Monday, January 30, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW The Wonderful Wizard and Toto, Too By Beverly Creasey

The Wheelock Family Theatre has been producing exceptional work for thirty years. Where else can you see children and professional actors working together on the same stage, looking just like us: all sizes, all colors, all ages and all abilities…all enriching every production!

Producer Susan Kosoff and managing director Jane Staab (snarling as Wicked Witch in their current production of THE WIZARD OF OZ) have done the impossible. They’ve kept ticket prices low enough ($15 to some performances) so that the whole family can experience the wonder of live theater. And should your children itch to be on stage, they offer myriad classes and programs. Many of their charges have gone on to the professional stage – like their Dorothy in this production.

Katherine Leigh Doherty performed on Broadway with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC. Now she’s back sharing the Wheelock stage with the most adorable Toto I’ve ever encountered and a Wizard who “if ever, oh ever, a wiz there was” he’s the genuine article. Sofia Pilar Villafane as Toto and John Davin as the title character spark the production to life.

Some sound glitches and a few distracted performances on opening weekend couldn’t keep the audience of mostly children from drinking in every moment. The kids I asked all knew the movie by heart so they were anticipating every scene, every line.

It’s not easy to outshine some of Boston’s finest actors, but put Sofia Villafane in a tiny dog costume (by Melissa Miller), watch her sniffle, whimper, waddle and sit – and you can’t take your eyes off her! (Frankly, she’s the one to watch in some of the overlong production numbers like the Jitterbug scene, wisely cut from the MGM movie.) When the Tin Man (Shelley Bolman) says goodbye to Toto and the Lion (Timothy John Smith) shakes her paw, that’s when the real sentiment kicks in.

You know what they say about children and dogs. (W.C. Fields hated appearing with either because he said no one would pay attention to him.) Well, put them together in one delightful package, in a little actress whose belief in magic transforms her from human to canine, and you have the best reason to see director James P. Byrne’s THE WIZARD OF OZ.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Brits Move Next Door By Beverly Creasey

British playwright Peter Shaffer is best known for his international success with Equus and Amadeus. His LETTICE AND LOVAGE (playing @ Next Door Center for the Arts through Jan. 28th) is a lesser, dare I say fustian work made famous by Maggie Smith as the flamboyant tour guide with a penchant for wild embellishment. (FUSTIAN is the name Shaffer gives to the historic home on the National Preservation tour.)

Lucky for Next Door, director Brian Milauskas has two formidable actresses to play off each other to “enlarge, enliven and enlighten” the languorous script. Shana Dirik gets the plum role of Lettice, the larger than life, self proclaimed authority on all things historical. She’s simply delightful as Sarah DeLima’s charismatic nemesis.

As head of the Preservation Bureau, DeLima’s Lotte frowns on historical embroidery but in the course of the play she is transformed by Lettice and the two join forces perhaps a little too forcefully. Milauskas gets charming performances, too, from Angela Smith as Lotte’s fussy mouse of a secretary and from Michael Levesque as the flabbergasted attorney retained when a reenactment literally gets out of hand.

The play may wander in fits and starts but the cast (and some stirring Vivaldi) keep it humming.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW ART for Art’s Sake By Beverly Creasey

What is art? Who decides? For one thing, it’s a hilarious play getting a first rate production at New Repertory Theatre (through Feb. 5th). Yasmina Reza’s ART, in a witty translation by Christopher Hampton, deliciously riffs on the eye of the beholder.’

The arguments for and against modern art could go on forever. Critics are still debating Marcel Duchamps’ toilet “ready-made” almost a century later. Reza’s ART places a totally white painting center stage. Then she creates a serious rift in a long time friendship over its merits.

The arguments pro and con could devolve into eye glazing academics were it not for Reza’s clever dialogue, the wonderfully comic character of the mediator and director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman’s delightful, energetic production for New Rep.

Robert Walsh is the self absorbed art collector who cannot believe his ears when his friend of fifteen years dismisses both his painting and his taste in one crude fell swoop. His surprise is palpable (and pretty funny, to boot). Robert Pemberton is the condescending friend who considers himself the voice of reason. Both of them behave like schoolboys on the brink of fisticuffs.

Best of all is Doug Lockwood as their poor, benighted, about to be married chum. The last thing he needs, finding himself in the middle of a feud with his almost mother-in-law, is to referee this melee. His monologue recounting his impending marital woes is the highlight of the New Rep production and when Walsh and Pemberton turn on him, it’s farce at its silly best. Having seen a more serious version of the play, I much prefer Antonio Ocampo-Guzman and company’s comic take.

Friday, January 13, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Donuts to Dollars By Beverly Creasey

The Lyric Stage Company is giving Tracy Letts’ crowd-pleaser, SUPERIOR DONUTS, a smart, sweet glaze. I can’t imagine a more talented cast. Spiro Veloudos’ production makes every moment pop. (These DONUTS should sell like hotcakes through Feb. 4th.)

Letts’ script is peppered with snappy one-liners and enough oddball characters to keep a nifty little comedy bubbling along – but Letts doesn’t stop there. He interweaves recollections of the Viet Nam era through monologues and introduces a serious threat in Act II (and a manipulative fistfight which has the audience cheering on violence, much to my pacifist chagrin.) Most importantly, Veloudos and company make all the detours work.

Despite the somber turn, DONUTS stays true to its sentimental core. Will Lebow is sensational as the disillusioned bakery owner brought to his senses by Omar Robinson as the fast talking, charismatic new hire. Robinson is perfection as the hilarious antidote to Lebow’s lethargy. Steven Barkhimer is thoroughly amusing as the Russian video store owner who infuriates De’Lon Grant as the Star Trek loving cop sent to investigate a break-in. His partner (Karen MacDonald) is turned to mush in the presence of the donut purveyor (and visa versa) providing some funny bumps on the road to romance.

Beth Goda makes the quirky AA lady a loveable regular and Christopher James Webb and Zachary Eisenstat provide the sinister touch. In the “making a small part count” category, Steven James DeMarco has one of the loveliest moments in the play when he offers Goda’s character his hand.

Monday, January 9, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Fire in the Belly By Beverly Creasey

I always hope that a theater production will thrill me, or any work of art, for that matter. I’ve seen paintings that have. Years ago I saw the Rothko works which Harvard was about to shut away forever to stop the colors from deteriorating. Faded or no, they thrilled.

Now SpeakEasy Stage Company has thrilled me with their remarkable production of the celebrated Mark Rothko play called RED (@ BCA through Feb. 4th). John Logan’s Tony Award winning drama finds Rothko in the late 1950s struggling with the famous Seagram commission. (Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson imagined their ground breaking building with a sumptuous restaurant ringed in Rothko murals.) Is he selling out? Improving on the architecture? Educating the rich who will be its only diners? Or can he teach them a sardonic lesson by making the paintings uncomfortable to view?

While Rothko wrestles with the morality of the commission, he wrestles with a young painter whom he hires as his assistant, a young man who represents the death (or at least the eclipse) of abstract expressionism. Rothko isn’t pleased that the likes of Frank Stella and Andy Warhol have overshadowed him (although in my opinion Stella is far closer to Rothko than to the pop/op superstars Logan lumps all together).

Logan’s research is breathtaking: He uses Rothko’s own words (which were prolific) to teach his upstart employee about art history. Rothko was not silent about his work…or his detractors. Logan captures “the tragedy in every brush stroke” with depth and dialogue. Thomas Derrah captures the man with every breath, every step. He charges like a rhino, whose legs are too close to the ground to evade predators. He uses his arms and hands like the rhino uses his horn, forcing people out of his way. He slaps his assistant’s chest and thumps his head as if to knock in “thinking,” viewing the entire world with disdain.

Karl Baker Olson gives an extraordinary performance as the “employee,” moving from toady to surrogate son to future rebel. The chemistry between the two is palpable. Derrah’s tour de force erupts from within. His Rothko is a bully and a genius and he lets us see the torture behind the tough defenses, the fear that one day “Black will swallow red.”

Rothko was prescient about light. He painted in dim spaces without natural light. “Light hurts [the paintings], he tells his assistant metaphorically. He didn’t know then that sunlight would literally decay the commercial (house) paint he preferred to artist’s pigment. Logan’s play resonates in even more ways. He’s writing about creation – and in a coup like no other I’ve seen, he allows us in when we watch the two men prime a canvas. It’s a spectacular moment. Do not miss the fire and crackle director David R. Gammons and company ignite with RED.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Merry Mayhem By Beverly Creasey

I’m an unabashed Alan Ayckbourn fan. (THE NORMAN CONQUESTS are my favorite comedies.) Now I have a second favorite. SEASON’S GREETINGS (up at the Wellesley Summer Theatre Company through Jan 29th) covers the same treacherous familial territory but the circumstances in his holiday play are skewed sideways when a handsome writer is invited for the festivities by one hopeful sister and pursued shamelessly by two others. Ayckbourn is at his best, creating the quintessential British mix of hysteria and understatement.

The men of the family would rather be anywhere else than assisting their women. Ed (Danny Bolton) would rather read comic books. Neville (Will Keary) would rather tinker in his workshop. Bernard (Derek Stone Nelson) would rather stage puppet shows and Uncle Harvey (Ed Peed) would rather watch chase movies. In short, the men are simply hilarious. Not that their women are completely compos mentis, mind you.

One is pregnant, one is potted, one is out of her depth and one can’t wait to plunge into the deep end. It’s the stuff of legendary family gatherings. Each misunderstanding, each misstep leads to comic gold. Ayckbourn’s set-ups are as delightful as their denouements. We watch Belinda (Ashley Gramolini) eagerly eyeing the writer (Dan Roach) but our hearts are with poor, benighted Rachel (Christine Hamel) as she sabotages her own chances for romantic success.

We sympathize with pregnant Patty (Sarah Barton) but we fully understand why Ed retreats. Charlotte Peed as Phyllis gets immense laughs long before she even enters, via Bernard’s blow-by-blow descriptions of her culinary injuries. Then she does and we can’t stop the giggling. Director Shelley Bolman and company make merry perfection, right down to Nelson’s show stopping Three Little Pigs. Do not miss this gem.