Monday, November 28, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey A La Mia Lista

Moonbox Theater puts its heart where its art is: With each new production, Moonbox finds a community non-profit to partner with. This holiday season it’s a food bank called FOOD FOR FREE, reclaiming food from restaurants etc which might otherwise be discarded ( There are but a handful of arts organizations truly committed to making a difference in the world by reaching out beyond performance and Moonbox is top of the list. (Hub Theatre also comes to mind for its all performances-pay-what-you-can program to make theater accessible to everyone. I’m sure there are others. I hope there are others.)

Moonbox, you may recall, produced last year’s THE WILD PARTY, certainly the most exciting musical of the season. They’re always on my list of companies who can deliver solid, well made theater… so here’s my dilemma. AMADEUS is not, despite a tour de force from Matthew Zahnzinger as Antonio Salieri. Even though AMADEUS is named for Mozart, Peter Shaffer’s exacting play is centered on his celebrated rival.

The play is entirely Salieri’s: He’s obsessed with the “boy-genius” whose father paraded him across Europe and who now could threaten Salieri’s reign as court composer. When Salieri realizes he is no longer “God’s chosen composer” and this man-child Mozart is, he sets about to ruin him. What’s more, he feels betrayed by God and declares war on the almighty!

Zahnzinger’s physical performance is impeccable, seamlessly moving from an invalided quavering of aging voice and body to a flourishing and robust middle age. And Zahnzinger’s emotional performance shifts from thriving confidence to crumbling corrosion in a breathtaking transformation. Director Allison Olivia Choate and music director Dan Rodriguez create a heart-stopping moment to illustrate the damage Salieri has caused: At the very moment he crushes a page of Mozart’s gorgeous Requiem in his fist, the music stops cold.

The role of Mozart isn’t an easy one. The historical facts are that Mozart’s childhood was stolen when his father exploited his children to enrich his own fortune and fame. Mozart grew into a merry prankster, with a penchant for scatological humor (as evinced in his fond, naughty letters to his sister) and scant knowledge of how to survive on his own without his father.

Shaffer makes his Mozart brash and completely unconcerned with proper social behavior, so much so that Salieri is scandalized that the most sublime music in the universe could emanate from this unruly, irritating creature. Whoever portrays Mozart must convey a lot more than rudeness and silliness. He must portray Mozart’s warmth and vulnerability. Otherwise why would Constanze (Caroline Keeler in a lovely, spunky performance) give him the time of day! Alas, Cody Sloan’s Mozart is one note.

Shaffer was never finished with the play, writing several endings. Alas, Moonbox has chosen the longest and least effective dramatically (in my opinion). It distresses me no end to be writing this, knowing how much work Moonbox put into this production: gorgeous costumes (David Lucey), sensational wigs (Peter Mill) and most importantly, smart direction which allows an audience on three sides to see and hear clearly. (Sightlines are a tricky business. I can think of at least three shows this year when I couldn’t hear from where I was seated.)

Alas, although it’s an inspired idea to use historically informed instruments for the soundtrack, they come through sounding garbled and muted some of the time. When Shaffer wanted those bone chilling chords from DON GIOVANNI to scare the heck out of us, he didn’t envision two emasculated chords which land practically without impact.

Alas, although the program “beg[s] our indulgence” if some of the French or Italian is amissand I must say the conversational French and Italian both sounded excellent to methere’s a glaring mispronunciation of an Italian opera which set my teeth on edge. Since the play is about composers of opera, I would think correct titles would be paramount.

If you can overlook my list of complaints, and this really is just my opinion, you will be amazed by Zahnzinger’s stellar performance.

Friday, November 25, 2016

CD REVIEW: AMERICAN PLACES Musical Travels New Release from American Music Recordings Collection American Music Rediscovering AMERICA with Margaret Ulmer By Beverly Creasey

 One of the pleasures of a new concert season is hearing Margaret Ulmer play ragtime. It’s not just feeling the rhythmand you do start to swayUlmer’s hands seem to be dancing. That’s the jazz component of rag: You can’t help but move with the music, and ragtime is Ulmer’s beat. In fact, she was instrumental in creating a program for American Classics called One Hundred Years of TREEMOMNISHA to commemorate Scott Joplin’s groundbreaking ragtime opera.

You can hear Ulmer and her infectious ragtime on a new CD called AMERICAN PLACES (Musical Travels) recorded for American Music Preservation. The CD not only celebrates ragtime but a wide swath of historical, distinctly American material from a Cape Cod sea chantey to the cowboy laments of the California territories… with composers from Edward MacDowell whose reverent, painterly New England Memories evoke a solitary country walk, to Roger Lee Hall’s remarkably inventive, surprisingly impressionistic Seven Variations (on a Shaker Marching Tune) which bring Debussy to mind.

Ulmer is joined on the recording by bass-baritone Eric Sosman for gems like their exquisitely mournful Shenandoah and an odd, amusing theatrical composition by E.T. Paull, which takes the form of a musical dramatization of Sheridan’s “heroic” Civil War ride to the battlefield. The Descriptive March Gallop is narrated directly over the music, with hilarious, redundant commentary like “Bugle sounding” over the sound of a bugle and then over the pianissimo bugle call, “Bugle in the distance.”  I can’t help but recall what critic Richard Dyer opined about an effusive Russian concert: “Dogs would weep.”

Ulmer can make a tune like Yankee Doodle Dandy (Benjamin Carr’s 1804 Rondo version) sound like pure Mozart embellishment. She can make John Philip Sousa’s very last patriotic march, Hands Across the Sea, sound like a duet for four hands as the thrilling music tears up and down the keyboard! She fuses two versions of Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair, transforming it with chilling, sorrowful chords into a dark, despairing memento.

The CD visits the Missouri Valley, specifically St. Louis, for a sweet two-step rag by an itinerant, blind pianist named Charles Hunter… and of course Ulmer is in her element in a playful, jaunty Cake Walk by Scott Joplin and his student, Arthur Marshall. And she honors female composers with a majestic funeral march dedicated to the memory of Abraham Lincoln by Mrs. E. A. Parkhurst, (as the sly CD commentary tells us) “of parlour song, temperance and spiritualist fame.”

The recording is full of treasures: folk arrangements by Ruth Crawford Seeger, compositions by Steven Foster and Paul Bowles and achingly sad settings for the familiar western songs, Streets of Laredo and Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie.

In her CD notes, Ulmer quotes Alan Lomax from his prodigious Folk Songs of North America: “The map sings.” I’ll add that in Ulmer’s AMERICAN PLACES, the piano sings.   

Monday, November 21, 2016


When you see a lot of theater, for the most part it’s hit or missbut this past week it was downright thrilling: Two companies delivered flawless productions, one here in town and the other in Rhode Island. Alas, the R.I. show closes Nov. 20th but the Huntington production runs through Dec. 11th.

The Huntington’s BEDROOM FARCE is… what else can one say… pure perfection top to bottom. Director Maria Aitken’s staging for Alan Ayckbourn’s delicious comedic four-part disharmony is spot on. Speaking of spots, there’s even lighting laughter (from Matthew Richards) when one of the three bedrooms on Alexander Dodge’s set is momentarily inactive. It’s lit for a nanosecond, then hastily departs for more prolific terrain.

Ayckbourn has intentionally avoided the traditional bedroom conventions: No one is getting any sleep in these three bedchambers. What they do get are endless invasions by unwanted guests. Never has physical comedy been so sublime, especially in the hands of Nael Nacer, as the impatient husband whose only desire is to immobilize his bad back in bed and read. You know that book will go AWOL and he will have to maneuver a painful inch at a time to retrieve it. And you know that someone will arrive to ruin his repose.

It’s the great stuff of an Ayckbourn script. If you haven’t seen one of his plays, don’t miss this chance. If you have, you will delight in the magnitude of the mirth Aitken and company have uncovered in this Ayckbourn treasure.

Ocean State Theatre Company’s riveting production of John Patrick Shanley’s DOUBT (A Parable) aims for the solar plexus and it delivers: There’s a popular priest and an exacting nun and a school full of children she wants to properly educate. But there’s a suspicion she has about this priest and that’s Shanley’s brilliant play in toto. He isn’t going to tell you who’s in the right or who is wronged. You will have to decide for yourself.

I’ve seen one version of DOUBT where the sister was an out and out monster and I was convinced the young priest was her victim. I saw another version where I was certain he was a molester, all with the same script. Aimee Turner’s production for Ocean State adds an element I hadn’t seen before. This Father Flynn is an older priest and he towers over the nuns physically, tipping the scales dramatically.

Shanley supplies the given hurdles for Sister Aloysius: A hierarchy prevents her from going to the Bishop with her concerns. She must proceed through channels and Father Flynn outranks her. Turner supplies another. Donna Sorbello’s Sister Aloysius is dwarfed by Greg London’s Father Flynn. And he’s not only more powerful in physique, London makes him a powerful presence… and a spellbinding speaker. His sermons are mesmerizing. You clearly see why he’s so well liked. (Unfortunately we don’t come to the theater without our prejudices and it’s the older pedophile priests who are in the news and in the movies so London has an uphill battle to convince us that Father Flynn singled out a child solely to protect him from being bullied.)

Sorbello in a tour de force makes Sister Aloysius a formidable match for the priest, plotting to “outshine the fox in cleverness.” Sorbello’s nun speaks in a commanding low voice that demands obedience…and scares the devil out of her young charge, Sister James. Caitlin Davies as the sweet James unwittingly sets the plot in motion when she gives Sister Aloysius a reason (and ammunition) to take on the priest. Lovely Hoffman supplies the play’s surprise when, as the mother of the boy in question, she comes to the table with her own priorities. Hoffman makes the mother’s position understandable, something I’ve always had difficulty swallowing in other productions. Kudos to Ocean State for a gripping and gorgeous (an exquisite set by Erik D. Diaz) presentation of Shanley’s compelling play.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

SHAKE-TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey All The World’s His Stage

Everyone, it seems, is celebrating Shakespeare, this being the 400th anniversary of the Stratford man’s death. (Even Oxfordians are getting props as part of the Boston Public Library’s thrilling panorama.) The BPL is showing historical films, hosting myriad performances and for the very first time, exhibiting the exceedingly rare Thomas Barton collection of precious First, Second, Third and Fourth Folios as well as the infamous will and testament (the one that mentions his “second best bed” and no manuscripts!). Their “Shakespeare Unauthorized” Exhibit will run through March of 2017. All free and open to the public!

In an increasingly bookless age, the BPL is offering a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the Bard’s world and his legacy first hand. You’ll see the many versions of his plays and many mentions of them in books by his contemporaries. Then you can place the work in topographical context in the library’s map gallery, where an exhibit highlights the locales of the plays, almost half of them in Italy. You can peruse authentic 16th century depictions of the globe as Elizabethan mapmakers imagined it.

Local companies like Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Bridge Rep, Company One and Boston Lyric Opera are contributing classes, lectures and performances. Esteemed playwright Ken Ludwig will visit Boston in May to speak about introducing Shakespeare to children, having won the Falstaff Award for best Shakespeare Book of 2014 about instilling a love of Shakespeare in the very young. In addition to the central exhibits, Shakespeare performances will travel to the BPL Branches: Celebrated Walt Whitman lecturer/impersonator, Stephen Collins, turns his attention to the characters in Shakespeare and takes his moveable feast from BPL Central to the West End, North End, Dorchester and W. Roxbury branches, among others, from October through March.

You can explore the birds mentioned in Shakespeare and those you will find here in Boston, or you can learn about the influence of classical literature on Shakespeare’s writings: Many of his plots were lifted in toto from Italian and Greek texts! You can enjoy Shakespeare’s sonnets and soliloquiesand you even can hear Shakespeare translated into hip hop! Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the BPL’s exhibit is the exploration of the debate over what Shakespeare actually wrote… and who really wrote the most treasured canon in Western literature.

NOTHING IS TRUER THAN TRUTH is Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s film (screened last week at the BPL) about Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, a favorite at Queen Elizabeth’s court, versed in the law, medicine, Greek and Latin, who traveled to Italy and beyond, learning about commedia dell’ arte and collecting the experiences which are told in the Shakespeare plays. Renowned Shakespeare scholars in the film, including Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, present a preponderance of evidence to link Oxford (known to Elizabethans for his pseudonym, “Shake-speare”) to the works.

Donovan’s film mentions, among other evidence, that deVere’s Geneva Bible has his own notes in the margins indicating verses he would use in his plays. His travels took him to Titian’s salon where he saw the master’s first rendering of the painting, Venus and Adonis, inspiring him to write about it, in detail, including features which disappear in Titian’s final version. The man from Stratford, who never traveled outside of England, could not have known about the painting’s early features.

Computer analysis, unavailable to early Oxfordians like Emerson, Whitman, Twain and Freud, can now make the case that the Earl of Oxford is the true author. Because of the strides in Shakespeare research, more and more books and films are chronicling the life of deVere. Who would have imagined the excitement that now surrounds the work four hundred years later!

Of all the performances swirling around the 400th anniversary, perhaps the most unexpected so far, and the most fun by far, was last weekend’s SHAKESPEARE IN SONG, presented by American Classics. You might think they’d be performing songs from the Elizabethan era, did you not know that American Classics is devoted to the American Songbook… So with Shakespeare as inspiration, they embraced WEST SIDE STORY (of course) and KISS ME, KATE (to be sure) but also THE BOYS FROM SYRACUSE and an obscure little show called GRAB ME A GONDOLA (Who knew?).

Highlights were Eric Bronner’s breathy, breathtaking “Maria” and Ben Sears’ melancholy, heartbreaking “So in Love am I” (with Brad Conner’s gorgeous phrasing underneath). Caroline Musica waltzed through “I Feel Pretty” and Cynthia Mork and Sears delivered the exquisite “One Hand, One Heart.” Mork’s lovely, ethereal “Somewhere” was lifted by Carol Epple’s lilting flute and Elizabeth Connors’ supple clarinet. And it wouldn’t have been right to neglect those adorable thugs from New York. As the lyrics insist, we were indeed “wowed” when they sang “Brush Up Your Shakespeare!”

Monday, November 7, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey No Man Is An Island

Reasons to seek out Hub Theatre’s lovely production of Margaret Edson’s WIT (playing through Nov. 19th): First, Liz Adams’s astounding performance as the fearless professor ambushed by terminal cancer. Adams always gives her all to a role (her magnificent performance in DOG ACT comes to mind) but she delves so deep into the imposing professor’s psyche that her anguish is palpable to everyone in the room.

The next reason: Hub offers pay-what-you-can tickets for every performance. The Hub folks are committed to presenting theater that matters and is accessible to everyone. And they’ve been doing it successfully since 2013. WIT won the 1999 Pulitzer and just about every other critical award for its raw intensity and its stunning universality. (Don’t we all know someone with cancer?)

Professor Vivian Bearing is an expert on the works of John Donne, specializing on the Holy Sonnets. Donne scholarship is her life’s work, examining every nuance in every line of poetry, down to every choice of punctuation. How ironic that she has made herself into an island: Parents dead, no children, no friends to rely on now that she is out of her depth.

She still has her acerbic wit and her fierce intelligence but they’re no match for this foeand they don’t impress her doctors, one of whom (Tim Hoover) was her student years before. It’s not that they’re callous. They see her as a biological being, whose data may contribute to cancer research. Come to think of it, a lot of them are callous. Only one of her caretakers isn’t: Lauren Elias as the professor’s sweet, compassionate nurse gives Bearing (and us) welcome respite from the protracted suffering.

Robert Bonotto commands the stage as the formidable chief of surgery, surrounded by quaking, intimidated interns. But as Bearing’s father, in a brief, immensely touching scene, he shares a tenderhearted moment with his five year old daughter, teaching her a new word. (And now we understand her love for language and literature.)

Director John Geoffrion gets stellar work from the entire ensemble of techs, orderlies, etc., especially Dayenne C.B. Walters as the teacher who mentored Bearing early on.

Don’t miss this play!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Hard Freeze

Underground Railway Theater’s WHEN JANUARY FEELS LIKE SUMMER (Running through Nov. 13th) starts out like gangbusters. I couldn’t help but think of the two teenagers in the movie CRASH, so sure of themselves, so delighted with the possibilities the world offers them that questionable behavior just seems like a lark to them. (It’s not their fault: Teenaged brains aren’t fully developed so they can’t see very far ahead of their actions.)

Seth Hill and Marc Pierre are the best things in JANUARY. Were it not for their antics, Cori Thomas’ play would have nowhere to engage the “global” problem, which is what Hill’s hilarious character calls global warming. The two are typical teenage boys, chasing skirts and sharing dubious information about what females likeand what type of female is worth liking. Both Hill and Pierre are gifted physical comedians, with Hill contorting his face as he tries so diligently “to comprehend the magnitude of the situation.” They’re always slightly misinformed, but so sincere, that they’re utterly charming. Director Benny Sato Ambush mines oodles of humor from their scenes. In fact, once they exit, we can’t wait for them to return.

JANUARY is billed as a romantic comedy but the weight of the subject matter, in my opinion, keeps it too tightly grounded for out and out comedy. Two operations figure in the story. One has left a husband on life support and the other hasn’t happened as yet. The anticipation of the latter procedure fuels one of the two romances. The other is sweeter and simpler: A customer of an Indian grocery has fallen for the proprietress (a gentle soul who can’t face turning off the aforementioned life support). David J. Curtis and Sanaa Kazi perfectly capture the elation/embarrassment quotient in a budding relationship where each shares their hopes and pasts.

The problem I have is with the seriousness of the second romance. Mesma Belsare’s character implores Ganesha, the highest Hindu deity (who famously removes obstacles) for help with a rather significant deception. Belsare’s Indira is twenty-seven and savvy in the ways of the world. As savvy as Hill’s teenager is, he’s still a teenager and mighty gullible, falling hook, line and sinker for the deceit. The play ends with the two couples headed for their various bedrooms but I kept thinking of THE CRYING GAME.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Making Friends With The Truth

THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS (@ SpeakEasy Stage, extended through Nov. 26th) is one of Kander & Ebb’s last musicals together, Fred Ebb having died in 2004. THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS received 12 Tony nominations but that didn’t keep it from closing. You see, it’s a scathing indictment of our American past, when nine innocent Black teens were accused and convicted of rape in 1931. If that reminds you of something, it’s probably the five innocent Black and Latino teens accused and convicted of the “Central Park rape” in 1989, who were eventually freed and completely absolved of any involvementonly to be accused again by Donald Trump in 2016, as an example of our pressing need for his racist brand of “Law and Order.”

People don’t much like revisiting instances of racial injustice. It makes them uncomfortable or outright horrified to be reminded that people will go along with atrocity and not speak up, which is the searing point of Kander and Ebb’s brilliant CABARET. Just like the sardonic emcee in CABARET, THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS has a menacing “Interlocutor” (Russell Garrett as the racist “master of ceremonies”) to introduce the vaudeville numbers and reinforce the spurious stereotypes.

David Thompson’s Tony winning book for the musical sets the action in a minstrel show about dubious “Dixie Justice.” Two comic “endmen,” (Maurice E. Parent and Brandon G. Green) trade jokes and play various villains, like the bowlegged white sheriff who arrests the nine and the corrupt Southern judge who locks them away. Two of the defendants (Darrell Morris, Jr. and Isaiah Reynolds) also play their accusers, two white prostitutes who, to avoid arrest, claim they were raped by the Black men. While their exaggerated portrayals are genuinely funny, the situation is anything but. It’s a difficult balance that director Paul Daigneault and company navigate perfectly.

De’Lon Grant gives a powerful, standout performance as the righteous defendant who, unlike the others, will not accept a plea bargain (“Make Friends With The Truth”) to get out of prison. The actual Scottsboro nine were tried and retried many times, the case(s) reaching the Supreme Court with little redress. Not until three years ago, long after their deaths, were the nine officially exonerated by the state of Alabama.

This being a musical, we’re treated to some stunning footwork designed by Ilyse Robbins (after Susan Stroman’s original choreography) and some stellar show-stopping, mainly from Grant (“Commencing in Chattanooga”) and from Reynolds (“Never Too Late”), but that said, music director Matthew Stern gets wonderful singing from the whole ensemble. You won’t leave humming any of the songs but you won’t forget them. Bravo SpeakEasy, for rescuing another important workand giving us the chance here in Boston to see THE SCOTTSBORO BOYS.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Bliss and Bliss-ability

Having seen the successful Ang Lee film and at least a half dozen stage versions of Jane Austin’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, I can proclaim unabashedly that the Maiden Phoenix incarnation (playing through Oct. 30th) is the most delightful yet.

The ability to instill bliss in an audience is possessed by only a few companies I can think of. (At the moment Imaginary Beasts and Boston Lyric Opera come to mind.) It’s no surprise then, to find the Beasts thoroughly enmeshed in this production, adding their signature “enhanced” theatricality to the romantic adventures of the highly impressionable Dashwood sisters.

Kate Hamill’s spirited adaptation is directed by IB’s associate honcho, Michael Underhill, which means: Gossip will run rampant for our entertainment. Misunderstandings will flourish for our pleasure. Dinner dialogue will frolic so rapidly, all we can do is luxuriate in the chaos. Inspired silliness fills every nook and cranny of Hibernian Hall: Up on the raised stage for hilarious dining diversion, down on the floor for utterly charming travel in bumpy, improvised carriages. Old fogies will stutter; Shy lovers will stammer and crowds will smother.

Assistant director Kiki Samko invents a delectable reel, where giddy dancers shake and stumble through their paces, bumping fannies as they weave their way to the top of the line. Deirdre Benson’s sound design, in no small way, adds to the joy. (A cello, at one point, cannot contain its laughter.) No stone is unturned in pursuit of our happiness… which is not to say that gender politics is neglected in the Maiden Phoenix adaptation. We’re keenly aware that alliances at the time were forged for money, not love, because laws governing inheritance dictated a male inheritor (a practice only now being debated in England around the inheritance of the crown).

And the performances: Sublime all around. Samko’s dithering ancient, Cameron Cronin’s blustering old men, Anna Waldron’s sweet, longsuffering eldest sister, Sarah Mass as the curious youngest Dashwood sister, Erin Eva Butcher as the susceptible dreamer of the brood, Elizabeth Addison as their patient mother, William Schuller’s dashing cad, Dan Prior’s endearing slow starter, Marge Dunn as his disapproving sister, Underhill as his inheriting brother and Cameron Beaty Gosselin as the solid, gallant colonel. Sense and nonsense have never coexisted so seamlessly.