Tuesday, January 29, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW by Beverly Creasey Extra Extra Read All About It: IMAGINARY BEASTS BANISH WINTER PAUL BUNYAN visits The Charlestown Working Theater through Feb. 10

The Winter Panto is a seasonal tradition in the U.K. Audiences young and old are regaled by stock characters (representing good and evil) as they banish old man winter (until next year) and welcome in the spring.

The only people having more fun than the performers staging a winter panto on this side of the pond, are the children joining in on the merry mayhem. They don’t have to be asked twice. They happily shout down the villains in Imaginary Beasts’ PAUL BUNYAN (and the winter of the BLUE SNOW), to warn the “good and true” characters of an approaching “baddie.”

The children (and a lot of the parents, as well) boo and hiss and at just the right moment, they offer contrarian advice to a stubborn character who dares to say, “No, I can’t.” The seemingly spontaneous “Oh, yes you can” audience reply goes back and forth until the children can’t laugh anymore. For most of them, I suspect this isn’t their first rodeo.

The Beasts have chosen a bit of Americana to hang this panto on: Paul Bunyan (Kiki Samko) and the famous blue ox, Babe (Colin McIntyre) figure at the center of a wager. King Zero, as in temperature, (company director Matthew Woods) has issued a challenge to an old storyteller, (Dan Prior), who sounds suspiciously like Hal Holbrook/ Mark Twain, although his name would suggest he hails from Oklahoma.

But I digress… and I caught it from the Beasts. There’s a contest afoot and if Oakey loses, winter will never end and the moon (Jemma Tory) will disappear. I’m not 100 % on this but I think that’s Woods’ plot. It really doesn’t matter because the joy of panto rests squarely on the shoulders of the characters.

From wily, ecologically motivated trees (James K. Sims and Kim Klasner) that can outfox any logger… to Amy Meyer’s runaway, tap dancing giant pancake… to Noah Simes’ shamelessly flirtatious “Dame” (fabulous costumes from Cotton Talbot-Minken and Sophia Nora for the flapjack), the premium placed on each and every character is to collect as many laughs as are possible. And, “Oh, yes they can.” Even the puppets get in on the hilarity.

Samko’s sensational Bunyan is aided in this shaggy dog story by a perky, indefatigable Laura Detwiler and a sad sack, self-doubting pup whose fleas even flee from his moaning. He’s portrayed by the incomparable Joey C. Pelletier. The entire kit and caboodle sing and dance selections, for example, from the late Captain and (the still with us) Tennille’s Muskrat Love, all the way up to Rogers and Hammerstein’s You’ll Never Walk Alone (delivered in high operatic form by Ly Meloccaro in a beard borrowed from James Harden or maybe I’ve been watching too much basketball), just another surprise to another madcap panto.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rendition and Reclamation

Company One’s MISS YOU LIKE HELL (ostensibly about a family divided by deportation), playing @ A.R.T.’s Oberon Club through Jan. 27th, was written by Quira Alegria Hudes first as a play; then around 2011 she began developing it as a musical at the height of President Obama’s stringent immigration policies.

Hudes is no stranger to collaboration. Her work with Lin-Manuel Miranda on IN THE HEIGHTS won them the Tony for best musical. MISS YOU LIKE HELL, with music and lyrics by singer/songwriter Erin McKeown, opened to acclaim Off-Broadway in 2018. Originally focusing on one mother’s struggle to reconnect with her daughter, in light of the current president’s attacks on immigrants, MISS YOU LIKE HELL has a whole new resonance.

You can’t watch this mother’s agony in MISS YOU LIKE HELL and not think of the three thousand children unlawfully separated from their parents and lost in the “system”with two dead(despite identification numbers stamped, Nazi style, on their forearms)… engineered solely to serve as a deterrent to asylum seekers.

The musical may represent one mother’s cross country journey to win back her child’s affection, but McKoewn’s songs are universal. Her urgent, plaintive I’m Just One Slip Away “treading water and waiting for the tide to rise” is a powerful, desperate anthem not just for this mother (the charismatic Johanna Carlisle-Zapeda) but for anyone fighting a lost cause.

MISS YOU LIKE HELL feels a lot like IN THE HEIGHTS because of the myriad stories which break in on the main “road trip adventure plot” (to get mother to a hearing which could lead maybe to a temporary deportation deferral). Some of the detours interrupt the momentum, detracting from the principal point of the journey: for Zapeda’s estranged mother to bond with Krystal Hernandez’ headstrong, resentful daughter.

The best songs and the best moments are the ones which center on the bonding: McKeown’s lovely country-rock Dance With Me “under the moonlight” reminded me of Mary Chapin Carpenter’s lively Down at the Twist and Shout. Hernandez’ inconsolable Miss You Like Hell and mother’s ardent You Are the Bread. I am the Hunger “Fill me up for one more day” are the showstoppers. (Kudos to music director David Coleman’s nimble orchestra.)

While the rest of the musical meanders all over the map, we meet kind souls who help out (and a few unkind ones who don’t). Director Summer L. Williams and company mine the humor from the secondary stories, like the gay couple (Matthew Murphy and John O’Neil) whose goal is to get married in every state now that you can… and the daunting state trooper (Cristhian Mancinas Garcia) who could, if he wanted to, arrest mother on the spot… and the charming tamale vendor (Adrian Peguero) who seduces mother with one bite of his pie and a tasty song.

Come to think of it, though, she actually does the seducing… which is part of the musical’s undoing. She sells herself as an “earth mother,” brimming with the life force of her female ancestors, a free spirit possessing a vital spark which she wants to pass on to her daughter… but she seems rudderless and easily distracted from her mission. In point of fact, it’s Raijene Murchison as the park ranger/internet follower whose courage reunites mother and daughter, more than anything else.

The law of unintended consequences brought me right up to the present again when the park ranger sings an ode to our national parks praising their grand purpose: to be open to everyone. NOT anymore. And the ranger isn’t being paid. Perhaps that’s what MISS YOU LIKE HELL is now, not so much a mother-and-child reunion, but a stand against that horrific, useless, obscene wall.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Inside Voices

SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS, Bess Wohl’s charming send-up of the self-realization movement is getting a crackerjack production at SpeakEasy Stage (meditating on itself through Feb. 2nd). Director M. Bevin O’Gara has choreographed space and silence so seamlessly that our laughter becomes part of the whole. You can’t help yourself when the leader of the four day, silent retreat greets the newcomers with “I am not the teacher. You are the teacher. You came here to meet yourself.”

If you’ve been to one of these seminars which promise “transformation,” and even if you haven’t, you recognize the absurdity of guaranteeing “instant karma” (with apologies to John Lennon). O’Gara’s actors express every emotion we need to understand their mission, all without speaking. For the most part, everyone but the gravel voiced leader (the cheeky Marianna Bassham) is silent.

Some suffer in silence. Some (like the hilarious Nael Nacer) suffer in loud, gesticulating silence when his pompous, full of himself roommate (Sam Simahk) hogs the floor of their small cabin in the woods, then fills it with irritating incense, which only serves to aggravate Nacer more. Two sincere women (Kerry A. Dowling and Celeste Oliva) arrive together, perhaps to strengthen their relationship or work on their problems.

One flirty young woman (the funny, cell phone addicted Gigi Watson) has signed up, it would seem, to work on her feminine wiles. (She needn’t have doubted her charms: Two of the men seem immediately interested.) The last camper/acolyte is a rather vulnerable, lost looking middle aged man who may be sick (Barlow Adamson, brilliant as the sad sack we all worry about).

The script has a few missteps, like how did the clueless sad sack get through the admission process or even get interested in the program … and why fool us, along with the campers, about a certain animal from THE WINTER’S TALE (I’m trying hard not to give anything away.) Mostly the play is delightfully amusing, especially when channeling Christopher Durang (the scene where the so-to-speak “fur” flies in BEYOND THERAPY). The best part of SMALL MOUTH SOUNDS is that Wohl gives us permission to laugh at the pedantic guru dispensing metaphors as wisdom.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Captivating SHIPWRECKED!

One of the most charming productions of the year comes at the very end of the year. SHIPWRECKED! An Entertainment—The Amazing Adventures of Louis De Rougemont (As Told By Himself) is elegantly performed by Moonbox Productions, with the same talented cast alternating evenings in TWELFTH NIGHT, also a tale set into motion by a shipwreck.

SHIPWRECKED’s playwright, Donald Marguiles, creates a larger than life world where a sickly young lad can dream of sea voyages, rugged sailors and strange animals like flying marsupials—then sign on with an eager captain and discover new lands for himself. We sign on, too, hanging on every word the elderly De Rougemont utters. We suspect he may be embellishing the story but he seems so sincere and kind (a tour de force for Kevin Cirone as both the old and the young explorer), that we give ourselves over completely to him.

We appreciate Marguiles’ tongue in cheek reminders here and there that the truth is being stretched or misrepresented entirely (those flying wombats) but this is a NICHOLAS NICKELBY experience and we’re all in. Part of the allure is Allison Olivia Choat’s ingenious staging where everything can become something else in the blink of an eye, as we watch Michael Lin’s “Foley” sound effects come to life (a wind machine, aluminum panels for thunder, etc.). Most impressive is the music (Dan Rodriguez’ department), performed on stage by the extraordinarily versatile cast.

The sincerity of the players allows us to laugh at De Rougemont’s innocence, as he recounts his wild discoveries. But when De Rougemont counts his losses, Cirone breaks our hearts, especially when he loses his faithful friend, Bruno (Sarah Gazdowicz in a star turn) and when he loses favor with his fellow Londoners.

Levity is provided by the barrelful by Arthur Gomez as the blustery captain, by Charlotte Kinder as De Rougemont’s over-protective mother, by Gazdowicz and Andrew Winson as stuffy old society ladies, by Matthew Zahnzinger as a doddering, pinched, octopus expert…Every member of the taut ensemble has the chance to find laughter in a moment and lose themselves in a touching character role.


Monday, December 24, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey MILE 26.2

Act I of Leah Nanako Winkler’s TWO MILE HOLLOW (@ Apollinaire through Jan 20th) reminded me a little of Charles Busch’s wild send-up of those 1950’s Annette Funicella / Frankie Avalon BEACH movies. Winkler certainly catches Busch’s over the top spirit but to sustain that level of outrageous hilarity, the liveliness has to increase exponentially. Act I is hilarious but only in waves. The success of outsized farce depends on brazen momentum and Winkler’s parody of rich white families picks up steam, then runs out of it, then gathers it again and runs out again.

The plot, if there is one, hinges on a fraught reunion, when, after the patriarch’s death, the surviving family members return to their sprawling beach house in the Hamptons, to divvy up possessions, and revisit old grievances, before it is sold. Mother (Paola M. Ferrer) is a terror. Daughter Mary (Christa Brown) is a basket case. Two insecure brothers (Armando Rivera and Mauro Canepa) fight over father’s motorcycle/metaphor (Don’t ask) and Jasmine Brooks, as the latter brother’s personal assistant, tags along in the first act and becomes the focus of the second.

The beach house, we’re told, has a strange way of “affecting” its inhabitants. Evidently, it’s haunted by the ghost of the late father who seems, in his afterlife, to have grown fond of lightening strikes. Peculiarly, the HOLLOW affects the play, too, turning Act II into a serious attempt at “message” drama, pontificating about being “true to oneself.” This carnival of the bizarre is a marathon of unwieldy dialogue and nonsensical allusions to weighty dramas by Chekov and Tennessee Williams… not to mention Hitchcock when mother and daughter engage in earsplitting (Caw Caw) bird-shrieks.

Speaking of carnivals, David Reiffel’s delightful sound design whisks us from “The Days of Wine and Roses” to Saint-Saens’ gorgeous “Aquarium,” with clever original music thrown in for the wonderfully goofy “Extraordinary.” Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques knows her way around comedy and there are plenty of opportunities for merriment but the playwright moves the target on herand for me, it was too late for the rather weak socio-political points about race and status. The revelations come tardy as well. (We didn’t even know there were any for most of the play. What is a revelation anyway, without suspense and anticipation to precede it?)

What there is in TWO MILE HOLLOW is an abundance of silliness, like the zany, recurring mispronunciationswhich made me giggle every time because I didn’t see them coming… Even though I knew there’d be more of them. So, if you can shift gears half way through, you may “get” what the playwright is trying to accomplish. There is an exhibit of photos in the lobby which makes the point that the play missed. You’ll cringe when you see Lawrence Oliver in blackface as Othello (hovering over a young, white Maggie Smith). The exhibit doesn’t include brown/black faced opera singers but it should. The Metropolitan Opera still presents white singers “bronzed up” as Othello and as Aida, broadcasting the performances without shame, to millions of viewers in theaters via HD simulcast. No one bats an eyelash!

Thursday, December 6, 2018


Two companies cast fresh eyes on historical figures with strong ties to Boston this month. New Repertory Theatre gives 1776 the “Hamilton” treatment (through Dec. 30th) and Lyric Stage Company (in association with The Front Porch Arts Collective) remembers the extraordinary African-American tenor, Roland Hayes, with BREATH & IMAGINATION (through Dec. 23rd).

New Rep’s daring re-imagining of Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone’s 1776 puts all of us on stage, in all our diversity, to tell the story this time out. Lin-Manuel Miranda created a theatrical revolution with his commitment to a theater which reflects society and, as John Adams famously says in 1776, “We’ve crossed the Rubicon.” There’s no going back. HAMILTON re-sets the bar. Hallelujah!

Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards beef up the choreography and tweak the focus, but otherwise, it’s the 1776 you know. Perhaps their biggest hurtle is the music. Because women are singing some of the male roles (and visa versa in one case), music director Todd C. Gordon had to rework the score, changing keys to accommodate the higher voices. He did. It works brilliantly and as a result of the new casting, you sit up and take notice!

The most conventional role (as in “traditional” casting) is Benjamin Evett’s as Adams and he gives a passionate performancebut swirling all around him is the brave new world reinterpreting the old white world of our founding fathers. You might not think it would work but it does and there’s resonance to be had that the old, pale version didn’t have. When Thomas Jefferson is played by an African-American actor, (a serene KP Powell as the quiet, cerebral author of the Declaration), you’re not about to forget that Jefferson kept slaves and fathered children with at least one slave. (The “Declaration Descendants” project at Ancestry.com has found twenty-nine living multi-racial descendants of the signers!)

The strange alchemy at work is that, at the same time, you forget the casting altogether and are swept up in the action of the musical. Bobbie Steinbach may be portraying Ben Franklin, but it’s still the cantankerous Ben Franklin out there. Shannon Lee Jones is delivering the “Molasses to Rum to Slaves” showstopper but Rutledge still takes your breath away with his indictment of the tall ships “out of Boston” (knowingly transporting slaves from the West Indies to the South). The entire ensemble is flawless, with Dan Prior a shimmering Martha Jefferson (the show’s most courageous role), with Rachel Belleman hilarious as the hard drinking R.I. delegate and Liliane Klein wonderfully acerbic as the Scotsman from Delaware.

 “Momma Look Sharp” (sung from the perspective of a dead soldier on the Lexington Green) is always devastating and Steven Martin’s gorgeous elegy is exceptionally sweet and powerful. Carolyn Saxon’s cheeky Abigail Adams contributes spice as well as salt peter to the revolution. You’ll relish Cheryl Singleton as John Hancock, Aimee Doherty as the conservative Pennsylvania holdout, Pier Lamia Porter as the preposterous Henry Lee (of the Virginia Lees), Luis Negron as the steady congressional secretary, Gary Ng as the delegate who saves the vote, and more, many more. Don’t miss out.

I recall a reenactment one July Fourth at the Old State House downtown wherein the Declaration of Independence was solemnly read aloud, followed by Roland Hayes singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” It must have been well over forty years ago, yet it made an indelible impression on me. How sad it is that not many Bostonians remember the ground breaking tenor who lived in Brookline for the last fifty years of his life. Daniel Beaty’s BREATH & IMAGINATION is making some restitution (although the script only covers the early part of Hayes’ remarkable ninety year lifespan).

Davron S. Monroe gives a tour de force as the pioneering African-American singer in director Maurice Emmanuel Parent’s evocative production at the Lyric. The Beaty script focuses in large part on Hayes’ relationship with his mother: Yewande Odetoyinbo turns in a stellar performance as the tenacious woman who won’t give up easily on her dream to have a preacher for a son. Beaty takes liberties with timelines and omissions but manages to convey the hardships Hayes endured on his way to becoming one of the preeminent interpreters of both operatic and spiritual music in America.

In addition to Monroe and Odetoyinbo, both of whom are impressive vocalists, BREATH & IMAGINATION features Doug Gerber as Hayes’ kindly first voice teacher (who plays a life-changing recording of Enrico Caruso for the young Hayes) and Nile Scott Hawver who plays everyone else (including a “non-traditional” role like the ones in 1776). Music director Asher Denburg accompanies the singers on piano, no small accomplishment. His is quite a spirited performance, as well.

Hayes’ ties to Boston began in 1917 when he rented Symphony Hall and produced his own sold out concert. Six years later after major success in Europe, he made his “official,” invited debut with the BSO. He gave his last concert at the age of eighty-five at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge. Of course, his voice is the most important element in BREATH & IMAGINATION so we hear Monroe singing Scarlatti, Faure, Schubert and Donizetti as well as famous spirituals like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord.”

Monroe triumphs in Nemorino’s gorgeous aria from L’ELISIR D’AMORE, “Una Furtiva Lagrima,” when a tell-tale tear reveals true love. Every operatic tenor worth his salt covers the aria. Add Monroe’s name to that list. Kudos to the Lyric and Front Porch for reminding us of the treasure that was Boston’s for so many years.



Wednesday, November 14, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey PANdemonium at Hub

As the variegated pirates and wildly weird inhabitants of PETER AND THE STARCATHER are wont to say in the Hub Theatre extravaganza (@ The First Church downtown through Nov. 17th) :T T F N (Ta Ta For Now)… which means they’ll be back, again and again, swanning and swashbuckling to the delight of children, parents and ordinarily crusty reviewers. What’s not to like in Hub’s madcap mash-up of the tightly wound original PETER PAN.

Director Sarah Gazdowicz makes the production look like the inmates have taken over the asylum. The (barely) controlled hysteria reminded me of Imaginary Beasts’ free wheeling Pantomimes. Gazdowicz and several others in the Hub cast are stellar IB alumni, where imagination leaves no stone unturned. The best part of the PAN prequel is watching the characters wind up and then spin out all over the stage. Chief among them is Joey C. Pelletier’s nefarious Black Stache, arch-enemy of Peter. You know him as Captain Hook from the J.M. Barrie version. The clever children in the audience knew at once and said so out loud. (This version, imagined by comedian Dave Barry takes place before the other Barrie story. If this is confusing to you, just wait for the wacky exposition, which I still haven’t fully grasped)

Pelletier is a whirling dervish whose manic quips and quotes fly so fast, you can hardly keep up. He’s aided and abetted by Michael John Ciszewski as his right hand man who’s always right at hand, although the captain doesn’t notice him, thereby cementing his name. Pelletier bellows and Ciczewski answers frenetically “It’s me.” (Say this a few dozen times and you’ll see.)

Ciszewski specializes in running the best amok you’ll see all season. What’s more, you can’t wait to see Bob Mussett return as the elderly lady who thinks she might like to try romance again… even better still, she (in full beard, mind you) catches the eye of a gentlemanly seaman portrayed in marvelous deadpan by Lindsay Eagle! More delicious turns from Robert Orzalli as a Cosa Nostra chef with a menu you can’t refuse, from Jon Vellante as one of the lost, so hungry boys that he faints at the mention of sticky pudding, from David Makransky as the other lost boy who wants to be “leader” and from Molly Kimmerling as a nasty villain of a captain.

The plot is hung on the (mostly serious) characters… who don’t get to be funny but they do get to deliver some very touching moments. Claire Koenig as Peter is a wonder. We believe she’s the boy who doesn’t want to grow up (because grown-ups lie and cheat). Smart fellow! Lauren Elias as the Wendy stand-in (Please don’t ask me why she’s not actually named Wendy), does have some sport, challenging and besting the “lost boys” and some heartache when she leaves them. Liz Adams as her stalwart father oozes good breeding and fair play. Valera Bamgala, likewise, is the stand up captain of the ship with the wrong cargo. (Again, don’t ask me about the cargo. I completely lost track of the second treasure chest and I’ve seen the play before.)

Here’s the deal. The brilliant ensemble cast keeps you on your toes, expecting another surprise around the next corner. And the surprises keep coming. You’re laughing so hard, you’re afraid you’ll laugh over the dialogue so you try to squeal quietly, using your inside voice so you won’t miss anything. It’s exhausting, having such a grand time. Who cares about the silly plot anyway.