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


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.