Monday, May 23, 2011

QUICK and NOT SO QUICK TAKES By Beverly Creasey

It’s a theaterphile’s dream: A weekend of back to back shows, and almost all of them divine. One Friday, two Saturday and two Sunday! Phew!

Zeitgeist Stage Company’s AT HOME AT THE ZOO (through May 28th) pairs Albee’s recent prequel (HOMELIFE) with his shattering, seminal work, THE ZOO STORY. His HOMELIFE sets the stage for the harrowing encounter to come in THE ZOO STORY. Peter (Peter Brown) has an ordered home life which his wife (Christine Power) feels lacks passion. He tunes her out as he reads proofs of textbooks his company will publish. The two bicker politely, even elegantly until his wife has had enough. Director David J. Miller builds the tension flawlessly. Brown gives a stunning performance of compressed control and repressed anxiety. Power manages brilliantly to convey quiet desperation as it leaks its way to the surface. After this upsetting confrontation, Peter decides to take a walk in the park to relax and read on his favorite bench.

And he thought the contretemps at home was disturbing! He couldn’t have imagined what was to come in the person of Jerry (director David J. Miller in a tour de force!) in THE ZOO STORY. Miller plays him as a calculating madman, someone who has mayhem planned out in a rehearsed scenario, just waiting for the right opportunity. (If Albee had written THE ZOO STORY now, Jerry’s plans would be on his blog.) Poor Peter is in the right place at the wrong time. Naemah A. White-Peppers’ production is a juggernaut. Don’t miss it. P.S. Wednesdays are $7 days. Who could resist?

I think my favorite British Theatre Company is the all male Propeller. I know. I know. There aren’t enough opportunities for women in the theater. I agree wholeheartedly. But once you see Propeller in motion, you might just agree. Their THE TAMING OF THE SHREW a few seasons back was a revelation about the appalling treatment of women in the world, in Shakespeare’s time and still to this day. Believe it or not, having a man (playing Kate) as the object of Petruccio’s gross maltreatment made it more noticeable. Too many correctly sexed productions negate the abuse by making it comical. (Dare I say, all the productions of SHREW in my recent memory have done.) It’s one of those experiences which flies in the face of conventional wisdom but having a man (even though you accept he’s a woman) face such cruelty makes you sit up and take notice.

Propeller is currently visiting the Huntington Theatre through June 19th. Thank you, Huntington and The Touring Partnership! Now you can experience them without crossing the pond or finding out where their next stop in the colonies will be. I saw their rollicking, outrageous, incomparable THE COMEDY OF ERRORS last evening and haven’t stopped laughing yet (and don’t plan to until I see their RICHARD III next weekend, if then). As artistic director Edward Hall says in the program, “One comedy and one tragedy. But which is which?...”)

Never has the story been so clear. Never have the twins and their servants been so understood. Never has there been such silliness. It’s simply too delicious to spoil with description. If you see one Shakespeare play in your lifetime, let it be THE COMEDY OF ERRORS or forever regret that you didn’t.

I saw Turtle Lane’s THE DROWSY CHAPERONE this weekend, as well, and it’s well worth the engagement even if you saw SpeakEasy’s version of the wedding that almost wasn’t. The dueling productions (the mind boggles) are playing at the same time but TLP’s ends this coming weekend. They’re both wonderful for different reasons! Please see my full reviews of the two productions for specifics.

Not as successful is The Nora Theatre Company’s new musical, SILVER SPOON, a work in progress with a bittersweet book by Amy Merrill about love and activism in the ‘60s and music by rabble rouser Si Kahn (playing through June 19th). The music itself is gorgeous, sounding for the most part like traditional olde English folk melodies (when it isn’t pastiche).

Kahn’s lyrics, likewise, are plenty clever but they don’t fit the olde English music (which is beautifully performed by Rodney Allan Bush’s classical quartet). Where is the feel of the ‘50s folk music and 60’s rock ‘n roll which fueled the anti-war (and anti-oppression) movements of that era? Can you think of Vietnam or Caesar Chavez or the civil rights movement without thinking of Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan or James Weldon Johnson? It’s like HAIR or RENT without the rock.

That said, director Daniel Gidron keeps the story hopping with nifty turns by Rena Baskin and Peter Edmund Haydu as the older generation who have to get out of the way, to paraphrase Dylan, if they “can’t lend a hand” and by Kara Manson and Edward T. Joy as the younger generation who are a-changin’ the times. Joy’s performance is reason alone to see SILVER SPOON. He’s charismatic, talented like nobody’s business and he makes the Brooklyn social reformer totally irresistible. (How Manson’s blueblood can tear herself away from him is beyond me.) His “We Will Hold the Line” will have you out looking for a cause to march for.

It’s a work in progress so you have to expect that some elements work better than others. Kudos to Nora Theatre for taking on a new musical. How many theaters would risk it?

Dreamy DROWSY CHAPERONE By Beverly Creasey

I saw Turtle Lane Playhouse’s delightful version of THE DROWSY CHAPERONE this past weekend. Although they don’t have the fabulous Will McGarrahan (from the SpeakEasy show, also playing this month), the TLP production is full of heart – and some sensational choreography by Karen Fogerty (which outdazzles the SpeakEasy production, believe it or not!!!).

As they do at SpeakEasy, the tipsy chaperone and her Latin lover steal the show. Kate deLima is devilishly delicious and Peter Mill is equally hilarious as her confused swain, Aldolpho. The two comedians make the plot go round. It’s Jackie Theoharis’ wedding or non-wedding which provides the rest of the mayhem. Theoharis is spectacular in the show stopper, Show Off, showing off with a split as the number ends. WOW!

Tim McShea makes the fiancé role pop and when he’s on skates, he’s unstoppable. He and David Carney get a smart tap duet called Cold Feets. Joe Berry as the inverted Ziegfeld heads up the opposition to the marriage. Kira Cowan makes her short appearance count as the aviatrix who saves the day. The rest of the company, too, deliver like gangbusters…which reminds me: Jordan Greeley and Chas Kircher are daffy dancing thugs in the Damon Runyon mold. Kudos to Dan Dowling, Jr. and Howard Bowles for a production packed with energy and naughty, nostalgic charm.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

42nd Second Thoughts By Beverly Creasey

It seems like I’ve seen at least forty 42nd Streets, partly because it’s my job and mostly because it’s a tap lovers dream (and I do love tap). This is my fist experience with a tiny 42nd Street, though. Granted, it’s out of necessity because the Stoneham Theatre’s stage is too small for eighty thundering feet. I miss the usual opening of the show as the curtain slowly rises to reveal all that heavenly stomping but thanks to Ilyse Robbins (Stoneham’s director/choreographer) I’ve discovered that eleven crackerjack hoofers can work up a nifty noise. I also discovered that Jim Rice’s trio delivers the requisite orchestration. I didn’t even miss that pit full of musicians.

Here’s the most surprising thing about Stoneham’s show: A second banana can be a first banana when it’s Kathy St. George. I’ve seen a lot of Dorothy Brocks (she’s the haughty star who breaks an ankle, leaving the musical without a leading lady). They’re most always humorless and one dimensional. Not this Dorothy Brock! St. George makes her so deliciously naughty that you start to think the musical is about her! Sorry, Peggy Sawyer. To be fair, Ephie Aardema is mighty talented and she makes Peggy’s innocence endearing. She’s the character who saves the day and “comes back a star” And her attraction to the steely producer (Russell Garrett) is quite believable (There are sparks, to boot which isn’t often the case in most versions I’ve seen).

Because the dancing is scaled down (but ingeniously, tightly choreographed nevertheless) and the big production numbers aren’t so big (Think deflation for “We’re in the Money”), the story and the individual characters take center stage. Neil A. Casey and Margaret Ann Brady as the stock comic relief characters stand out as do Ceit Zweil as Anytime Annie, Bob DeVivo as St. George’s love interest and Andy McLeavey as the cheery leading man with an eye for the ladies. As the producer says, “Musical comedy” are two of the “most glorious words in the English language”…big or small.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Musical Schmusical By Beverly Creasey

THE DROWSY CHAPERONE (@ SpeakEasy Stage through June 6th) is one of those delightful musicals where you turn to your date and ask, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It’s a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kind of idea, making fun of- and playing it earnestly at the same time.

The show opens with a man sitting center stage commiserating with us on the state of musicals nowadays. He knows what we’re thinking: Let it be good and let it be short. (It is and it is!) This Man in Chair, as he’s named, is on stage throughout the musical (which he shares with us via the so called “original cast album” and his own cheery “liner” notes).

Just when we fear we’ll be listening to his records all night, the faux musical (also called THE DROWSY CHAPERONE) bursts forth in his apartment, with set pieces sliding right out of the oven, for heavens sake. Then the Man in Chair takes it upon himself to stop the action a number of times to impart some juicy dish about the “original” stars. What can I say other than it’s gloriously, shamelessly, deliciously silly. Gag after gag catches you off guard—even though you should have seen them coming.

Will McGarrahan is perfection as an agoraphobic host, a depressed but affable chap whose only joy in life comes from listening to recordings of old musicals. (Not so different, I might add, from those of us whose joy comes from seeing those musicals!)

The daffy story (by Bob Martin and Don McKellar) hinges on, surprise surprise, a chaperone who falls down on the job, or rather falls for and on a flamboyant Latin lover named Aldolpho (a name you will never forget once you’ve seen the show).The magnificent mayhem has everyone trying either to prevent or present a wedding, depending on which side their bread is buttered. Karen MacDonald and Thomas Derrah steal the show hands down as the tipsy chaperone and the aforementioned Aldolpho: “Like a cat in pajamas,” as he would say.

Like KISS ME KATE, (and you’d almost swear that Accident Waiting to Happen was Cole Porter even though it says Lisa Lambert & Greg Morrison) two gangsters in disguise threaten theatricide as a gorgeous starlet contemplates leaving the stage for good. McCaela Donovan tears up the joint with I Don’t Wanna Show Off No More. Close behind in the tearing up department are David Christensen and Brian Swasey in a tapping duel which brings down the house. And wait ‘til you see Kerry Dowling and Robert Saoud go at it. Heaven!

Director and choreographer (and I should add, magician) David Connolly makes it all look so effortless—and you know the old saying: “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Connolly and music director Nicholas James Connell have done the impossible: Their soufflé is so light and airy, you’re left wanting more.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

MONSTER RALLY By Beverly Creasey

Renowned child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim postulated that children learn via fairytales how to overcome fear. With a slight twist on Bettelheim’s theory about autonomy, playwright Mary Jett Parsley dispatches a monster out from under a bed with the express purpose of teaching an unhappy young woman that she can conquer hers.

The Mill 6 Collaborative’s lovely production of THE MONSTER TALES (playing through May 21st) features Becca A. Lewis as a sort of “fairy godmother” bogeymen and Elizabeth Rimar as a lonely but delightfully morose young woman desperately in need of help.

The TALES are parables of the “you get what you wish for” variety, some fanciful and some downright cautionary. Co-directors Barlow Adamson and John Edward O’Brien have a stellar cast to impersonate the stories: (It’s a treat for the audience to see the same actors become vastly different characters within one play.)

Nathaniel Gundy transforms from a noble hearted, self sacrificing hero to a curious, rapidly growing little boy to a man who discovers true riches. Sasha Castroverde is the manufactured beauty who learns about love from Gundy in the first tale, the daughter who wastes away from misguided grief in the third and a young woman who finds she is healed through generosity in the last. Both Castroverde and Gundy add depth beyond the written word to their characters.

Irene Daly is the crusty gardener who learns to love in the second tale, a devoted, dying mother in the third and a wife who recaptures her youthful spirit in the last. Lonnie McAdoo is the blind (in so many ways) rich man searching for happiness, foolish man, in a beautiful bride and in the last story, he’s a man who cannot hear any music but the tune he creates with his hands. Daly and McAdoo triumph as the couple who regain joy and each other.

Brent Bundock’s partially (then fully) completed paintings add another dimension to the accumulating weight of the stories and PJ Strachman enlightens many a character in the Mill 6 Collaborative production. Cara Pacifico’s whimsical costumes are layered like the stories (I especially loved the division of socks!) and the gorgeous original music by Sarah Rabdau truly underscores the emotion of the characters (quite effectively in the story of the daughter overcome with grief.). Mill 6 certainly celebrates its “collaborative” talents in THE MONSTER TALES.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Rags to Riches By Beverly Creasey

American Classics is on a roll. Last month they celebrated the 100th anniversary of Irving Berlin’s ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND. This past weekend the curators of the American Songbook placed ragtime front and center with their tribute to Scott Joplin.

THE KING OF RAGTIME featured Joplin’s most familiar rags (The Entertainer, The Maple Leaf Rag, The Pine Apple Rag) and some intriguing compositions like the tango-infused Mexican Serenade (with Jim Dalton’s mandolin sounding like the zither in “The Third Man” theme).

American Classics ragtime virtuoso Margaret Ulmer was in her element, clearly enjoying herself at the piano. Her shoulders kept the syncopated rhythms moving (or maybe visa versa!) while her hands swept playfully, masterfully across the keys. She beamed at co-conspirators Jim Dalton (banjo) and Eli Newburger (tuba) as they delivered the dazzling cakewalks and inventive waltzes that made Joplin a star. (His Maple Leaf Rag sold 75,000 copies as soon as the sheet music was published.) Ragtime was definitely the rage!

The evening was also a celebration of the 100th anniversary of Joplin’s folk opera, TREEMONISHA. The opera’s only performance during his lifetime was a backer’s audition, with him at the piano. Spoofs of plantation life made it to Broadway but not his earnest parable about resisting temptation and practicing forgiveness. The opera in three acts had twenty-seven musical numbers. We were treated to eleven at the American Classics performance.

James Dargan sang two bravura roles, the first a conjurer/confidence man (anticipating Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess) and the second a fiery preacher (“Do you feel released?”). Anita Murrell’s voice soared as the child Monisha (Christina DeVaughn) discovered under a tree (hence the name “Treemonisha”). The memory of DeVaughn’s wrenching “I heard a baby crying…” still gives me chills and Fred VanNess’ rousing “Goin’ Around” still has my feet stepping out in place. Classics regulars Brad Conner, Mary Ann Lanier and Ben Sears joined Merle Perkins and company for the show stopping chorus numbers, closing with the “marching, hop-skipping”, sensational “Real Slow Drag.”

Joplin would be so pleased.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Garden Of Delight By Beverly Creasey

A big Victorian musical like THE SECRET GARDEN in the limited Cambridge Y performance space? Yes. But it seems counterintuitive to pack that small stage with as much flotsam and jetsam as you could find in your grandma’s attic. Then have all the characters, ghostly and living, on stage for most of the show! Heavens to Betsy!

Here’s the good news. Kaitlyn Chantry’s lovely production for the Longwood Players (playing through May 14th) works in surprising ways. One of the reasons it does is Brandon Thrasher’s ingenious lighting. When Dickon, the lad with the green thumb, sings about the spring sun coaxing shoots up through the ground, Thrasher throws a warm, yellow wash over the stage bathing all the still, observant characters in sepia, as if this were a formal Victorian photograph.

Crowding the stage doesn’t work only once, toward the end, in the exotic “spell” number when twenty characters attempt to circle each other in some unnecessarily clunky choreography. The rest of the time the solutions Chantry finds (for her space problems) are delightful. Here’s one of the tricks she has up her sleeve: With no room for a garden – and you have to have a garden to rejuvenate all the unhappy people – Chantry engineers a nifty reversal and Mary, the little girl who brings everyone back to life, enters the garden through the back wall of the set so all we see is blinding sunlight when she opens the doors. And we believe! Later we stand in for the garden and the characters point toward the audience admiring the roses. And that works too.

If you’re not impressed enough by the clever staging, here are more reasons to attend: A solid chorus, touching performances and the chance to hear Renée Saindon as Lily, one of the central ghosts. It was her death which left Mary’s uncle an emotional cripple. Once you hear her gorgeous voice, you understand his grief. Of course, you know that Mary’s indomitable spirit will heal him (and the child who survived when Lily did not). The role of Mary is double cast and when I attended, an angelic and enormously talented 9th grader named Allsun O’Malley won over our hearts.

The Frances Hodgson Burnett story is packed with overwrought sentiment, embodied in the character of Mary’s guardian/uncle, played with ferocious frailty by Mathew Zahnzinger. Burnett contrasts the weak willed gentry with the strong servant class and Shonna McEachern makes Mary’s chambermaid a font of warmth and affection. Jocelyn Hesse and Kevin Cirone supply the severity as Mary’s nemeses and Stephen Piergrossi, Jr. supplies the charm as the boy who can converse with animals. (I don’t want to give away any surprises so suffice it to say the director found a wonderful way to have the robin “speak” to Mary.)

Music director Jason Luciana gets exemplary singing from the entire cast: I’ve seen the show many times but hadn’t heard all of Marsha Norman’s lyrics before. I appreciated Lucy Simon’s sumptuous music more this time, too. A lot of care went into the Longwood production. If you love THE SECRET GARDEN, you’ll appreciate their labor. If you haven’t seen it, now is the time.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Strange Interlude By Beverly Creasey

New Rep has a big heart. They’re right on the border with Brighton although they’re actually situated in Watertown. The high school in Watertown has one miraculous arts program but the Boston School System doesn’t have a lot of arts – so New Rep has started a TELL YOUR STORY program with Brighton High students. They’ll create their own version of the PASSING STRANGE musical currently running on New Rep’s main stage (through May 22nd). Then New Rep will hold public performances of their results. Best of all, the talented actors of PASSING STRANGE will hold workshops with the students.

The best thing about New Rep’s PASSING STRANGE are the performers who recreate L.A. musician Stew’s semi-autobiographical, Tony Award winning show. Not your typical musical, PASSING STRANGE follows Stew’s search around the world for the “REAL.” Although his genre is rock and roll, it’s definitely not your grandfather’s rock. (It’s a little too “soft” rock for me, sorry to say.)

In director Kate Warner’s smart version, Stew is played by Cliff Odle, who looks for all the world like a ‘40s jazz man. (All he needs is a goatee and a beret.) Odle is the hipster narrator who pushes the story along, from mother’s long apron strings to a strung out layover in Amsterdam, to a mind bending sojourn in Berlin, and home again.

Stew’s humor is what carries the show and although many of the individual interludes are enjoyably drawn (especially the crazy Germans), they don’t add up to a heck of a lot. I’d be hard pressed to explain what Stew’s epiphany is. I think there’s a bit of THE WIZARD OF OZ to it. You know, learning there’s no place like home…or no “REAL” place like home…but the message about “life being a mistake that only art can correct” was lost on me. What I liked were Stew’s rhymes. My favorite song was Take My Keys, Please from the Amsterdam section…which happily inspires the Youth to sing “[Amsterdam] Looks like Sodom from top to bottom.”

What I loved were the wacky characters the “Youth” meets on his travels. (Cheo Bourne gives a winning performance as the adventurous, innocent, “Youth”ful Stew.) Maurice Parent has a field day as the outrageous choir director in L.A., then, among other roles, the wild, punked up, Berlin cabaret performance artist. Eve Kagan, too, makes the most of her German pseudo-revolutionary poet role. Kami Rushell Smith and D’Lon Grant are hilarious in multiple personalities but it’s Cheryl D. Singleton as Mother who grounds the piece: Singleton moves effortlessly from hovering and gently teasing to touching and heartbreaking.

Music director Todd C. Gordon and the on stage band do work Stew and Heidi Rodenwald’s music. It just didn’t gel for me. Hey, what do I know? I’m just an ancient rock n’ roller, hanging on to the Stones and Jimi Hendrix. See it for yourself. Maybe you can discover the “REAL” deal.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Whistler Makes Lemonade By Beverly Creasey

The recently lauded Whistler in the Dark Theatre follows their winning TALES OF OVID with Wallace Shawn’s AUNT DAN AND LEMON. AD&L is Shawn’s languid play about a little girl (nicknamed Lemon) and her fascinating aunt, Danielle. Shawn is most famous for MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, a meandering film featuring Shawn’s sprawling conversations about life and art with Andre Gregory.

AD&L is ripe with, as Dan herself says, “conversations no way related to anything else”…except, I might add, to decadence, which is what excites and captivates the eleven year old (Jen O’Connor). Shawn speculates that cruelty and violence are mother’s milk to the human race. The play is bookended with Lemon’s thoughts on Nazi ideology and implementation in WWII – but what comes between is scattershot and endlessly repetitive (“in other words…” the characters say over and over).

The performances in Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s production are well drawn (except for one actress who swallows her lines so rapidly you cannot make out the dialogue). One actor, Alejandro Simoes, lights up the stage as the charming roué, Raimondo. You don’t mind at all when he repeats his suave come-on about the remarkable orchestra. Pity is, he’s only briefly on stage, the first time as seducer and the second, as victim of a nefarious seductress.

O’Leary cleverly runs subliminal music (mostly Kurt Weill interrupted by a jarring Bacharach!) throughout the play. P.J. Strachman’s evocative lighting works on several levels as well, especially when mother (Melissa Baroni) and Dan (Meg Taintor) sit on the grass in dappled sunshine and lock horns over Henry Kissinger’s morality. Both suggest the undercurrents flowing beneath the action. If only AD&L wasn’t so bloody long.

Monday, May 2, 2011


Discovery can make going to the theater exhilarating: You can experience a play which covers familiar territory but doesn’t seem at all familiar. EAST OF BERLIN is one of those remarkable scripts, unearthed by the Apollinaire Theatre Company, presented as part of their international FOREIGN FEST. Canadian playwright Hannah Moskovitch comes at her subject (the legacy of the Holocaust) from an entirely surprising angle. At the heart of the story is the son of a Nazi doctor born after the war who knew little or nothing of his father’s crimes…until a school chum enlightens him. From then on, he is obsessed with the need for redemption. Moskovitch visits the sins of the father squarely on his shoulders and the weight, you can imagine, is unbearable.

I’m writing this on Holocaust Remembrance Day … and thinking of the plays I’ve seen which try to address the horror, so many of which miss the mark. At the moment only two come to mind which left me shaking in my seat. (In my opinion if a play with this subject matter doesn’t leave you stunned, it didn’t do its job.) Double Edge Theatre’s SONG OF ABSENCE is one and Apollinaire’s EAST OF BERLIN is the other – both entirely different plays. The former uses breathtaking imagery to conjure the inhumanity and the latter uses a psychological juggernaut to deliver its blow.

Danielle Fauteux Jacques (who directs both the company and EAST OF BERLIN) paces the play flawlessly. We have no idea what’s coming our way (I give high praise to a script when I can’t guess the ending) until the playwright wants us to realize what’s driving the action. Evan Sanderson’s exquisite performance as the son is a harrowing depiction of sheer terror wrapped in an exterior of forced charm and affability. Harry Hobbs, as his childhood friend, brilliantly conveys hurt and betrayal and Alison Meirowitz is the lovely Jewish student who could be this tortured man’s salvation. But it’s Sanderson, on stage alone for most of the play, who transports us into the vortex of his guilt.