Tuesday, December 25, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Joyous New JOSEPH By Beverly Creasey


In the beginning Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber created a Sunday school lesson called JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT. At the end of Turtle Lane’s remarkable thirty year reign, Rachel Bertone returns JOSEPH (playing through Dec. 30th) to its roots. Not to worry, it’s the JOSEPH you know, just infinitely better.

Bertone directs and choreographs, making story and dancing inseparable. The result? The dancing is so tight and the story so moving that you see JOSEPH through new eyes. (I personally never understood its appeal before. This JOSEPH I would happily see again!)

The children, who are usually shunted to the sides of the stage as window dressing, are center stage here, as if the Narrator character (the remarkable Shonna Cirone) were teaching them a spirited Bible lesson. They’re part of the action, as if they were imagining the story as she reads it to them. (The Turtle Lane children, in fact, contributed the drawings which are projected behind them as scenery.) And they sing beautifully!

Bertone has a dream cast. (Not just the usual “any dream will do” cast.) The TLP performers pull off the wild satire without sacrificing sentiment. When Joseph (the exceptional Peter Mill) is reunited with his father (an impressive Rick Sherburne), I had a tear in my eye. It’s never been anything but comic in other productions. Who knew it had heart!

 From Kyle W. Carlson’s magnificent Presley of a Pharoah to the spectacular “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” hoedown (captained by Alex Nemiroski); From Dan Rodriguez’ savvy music direction to the surprise rewind at the end (Be careful what you wish for) this JOSEPH is a Biblical gas!

Sunday, December 23, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Involuntary Commitment By Beverly Creasey



The laughter is purely involuntary. You can’t help yourself. Dozens of wacky characters conspire to have you in stitches in New Repertory Theatre’s outrageous FULLY COMMITTED (playing through Dec. 30th). Gabriel Kuttner reprises his astonishing, award winning performance of two years ago as all the staff, diners (and more) at Becky Mode’s fictitious four-star, very expensive New York restaurant.

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary cleverly edges the dingy office where Sam fields reservations into a tight, little corner of the New Rep downstairs space, making us painfully aware of Sam’s lack of wiggle room, in every sense of the phrase. Even before the play starts, Deb Sullivan’s set tells us this job is no picnic.

Poor Sam is at the mercy of an imperious chef, unreliable co-workers and unrelenting phone calls. The entitled rich do not recognize ‘no’ for an answer when Sam explains that they are fully booked. He calmly accepts insult after insult and soldiers on. He’s kind to elderly ladies with complaints and he endures endless instructions for celebrities: “No dairy, no fat, no soy, no sugar, no salt” and would you believe “no female wait staff!”

Kuttner is hilarious as an eighty year old dowager one second and as a back biting, condescending French Maitre D (Is there any other kind?) the next. Just pulling off the character switches is a feat of strength and Kuttner does it brilliantly. FULLY COMMITTED is a must see. Make your reservation before it’s fully booked!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW STEINBECK STANDOUT By Beverly Creasey



John Steinbeck’s novels about social injustice earned him a Nobel Prize…and a slew of Hollywood films based on his stories. Lon Chaney, Jr. is said to have given the performance of a lifetime as Lennie in the 1939 version of OF MICE AND MEN. This past weekend I witnessed another tour de force as Lennie, that of Harry McEnerny as the developmentally disabled migrant, in the MOONBOX production at the Boston Center for the Arts.

OF MICE AND MEN (playing through Dec. 23rd) may not be your idea of holiday fare but the performances make it a must see. And your ticket will be benefitting a worthy cause. MOONBOX has partnered with the community support organization, MORE THAN WORDS, which operates bookstores (on line, in the South End and on Moody Street, Waltham) to raise funds for their work with foster teens in “Education, Employment and Self-Advocacy.”

What’s truly remarkable about director Olivia Choat’s production is that every character counts. No one fades into the background. This stellar ensemble makes Steinbeck’s Depression era novel work both as morality tale and as compelling storytelling.

All George (the solid Phil Taylor) and Lennie (the miraculous McEnerny) want is to save up a “stake” so they can buy a farm where Lennie can raise rabbits and live out his days without “trouble.” Poor Lennie, he seems to get into trouble wherever they go, despite George’s best efforts to keep a watchful eye on him. Folks don’t understand his slow demeanor. They think he’s not capable of work or they’re frightened by his clumsy movements and sometimes he doesn’t know his own strength.

Steinbeck writes a Black farmhand into the story who faces discrimination not terribly unlike what Lennie encounters. It’s a transcendent scene between the two men when Lennie wanders into Crooks’ segregated corner of the barn and tells him how lucky he is to be by himself and not in the bunk house. Calvin Braxton gives a luminous performance as the lonely outsider who finds company, acceptance and a measure of hope with Lennie.

Steinbeck loves parallels. Another is illuminated by Ed Peed who gives a heartbreaking performance as the old wrangler with nowhere to go now that he can’t work and no one who cares about him except his failing old sheepdog. Steinbeck manages to predate civil rights, disability rights and even animal rights in OF MICE AND MEN and director Choat and company don’t miss any of these complexities along the way.

Jordan Sobel makes the character of Carl far more human (and humane) than most productions do. Everyone, from Erica Spyres’ sad, sympathic dreamer of a flirt to Tom Shoemaker’s stand up farmhand to Glen Moore’s villain to Phil Thomson’s no nonsense boss to Steven Emanuelson’s affable drifter, contribute mightily to the fabric of the story.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW HOLIDAY Treasure By Beverly Creasey



When I think of Truman Capote, I mostly remember the celebrity gadfly who abandoned his writing to party and gossip on late night television about “the beautiful people.” New Repertory Theatre’s exquisite HOLIDAY MEMORIES (playing through Dec. 23rd) based on his writings, has restored the sensitive novelist to me. Russell Vandenbrouke’s lovely stage version of two glorious stories (one Thanksgiving and one Christmas) sets the memoirs in Capote’s own words, as if the author (played by Marc Carver) were reliving his childhood, with us magically at his side.
 
Carver makes us co-conspirators, watching the hapless characters trudge through Depression era Alabama, delightfully describing them, one by one, with playful abandon: The town bully’s embarrassment is conveyed with “his already red ears had become pimento” and his gangly appearance is topped with those same ears as “a pair of eye catchers.”

The lucid language whisks you to another time and the actors conjure places and people so perfectly, you wish you had known them. Maybe you did know a few of them, like Buddy’s eccentric cousin (more like an aunt to him since sixty years separated them) who managed to save the young boy from loneliness and mediocrity.

Adrianne Krstansky gives a truly inspired performance as Buddy’s miraculous Miss Sook, the sweet, odd lady who never travelled more than five miles from home but knew worlds about life and kindness. Michael John Ciszewski gives Buddy a childlike enthusiasm and openness and together, Sook and Buddy capture your heart. The talented Elizabeth Anne Rimar and Jesse Hinson portray everyone else, from highfalutin relatives to a disapproving teacher to that nasty, tortured bully. Director Michael Hammond’s production flies through the stories on wings, leaving us wanting to know so much more about these enchanted characters.

New Rep is exactly the right size for such an intimate piece of theater. We feel as if Carver, as the narrator, is speaking directly to us. Jon Savage’s polished wood set converts seamlessly into a piano or a small bed and his charcoal sketches (which come to life in the forest!) add a rustic, small town feel to the play. Edward Young’s soundscape, especially the carols, played on a dulcimer, made me picture an era gone by.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS Lost and Found in Translation By Beverly Creasey



David Henry Hwang’s CH’ING-LISH (at Lyric Stage through Dec. 23rd) has a boffo beginning: An American businessman meets potential Chinese clients with a less than stellar interpreter. The delicious miscommunication reminded me of the flap created by a rookie translator when President Jimmy Carter visited Poland. A warm “I love the Polish people” unfortunately morphed into “I (expletive deleted) the Polish people.” Director Larry Coen’s exquisite comic timing makes for a priceless three part journey from original statement to translated Chinese to supertitles (so we know what the Chinese officials are hearing).

What comes after that, it seemed to me, went in circles. Except for the romance, the waters seemed pretty muddied. It’s almost at play’s end when Whang reveals why the businessman has been refused, rejected and embraced in a maze of confusing political intrigue. For me, it came too late and with more questions than explanation answered.

 What makes CH’ING-LISH enjoyable is Coen’s superb cast. Barlow Adamson is the hapless foreigner, at the mercy of the wonderfully disinterested Tiffany Chen as his interpreter. Adamson is marvelous, gesticulating wildly with his whole body to communicate with charades what he cannot with words, to Celeste Oliva as his lovely and intense nemesis/advocate/lover. Michael Tow makes his small town administrator drolly exasperating. Peter Timms dazzles as the British “consultant” Adamson’s character hires to grease the wheels of Chinese commerce. Chen Tang gets lots of laughs insulting Adamson’s clueless American, then returns as a taciturn magistrate and Liz Eng wraps up the play as a no nonsense, savvy official.

Across town, translations of a different sort, pepper Ginger Lazarus’ THE EMBRYOS (at Factory Theatre through Dec. 16th). The Fresh Ink Theatre production is a fertile little send-up of Tea Party, right wing dogma, chiefly the “life begins at conception” bit…although Lazarus fits in some nifty animal rights jabs (Thank you, Ginger), too.

If those frozen embryos are people (after all, the eggs have been fertilized, just not embedded yet), then parents ought to have the right to take them home, thaw them and raise them! Director Dawn M. Simmons’ cast has a field day, doing just that. The playwright’s inventive conceit is that the audience can understand what the embryo-children are saying, where their parents hear only burbles and gurgles. Their language is almost English, lacking a few consonants here and there, slurring a few syllables now and then. Once your ear adjusts and you begin to translate, it’s simply hilarious. And when little Eggo sings, it’s divine.

If SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE wanted to improve those lame skits they’ve been passing off as comedy of late, they’d do well to beat a path to Lazarus’ door. EMBRYOS is SNL ready, with the hungry, differentiating tykes gobbling take out, initiating a crime spree and dispatching hostages willy-nilly.

Gillian Mackay-Smith is ferociously funny as the Christian fundamentalist Mommy. Terrence P. Haddad makes smarmy an art, always regretting too late what comes out of his mouth as Daddy. Louise Hamill and Phil Berman are precious as the wee ones, wreaking havoc as toddlers are wont to do. Tasia A. Jones is splendid as everyone else, from researcher to pizza deliverer. Special mention must be made of John J. King’s gigantic fallopian tubes which hover over the stage, reminding us that reproductive rights hang in the balance.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVEIEW Bell Ringer at Stoneham By Beverly Creasey



Long before the age of toxic mortgages, savings and loan institutions actually helped people fulfill their dreams. Perhaps the most famous fictional savings and loan is George Bailey’s, in the Frank Capra movie, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. (Capra based his screenplay on a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern which Stern included in Christmas cards to friends.)

Stoneham Theatre is celebrating the film with a stage version (playing through Dec. 23rd), deftly directed by Caitlin Lowans, which makes for compelling drama and at the same time, triggers a peculiar alchemy in the brain: Stoneham’s production cues you to play the same film scene simultaneously in your mind’s eye. I thought perhaps it was only happening to me until the woman in the adjacent seat shared “It’s just like you’re seeing the movie.” (I should add that far from being distracting, it somehow enhances the experience.)

Contributing mightily to the phenomenon is Mark Linehan’s performance as the affable banker overwhelmed with crises. Linehan mimics Jimmy Stewart’s droll mannerisms and halting speech patterns so completely that you can’t resist giving yourself over to the story. Erin Brehm, too, contributes to the spirit of the piece with a lovely performance as Bailey’s resourceful wife.

Lowans and company capture the gentle humor of small town life with charming supporting characters like David Lutheran’s salt of the earth policeman, Harold S. Withee’s jolly cabdriver, Gabriel Graetz and Cameron M. Cronin’s grateful bank customers and Janelle Mills’ loyal bank clerk. Our hearts go out to Mark S. Cartier’s grief stricken pharmacist and they’re completely won over by William Gardiner’s sweet, bumbling angel second class.

Michael Underhill makes George’s brother stand out (not an easy task when he’s primarily there to prove George’s life has meaning). Gerard Slattery gives poor old Uncle Billy a loving side and Bobbie Steinbach shines in two roles: She’s George’s strong willed mother and, wigged so you can’t tell it’s her, she plays the Lionel Barrymore role of the richest, meanest man in town. Barrymore practically twirled his mustache as the villain but Steinbach makes her conniving insidious and, alas, human. The interpretation is especially resonant now that we know how present day bankers seduced borrowers into debt.

The entire ensemble deserves credit for thoroughly immersing us in angel dust, especially the children: Max Roberts as young George, Nathan Elmer as his brother and Heather Buccini as young Mary. Stoneham’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is indeed a wonderful way to catch up with the holidays.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW IN DOG WE TRUST By Beverly Creasey



Georgia Lyman does the impossible. She performs alone on the stage at New Rep in Lee Blessing’s wildly eccentric CHESAPEAKE (running through Dec. 16th), playing not one, but five indelible characters. Blessing’s clever premise places a struggling performance artist at odds with a right wing politician who wants to pull the plug on the NEA.

Sound familiar? Back in the late ‘80s Senator Jesse Helms et al objected to artists like Karen Finley and Andres Serrano being awarded grants for material the religious right considered to be obscene. Boston City Councilor Albert “Dapper” O’Neill even vowed to prevent the travelling Mapplethorpe exhibit from seeing the light of day at the I.C.A. He didn’t and it did. The NEA has been under attack ever since, especially this election year…but now the right is aiming at PBS. We live in strange times.

Blessing names his nasty, fictional politician Therm Pooley (a name reminiscent of the late Strom Thurmond perhaps) who in CHESAPEAKE is famous for his proposal to “tax gays for their high risk lifestyle.” When he targets Lyman’s performance artist, she sets her sights on him, even contemplating kidnapping his dog.

She describes another performance artist whose work inspired her to take up the banner: a performer who whacked a frying pan one thousand times at seven second intervals. I immediately flashed back to Robert Wilson’s THE CIVIL WARS at the A.R.T. when a child bounces a ball 450 times. Just when you thought the interminable bouncing was over, a film of said enterprise began to screen at the top of the set just so you wouldn’t forget. (I never have.)

Performance art has waned in Boston of late but for years The MOBIUS Group hosted a ream of performances like Mary Novotny-Jones’ annual blindfolded walk around the perimeter of MOBIUS’ warehouse roof: risky business indeed and just what Blessing honors and satirizes at the same time with CHESAPEAKE.

Lyman’s tour de force as the intrepid artist and dogjacker and everyone else is the must see performance of the season. Kudos to Lyman and director Doug Lockwood. Blessings’s play delivers a coup all by itself with a second act you could never imagine. We were all guessing at intermission where CHESAPEAKE would go and we were all wrong. I don’t want to give anything away but if New Rep were to enter Lucky at Westminster, the dog would win every ribbon in the show.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

I Know It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Love it) By Beverly Creasey



Once in a great while you witness a production which takes your breath away…and leaves you exhilarated for days and days. You marvel at what a director can do with material you’ve seen before and weren’t especially moved by.

What director Kaitlin Chantry does with Tom Stoppard’s ROCK ‘n’ ROLL at the Longwood is simply extraordinary. Stoppard is my favorite playwright. I adore his high flying ideas (which literally flew in JUMPERS) but which sometimes fall flat in productions that can’t handle the delicate balance (to quote my second favorite playwright) between the intellect and the emotions. Chantry handles it like a Stradivarius or should I say a Stratocaster.

Stoppard’s plays are not easy. They’re not the kind of theater you let wash over you. You have to pay close attention to every wrinkle. I don’t mean for this to sound like drudgery. Stoppard’s wit rewards your efforts a thousand fold. That said, I will concede that ROCK ‘n’ ROLL is one of his densest scripts (perhaps because of his connection to the subject matter, having spent his childhood years in Czechoslovakia).

Chantry’s cast rocks the play, led by Anthony Mullin in a tour de force as Max, the irascible old guard communist who believes that “everything is economic, even social relations.” Stoppard has a grand time putting hilarious pronouncements into his mouth, like his dismissal of ‘history.’ “[There’s been] no history since 1968,” he barks, “only pseudo-history.” Mullin’s powerful presence dominates the production, lighting up the philosophy lessons with the sardonic twinkle in his eye.

Comic performances abound: Matthew Zahnzinger is wonderful as the shallow, self-serving, future ex-husband of Max’s daughter. Lisa Lokshin is delightful as the uptight literary student flummoxed by Sappho, in her tutorial with Max’s long suffering (from both Max and cancer) wife, beautifully portrayed by Joy Lambertson. Stoppard engineers her return after death as her grown daughter, who now looks “so much like her mother.” Anna Waldron, too, returns as her own daughter, definitely inheriting her mother’s stubborn streak. And Meredith Saran pulls off a nifty comic turn as an arrogant, seductive student with designs on Max.

On the serious side, the pros and cons of Czech resistance are deftly debated by James Aitchison as Jan (standing in for President Vaclav Havel who, in fact, was imprisoned by the communists for his dissident views) and Michael Chateauneuf as Ferdinand (named for Havel’s “Ferdinand” plays, accused by Jan of “moral exhibitionism”). Both young men are devout fans of British and American rock ‘n roll, which figures in Stoppard’s play as the symbol, if not the agent provocateur, of revolution in Czechoslovakia.

Stoppard peppers the play with rock references like Syd Barrett and Ed Sanders’ Fugs and even ends the play at the Lennon wall in Prague. (Lenin gets no mention.) And, best of all, we are treated to glorious music between scenes (on John Randell’s exquisite Brit/Czech sets), from Jimi Hendrix to Bob Dylan to Gerry Garcia.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Silence is Not Always Golden By Beverly Creasey



Chaim Potok’s novel, THE CHOSEN, has been adapted into a play, a movie, even a Broadway musical. The dramatic version up at the Lyric Stage (through November 17th) was adapted by Potok himself and Aaron Posner. The author uses the past participle in his story (as in God’s Chosen People) to address choices: The disastrous choices made by nations to ignore what was happening in Germany; and personal choices that parents make in rearing their children, specifically the unfortunate choice one father makes to shut out his son---and the loving way another chooses to nurture his.

It’s ironic that the spiritual leader of his Hasidic community (Joel Colodner in a magnificent performance) in 1940s Brooklyn should give his son the silent treatment (he says, to teach him humility) when the silence of world leaders who knew about the Holocaust had such dire consequences. Luke Murtha plays his wounded son with such gentle sadness that our hearts go out to him, despite the fact that he brains another boy with a baseball in a game against students from a reformed Jewish neighborhood (whom the Hasidic spiritual leader calls “non-Jews”).

Murtha’s and Zachary Eisenstat’s characters become fast friends, after apologies are offered and accepted. The play follows the boys from middle school through university, making important choices on their own. Daniel Gidron’s cast makes their small stories resonate large. Murtha and Eisenstat are delightfully yin and yang, learning from their differences. Charles Linshaw sometimes voices Eisenstat’s character as the narrator, which is a bit confusing at first until you absorb the conceit. Will McGarrahan gives the other father a warm, bemused personality, in contrast to the rabbi’s unyielding silence.

Monday, November 12, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEWS Portraits of America in Musical Form By Beverly Creasey



The American musical reinvents itself all the time but what always stays the same is the artifice. Take THE UNSINKABLE MOLLY BROWN. The Meredith Wilson/Richard Morris musical creates an entertaining portrait of the spunky upstart from Missouri who survived the Titanic disaster, among other achievements --- but you wouldn’t call it biography. You would call it a rousing good time, “big brass band, Meredith Wilson-style.”

 I don’t know of any revivals since the Broadway run in the ‘60s so if Wellesley College Theatre hadn’t presented it this past weekend, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see it on stage. Nora Hussey’s theater students (and some ringers from the Wellesley professional theatre) made that yarn believable, about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. This was America just before the turn of the 20th century when dreamers rushed to Colorado to strike it rich in the silver mines. Molly’s husband hits a vein and the rest is, well, artifice.

Co-director David Costa catches lightning in a bottle, giving us a spirited taste of the Wild West (from the settler perspective, of course) where prospectors, gamblers and prostitutes live it up after a hard day at the mines, dancing and singing and brawling their hearts out. (Kudos to Jenny Tang for the lively music and to Colleen Royal for the boisterous dance.)

More than a few of those men are portrayed by women (this being a women’s college) and they’re portrayed exceptionally well. All the characters ring true, with standout performances from Marge Dunn as the unstoppable Molly, from Will Bouvier as her exceedingly patient husband and from John Davin as her wisecracking, truth-telling, whiskey swilling father. In the supporting roles, Charlotte Peed has a touching turnaround as a snobby socialite and Will Keary makes us feel sorry for a Prince!

One musical which isn’t dated in the least is Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS. Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows reveled in artifice, leading those Damon Runyon characters from pillar to post in search of a place for a crap game. This was the ‘40s when men were men and gamblers wore suits and ties! Of course, we know the creators are playing fast and loose with reality but that’s what makes the musical pay off.

The North Shore Music Theatre’s current version of the classic is now my favorite, with simply delicious performances from Jonathan Hammond as an overburdened Nathan Detroit (poor fellow, he’s stressed to the max) to Mylinda Hull as his beloved, insistant fiancĂ© (fourteen years makes one a bit hysterical). Where do I start? Mark Martino’s exuberant production even enlivens the romantic plot (Sky Masterson and Miss Sarah), which I confess I usually dismiss. Kevin Vortman and Kelly McCormick are charming AND FUNNY, to boot!

Wayne W. Pretlow rocks the “Sit Down” number and Michael Lichtefeld’s “Luck Be a Lady” ballet literally levitates. Craig Barna’s little extras in the music department are divine and Paula Peasley-Ninestein’s costumes are to die for. From the ingenious “Fugue for Tinhorns” opening to the final “Guys and Dolls” closing anthem, not one second is uninspired.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing By Beverly Creasey



Just in time for the presidential election, AMERICAN CLASSICS paid tribute to those pesky SWING STATES (AND THE OTHERS) this past weekend. The great American songbook contains a wealth of material about, or inspired by, the places we come from---or go to, in the case of California. Ben Sears, Brad Conner and company introduced us to some songs we didn’t know (“When It’s Cactus Time in Arizona”) and regaled us with favorites like “Carolina in the Morning,” performed to easy, Southern perfection by Peter Miller accompanying himself on ukulele. (Miller niftily proved the old adage that sometimes simplicity is best: A man, his uke and a fabulous lyric: We hung on every word, hungered for another chorus and felt like we would perish when it was too soon over.)

Now Tennessee, it turns out, has eight state songs. One of the loveliest with the sweetest chorus is “Rocky Top,” sung ‘mountain style’ by Tennessee native Joei Marshall Perry, Miller (banjo and vocals) and Buffie Groves (guitar and vocals). Later in the show, Perry brought home the gorgeous Hoagy Carmichael/Stuart Gorrell “Georgia on My Mind.”.

Perry and Eric Bronner were droll wind-up figures from a diorama about Romney’s adopted states. Host Peter A. Carey ran to the rescue when Utah (Perry) and Massachusetts (Bronner) needed rewinding. President Obama got his due in a spoofy “My Little Grass Shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii” (which brought back memories for me of Arthur Godfrey’s old radio show). Later on in the program, Bronner’s soft, lilting lullaby, “Kentucky Babe” took our breath away.

Cynthia Mork delivered the heavenly “Stars Fell on Alabama” and made pleasant harmony with Sears in “An Old Fashioned Home in New Hampshire.” Caroline Musica, who hails from the pine tree state, sang the charming “Spending Your Vacation in Maine” while Conner’s piano phrasing echoed the water lapping at the shoreline. Conner crooned the John Denver hit, “Country Roads” (which mistakenly places the Blue Ridge Mountains in West Virginia ---but all is forgiven since it’s such a beautiful song). Sears finessed a little Jolson on “Swanee” and the entire ensemble (plus Barry Low on accordion) strutted “the Pennsylvania Polka.”

What would an evening about the states be without the rousing anthem from “Oklahoma?” The ensemble made the Rogers & Hammerstein showstopper sound like a stage crowded full of territory folk celebrating their brand new state. It takes two elements to make a good show: a great idea and skillful execution. American Classics has both the innovative ideas and the best people to carry them off.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

NEVER AGAIN AND YET AGAIN By Beverly Creasey


What makes Marshall Hughes’ presentation of THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (playing through Nov. 3rd) exceptional, aside from the lovely production, are the guest speakers he has invited to bear witness to genocide in all corners of the world today.

At today’s performance, Elfadel Arbab recounted his horrific escape from Darfur, where Sudanese soldiers set fire to his village, trapping families in their homes in order to eradicate any evidence of their existence. Since these villagers have no birth certificates, when their bodies are burned, the government can claim the genocide never happened. Arbab only escaped when a thick plume of smoke from an oil fire gave him cover.

Emerald Johnson read a frightening account of four women in Rwanda who spent ninety days in a tiny bathroom, expecting to be discovered by Hutu soldiers every minute of the day and night. One of the four Tutsis voiced their ordeal as “dying alive…a thousand times.” Hughes works these accounts seamlessly into the body of the play, to remind us that genocide did not end with the Nazis, despite promises of “Never Again.”

Wendy Kesselman’s remarkable new version of ANNE’s story weaves in historical material so that when her benefactress, Miep Gies (Holly Newman) arrives with food, she brings disturbing news (for us as well as the Frank family) of trains departing once a week… then twice a week for the camps. We still marvel at their patience with daily life hiding in a storage loft in Holland--- but the timeline information grounds the story and makes their suffering even more visceral. Kesselman gives license to the adult concerns (about why the Allied forces were taking so long) which Anne might not have known or written about in her diary.

Ron Murphy’s sonorous baritone echoes through the play with Hebrew songs of prayer. Anne (Whitney Sandford) and her sister (Lauren Foster) join their mother (Lida McGirr) and father (Cliff Blake) in sharing quarters with another family (Chris Wrenn, Julie Draper and Ethan Hermanson) and a stranded dentist (Francesco Tisch). Everyone handles the material beautifully, with McGirr adding gentle humor in the early scenes and searing torment in the latter. Blake adds depth to the steady father role and delivers the devastating final account of their fates so powerfully, you cannot help but sob in your seat.

Foster adds sweet vocals in the cramped Hannukah celebration. Hermanson makes a charming boyfriend for Sandford’s Anne. Alas, the RCC acoustics cause some of the dialogue to be lost, but the emotions come through completely.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Exuberant Musical at Wheelock By Beverly Creasey


ANNE OF GREEN GABLES is the kind of delightful entertainment the Wheelock Family Theatre does best. The Campbell/Harron musical based on the L.M. Montgomery novel is kid friendly and adult deep. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES (playing through November 18th) is the loving story of a little orphan girl from Prince Edward Island who does not lack reserve. Anne (with an “e”) always speaks her mind, much to the chagrin of the elderly brother and sister who wanted a boy to help with the farm but quickly fell in love with the spunky whirlwind.

Lucy Maud Montgomery created a world where wrongs are soon righted and misunderstandings soon straightened out…and sometimes adults are as naughty as children. Audiences will respond to the lively songs and spirited antics of the young actors onstage and no one, no one could resist Jennifer Beth Glick as Anne. Glick lights up the musical with her unstoppable exuberance. Glick and Robert Saoud, as the elderly farmer who adopts Anne, create a transcendent father-daughter relationship, making the musical far more than “a children’s story.” I found tears in my eyes, remembering my father, whenever he rescued her or comforted her or did something special for her.

Director Jane Staab’s remarkable cast features Jacqui Parker as Saoud’s stern sister, not as easily won over by Anne. Parker somehow manages to show us the woman’s inward journey, slowly growing with affection for the little girl. Plenty of comic turns grace the musical, from Maureen Keiller’s ever present busybody to Susan Bigger’s absentminded adoption agent to Gamalia Pharms’ eager gossip. Music director Robert L. Rucinski gets fine singing from the ensemble and lovely numbers like “Ice Cream” and “Kindred Spirits” for Glick and Jenna Lea Scott as Anne’s true friend. See what Wheelock can do better than anyone: To present theater which reflects all of us onstage with stories than touch everyone.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW VOX POPULI, VOX HUMBUG By Beverly Creasey


What a brilliant way to get young people (and the rest of us) interested in history. By the time you leave SpeakEasy Stage’s badass BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON (playing through Nov. 17th), you’ll be well versed on early 19th century America. My generation had only a Top 40 hit by Johnnie Horton to introduce us to The Battle of New Orleans!

After seeing SpeakEasy’s outrageous rock musical, I’m reading everything I can find about our 7th President. Mind you, you’ll have to get used to the “language” (as they say on television warnings) but creators Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman have something to say about politics, namely that little has changed over the years. If you’re still smarting from the Bush-Gore election outcome, you’ll be surprised (and appalled) that it’s happened before.

Jackson is considered to be the first democratically elected “man of the people.” If you’ve heard of the infamous “Trail of Tears,” then you know about the forced march which killed 4000 Native Americans, pushing them west and away from white “settlers.” That, too, was Jackson. And, this being in the south before The Civil War, he owned slaves.

You can see from the many parallels to our present day (like the “fear along the borders” concern and the many patronage positions Jackson filled with his friends) why Timbers and Friedman were drawn to this historical period, with its unwanted wars and shady politics.

The music is reminiscent of AMERICAN IDIOT but not as freewheeling because of its subject matter. It soars in numbers like the sardonic “Ten Little Indians,” deliciously rocked by Amy Jo Jackson… and in the Brechtian anthem, “The Saddest Song” where Gus Curry as Jackson laments the wrong he’s done. You can see the madness and the sadness “behind blue eyes” in Curry’s world weary portrayal at the end of Jackson’s life. And he lets you see the wildness in the early Jackson. Director Paul Melone’s entire cast is first rate.

Alessandra Vaganek gives a stong, touching performance as Jackson’s soul mate (who married him before her divorce was final). Music director Nicholas James Connell performs in front of the orchestra as well as in it, leading the powerful ensemble, with hilarious narration by Mary Callanan and cameos by Michael Levesque as Red Eagle, Diego Klock-Perez as Black Fox and Joshua Pemberton as Martin Van Buren.

Eric Levenson’s funky antique farm implements and frontier detritus adorn a nifty fence through which arrows thwack (one of Eric Norris’ clever, cheeky sounds for the production) into the backs of the land-grabbing, genocidal “pioneers.” The BIG message which turns the raucous proceedings serious comes only at the end (in the form of masks). I wish it had come a little earlier.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Crime Doesn’t Pay Off On Stage By Beverly Creasey


DOUBLE INDEMNITY (At Stoneham Theatre through Nov. 4th) is based on the 1944 classic Billy Wilder film starring Barbara Stanwyck, Fred MacMurray and Edward G. Robinson. The Wilder/Raymond Chandler script (from the James M. Cain serial novels about a real 1927 murder case) has been adapted for the stage by David Pichette and R. Hamilton Wright.

It’s extremely difficult to effect noir atmosphere in a theatrical setting (although director Joe Antoun did it brilliantly this past month at the BCA with Joe Byers’ THE FAKUS). To achieve noir, the acting has to be stylized, to fit the stilted dialogue.

Christopher Ostrom’s grainy B&W projections (onto sliding white panels) dovetail with Nathan Leigh’s almost subliminal thumping drumbeats to ratchet up the suspense but director Weylin Symes’ naturalistic tone for the actors shifts us forward at least ten years to the Actor’s Studio. Gone is the Chandler-esque repartee and alas, with it the “audacity” (as the insurance investigator brags about his scheme) of film noir.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Trial by Audience By Beverly Creasey


New Repertory Theatre’s smart, hip production of David Mamet’s RACE (playing through Nov. 4th) does for lawyers what he did for real estate salesmen in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. These attorneys are cut-throat and nasty and they’re hilarious. Mamet revels in men behaving badly—from the petty thieves in AMERICAN BUFFALO to the property hustlers in GLENGARRY to the lawyers in RACE who are happy to represent anyone for any crime because they get to “play” a jury.

Mamet deals in stereotypes. (He’s never been accused of creating deep, meaningful drama.) The characters in RACE are tropes but Mamet nonetheless can hammer home some resonant truths. The case here is race: a rich white man (not unlike Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the chambermaid) is accused of raping a black woman. “Same case. Same place,” says the lawyer. “Fifty years [ago]. You’re innocent.”

That cagey Mamet. He’s written a piece which will affect each audience member differently. Three lawyers on stage with three opinions about how to present the case: two are experienced, one is not. One is a white man and the other two are black, one woman and one man.

Of the audience members I’ve talked to, the white men blame the woman (for the outcome of the play). The white and black women I’ve talked to side with her and a few (Boy, this is hard to say without giving anything away) said, “It’s about time.” Now obviously, I haven’t talked to everyone but Mamet has crafted a play which manipulates some of us to care more about comeuppance than innocence.

Director Robert Walsh drives the play like a bullet train. It went by so fast, it left me wanting more. I have to hand it to Mamet. He’s conjured up a “pageant” just like the “show” his lawyers put on to influence a jury. What a cast New Rep has to “interrupt [our] thinking process.” Miranda Craigwell is perfection as the bright new hire at the firm, fresh out of law school, eager to learn the game. Ken Cheeseman postures and patronizes the new “girl” (girl?) as he brags about his legal prowess. He and Cliff Odle are simply outrageous as the new “old boy” network.

Odle’s comic timing is relentless as he holds forth on race, getting laughs by the carload from his sardonic take on the subject. Mamet hasn’t been this funny in a long time. Patrick Shea has the extremely difficult task of portraying the clueless, rarified CEO who thinks it’s OK to make racial jokes and maybe even to rape (if he’s guilty). Shea pulls it off. You just shake your head in amazement that someone would be so out of touch with reality.

Janie E. Howland’s slick office set (with no personal effects) and Scott Pinckney’s harsh fluorescents speak volumes about these lawyers. Charles Schoonmaker costumes Craigwell in chic right down to her toes, showing us she may be new but she knows how to make a classy impression.

Monday, October 15, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW FORGET THE EPITAPH By Beverly Creasey


The Nora Theatre Company has a winner in Sarah Treem’s THE HOW AND THE WHY, playing at the Central Square Theater through Oct. 21st. Treem wrote and produced all three seasons of the brilliant HBO series about a psychologist and his patients, called IN TREATMENT. (It is, rather was, my favorite television show. Alas, it’s no longer on the air.) She creates characters who burn with urgency and passion and although THE HOW AND THE WHY is ostensibly about women in the male dominated field of science, at heart it’s about a clash of characters.

Two female evolutionary biologists lock horns: one older and wiser and the other, young and rash and full of promise. Her research, in fact, threatens to supplant the older woman’s famous, accepted theory (on the role early woman played in the development of the advanced human brain). Clearly both women are driven …but what drives them and why? That’s what we find out and along the way we’re enticed by some fancy theoretical footwork on the subject of biology, specifically the reproductive (and post-reproductive) kind--- as well as some delightful and amusing give and take.

Director Daniel Gidron manages to keep the pace brisk, even in the throes of dense evolutionary theory. Debra Wise is elegant and controlled as the brusque senior scientist, while Samantha Richert’s character truly suffers with her insecurity. Wise is such a deft actress that she can convey boundless kindness and affection with a simple touch, creating one of the loveliest moments in the play. She and Richert make Treem’s story resonate beyond the dialogue. In the words of the professor’s (and my) beloved poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, they “take up the song.”

Sunday, October 14, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW American Gothic By Beverly Creasey


If you were to hear a gunshot, you wouldn’t seek out the gunman, would you? And you certainly wouldn’t insult the man brandishing the gun---and you would never, never insult his mother! A BEHANDING IN SPOKANE (at Charlestown Working Theater through Oct. 27th) is chock full of oddballs who constantly act against their own self interest----which, of course, is very funny.

Theatre On Fire’s production isn’t nearly as gruesome as it sounds. Celebrated Irish playwright, Martin McDonagh has a solid reputation for making the macabre hilarious. Think of The Lieutenant of Innishmore or his film, In Bruges. What’s different about this play is that there isn’t an Irishman in it.

Director Darren Evans has a way with the sardonic. Jeff Gill gives a wry, deadpan performance as the one-handed psycho in town to search for what was stolen from him thirty years back. Strangely enough, he’s the only character with his wits about him. He’s surrounded by two wacky weed dealers (Tory Bullock and Becca A. Lewis) and a nosey desk clerk (Greg Maraio) who won’t leave the psycho alone.

Maraio is deliciously spacey in flowing, hippie locks, waxing about a great love for an animal he once knew (which endeared him to me). Bullock and Lewis’ characters get sidetracked so often, you wonder how successful they really are at peddling dope. They just can’t concentrate on the crisis at hand. (I’m sorry for that.) 

It’s a wild ride which Evans drives full throttle.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW SCOTTISH FANTASY By Beverly Creasey


Director James Tallach jumped at the chance to direct BRIGADOON on this side of the pond. It was his very first acting experience back in Glasgow. He’s directed just about everything else in Boston, to much acclaim, I should add. So here we are in Acton at THEATRE III, a community theater which has been doing shows since 1955!

This BRIGADOON (playing thru Oct. 27th) is a lively and spirited production. Not only does it have a professional director (who has made darned sure the Scottish accents are perfect) it has a virtuoso bagpiper in Tim Sullivan and an operatic Fiona in Elaine Crane. It also has Cristhian Mancinas-Garcia in the pivotal role of Harry Beaton, the one person who can jeopardize the idyllic, little kingdom which comes to life every hundred years. Mancinas-Garcia, to his credit, makes us feel truly sorry for the tortured lad.

The charming Lerner & Lowe musical has one of the sweetest tunes ever written in “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” sung by Brad Amidon to the lovely Hilary Powell. On the comic side, James Hunt makes the most of his constant retreats from the hot blooded Meg, played with gusto by Caroline Kurman.

Crane and Arthur Comer as the lovers from two different worlds duet nicely with “From This Day On” and Sarajane Mullins manages to move the dancing about without it looking cramped on such a small stage. Music director Timothy Lawton gets fine choral work from the company.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW A Bright New Play By Beverly Creasey


Zeitgeist Stage Company has a solid reputation for finding the quirkiest scripts. You’re almost always in for a surprise. A BRIGHT NEW BOISE by Samuel D. Hunter (playing through Oct. 20th) starts off like a strange little comedy about clerks in a hobby supply store---until it turns into NO EXIT.

Hunter’s characters are a bunch of endearing misfits trying their darnedest to find meaning in life despite their meaningless jobs selling styrofoam balls and sealing wax. The new guy (Victor Shopov) gingerly introduces himself to his fellow workers when one of them announces that “I’m deliberately trying to make you uncomfortable:” Turns out that’s his mission in life. David Lutheran gives a hilarious performance as the clerk with an endless knowledge of inventory and an artistic agenda.

Shopov manages brilliantly to put a face (and a tortured soul) on Christian apocalyptics who pin their hopes on the end of the world. It’s his character who drives the plot into disturbing terrain. Hunter almost pulls off the dark detour but I, for one, wanted more comedy because of the delightful banter. It’s director David Miller’s cast that makes the show crackle.

Zach Winston is perfection as the quintessential prickly teenager struggling with adolescence/identity issues/everything. Janelle Mills is a scream as the store manager with the mouth. You can’t wait for her to try another abysmal attempt at her brand of “conflict resolution.” Dakota Shepard is so sweet and wacky you wish she had more to do with the story. Her absurd ideas come out sounding eminently reasonable until you weigh what she’s said. What a rich collection of oddballs. Don’t miss meeting them in Zeitgeist’s BOISE.

P.S. Wednesdays are pay what you can (with a minimum of $7). Where else can you find a bargain like that!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

TOMMY Rocks and RAGTIME Rises Above Opening Night By Beverly Creasey


TOMMY ROCKS TURTLE LANE

The beloved Turtle Lane Playhouse is about to close its doors this winter. If you want to know why this is a tragedy, you need only see their passionate production of TOMMY (playing through Oct. 28th).
TLP has had a lot of hits and a few misses over the past thirty plus years…but what they have that few others do is endless heart and an abundance of talent. Their DROWSY CHAPERONE, for instance, outshone their competition’s production but the downtown show got all the attention.
Their TOMMY is the Broadway version by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff (with additional music and tweaked lyrics by John Entwistle and the late great Keith Moon). Fans of the original rock opera, like me, will miss the amperage but music director Thomas Young’s band at TLP gets the balance just right for the singers: You can hear every word clearly and isn’t that the point of a musical: To let the audience hear the lyrics? (See RAGTIME below). Still, this ancient hippie wishes The Who’s iconic, emblematic chords had been rendered full volume. (That’s my only suggestion for the show!)
TLP’s cast is remarkable, with performers in the ensemble who headline elsewhere. (Jared Walsh, for example, received an IRNE nod for the lead in last year’s SPRING AWAKENING.) Even the child performers are pros. (Spenser Evett who plays the 10 year old Tommy has been in shows at the Huntington, New Rep and Project Shakespeare.) And the phenomenal Kendra Alati (the Acid Queen) has multiple IRNE nominations.
All the elements (set, costumes, choreography etc) converge in director Steve Black’s powerful version. I prefer the ‘60s sensibilities at TLP to the emphasis on the ‘50s in the Broadway version. Even though some of the story takes place in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the music doesn’t. Julie Ann Silverman’s exuberant choreography happily reflects the music, not the setting and that’s what makes the show. Saulius Slezas’s projections, too, amp up the production values, as in the WWII sequence when paratroopers jump out of a plane, niftily staged by Black.
The leads are so damn good, you’d swear they were all rockers. From the sensational Brendan Young Colcord as Tommy to Aidan Nevin and Melissa Gates as his parents, right down to Cameron Levesque as the four year old Tommy (and all the secondary characters), this TOMMY “gets the glory.” Even the understudies at my performance, (Sarajane Mullins as mother and Gates in for Alati) kicked it. If you’ve never seen TOMMY, this is the one to see. If you have, you’ll appreciate what Turtle Lane can do. To repurpose a lyric from the original opera for the rock ‘n roll geezers out there, “Hey you, smoking mother nature, this is a [must].”

SOUND DRAGS DOWN RAGTIME OPENING BUT IT COMES BACK STRONG

RAGTIME (at the Strand through Oct. 7th) and Turtle Lane have a strong connection. RAGTIME stars Shonna Cirone as Mother and she and husband Kevin, also in RAGTIME, have appeared many times at TLP. Director/producer Meg Fofonoff has assembled a cast of over three dozen performers, many of whom came from New York for her extravagant production. All I can say about it is that it looks gorgeous.  
On press night the sound system malfunctioned so badly that no dialogue could be heard and no lyrics could be understood. Great gashes of feedback punctuated the performance and I couldn’t tell you whether they sang well or not. It improved a tiny bit after intermission and then it reverted to garble again. (Friends who went the next night said they still had sound problems but it was possible to make out the lyrics.) With all the money spent on the production, they didn’t spring for a decent sound system?
What a shame. I know Shonna and Kevin Cirone. I know June Baboian and McCaela Donovan. I know Matt Phillips. All stellar performers but I didn’t hear the show, an irony brought home by Colehouse Walker’s final song, “Make Them Hear You.” Much is made in RAGTIME of the “crime of the century” but the real crime is having all those talented actor/singers amassed and not being able to hear them. That means not being able to nominate them, either. More’s the pity there.
           
NOT TO WORRY. I WENT BACK THE NEXT WEEK. (SEE TAKE II)

                                                RAGTIME: TAKE II

After a disappointing opening night without clear sound in most of the house, RAGTIME is back and so am I. The opening night problems were, I’m told, “out of their control” and repairs have been made to the antiquated sound system at the Strand. I only wish everyone who went opening night could see (and hear) the show I saw today.
Here I am again: This time crying my eyes out, the depth of emotion in the musical is so strong. I wept at Mother’s “What Kind of a Woman,” at Tateh’s “Shetl iz Amereke,” at Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son” and buckets over Colehouse. These are performers who dig deep. What a difference SOUND makes.
Meg Fofonoff’s cast delivers by the cartload. Anne McAlexander’s choreography soars, especially for the Harlem Ensemble. Their “Gettin’ Ready Rag” will have your shoulders dancing. RAGTIME lives large, sweeping us along with the tumultuous history of the early 20th century but it’s also a love story. Our hearts break, along with Sarah’s (the lovely Tia DeShazor) when she thinks she has to live without Colehouse (the magnificent Damian Norfleet). Where Norfleet makes Colehouse straight-spined and righteous, DeShazor’s Sarah is shy and small and soft, an elegant study in contrasts.
On the other side of New York City, Mother (the luminous Shonna Cirone) is ensconced in white privilege, with maids to serve their wealthy, intergenerational family. There’s a crusty grandpa (Ron A. Cook), a spunky, prescient Little Boy (Alec Shiman), mother’s restless brother (Michael A. Dunavant) and an old fashioned father (Greg Balla). Both Dunavant and Balla are standouts when their stories intertwine with Colehouse’s.
On the salt-of-the-earth immigrant side, Adam Shapiro gives Tateh an expansive heart and a generous soul, even when he’s resisting Emma Goldman’s offers of help. June Baboian is irresistible as the no nonsense social reformer. “The Night That Goldman spoke at Union Square” is a delight.
McCaela Donovan as Evelyn Nesbit makes the “Crime of the Century” crackle with sardonic wit and Jared Dixon makes Booker T. Washington a tower of serenity. Matt Phillipps’ Houdini is bombastic, as you would expect, but Phillips gives him a vulnerable side when he finally understands the Little Boy’s warning. Every character has character, even the secondary roles. Todd Alan Little is a driven Henry Ford and Martin Allegretti literally steps on his fellow human beings as J.P.Morgan.
Only one small glitch affected the performance I attended. A mic cut out on Aubin Wise as she began to sing the high flung funeral eulogy but little Julia DeLuzio unobtrusively emerged like a seasoned trouper with a hand held mic. Nothing could stop Wise’s mighty “high Cs” from reaching the rafters, not even two dead microphones.
From Janie E. Howland’s breathtaking set- which kept changing in Zach Blane’s impressive lighting design-to Jennifer Tremblay’s sumptuous turn of the century costumes to Matthew Stern’s lilting, pulsing, rousing orchestra this is a RAGTIME to savor.