Friday, May 31, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Scaling THE HEIGHTS at SpeakEasy By Beverly Creasey

First, let’s get the word out. IN THE HEIGHTS, the Tony Award winning musical (produced by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the BCA) has been extended AGAIN, through June 30th. Composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote his valentine to Washington Heights as a sophomore at Wesleyan University. From there it picked up a book writer, Queria Alegria Hudes, a musical format and a whole lot of awards. This may be the successor to RENT in the appeal department. The performers are, many of them, still students at Boston Conservatory (where director Paul Daigneault teaches) and the feel of the show is definitely young and hip (hop).

IN THE HEIGHTS reminds me of Elmer Rice’s STREET SCENE, sprinkled with a little WEST SIDE STORY, a bit of LES MIZ and a hint of O Henry’s GIFT OF THE MAGI. Themes run through the musical instead of a plot, with a couple of love stories as a backdrop but mostly IN THE HEIGHTS is about finding community and a place to call ‘home.’

The music mixes rap (clever rhymes like “hypothetical” and a “set of goals”) with pop, jazz and a Latin beat. Diego Klock-Perez (as composer Miranda’s alter ego) is a juggernaut as the main character, with standout help from Jorge Barranco, Jared Dixon, Santina Umbach, Alessandra Valea and the whole remarkable, high energy cast. For me, Larry Sousa’s choreography made the show. The dancers fly through the sky, landing in spectacular splits like the Nicholas Brothers. They grab a funky beat, shake it out, tie it to a basketball move, jerk its tail inside out and walk it en masse, Evita-style. What else can I say? The dancing left me completely wowed.

Saturday, May 25, 2013


Blue Spruce Theatre hasn’t been around for a while—and they’ve been missed. This weekend only (through May 26th) you can see why when they return for five performances of magical, operatic proportion at Arsenal Center, Watertown.

GOBLIN MARKET and THE RAG DOLL are one-act musical fantasies, linked only by the faintest flutter of fairy wings—and the same remarkable performers in both. Of the two, GOBLIN MARKET (by Polly Pen and Peggy Harmon) is the most classical, with gorgeous period music, some borrowed from composers like Brahms and Scarlatti, to serve as perfect settings for the famous “Goblin Market” poem by Christina Rossetti.

Rossetti’s cautionary tale about resisting the pleasures of the night gives choreographer Kira Cowan ample opportunity to translate the forbidden/forbidding images into gestural form. Director Jesse Strachman’s performers do it all superbly. They sing, act and dance the dance of “goblins, rats and wombats.” Teresa Winner Blume is riveting as the sister who falls under the goblins’ spell, whirling in ecstasy as she joins the goblin men, devouring their enchanted fruit. (Rossetti is most famous for her religious writings so you can imagine the Freudian symbolism rampant in “Goblin Market!”)

Abigail Clarke gives a lovely, solid performance as the sensible, heroic sister who embarks on a journey of sacrifice to match wits with the goblins and save her sister. Rossetti’s language is florid and quite funny at times and both Blume and Clarke capture the Victorian spirit of the piece. Music director Dan Rodriguez’s quartet plays nimbly and oh so exquisitely in the classical mode, aided in large part by Maiani de Silva (violin) and Kett Chuan Lee (cello). (The only hitch in the proceedings are the costumes which become scenery—a clever idea in the abstract but fraught in the concrete, when the undoing and doing up of those pesky buttons does the women in. Sarah Caldwell used to have singers dressing and undressing during arias and it most always proved fatal.)

After intermission you’ll be treated to a world premiere of THE RAG DOLL with music and lyrics by David Reiffel, book by Sylvia Graziano. Blue Spruce enlisted Reiffel when they were looking for a companion piece to “Goblin Market.” (You can’t go to an evening of cabaret in Boston without hearing a number composed by Reiffel, his songs are so imaginative and sing-able.) The music for THE RAG DOLL ranges from “new” to “formal” to Sondheim-inspired (The “thimble as a symbol, brine as a sign” song sounds like an outtake from INTO THE WOODS for heaven sakes), all of it delightful.

A violent storm brings a mysterious homeless woman (Blume) to Clarke’s door, looking for shelter…or perhaps, something more? Clarke is amusing as the contemporary young woman too busy with her ear buds and IPhone to bother with someone out of her element. Reiffel has an ear for the absurd in the mundane—and the story benefits from the surprise and the humor in his lyrics. Blume is simply spellbinding (I couldn’t resist) as the woman who likes words beginning with “W.” How about WONDERFUL?

Saturday, May 18, 2013


The subject of Zeitgeist Stage Company’s superbly acted PUNK ROCK (playing thru May 25th) is cruelty. We all know there is cruelty in the world but isn’t there more kindness to counteract it? Two British high school students ask the question—and then find a sobering answer. Simon Stephens’ PUNK ROCK is certainly shocking—but not as shocking as Lindsay Anderson’s film, IF, was in l968. Both cover the same territory but the territory wasn’t as familiar back then as it is now.

Nowadays educators try to deal with bullying immediately, in order to stave off the consequences: depression, suicide, retaliation. In bygone days, a student who was bullied at least was safe at home but now the bully can come into his (her) bedroom via the internet. (Organizations like the “It Gets Better” Project try to offer hope and solutions through their website.)

Stephens was inspired by the events at Columbine to write about teenagers struggling with grades, popularity, bullies and the increasingly violent world they will inherit. At the outset, the students of PUNK ROCK seem like typical, bright teenagers. They’re British which means exam scores determine whether or not (and where) they go to college. They’re preoccupied with studying, dating and being part of a clique.

It’s not long before group dynamics begin to separate the leader from the followers and the bully from those frightened into submission. James Fay as Bennett is everyone’s worst nightmare. He singles out who he thinks is the weakest member of the library study group, a loner (Alex Levy as Chadwick) whose subject area is applied math. Of course, no one dares come to Chadwick’s aid because Bennett’s attention might turn to them instead.

Director David Miller’s cast is simply remarkable. The characters are intensely compelling and their stories connect with the audience from the get-go…and you don’t know what will happen or who will initiate it, until the end. It’s a well written script with smart dialogue. Lilly (Emily White as the new girl at school) befriends the quirky, amusing William (Phil Gillen) but Nicholas (Diego Buscaglia) has more appeal for her. Alana Osborn-Lief as Tanya conveys a desperate need to fit in, in contrast to Alexandra Marie Harrington as Cissy, Bennett’s loyal girlfriend and Victor Shopov has a well played cameo at play’s end.

Stephens’ mystery-thriller of a play is worlds better than any motion picture you might be thinking of seeing this weekend. Do give it a visit. Next Wednesday is “pay what you can” (minimum $7) night at Zeitgeist and that’s cheaper than a movie ticket. Zeitgeist is one of the best companies around doing cutting edge theater. Folks are always saying that the theater needs young audiences. Well, here’s a show twenty-somethings should be flocking to see. It’s their world, I’m sorry to say, for better or worse.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW New York State of Mind By Beverly Creasey

ON THE TOWN (at Lyric Stage through June 8th) is essentially the familiar MGM movie musical which showcased stars Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors out to conquer New York City in just twenty four hours. (MGM smartly financed the Broadway musical in return for the movie rights. Both the show and the film were hits—and their creators, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins and the songwriters, Comden and Green became Broadway royalty.)

It’s an impossible task to duplicate the exuberance of the movie but the Lyric Stage production has its moments, namely when the women in the story are on the hunt. Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, ladies (so they say) would swoon over “a man in uniform.” These women not only swoon, they swoop in on their targets with military precision. Poor Phil Tayler (in the Sinatra role) doesn’t stand a chance when Michele A. DeLuca (as the cab driving dynamo) wages a no holds barred romantic assault. She’s a force of nature. She’s delightful and she “Can Cook Too!”

Aimee Doherty, as well, gets “Carried Away” with Zachary Eisenstat in her sights. Director Spiro Veloudos knows how to stage a romp so when the third sailor (John Ambrosino) decides to track down the gorgeous girl (Lauren Gemelli) on a subway poster, they all join in on the naval exercise. Along the way they meet Sara deLima, who specializes in “dilly” roles (and this one has the name on it!) and J.T. Turner as Doherty’s extremely (but not always) patient fiancĂ©. Ilyse Robbins does double duty as DeLuca’s dowdy roommate and as choreographer (not an easy task on a stage as small as Lyric’s).

Jonathan Goldberg’s orchestra swings and Seaghan McKay’s New York projections do the trick to get us in a ‘40s mood but it’s the subway sounds and moving train “lights” (Scott Clyve, lighting designer) which impressed me the most. A simple rapid passage of rectangular blocks of light and you’re instantly transported to the “hole in the ground.” I never tire of theatrical magic.

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Keith Reddin’s ALMOST BLUE (Theatre on Fire @ Charlestown Working Theater thru May 18th) should rightly be called ALL BLUE because of a delightfully relentless, ever present character (named Blue) who knows everyone’s business in their run down rooming house—and what a character Kevin Fennessy makes him!

Fennessy sparks every scene he’s in. Blue is in Phil’s room more than Phil is. The brooding ex-con (James Bocock as Phil) doesn’t much care about living anymore so he tolerates this persistent pest of a neighbor. He plays cards with the man just to pass the time. He listens to the man’s elaborate chatter about writing a book on his life. (What life? No one has a life in this fleabag way station.) Sometimes Phil tries to kick him out. Not that Blue complies.

Reddin introduces all the requisite elements of noir (you know: the dame, the crime, the betrayal) but ALMOST BLUE turns out to be more of a cautionary tale: Be careful about lying. It can come back to bite you. The script reminded me of those current, gritty noir films you see on late night television where the prisoner gets out of jail hoping to go straight but he’s pulled back in by his old cell mates. (I think Harvey Keitel stars in all of them.)

Blue and Phil trade stories and nightmares and we’re never sure what’s true and what isn’t but one thing is clear: Blue seems to care genuinely for this tormented man who just wants to go back to prison. When Phil isn’t drunk, he’s beating himself up over the crime he can’t shake.

Reddin gives us scant information to work with so when new characters are introduced, like the seductive wife (Erin Brehm) of Phil’s former prison mate, I kept trying to figure out “why” she came to him. And later, “why” someone didn’t think of getting rid of her scary husband (Adam Siladi) as a solution. I don’t think the story is what really matters in ALMOST BLUE. It’s the characters who make it work and director Brett Marks has a taut ensemble to keep the audience in suspense.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Mostly Mozart By Beverly Creasey

Peter Shaffer’s engrossing AMADEUS (at New Repertory Theatre through May 19th) may name Mozart in the title but the Tony winning play put his rival, Salieri, on the map. Music scholars know the lesser 18th century composer for his rarely performed works but look up Salieri in the music dictionary and his students (Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt) are itemized, not his compositions.

The Mozart-Salieri connection has fascinated writers before. Thornton Wilder wrote a theatrical miniature more than fifty years ago in which Mozart is plagued by fears that Salieri, among others, might be trying to harm him. Shaffer’s play even mirrors the scene from the miniature where Mozart is visited by a mysterious, masked stranger dressed like the avenging statue from Mozart’s incomparable Don Giovanni.

Director Jim Petosa and company capture the lavish, arch style of the late 18th century, aided in good measure by Frances Nelson McSherry’s rich, sumptuous costumes and Rachel Padula Shufelt’s gorgeous wigs. Benjamin Evett’s Salieri wages his war with God as a siege. He will defeat his brilliant competitor by attrition, to repay God for bestowing genius on this “obscene” upstart instead of him. The dogged pursuit of Mozart as prey leaves one cringing from Salieri’s sadistic orchestrations. (Other productions have made Salieri wickedly charming, like Don Giovanni, but not this one.)

As Mozart, Tim Spears cavorts like a wild child, propelling himself like a human skateboard up onto Cristina Todesco’s curved centerpiece. Lines of longitude and latitude spread out onto the floor and a circle cutout in the sculpture becomes a stained glass window, a platform, a perch for Mozart to observe the action below. McCaela Donovan matches Mozart in playful innocence as Constanze, making Salieri’s sexual blackmail even more heinous.

Opera fans will find pleasure in the many references to Mozart’s operas, like the “Pa Pa” nicknames the couple swap (which become “Pa Pa Papageno” in The Magic Flute) or Mozart’s offer to let Constanze beat him when he’s been naughty (which becomes “Batti Batti” in Don Giovanni).

Salieri’s spies, Paula Langton and Michael Kay, add mischief to the mayhem while they carry out their Greek Chorus functions. The court scenes are delightful, with standout performances from Paul D. Farwell as a grumbling old official, from Evan Sanderson as a disapproving Baron, from Jeffries Thaiss as the opinionated Kapellmeister and best of all, from Russell Garrett, hilarious as the earnest but vaguely adrift Emperor Joseph. “Well, there it is.”

Sunday, May 5, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW All the Right Moves By Beverly Creasey

Even if the game itself doesn’t move you, the musical CHESS will (at Cambridge Y space thru May 11th). The Longwood Players production, under Kaitlyn Chantry’s astonishing direction, is unlike any other productions of CHESS I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a slew of them. Directors usually fall all over themselves to make coherent drama out of the thin Richard Nelson book for the musical, instead of focusing on Tim Rice’s hip, playful lyrics and the remarkable Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus score.

Chantry puts the music and the music-makers front and center, as if CHESS were a concert opera. (It is after all a rock opera). But don’t let my description put you off. There’s action aplenty and comic choreography galore. It’s just distilled, pared down, as it were, to fit onto a chess board/stage. (In fact, the actual chess moves for the chorus can be viewed even more clearly from the balcony.) If this sounds hokey, it isn’t. Chantry coaxes out the essence of the piece—and then presents it up close and personal. (This production felt like the most intimate, and exciting piece of theater I’d seen in a long time.)

Emotions are enhanced by the distillation—so much so, that in some songs they seem downright dangerous. After all, CHESS is set during the cold war when the actual matches between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky represented political dominance. Not many people today know who chess superstar Magnus Carlsen is but everyone knew who Fischer and Spassky were because they were pawns in a much bigger game. 

The Longwood cast is simply extraordinary, with Athan Mantalos leading the charge as the formidable, charismatic Russian opponent to Kevin Hanly’s wiry American bundle of nerves. Mantalos has breathtaking low notes and a high range just as thrilling (evinced in “Where I Want to Be”) and a command of pathos which almost had me weeping in his gorgeous “Anthem” to Mother Russia. Hanly, too, scores in the sympathy department with his “Pity the Child” (based on Fischer’s lonely childhood).

You can’t have a romantic lead like Mantalos without a few women falling at his feet. Rachel Savage suffers exquisitely in numbers like “[Nobody’s on] “Nobody’s Side” and Eliza Xenakis makes her Act II appearance count in the duet with Savage where they both realize “He won’t be mine.”

James Aitchison plays an intense Russian operative pulling strings to influence the game and Matthew Zahnzinger terrifies contestants as the Arbiter who can “see through any gambit.” Zahnzinger also appears, hilariously, in the British number where English bureaucrats prance about in bowler hats as if they were chess pieces, one leg bent up like the knight, in Chantry’s silly, wonderful gestural “clockwork” choreography.

The chorus, too, has many tongue-in-cheek moments (which I never knew were there), many dramatic moments, menacing the chess stars—and many an opportunity to show off their classical chops (under Stephen Peters’ smart music direction). I heard Handel and Debussy and even Verdi in the score, which alternates (and often combines) rock with the orchestral. You’ll hear strains of EVITA and a little JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, to boot. BUT MOSTLY, because of Chantry’s reformation of the musical, YOU’LL truly HEAR THE MUSIC!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW BLONDE Ambitions By Beverly Creasey

LEGALLY BLONDE The Musical (at Next Door Center for the Arts through May 18th) is the cautionary tale of a California sorority sister named Elle who uses her feminine wiles to get into Harvard Law School because her ex is there. The Reese Witherspoon movie proved that there is comic gold to be mined from such a ditsy premise—so naturally it became a musical (book by Heather Hatch/ music by Laurence O’Keefe & Neil Benjamin)!

The good news in director James Tallach’s wildly inventive production is that the singing, for the most part, is strong, with scene stealing sparkle from Liliane Klein as Paulette, Elle’s hairdresser buddy. Once Elle (Ashley Korelewski) gets her “perky” on, she’s a delight, too. Her Delta Nu pals, who function as an imaginary “Greek” cheerleading chorus, are dynamite from the get go, with show stopping antics from Jackie Theoharis and Kerri Wilson in the hilariously instructive “Bend and Snap.”

Tallach’s ensemble is a powerhouse, with standout performances from Peter S. Adams as the ferocious law professor, from Kevin Cirone as Elle’s shallow ex, from Abbey Casey as the butch women’s libber, from Anne Olmstead as the unjustly accused, from Scott Cohen as the dazzled Admissions officer and from Jesse Coleman as Paulette’s dreamboat, just to name a few. Lauren Hall’s choreography has lots of surprises, like her outrageous spring break shenanigans. By Act II, I was grooving to the music (Matt Stern, music dir.) and laughing myself silly over the “Gay or European?” conundrum.

Unfortunately, the actors are performing at a disadvantage, with makeshift costumes on an incomplete set. You don’t need much, as the North Shore Music Theatre proved last summer in the round: A couple of Harvard pennants, a Malibu road sign and the great seal of Massachusetts would have done the trick to set the scenes. As it is, alas, Next Door’s LEGALLY BLONDE looks like a first rate cast in a second rate production. That’s not fair to the actors (not to mention the audience).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

QUICK TAKE REVIEW Thoroughly Old fashioned Delight By Beverly Creasey

THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE (at Stoneham Theatre through May 12th) is a cheeky send-up of those wacky movie musicals from the roaring ‘20s. You know, a sappy love story with a madcap speakeasy scene ending in a raid and a jail full of flappers—not to mention the skyscraper with a window ledge and a tap number right on that six inch slab of concrete. In short, MILLIE feels ever so authentic, even though the movie version came out in 1967 and the stage version in 2002! The surprise is that the Tony winning (Richard Morris/Dick Scanlan/Jeanine Tesori) musical works both as a spoof and a tribute at the same time.

If you’re going to make fun of that era, you might as well send up the send-up, which is what director Ilyse Robbins and company do, by casting an actor to play the femme fatale—and not just any actor, but funnyman Robert Saoud. He’s hilarious as the brains behind a white slavery ring, busy kidnapping unsuspecting chorines with no relatives to report them missing. (Mind you, women and children today are sold into slavery but this musical is high camp and has nothing whatsoever to do with reality. It’s such a piece of fluff that it’s not even offensive when Saoud’s Mrs. Meers affects a horrendous Chinese accent. You’ll understand when you learn the whole plot.)

Ephie Aardema is delightful as the spunky, undaunted Millie, mugged her very first day in NYC—and Aardema is no slouch in the comedy department, either. She blithely slides off her chair and under her typewriter with the greatest of ease in search of laughs and she finds them galore. Andrew Giordano, too, scores with the silliness around his love-at-first-sight number (a parody of the real “Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life”) with the likewise thunderstruck Stephanie Granade as Millie’s best friend.

The clever songs, under Jim Rice’s crisp music direction, are endlessly entertaining (luckily, since several are repeated). When they’re not the genuine article (like the raucous Mandarin “Mammy”), they sound like the genuine article. It’s hard to believe songs like “Forget About the Boy” weren’t written back then. And Robbins has pros like Kathy St. George and Noah Zachary to put them across—and Eddie Zitka to tap them into your heart! In short Stoneham’s MILLIE is a lark and we all need a little joy nowadays, don’t we?