Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Power of Song By Beverly Creasey

American Classics has been doing it for eons. Overture Productions had a good run. Now Metro Stage is getting into the act with a concert performance of VICTOR VICTORIA. The advantages of a concert musical are threefold: You get dialogue, story and you get to concentrate on the lyrics…in this case, Leslie Bricusse’s cheerfully goofy rhymes about Paris nightlife (“Losing my libido…at the Lido….like a big torpedo”). As far as I’m concerned, it works better this way.

Leigh Barrett and Henri Mancini are a match made in heaven. Barrett soars on Mancini’s ascents, giving Victor/Victoria warmth and depth. Robert Saoud as Toddy masterminds the hoax (and masters the hilarious double entendre) which has Bob DeVivo (as the macho wheeler dealer) falling for Victor. Jennifer Ellis (as his moll) squeaks her way into the frivolity, (Boy, can she sing!) rivaled only by Robert Case as DeVivo’s loyal enforcer. Directed by Chris Carcione, with musical support from Maria Duaime, this VICTOR VICTORIA is acted and sung so gorgeously, it’s a pity it couldn’t have a longer run.

Boston has missed chanteuse Jan Peters. And we don’t hear John O’Neil nearly often enough so their reunion cabaret this past weekend was reason for celebration. Add to that the news that Peters is moving back this month and the audience was ecstatic. Throw in the Jim Rice Trio and you have a classy, jazzy and “Impossibly Lyrical” evening of song.

Peters is queen of the smooth, silky delivery and O’Neil is cabaret royalty. Both can tear at your heart strings and tickle your funny bone with equal skill. They both know how to “work” a crowd: O’Neil with his delicious spoof of Broadway musicals and his delightful, laugh filled “Don’t You Hate It When They Make You Sing Along” (We didn’t and we did!)…and Peters with her heroic “save” of “Ring Them Bells” when a naughty audience member tried to upstage her. (Not bloody likely!)

All anyone could say at the end of the night was “More. Give us more… soon!”

Jason Robert Brown’s THE LAST FIVE YEARS is more of a concert show than it is your old fashioned, production number-filled musical. The two character piece traces a couple through song from the first blush of romance to the pain of divorce …with a clever trick. Her reminiscences are backwards in time and his are forward. They come together only when the two trajectories intersect in the middle: in love in Central Park in a boat.

Mark Linehan shines in the comic songs (especially the tale of “Schmuel”) but it’s Aimee Doherty who gets my sympathy (perhaps it’s because we women stick together??). She has the light, cheery numbers (like the amusing “audition” songs and the wonderfully sardonic “Summer in Ohio.” Doherty portrays Cathy as eager, indefatigable and eminently reasonable where Jamie, the writer/husband, seems awfully full of himself.

Director Jim Petosa keeps the pace brisk and designer Cristina Todesco gives us a pair of gorgeous Chagall panels shaped like ellipses at either end of the small black box stage. Alas, the double sided seating right up to the exits and the elongation of the playing area make it difficult to hear all of Brown’s catchy lyrics when the actors leave center stage. Music director Todd C. Gordon’s tiny ensemble has a big orchestra sound, especially moving when the cello duets with Doherty, both perfectly expressing what heartache feels like.

Friday, March 25, 2011

From The Halls Of Montezuma To The Shores Of Tripoli: AGAIN? By Beverly Creasey

War. What is it good for? The answer to Edwin Starr’s famous question is Absolutely Nothing! Three significant plays about the cost of war have opened this March and each is a must see.

Diane Paulus’ brilliantly conceived (Tony winning) revival of HAIR is raising the roof at the Colonial (through April 10th), resonating all the way to the Middle East with its anti-war heart and all the way to Japan with its prophetic references to radiation. This is not your grandfather’s HAIR. Time has given the musical gravitas and Paulus has given it new, electrifying Life. The fresh-faced, cheeky cast (chiefly Steel Burkhardt, Paris Remillard and a wailing guitar section) lead this juggernaut to its breathtaking last, symbolic image.

Never mind the financial cost of waging three wars (I stand corrected: two wars and one “military action”) at the same time, it’s the human cost that matters. Bill Cain’s 9 CIRCLES (at the BCA through April 9th) meanders through Dante’s Inferno as a young soldier (Jimi Stanton) awaits trial for the atrocities he committed in Iraq as part of “shock and awe.” The army that placed the gun in his hand and civilians in his sights, wants nothing to do with him now. Cain niftily substitutes part for the whole in his wrenching allegory about guilt and responsibility.

The first ring of Hell offers an attorney who wants to put the military on trial. Subsequent levels offer authority figures with varying agendas… which may or may not aide the accused. Cain draws on an actual incident for his tragedy of errors (from the recruiters who sign up troubled teens to the shrinks who send them back into battle with PTSD), so 9 CIRCLES can work as realistic drama as well as parable.

Eric Engel’s shocking production for the Publick Theatre allows us to see Stanton’s Private Reeves as victim (the poster child for what’s wrong with the military) as well as the perpetrator of evil. Will McGarrahan delivers a tour de force as all the lawyers and one outrageous pastor (sending chills up and down the spine). Amanda Collins plays all her roles with compassion, including the overwhelmed psychiatrist. The stunning Publick production is plenty rattling even before John Malinowski turns those judgmental lights on us.

BENT (at Hovey Players through this weekend only) transports us to WWII where two inmates at Dachau struggle to maintain their humanity in spite of their inhumane treatment at the hands of the Nazis. The two are homosexual, making them more repugnant “than Jews” in the eyes of their tormentors, says one of the two to the other. Act I sets up the circumstances for their capture but Act II is what lifts Martin Sherman’s play to the extraordinary. He gives testament to the power of words. Evan Bernstein and Ian Schleifer bring pathos and dignity to their remarkable relationship, demonstrating the healing power of love.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Alexander The Great And His Ragtime Band By Beverly Creasey

If American Classics’ “ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BANDAT ONE HUNDRED hadn’t been such a delightful birthday party, you might have considered the Irving Berlin celebration a master class on how to deliver a song. There are so many ways: You can deliver it “straight,” you can act out the song, you can turn it into comic gold, you can turn it inside out…The possibilities are endless.

American Classics joined forces with some of the best musical theater stars in Boston for a joyous evening overflowing with laughter and song this past weekend. The concert hall at Longy was packed to the rafters with celebrants, including Berlin’s daughter and granddaughter and the bigwigs from the Rogers & Hammerstein Organization.

Leigh Barrett and Peter Foxon Miller invented a delicious comic scene while they sang Snookey Ookums, Berlin’s tongue in cheek send up of gooey love songs. Valerie Anastasio’s hilarious Mysterious Rag imitated art as her legs took on a syncopated life of their own. Edward M. Barker made Everybody’s Doing It Now imperative and Kerry A. Dowling brought Scottish charm to the Bagpipe version of Alexander’s Ragtime Band.

Eric R. Bronner captured that vintage Follies flavor with his gorgeous, straightforward delivery of The Girl on the Magazine (Cover). You could easily imagine him serenading a bevy of beauties as they descended the stairs behind him. Mary Ann Lanier, Heather Peterson and Anastasio provided fancy harmonies for Everybody Step and indeed, everyone was stepping out the rhythm and tapping up a storm in their seats. The lyric, “written for your feet” is exactly what Berlin accomplished: Not a still shoe in the house!

American Classics splurged on musicians, as well, with Tim Harbold joining the fabulous Margaret Ulmer on piano and Jim Dalton (banjo), Eli Newburger (tuba) and Dean Groves (percussion) adding pizzazz (and the odd train whistle) to the musical accompaniment. The embarrassment of riches included Brian De Lorenzo’s amusing Ragtime Violin and Joei Marshall Perry’s mock operatic Mesmerizing Mendelssohn Tune. Ben Sears pleased the crowd with the Yiddische Izzie Get Busy and Brad Conner set the pace with I’d Rather Lead a Band. Of course we all got into the act, along with the ensemble, for a rousing rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band. It wouldn’t have been a proper party if we hadn’t!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pretty Good Yarn By Beverly Creasey

I’m not a fan of Neil LaBute’s discomforting work like IN THE COMPANY OF MEN or FAT PIG because, even though I know some men feel emasculated by women – and I know society, (not just men) places value on outward beauty, LaBute writes about it in terms that make my skin crawl. Imagine my surprise when I saw SpeakEasy Stage’s hilarious (but still disturbing) production of REASONS TO BE PRETTY (playing through April 2nd).

LaBute lightens up at bit on the blame game (believe it or not) – and I say that knowing full well that the opening scene would make a sailor (no, the whole Navy) blush. He nails the comedy in the war of the sexes in both camps. (There is an irredeemably despicable character written as a cipher but he’s not the man at the center of the play).

That particular guy is remarkably sympathetic. It’s his girlfriend who is totally unreasonable in the first scene. We can understand why she’s furious: He’s told a friend that he wouldn’t trade her and her “regular” face for a thousand knockouts like the hot new hire at work. The friend’s wife overhears and passes it on.

Poor Greg (the charming Andy Macdonald). He’s the unfortunate schlub who just digs the hole deeper trying to explain away his remarks to a raging Angie Jepson. “It was a point of contrast with you as the good thing!” Jepson as Steph reacts with a nuclear meltdown. The audience is in stitches, having been, no doubt, in similar tight fitting shoes.

LaBute is still the master manipulator (he gets us to condone and congratulate violence) but he’s not so obvious in this play and the ride is amusing. There’s payback but it’s subtle compared to his other spirit crushing plays. Characters grow and there’s even hope to savor for three of the four characters at the end of REASONS TO BE PRETTY. Angie Jepson’s rage has subsided. Danielle Muehlen will see the light and our hero can move on (and up). Only Burt Grinstead escapes LaBute’s kind reformations.

Eric Levenson’s magnificent industrial set looms over the action, as if the rows and rows of metal shelves (looking like lab animal cages) might topple, like their lives are collapsing. As clever as Levenson’s ominous work “cages,” are Rick Brenner’s echoing click-clicks of high heels on concrete, warning the men that women are around, observing them. Gail Astrid Buckley fits the warehouse workers in dusty grey jumpsuits which fit their grey lives but her “dress up” attire for Steph at play’s end bursts out in color, just as Jeff Adelberg’s lighting reflects LaBute’s optimism (Yes, optimism! Who knew!).

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Mama Said There’d Be Days Like This By Beverly Creasey

I adore Alan Ayckbourn. THE NORMAN CONQUESTS are my favorite farces, followed closely by ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR and myriad others. Zeitgeist Stage’s riotous production of his PRIVATE FEARS IN PUBLIC PLACES still has me giggling (and reenacting the video scene) a year later.

MY WONDERFUL DAY (up at Zeitgeist through March 26th) is not your usual Ayckbourn brand of madcap mayhem. MY WONDERFUL DAY is a slow burning ember which ignites at the end of the play. It’s like watching a Rube Goldberg contraption advance a ball which hits a lever that drops a hammer which hits a nail…You get the idea. The cogs in the machine turn like clockwork until the cuckoo pops out on the hour.

The birdie in WONDERFUL DAY is a sweet little girl’s assignment to write about her day. Her pregnant mom (Obehi Janice) cleans houses and this particular Tuesday she’s in tow, having been instructed to sit very quietly and finish her homework. Alanna Logan plays the obedient (and extremely savvy) nine year old whom none of the adults seem to notice. When mom’s water breaks (It’s like the theatrical rule about the gun: If you introduce one, it has to go off.) poor Winnie is left in this unfamiliar house with strangers who are melting down left and right. Winnie gets to witness and record it all in her notebook.

Zeitgeist veterans Becca Lewis and Craig Houk are masters of farce, the former playing the tactless, witless mistress of a television celebrity who takes advantage of his wife’s absence to invite her over. Houk can, as they say, read the phonebook and get laughs but his fitful nap and fabulous snoring in WONDERFUL DAY are reason alone to see the play. Director David Miller knows his way around farce and gives his cast lots of opportunities (and pratfalls) to prove it.

Winnie and her mom (tenderly played by Janice) practice their French every Tuesday in hopes of moving to Martinique. The stupid adults assume Winnie doesn’t understand English and Ayckbourn moves another cog into place in his comedy machine.

John Romualdi and Angela Smith are the estranged husband and wife (another cog). You know when they collide, there will be fireworks. I must admit I prefer the fast paced Ayckbourn farces where you have no time between the gags to analyze anything – but there’s something to be said for the chance to see how he carefully layers the plot and makes a strong statement about class callousness, to boot.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

THE HOTEL NEPENTHE: Open For Business By Beverly Creasey

THE HOTEL NEPENTHE is a four star destination this month (playing through March 20th at the Actor’s Shakespeare Project in funky, fabulous Davis Sq.) Not exactly the “kind” elixir proffered by Poe, a hit of John Kuntz’s NEPENTHE induces a wild ride through a bizarre and often hazardous world. Kuntz’s Grand Hotelesque play embraces eccentrics, crackpots and psychos as they meander in an absurdist roundelay.

Who cares if the through line is perforated, the loosely connected stories are hilarious, even the grimmest of them. Kuntz and director David R. Gammons bombard us with pop allusions: from the Perry Mason theme song to one of my favorite spaghetti westerns (A Fistful of tinkling watch chimes spins Kuntz’s characters around in a frenzy). And if that weren’t enough to make me happy, Kuntz himself melts down royally, in one spectacular bit of business, over the loss of his keys. In that instant, art imitated my life, as I had lost my keys just hours before, enacting a tiny meltdown myself!

The heady cast inhabits over a dozen characters: from Marianna Bassham’s cold, calculating wife of a politician out to compromise her husband to Georgia Lyman’s vacuous starlet for the ages to Daniel Berger-Jones’ ominous cab driver (Is there any other kind in movies and theater?) to Kuntz’s affable taxi dispatcher. The performances are dead on and thanks to Gammons’ ingenious design (scenic and costume) we see the actors transform into their next character. Jeff Adelberg’s lighting morphs as well, from ambient to sinister… and into actual flashes of lightening (via tubes of light outside each “dressing room”). Bill Barclay’s sound, too, plays a pivotal role in the performance, giving the technical crew quite a workout and the audience quite an adventure.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

House of Games By Beverly Creasey

Playwright Theresa Rebeck adds one hundred and thirty years to Ibsen’s feminist masterpiece, yanking it into the 21st century. DollHouse is Rebeck’s re-imagining of the Ibsen classic (running at New Repertory Theatre through March 20th).

The catch-22 in updating A DOLL’S HOUSE is that we have to root for a shrill, self-centered, preening woman who would rather shop at Barney’s than care for her children. (The nanny does that.) She’s a woman so out of touch with the world around her that, when she desperately needs money, she doesn’t think of getting a job/hocking her diamonds/selling her designer togs on E-Bay/borrowing against her inheritance. Even a loan shark is a better choice than embezzlement. (Rebeck follows Ibsen so closely that she’s obliged to keep the forgery (now embezzlement) plot. I’m satisfied that in 1879 Nora had no other outlet but I just can’t buy that in 2011).

Director Bridget Kathleen O’Leary’s production starts out whimsically, getting plenty of laughs from Nora’s (Sarah Newhouse) surprise reunion with a high school friend. Jennie Israel makes their class differences delightfully awkward. And Israel makes the friend’s betrayal completely believable, even laudatory. To her credit, O’Leary gives the secondary characters a wide berth. Diego Arciniegas is mysteriously compelling as their doctor/friend and Cheryl D. Singleton makes the most of a thankless nanny role. But why does Nora need to leave her children to find herself when she could get a divorce/see a shrink/take an adult ed course/volunteer at a soup kitchen?

Adding to my difficulties with Nora’s lying and buying is the way her husband is played in the New Rep production. Will Lyman gently chides her (for shopping too much or being a soft touch) but he doesn’t go ballistic until the very, very end when he transforms into Bogie from THE MALTESE FALCON (“I’m not takin’ the fall.”) Until then, the worst thing you can say about him is that he’s overprotective. Lyman makes lines like “I don’t want that man in my house” seem eminently reasonable (given that he doesn’t know the facts). So there’s my problem. I liked him so much more than her. I even liked the reluctant blackmailer (Gabriel Kuttner) more than I liked Nora. My favorite interaction in the play is the kindness scene between Nora’s friend and the blackmailer.

Watching the audience, I observed an abrupt magnetic connect when Nora fights to be heard. When she accuses her husband of “not listening,” you could hear the female audience audibly assent. When he asserts the notion that women don’t say anything worth listening to, the males laughed in unison. Every mind in the audience was engaged. Her husband’s assertion that he would never take the blame for her foolish crime resonated for me because of a recent Massachusetts court case (involving a politician whose wife kept the books for her brother’s money laundering scheme) .She went to jail, maintaining her husband didn’t have any knowledge of the crime. He remains in office, evidently untarnished by the affair. Welcome to the real DollHouse.