Wednesday, October 3, 2012

TOMMY Rocks and RAGTIME Rises Above Opening Night By Beverly Creasey


The beloved Turtle Lane Playhouse is about to close its doors this winter. If you want to know why this is a tragedy, you need only see their passionate production of TOMMY (playing through Oct. 28th).
TLP has had a lot of hits and a few misses over the past thirty plus years…but what they have that few others do is endless heart and an abundance of talent. Their DROWSY CHAPERONE, for instance, outshone their competition’s production but the downtown show got all the attention.
Their TOMMY is the Broadway version by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff (with additional music and tweaked lyrics by John Entwistle and the late great Keith Moon). Fans of the original rock opera, like me, will miss the amperage but music director Thomas Young’s band at TLP gets the balance just right for the singers: You can hear every word clearly and isn’t that the point of a musical: To let the audience hear the lyrics? (See RAGTIME below). Still, this ancient hippie wishes The Who’s iconic, emblematic chords had been rendered full volume. (That’s my only suggestion for the show!)
TLP’s cast is remarkable, with performers in the ensemble who headline elsewhere. (Jared Walsh, for example, received an IRNE nod for the lead in last year’s SPRING AWAKENING.) Even the child performers are pros. (Spenser Evett who plays the 10 year old Tommy has been in shows at the Huntington, New Rep and Project Shakespeare.) And the phenomenal Kendra Alati (the Acid Queen) has multiple IRNE nominations.
All the elements (set, costumes, choreography etc) converge in director Steve Black’s powerful version. I prefer the ‘60s sensibilities at TLP to the emphasis on the ‘50s in the Broadway version. Even though some of the story takes place in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the music doesn’t. Julie Ann Silverman’s exuberant choreography happily reflects the music, not the setting and that’s what makes the show. Saulius Slezas’s projections, too, amp up the production values, as in the WWII sequence when paratroopers jump out of a plane, niftily staged by Black.
The leads are so damn good, you’d swear they were all rockers. From the sensational Brendan Young Colcord as Tommy to Aidan Nevin and Melissa Gates as his parents, right down to Cameron Levesque as the four year old Tommy (and all the secondary characters), this TOMMY “gets the glory.” Even the understudies at my performance, (Sarajane Mullins as mother and Gates in for Alati) kicked it. If you’ve never seen TOMMY, this is the one to see. If you have, you’ll appreciate what Turtle Lane can do. To repurpose a lyric from the original opera for the rock ‘n roll geezers out there, “Hey you, smoking mother nature, this is a [must].”


RAGTIME (at the Strand through Oct. 7th) and Turtle Lane have a strong connection. RAGTIME stars Shonna Cirone as Mother and she and husband Kevin, also in RAGTIME, have appeared many times at TLP. Director/producer Meg Fofonoff has assembled a cast of over three dozen performers, many of whom came from New York for her extravagant production. All I can say about it is that it looks gorgeous.  
On press night the sound system malfunctioned so badly that no dialogue could be heard and no lyrics could be understood. Great gashes of feedback punctuated the performance and I couldn’t tell you whether they sang well or not. It improved a tiny bit after intermission and then it reverted to garble again. (Friends who went the next night said they still had sound problems but it was possible to make out the lyrics.) With all the money spent on the production, they didn’t spring for a decent sound system?
What a shame. I know Shonna and Kevin Cirone. I know June Baboian and McCaela Donovan. I know Matt Phillips. All stellar performers but I didn’t hear the show, an irony brought home by Colehouse Walker’s final song, “Make Them Hear You.” Much is made in RAGTIME of the “crime of the century” but the real crime is having all those talented actor/singers amassed and not being able to hear them. That means not being able to nominate them, either. More’s the pity there.

                                                RAGTIME: TAKE II

After a disappointing opening night without clear sound in most of the house, RAGTIME is back and so am I. The opening night problems were, I’m told, “out of their control” and repairs have been made to the antiquated sound system at the Strand. I only wish everyone who went opening night could see (and hear) the show I saw today.
Here I am again: This time crying my eyes out, the depth of emotion in the musical is so strong. I wept at Mother’s “What Kind of a Woman,” at Tateh’s “Shetl iz Amereke,” at Sarah’s “Your Daddy’s Son” and buckets over Colehouse. These are performers who dig deep. What a difference SOUND makes.
Meg Fofonoff’s cast delivers by the cartload. Anne McAlexander’s choreography soars, especially for the Harlem Ensemble. Their “Gettin’ Ready Rag” will have your shoulders dancing. RAGTIME lives large, sweeping us along with the tumultuous history of the early 20th century but it’s also a love story. Our hearts break, along with Sarah’s (the lovely Tia DeShazor) when she thinks she has to live without Colehouse (the magnificent Damian Norfleet). Where Norfleet makes Colehouse straight-spined and righteous, DeShazor’s Sarah is shy and small and soft, an elegant study in contrasts.
On the other side of New York City, Mother (the luminous Shonna Cirone) is ensconced in white privilege, with maids to serve their wealthy, intergenerational family. There’s a crusty grandpa (Ron A. Cook), a spunky, prescient Little Boy (Alec Shiman), mother’s restless brother (Michael A. Dunavant) and an old fashioned father (Greg Balla). Both Dunavant and Balla are standouts when their stories intertwine with Colehouse’s.
On the salt-of-the-earth immigrant side, Adam Shapiro gives Tateh an expansive heart and a generous soul, even when he’s resisting Emma Goldman’s offers of help. June Baboian is irresistible as the no nonsense social reformer. “The Night That Goldman spoke at Union Square” is a delight.
McCaela Donovan as Evelyn Nesbit makes the “Crime of the Century” crackle with sardonic wit and Jared Dixon makes Booker T. Washington a tower of serenity. Matt Phillipps’ Houdini is bombastic, as you would expect, but Phillips gives him a vulnerable side when he finally understands the Little Boy’s warning. Every character has character, even the secondary roles. Todd Alan Little is a driven Henry Ford and Martin Allegretti literally steps on his fellow human beings as J.P.Morgan.
Only one small glitch affected the performance I attended. A mic cut out on Aubin Wise as she began to sing the high flung funeral eulogy but little Julia DeLuzio unobtrusively emerged like a seasoned trouper with a hand held mic. Nothing could stop Wise’s mighty “high Cs” from reaching the rafters, not even two dead microphones.
From Janie E. Howland’s breathtaking set- which kept changing in Zach Blane’s impressive lighting design-to Jennifer Tremblay’s sumptuous turn of the century costumes to Matthew Stern’s lilting, pulsing, rousing orchestra this is a RAGTIME to savor.