Tuesday, January 28, 2014


Every hair is in place for Wheelock Family Theatre’s raucous, outrageous HAIRSPRAY (playing through Feb. 23rd). I must admit, I wondered if HAIRSPRAY was really family fare but the children in the audience giggled nonstop at the goofiness on stage and swayed deliriously with the high energy choreography (Laurel Conrad’s ingenious take on the twisting, flailing gyrations we called ‘dancing’ in the ‘50s and ‘60s). And John Waters’ famous naughty double entendres went right over their heads!

What comes through loud and clear in director Susan Kosoff’s charming production is that the strength and support of your family (no matter what the configuration) will see you through. Not to mention Waters’ message that you can be whatever you want to be. (The O’Donnell/Meehan/Shaiman musical happily remains faithful to the Waters movie.)

The deck is stacked against Tracy Turnblad (Jenna Lea Scott). She dreams about dancing on Baltimore’s version of American Bandstand but the teenagers they choose are thin and “cool” (not to mention lily white) and Tracy’s a “cute, big girl.” Although Waters’ version of the struggle for integration is mighty simplistic, it has at its core an honest message AND of course, it has the drag role created by Divine!

Robert Saoud is a sensation as Edna Turnblad, oh so modestly protesting, then finally consenting to dance…and you know s/he can cut a rug. So can Scott and we are overjoyed when Baltimore discovers it, too. Even more joy when she gets the boy (Michael Notardonato) and she gets the TV show to integrate!

Mark Linehan is a hoot as the self centered, head bopping, “stricken chicken” dancing “Corny” host of the television show. Kevin Fennessy, too, is hilarious in several roles but especially as the deer-in-the-headlights sponsor of the show. Aimee Doherty makes a wonderful villain (hysterically funny in her signature song, punctuated with “crab hands”). Peter A. Carey and Saoud have a delicious duet (You’re Timeless to Me) and character actresses Jane Staab and Cheryl McMahon get to strut their comic stuff.

The sweetest, melt your heart couple in HAIRSPRAY, though, is Jennifer Beth Glick and Jon Allen. Glick plays Tracy’s painfully shy best friend and Allen is Tracy’s pal from after school detention…who just happens to have the best moves on the dance floor and teaches them to Tracy. And Allen has one of the best songs in the show. (Run and Tell That: “The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” song)

Gamalia Pharms has one of the other ones, the powerful I Know Where I’ve Been. And she gets to deliver the sagest bit of wisdom in the show to the young, mixed-race couple: “Brace yourself for a whole lota ugly from a long line of stupid.” Of course, the best, foot stomping, hand clapping number (thanks in part to Matthew Stern’s sizzling orchestra) is the unstoppable finale, You Can’t Stop the Beat. Don’t miss out.


We all know that slave owners fathered children by their slaves. We know that a good number of our Founding Fathers founded families by theirs. Thanks to Ken Burns, we know the personal stories of slaves and soldiers who fought for and against emancipation. There’s never a shortage of movies about the Civil War. Is there a new way to tell those stories?

Playwright Matthew Lopez has found a new angle on the struggle with his Civil War tale of a Jewish family from Virginia whose slaves keep the faith even after they’ve been declared free men. THE WHIPPING MAN (at New Repertory Theatre through Feb. 16th) is set in Janie E. Howland’s eerily resonant, gutted and looted shell of a plantation house where Dewey Dellay’s creaks and moans transport us to the smoking ruins of Richmond, 1865.

Director Benny Sato Ambush has a remarkable cast to breathe humanity into what might have been the stereotypical characters we often see in film and on television: The wounded rebel soldier who finally makes it home, only to find his family gone and the only people left are his former slaves, a young man about his age who finds/steals anything abandoned in nearby mansions and the trusted “jack-of-all-trades” former slave who headed their household.

Johnny Lee Davenport makes the fatherly man both kind and righteous. He answers the soldier’s indictment of God with “War is not proof of His absence. It’s proof of His absence in men’s hearts.” He is under no obligation to stay with his former owner’s son but he’s a humane man so he ministers to his wounds. Nor is he under any further obligation to remain Jewish but Lopez makes a good case for parallels with the Israelites, ties witnessed in many an African-American spiritual.

Jesse Hinson manages to portray both the hubris of a slave owner and the desperation of a pathetic man broken by war. Keith Mascoll gives a wry performance as the bitter, sardonic ex-slave who puts his own interests above anyone else’s…and who wins us over with his secret. Lopez trades on revelations (which aren’t so hard to anticipate) but Sato Ambush and company create a moving portrait much larger than its secrets.

Sunday, January 19, 2014


If cleanliness is next to godliness, then dysfunctional families must be next to normal. They’re front and center in Next Door’s smart and funny NEXT TO NORMAL (playing through Jan. 25th). The Brian Yorkey/Tom Kitt musical about mental illness is hip and sardonic, especially with its savage take on what passes for sound psychiatric treatment.

Director Brian Milauskas and music director Mario Cruz have a top notch cast to deliver the rock n’ roll and to bring out the humanity and suffering in the story. Some productions concentrate on the humor and lose the pathos. Not at Next Door. Becky Ruccio portrays the hapless housewife and mother who may be bipolar. She’s definitely depressed, poor thing. She’s so unhappy that even making lunches for her daughter and husband becomes an ordeal.

Doug Jabara gives one of the best performances of the year as her desperate, perplexed husband. Jabara could give a master class on stillness: When his heart is completely broken, he just sits without moving. And we feel the pain. (He sits, I should point out, on a modern kitchen chair with a design of holes cut out of the backrest, just like the gaping holes that threaten to swallow his whole family, a nifty touch by set designer Milauskas.)

Jared Walsh’s tour de force as the son, whose presence propels the family’s breakdown, is one of the best reasons to see the show. He’s charismatic, he’s compelling and can he rock a lyric! Sarajane Mullins Pompeo gets nifty laughs as the sister everyone has forgotten about and Sean Mitchell is charming as her goofy, would-be boyfriend.

Milauskas plays down the “bad medicine” scenes so in this production we get a caring shrink, which Brian DeLorenzo deftly conveys (and he gets to be a breakout “rock star” psycho-pharmacologist in the wife’s Xanax fueled imagination).

Yorkey and Kitt tack a happy ending onto their musical which really doesn’t fit but the cast looks relieved, and we certainly are, when they sing the joyful, hopeful “There Will Be Light.”

Saturday, January 18, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Destiny Rides Again

I don’t think I’ve seen a Walt McGough play I didn’t like. Add THE HABERDASHER! to the list. McHough’s cheeky THE HABERDASHER! A Tale of Derring-Do is produced by Argos Productions (running or should I say galloping at the BPT through Jan. 25th).

It’s not easy to write farce. You’ve heard the old saw about dying being easy? It’s comedy that’s hard, they say, but McGough and director Brett Marks manage to keep us in stitches as every cliché in the book is served up for satire. In a nutshell the story centers on an orphan who finds adventure despite herself when she teams up with a dashing burglar.

That sounds like fodder for a buddy movie but McGough sets his play in the Middle Ages when women weren’t allowed a “destiny,” let alone an occupation. The kind, old shopkeeper who found the babe at his door raised her as his own, hoping someday she could take over the business…a shocking idea at the time, as only men became merchants and artisans in the Medieval guild economy.

No, this isn’t a veiled sociological work about women’s rights. Well, it is but it’s also a romp. Duels erupt at the drop of a (jaunty) hat and actors perform multiple roles with practically no time to change costumes (or gender). I marveled at McGough’s skill at comedy (when I wasn’t laughing my head off) but about ten minutes before intermission, I noticed it flagged a bit. I wondered if he could recapture the outrageous audacity of the fist act.

To my surprise and delight, more giddy adventures ensue in Act II but the humor comes from an entirely different perspective. The mirth is back but now it’s because the characters are all chasing their own tails. Now you even see a character dueling with himself! Really!

Marks has a slick cast to tickle our funny bones, led by the saucy Hannah Husband who always brings a delicious, slightly off kilter kick to her performances. In close pursuit as the constable, a hilarious thug and a dashing love interest is the versatile Brendan Mulhern. Kaitee Tredway is the spunky orphan and a lithping, cape twithting bad guy…and Mark Estano brings a sweetness to the old haberdasher (but you never never want to meet his harridan!).

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Margaret Ann Brady Wellesley Summer Theatre’s THE CLEARING (Playing through February 2nd)

The German philosopher/political theorist Hannah Arendt famously coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem, having covered the 1961 trial of the former Nazi leader for the New Yorker. She noted the absence of any affect of guilt, mental instability or even anti-Semitism in Eichmann; he was thoroughly immersed in the role of a bureaucrat doing his job, which involved carrying out Hitler’s Final Solution: the extermination of the Jewish population of Europe.

Helen Edmundson, in writing The Clearing in 1994, was prompted by the more recent ethnic cleansing of the Bosnian conflict to bring the story of Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s extermination of the Irish people and their culture. This production at Wellesley Summer Theatre illuminates the horror not only of the dispossession of families from their land, but of the snuffing out of the wild magic of Celtic culture, as played by the radical Pierce (Lewis D. Wheeler); the woman he’s always loved, Maddy (Angela Bilkic), an Irishwoman married to an English landowner caught between her roots and her beautiful new life, and her lifelong dearest one (and nanny) the “strange, sweet” Killaine (Elizabeth Yancey).

However, the banality of evil shows up in the scenes involving Governor Sturman played with a peevish stolidity by Mark McIntye, and Robert Preston (Woody Gaul), the English landowner trying to keep his head buried in the piece of Irish sod he owns and ignore the storm clouds gathering. These scenes, involving Robert and his neighbor and fellow denialist Solomon (John Kinsherf), in which they realize that the government does, indeed, intend to transport families to blasted Connaught, crackle with the high stakes intensity of a zoning board of appeals meeting. Sturman is just a good German, or Englishman, doing his job, and all the sexual menace that could infest his scenes with Maddythe playwright even has her threaten him with witchcraftgoes unspent. Woody Gaul, also, as a dashing, affectionate Robert, cannot truly convey the awfulness of a man who loves his Irish wife but has only disdain for Ireland.

Marge Dunn as Solomon’s wife Susannah travels a poignant arc from shrewish nag to fierce and heartbreaking warrior, and the sensitive performances among the Irish childhood friends Pierce, Killaine and Maddy succeed in exposing the evil that poses as policy.


I’ve seen a lot of plays about the famous and infamous. Rosanna Alfaro’s MARTHA MITCHELL comes to mind. Peter Shaffer successfully turned Salieri against Mozart in AMADEUS…and I mustn’t forget Tom Stoppard’s socio-political unification of Lenin, Tristan Tzara and James Joyce in TRAVESTIES. Now the Nora Theatre corrals Senator Joseph McCarthy, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio for Terry Johnson’s comedy of cosmic manners, INSIGNIFICANCE (playing through Feb. 9th).

Isn’t it amazing that the Marilyn Monroe mystique still persists today. It seems every year a new book emerges with “never before seen photographs.” Legend has it that she was so bright she couldand maybe didhold her own in a room with Albert Einstein. That’s the playwright’s contention at any rate. She certainly sought out poets and playwrights for intellectual stimulation (and we know how that worked out for her.)

We meet her, in Johnson’s play, knocking at Einstein’s door late at night, insisting he let her in. His hotel overlooks the street where she’s filming THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH and she couldn’t pass up the opportunity to meet him. He’s in town for a conference on world peace. So in she barges and before you can say ‘chain reaction’ she’s illustrating his relativity theory with a couple of flashlights and two toy trains.

It’s a clever idea but the physics lesson goes on a bit too long. Inspired, too is the notion that Senator McCarthy would want to coach Einstein on how to testify before his Committee on Un-American Activities, if he testifies, that is. That, too, seemed to run out of steam. Johnson introduces DiMaggio largely for comic relief, chasing after his wife like a deranged teenagerbut to me it seemed unfair to paint him as such a dolt.

The difficulty with portraying people we’ve seen countless times in news footage, sports films or movies is that we have a solid picture in our mind’s eye and we have to match it up with the portrayal(s) in front of us. Happily, Barry M. Press makes a formidable McCarthy, right down to the sneer. Richard McElvain is a charming, bemused elder genius of an Einstein and Stacy Fischer captures that ephemeral essence and dangerous vulnerability that was Monroe. In the playwright’s portrayal of DiMaggio we see the ballplayer (a game Alexander Platt chomping away on bubble gum) but not the sentimentalist who supplied Monroe’s gravesite with fresh roses until he died.

Director Daniel Gidron and company courageously punch up the humor of the piece but when Act II takes a turn toward melodrama, everything is thrown off kilter. The playwright tries to string it all together but it ends (my apologies to T.S. Eliot) with a whimper not a big bang.

Monday, January 13, 2014


When Imaginary Beasts presents a new show, I come running. I know it will be hilarious. I know it will be wildly imaginative and their PANTOs are just the thing to get you through a nasty winter. The Beasts’ annual Winter Panto 2014 (running through Feb. 1st) is fashioned after the Olde English pantomimes, where stock characters send up the status quo, commedia dell’ arte style.

Matthew Woods and company create the panto as an ensemble, working with a baseline (RUMPELSTILTSKIN, this time), fleshing it out with spectacular antics, bad puns and good wit, then peppering it with outrageous topical references: Lerner and Lowe, Miley Cyrus, Patti LaBelle, Saint-Saëns, Freddie Mercury, Sondheim, the Beatles, and much more, all embroidered seamlessly into the delicious hodgepodge.

Little children are driven to paroxysms of delirium when none of the characters on stage notice the approaching fox (What does the fox say, indeed!). Adults squeal like children at the ribald asides (which scoot over the heads of the little ones) and at the divine gender switches: Kiki Samko is a spunky royal prince, Joey C. Pelletier gilds the Lily (Does he ever!) as plucky Caroline Rose Markham’s haughty mum and Noah Simes cuts a grand swath in Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s gorgeous fuchsian gown. (Talbot-Minkin’s ingenious costumes are an integral element of any IB show, as are Woods’ and Dierdre Benson’s clever set and sound designs.)

Molly Kimmerling does double duty, as the impressive glass eyed third of the Lady Marmalade trio (along with a resplendent Mikey DiLoreto and a playful Amy Meyer), then as that pesky fox who drives the children to distraction. Beth Pearson zooms about as a kazoo wielding bumble bee (more spectacular costuming) whose honey is so seriously coveted by Cameron Cronin’s brown bear that she indeed exits in true Shakespearean style, “pursued by a bear.”

At one point Daniel J. Raps is encouraged to perform his dialogue in (of course) raps! Bryan Max Bernfeld as the minstrel/bard tries to keep the story straight but it’s hopeless as detours galore happily sidetrack the troupe. William Schuller as the king is beset and bedeviled by the evil Sir Wantinvain. Michael Underhill has a fine time twirling his invisible mustache. Director Woods gets down into the act as well, as the nasty gnome Rumpelstiltskin. Not to worry. The bad guys never triumph in a Panto but where would we be without them!

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Clearing the Air

There was a time (before the phenomenon of “instant news” on the internet) when what most Americans knew about Ireland came from television reports of IRA bombings. News anchors never once questioned the British occupation. The first we heard of “terrorists” was in the nightly news and the “terrorists” they spoke about were IRA, not Middle Eastern. It would take many decades for the tide of public opinion to turn against the British.

Lest we forget how far back the enmity reaches, Wellesley Summer Theatre Company is reviving Helen Edmundson’s THE CLEARING (playing through Feb. 2nd) which they mounted ten years ago. Edmundson sets her play in the mid 1600s when Cromwell’s agents have come to Ireland to clear out “undesirables,” seize land and “reeducate” the Irish in the British mold. Women and children were deported to be sold as indentured servants… or worse. Irish who objected were hung as traitors. Place names were changed and penalties enforced for speaking anything but English. (Brian Friel’s luminous TRANSLATIONS addresses the same topic flawlessly.)

Edmundson’s sweeping, romantic drama should have the feel of a David Lean epic. The WST production starts with promise, when we meet a dashing outlaw in a clearing behind an estate where a baby has just been born. He’s rendezvousing with a go-between to find out about the baby’s mother, a beautiful Irish woman he still cares for who sadly, and foolishly, we learn later on, has married a British officer. Lewis D. Wheeler makes the scene crackle with intrigue when he refuses Elisabeth Yancey’s sweet invitation to enter the house. (Wheeler’s presence revives the production every time he appears. Alas, his character isn’t seen nearly enough.)

Nora Hussey’s production for WST takes a whist broom approach, fussing over set pieces (moving them catty-corner or a foot to the side) to signal each little scene change, hoping it will culminate in a grand sweep—when it really serves to interrupt the flow of the action. WST is, however, lucky to have Angela Bilkic as the doomed Irish wife. She gives the role spirit and a touch of wildness (evident in a scene with the baby which made my audience gasp). Most of the other characters are portrayed in black or white, as Marge Dunn’s character describes the divide: Either people are good at heart or not…but one dimensional bad guys aren’t nearly as compelling as faceted villains.

THE CLEARING still packs a political punch reminding all of us of the tyranny of empire and manifest destiny.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


New Repertory Theatre opens its IMAGINING MADOFF (playing through Jan. 26th) just as J.P. Morgan Chase starts paying out over a billion dollars in penalties for its part in the infamous Madoff Ponzi scheme. (Bankers at Chase supposedly knew about misappropriations of client’s funds and kept quiet.)

As you enter the Arsenal black box space, you’re swept into Jon Savage’s transcendent set. A canopy, a panoply of books as dramatic as any script commands your eye. An overhanging firmament of hundreds of open pages flies above you. You feel the presence of thousands of books (Savage estimates the total at 3000) and you thrill to the promise of their contents. You know you will soon meet the scholar whose texts these are.

Although playwright Deborah Margolin wrote her script with Elie Wiesel in mind, when he objected, she rewrote the role. The Jewish leader in Margolin’s play writes, lectures and invests all his money and his foundation’s money (just as Wiesel did) with his friend. What fascinates most of us is that Madoff swindled his friends, not strangers. Margolin never really addresses why. Instead she shows us their jovial camaraderie: evenings spent discussing the Old Testament and baseball over expensive scotch.

Director Elaine Vaan Hogue has a strong cast to work with. Jeremiah Kissel is full of piss and vinegar as the reckless investment advisor and Joel Colodner breathes a reluctant nobility into the Holocaust survivor who is weary of “being the public face of courage.” Adrianne Krstansky has the miniscule role of an administrative assistant being grilled by the SEC. She’s entirely sympathetic but the role is superfluous when all we want to see is the confrontation between betrayer and betrayed. Alas, Margolin’s play doesn’t go there.

When we witness the two men together, it’s before Madoff’s indictment. The two friends debate the significance of Abraham and Isaac but the parallel to Madoff’s son is never drawn. It would have been so satisfying for us to see Madoff realize he did sacrifice his son (who committed suicide after the scandal) as Abraham would have had God not intervened. Margolin doesn’t connect those dots for some reason. Perhaps she knows we will connect them ourselves. Her limited IMAGINING left me wanting so much more.