Tuesday, January 29, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW OLIVER—With a Twist By Beverly Creasey

Deborah Samson worked as a seamstress in 1776 making uniforms for the Continental Army when what she really wanted was to participate in the Revolution first hand. She sewed herself a nifty uniform, disguised herself as a man and enlisted in the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment under the name of her deceased brother. “Robert” joined General Washington’s troops in Worcester and set out for New York where she was wounded (but survived) at the Battle of Tarrytown. Now wouldn’t you think that the history books would sing the praises of the first woman to fight in the revolution? Hah!

Jane Staab has portrayed many roles at the Wheelock Family Theatre which are usually played by male actors but her Fagan is the first time she’s played a woman masquerading as a (leading) man. Certainly in Dickens’ time, a woman would never have been able to head a gang of thieves (or hold her own against a master criminal like Bill Sykes). Just as it was across the pond a half century earlier for Debora Samson, women in England had two basic options: marriage or the street.

Wheelock’s OLIVER (playing through Feb. 24th) has Staab’s clever twist at the end to give Fagan, as well as Oliver, a second chance but director Susan Kosoff’s lively production has even more to make it a must see. First rate performances make every scene compelling: from Dan Dowling, Jr’s commanding Beadle (his “Boy for Sale” will give you chills) to Jeffrey Sewell’s charismatic Artful Dodger (a snappy “Consider Yourself at Home”) to Charlie Clinton’s spunky Oliver (the sweetest “Where is Love” ever) to Brittany Rolfs’ take charge Nancy (a wild “It’s a Fine Life”) to Timothy John Smith’s ferocious Bill Sykes (a harrowing “My Name”).

OLIVER is brimming with talented character actors like M. Lynda Robinson, Gamalia Pharms, Deb Poppel, Neil Gustafson and Cliff Odle ---and a fine ensemble who make Lionel Bart’s musical gleam. (I had forgotten how good it is!) From Charles G. Baldwin’s smart costumes to Laurel Conrad’s sparkling choreography to Matthew Lazure’s foreboding London set, this OLIVER will delight and it will make you think!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Midnight at the Oasis By Beverly Creasey

John Robin Baitz’ OTHER DESERT CITIES (playing at SpeakEasy Stage thru Feb. 9th) starts off as a clever little comedy about what writers owe their families, if they use them as subject matter. Baitz gets plenty of laughs from the friction created when parents and children hold to opposing political opinions. (Is there any other kind of family?) Mother (Karen MacDonald) and father (Munson Hicks) are old Hollywood conservatives, throwbacks to the Reagan era. Brother (Christopher M. Smith) and Sister (Anne Gottlieb) have a tough time of it visiting over the holidays. Oh, and there’s a sassy auntie (Nancy E. Carroll) just to give mother a fit.

Then Baitz changes horses in midstream and abandons the ethical dilemma altogether by introducing a mystery of sorts in Act II. (I don’t want to give anything away so I won’t say anymore except that I think Baitz’ math is off… or are the actors too young?) It doesn’t really matter because the pleasure of CITIES is in the production.

Director Scott Edmiston has a first rate cast, with Gottlieb miraculously avoiding being shrill as the grown daughter still plagued by childhood issues. Gottlieb has our sympathies, even as she charges blindly ahead, seemingly without regard for her parents’ or her brother’s wishes. Smith gives an extraordinary performance as her longsuffering sibling, culminating in a cathartic “Let me tell you about my problems!” speech.

MacDonald is in her element as the rather severe mother who upbraids her daughter with the nasty “Sarcasm is the purview of teenagers and homosexuals.” Carroll balances things out, sparring with MacDonald at every turn and siding with the children.

Monday, January 14, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Busman’s HOLIDAY By Beverly Creasey

I’m a dyed in the wool screwball comedy fan…and I adore Cary Grant so I couldn’t wait to see the Wellesley Summer Theatre’s production of HOLIDAY (playing through Feb. 3rd). There are two famous films of the Philip Barry play, both delightful but Grant and Katharine Hepburn tear up the 1938 version.

The good news is that director Nora Hussey has Angela Bilkic in the madcap role of the cheeky sister who doesn’t give a fig for her family’s wealthy lifestyle. Bilkic is sensational. She’s sassy. She’s sarcastic. She cracks wise. In short, it’s she, not her glam sister (Marge Dunn), who is the perfect match for her sister’s unconventional beau (Lewis Wheeler).

The peculiar thing is that, aside from Bilkic, Hussey doesn’t have the actors play up the comedy. HOLIDAY becomes weighty social commentary. The play still works but now it’s a cautionary tale: The drunken son (a memorable Will Keary) of a ruthless tycoon (a stern John Davin) wastes his life inside a bottle while his sisters wait for father’s permission to be happy.

The focus shifts from the triumph of a free spirit to the disintegration of a family: One daughter following in her father’s shallow footsteps, the other fleeing and the son heading to an early grave. Same script: Add laughter and you get a happy ending, with the spunky sister escaping right out from under her stunned father’s nose, leaving her brother with some hope of doing the same.

Either style, HOLIDAY gets in lovely leftist jabs at folks like her money driven cousin (a seething David Costa) or for that matter, anyone who piles up money, “aiming to live on the income of his income.”

Friday, January 11, 2013


Moises Kaufman’s lovely, but flawed, play about Beethoven and a present day musicologist is called 33 VARIATIONS, named after Opus 120, where Beethoven transforms a waltz composed by his publisher into a set of 33 glorious variations. Beethoven transfigures the original, composing in entirely new musical directions, creating what the eminent pianist Alfred Brendel has called “the greatest of piano works.” The overpowering excitement in the Lyric Stage production (running through Feb. 2nd) is provided by Catherine Stornetta, playing heroic snippets from Beethoven’s work on a Yamaha Baby Grand, making it sound like a Bösendorfer.

Kaufman invents a difficult parallel with Beethoven’s worsening deafness in the musicologist’s battle with progressive ALS. Director Spiro Veloudos’ smart production has a stellar cast to try and make the comparison work, especially in Paula Plum’s powerful performance as the obsessed Beethoven scholar but the two stories really don’t match up. The present day professor’s struggle with finishing her paper, fixing her relationship with her daughter and coming to terms with her illness is compelling stuff. It reminded me of WIT. But mixing WIT with AMADEUS? I don’t know.

I do know that the Beethoven scenes are thrilling and the one scene, where Plum’s character “hallucinates” so that they can touch across time, is immensely moving. James Andreassi makes the rough, despairing genius both a titan and pitiable, so that you understand his impatience with his secretary (a long suffering Victor Shopov) and his publisher (a wry Will McGarrahan).

But it is Stornetta who gives life to Beethoven’s unconscious. It’s as if the music flows from Andreassi’s performance, the two are connected so viscerally. Stornetta’s breakneck arpeggios up and down the keys, the weight of her fortissimo, the playful ornaments: His very thoughts. If only she could play the complete variations. (I know: Time constraints. What can I say? I am a Beethoven fanatic.)

Dramaturg Nora Long tucked Beethoven’s last will and testament into our press kits. Thank you, Nora. It’s a pity Kaufman didn’t work it somehow into the text. In it Beethoven reveals that he knew painfully well how people misjudged his antisocial behavior.

 Another wish is that Kaufman had spent as much time on Beethoven’s life apart from the music as he did with the musicologist’s life apart from her monograph. Kaufman tells us nothing about Beethoven’s “immortal beloved” but we learn a great deal about the scholar’s daughter (the charming Dakota Shepard) and her almost too-good-to-be-true beau (the chipper Kelby T. Aiken) and best of all, her, we get to witness a deep friendship formed with the remarkable gatekeeper of Beethoven’s music and letters at the Bonn Institute (played to perfection by Maureen Keiller).

P.S. If you’ve never seen Gary Oldman’s monumental performance as Beethoven in Bernard Rose’s IMMORTAL BELOVED, run to Netflix and rent it. It’s one of my favorite films. The Moonlight Sonata section, with Oldman’s ear to the piano so he can feel the vibrations of the hammers making sound, is one of the most exquisite and heartbreaking scenes in cinema.

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Boulevard of Broken Dreams By Beverly Creasey

You might call SUNSET BOULEVARD a cautionary tale. Next Door’s production certainly is and it has nothing to do with the story. Director James Tallach tapped two extraordinary (Equity) actors, Shana Dirik and Peter Adams, as well as the talented Kevin and Shonna Cirone for the principal roles and they deliver. Having seen BLVD a few times, I can say they make an emotional impact other productions haven’t.

The problem at Next Door (playing BLVD through Jan. 24th) is timing. The principals were ready but the rest of the show was not. Why oh why would you make the dress rehearsal press night? And why, when the show clearly wasn’t ready, wouldn’t you call off the press until later in the run when it was?

The set was painted in gray primer with not a trace of the faded opulence that was old Hollywood. The famous stairway creaked like cheap plywood and seams in the wood gaped open. Bare flats hadn’t been painted at all so we had no idea what they were for. The script calls for Joe (Kevin Cirone) to gesture to all the portraits of Norma Desmond (Dirik) on the walls but the frames were empty so he pointed, poor man, to no avail.

Mind you, a few bolts of faux red velvet and some gold paint could remedy the situation but why didn’t it get done earlier? That dress rehearsal is designed, after all, to iron out the kinks so why invite critics to witness the flaws? The mugging by some of the chorus can be smoothed out. Wardrobe (almost) malfunctions can be remedied. The shambles of a set can be painted. And, had we not been “out there in the dark,” we would never have known about another near disaster.

The principal dancer (in the Salome ballet) had to be taken to the emergency room in the middle of the show when she lost consciousness backstage. Trouper that she is, she went down after performing the seductive dance of the seven veils. We didn’t know about it until afterwards when we inquired why sirens went off during the love duet. The show went right on, with all the performers who weren’t on stage, ministering to her and moving set pieces so the ambulance people could get in backstage without disrupting the show. Theater people! Nothing stops a show. There really are no people like show people.

So, I can’t say much about SUNSET BOULEVARD except for the superb leads: Shana Dirik’s wildly intense Norma, Kevin Cirone’s immensely pitiable screenwriter, Shonna Cirone’s heartbreaking love interest and Peter Adams’ tragically devoted manservant. And can they sing!

They say that a bad dress rehearsal means a good show. Let’s hope.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Almost Like Remembering (That should be a Sondheim song if it isn’t already) By Beverly Creasey

You’d swear you know these songs by Stephen Sondheim but you don’t quite remember what show they come from. That’s because they were cut from famous shows and most likely, you don’t know them… or you heard them once on WERS…or someone in a cabaret show dug them up. Diehard fans already know them, of course, but for the rest of us, thank heaven New Repertory Theatre is mounting the Sondheim revue, MARRY ME A LITTLE (through Jan. 27th). The charming, little retrospective celebrates work from unproduced musicals, songs written for television productions and music excised for various reasons from hits like COMPANY, A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC and FOLLIES.

The clever revue created by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene was originally intended for two singers but director/choreographer Ilyse Robbins at New Rep opens it up for four singers in various combinations and it works swimmingly. If you like all things Sondheim, this is a must. And the New Rep singers make it much more than a music history lesson.

What was supposed to be Sondheim’s very first musical offers the marvelous lyric, “If it’s Saturday night and you’re single…and you’ve resisted the urge to mingle,” [then you’ll be spending] SATURDAY NIGHT ALONE. Aimee Doherty and Brad Daniel Peloquin sit alone in their respective apartments beautifully mirroring each’s lament. What marks almost all of Sondheim’s songs is that they’re quite funny and poignant at the same time. TWO FAIRY TALES (originally in NIGHT MUSIC) allow Erica Spyres and Phil Tayler to voice opposing, delightfully amusing dreams of perfection.

As you’re hearing UPTOWN, DOWNTOWN about a gal named Harriet from New Rochelle, you’re thinking it should be Lucy and Jessie and you’re right. It’s an early version of the FOLLIES song, delivered in the same rhythm, with some hilarious rhymes, which Doherty nails deliciously. She masters the sardonic like it’s mother’s milk, in fact, bringing home the bite with just the right inflection and spot on articulation, so that you don’t miss a syllable.

Wait ‘til you hear HAPPILY EVER AFTER (in Hell!) or the lush melodies and gorgeous accompaniments from music director David McGrory and Todd C. Gordon (at two pianos) and Spyres on violin! It’s a wealth of material and a gem of a production.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW PIPPIN + Vaudeville = Magic By Beverly Creasey

Sleight of hand and an onslaught of acrobatic genius make the A.R.T.’s PIPPIN (playing through Jan. 20th) an old fashioned vaudeville hit. Back in the early days of the tradition, song and dance would be performed side by side with clowns, animal acts and lots of acrobatic derring-do. You’ll find them all in director Diane Paulus’ stunning revival, due to open on Broadway in April.

What made PIPPIN shine forty years ago was Bob Fosse’s cynical choreography for Stephen Schwartz and Roger Hirson’s episodic musical. Chet Walker’s dynamic dancing at the A.R.T. is still (styled after) Fosse but what ups the ante in Cambridge is a circus! Paulus tapped the talents of the Canadian troupe, Les 7 Droights de la Main (the 7 fingers of the hand) for the impressive legerdemain (from the French “light of hand”).

Back in the 800s, Pippin wants to experience more in life than his famous father has in thirty years of war. History doesn’t heap praise on Charlemagne’s son but history has little to do with the musical. The charming but inexperienced Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), like Candide before him, travels the word only to discover that happiness is found in one’s own back yard. (Now he sounds like Dorothy!) He journeys from pillar to post in this “anecdotic revue,” committing and un-committing patricide, ruling and un-ruling his subjects and loving and un-loving and re-loving a mother, her son and a duck.

I’ve seen Gypsy Snider’s troupe before, performing acrobatic impossibilities better than any circus troupe I’ve ever seen but I always thought there ought to be more. What was missing was PIPPIN! Paulus and company create the perfect synthesis of magic and story.

See PIPPIN for the acrobatics. See it for Patina Miller in all her “Glory” as the sizzling emcee. See it for Terrence Mann’s cheeky, Gilbert & Sullivan turn as Charlemagne, describing the vicissitudes of war. See it for Charlotte d’Amboise’s naughty step-mother but most of all, see it for Andrea Martin’s no holds barred granny!