film).

The Metro Stage production has a delightful cast to pose as restless Scandinavians—whose antidote to endless days in the land of the midnight sun appears to be romantic liaisons. To add to their troubles, everyone seems to be involved with the wrong person. Fredrik thinks he adores his child bride. His son, too, loves his father’s bride. The Count thinks he wants Desiree but Desiree loves Fredrik. Talk about lover’s knots! Untangling the couples is the real joy of A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC.

Metro has four solid performers in the lead roles so that any combination of the four creates sparks. James Fitzpatrick as Fredrik and Robert Case as the count lock horns in pursuit of Tracy Nygard as Desiree. Case and Shana Dirik lock horns as husband and wife…and Fitzpatrick and Nygard lock arms as lovers in times past. Everyone knows Send in the Clowns (Sondheim’s only crossover pop chart hit) but Nygard gives it new, tragic life. If you need one reason to see Metro’s production, Nygard is it.

Director Maryann Zschau (who has played Desiree herself) gets charming performances from the whole ensemble, especially from John Coons as Fredrik’s smitten son, enamored of Joelle Kross as the immature child bride…and from Mary O’Donnell as the wise grandmama to Desiree’s daughter, sweetly portrayed by Isabelle Miller. Kudos to Neil Fortin (with help from Richard Itczak) for the sumptuous period costumes, to Rachel Bertone for the elegant waltzes and to Maria Duaime for the gorgeous music.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Lovely Tree Tale from Blue Spruce By Beverly Creasey

ONCE ON THIS ISLAND is a charming little musical with an infectious Caribbean beat. The calypso infused story is a magical folk tale about gods and humans and the trouble they wreak. At the heart of the Ahrens/Flaherty musical is an enchanting young girl (Kira Cowan) who learns about love and the cruel world. Just beneath the lilting melodies and whimsical lyrics lies a serious lesson about the evils of colonialism. Blue Spruce Theatre’s clever production (running through Oct. 24th) plays up the inventive nature of the piece with ingenious double casting (which works via impressive acting and Lindsay Hurley’s distinctive headwear).

Directors Jesse Strachman and Jennifer Condon manage to capture pure air in their light, breezy production and Condon’s hip, syncopated choreography amuses with every turn. Dan Rodriguez’s combo infuses the music with sweet island spirit. (If you’re not swaying to the Afro-Cuban beat of the drums, your heart just isn’t in the right place.)

What a cast Blue Spruce has assembled! Each and every performer brings a sense of joy and wonderment to the piece….and first rate vocals as well. Kendra Alati adds her gorgeous, soaring soprano to the mix. Kira Cowan adds remarkable footwork. Abigail Cordell adds warmth. Kaedon Gray adds humor. David Lucey adds menace. Alaina Fragoso adds style. David Carney adds drama and Alexa Niziak is just plain adorable as Little Ti Moune.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Almost Heaven By Beverly Creasey

Theatre On Fire has a reputation for unearthing smart, sardonic scripts from writers known for more famous works. ALMOST AN EVENING (at the Charlestown Working Theatre thru Oct. 23rd) by one of the filmmaking Coen brothers is TOF’s latest coup. Screenwriter Ethan Coen mixes the zaniness of RAISING ARIZONA (one of my favorite movies) with the menace of FARGO for an evening of offbeat musings on life, death and everything in between.

ALMOST AN EVENING begins with Marc Harpin waiting ad infinitum in (of course) a waiting room. Harpin contorts his wonderfully malleable face into expressions of boredom, impatience and desperation, reminiscent of Stan Laurel in distress. Even Harpin’s sobs are delightful.

He delivers the goods again in a short play called DEBATE as a smarmy new age pitch man. He’s selling love and good fortune, acting like he knew each and every one of us intimately. His polar opposite at the morality seminar is Jeff Gill in a riotous rant about how rotten we all are, caring about no one but ourselves…fretting over trivialities like parking. (How did he know that?) Gill spews such hilarious fire and brimstone that you wish his character was in every scene.

Between those two playlets is a less successful piece about spies and the people they have to dispatch (with Craig Houk and Phil Thompson). The first scene of FOUR BENCHES is performed entirely in the dark (except for five uncomfortable seconds). Here’s what I’ve discovered from that little theatrical experiment: It’s much more difficult to hear dialogue when your senses aren’t working in harmony. Without my sight, I had trouble figuring out who was speaking and that preoccupied my brain instead of absorbing what was said. Thank heaven the rest of the play, with Houk, Bill Doscher and Jorge Martinez was well lit!

Director Darren Evans gets fine performances all around, especially in Coen’s perceptive gender gymnastics, where two couples (Gill & Lisa Caron Driscoll and Chris Wagner & Kate Donnelly) spar about “feelings” and the usual hot button topics of disagreement. Coen goes right for the jugular and the performers don’t miss a beat. ALMOST AN EVENING, it turns out, is just the right amount.