Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Apollinaire Theatre’s wildly bizarre holiday offering, A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER ON THE BANKS OF THE GREATEST OF THE GREAT LAKES (playing through January 16th), perches somewhere between a big bowl game and the traditional, dysfunctional Thanksgiving dinner.

Have you ever imagined, in the midst of a contentious family celebration with relatives you haven’t seen in ages, what would happen if the surreal goings-on were televised? If your answer is no, then skip to paragraph 3. If yes, read on. Kate Benson’s odd mash-up tickled me no end because I’ve experienced countless Thanksgiving dinners which I thought could be transferred directly to the stage. (In fact, I suspect that Ionesco and the Absurdists must have known my family intimately.)

Benson introduces two play-by-play announcers, high above courtside, to cover the meal. She very cleverly focuses on the minutiae of the day so that the smallest of details flourishes to illuminate a character’s essence: Positioning the table just so or putting English into mashing the potatoes tells you who’s in charge.

Three of the dueling matriarchs (all named after desserts) bicker and snipe while the commentators give us a “blow by blow” of the preparations for dinner. Worlds collide as the women move like linebackers deflecting passes, blocking touchdowns and managing a lateral or two as they prep the meal. Aunt Cheesecake (Mariela Lopez-Ponce in a tour de force) even exits en pointe. Then she reappears as a smashing Flamenco siren.

My favorite bit is the table leaf ritual, which I know by heart, whereby grown women lie on their backs and slide under the dining table like mechanics on creepers to secure the leaf in place. Pegs have to fit into holes and ropes have to be tied in case the pegs come loose, all this under a table, at right angles, with very little light to see what you’re doing. (I hadn’t thought of that harrowing undertaking in years!)

Just basting and turning the turkey becomes a perilous contact sport. Steve Auger provides the best moment in the show, wrestling the bird into submission. Because they can, Apollinaire has an actor stand in for the poor turkey. Michael Kelly makes a superb fowl… and he makes the wrestling match a righteous, albeit hopeless, rebellion. The actors are all top notch mimes: We know in a trice that Kelly is a turkey by his gait and by an unfurled palm which niftily stands in for tail feathers.

Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques (and movement choreographer Danielle Rosvally) have a smart cast in tow who can personate one character, then become another without leaving the stage, a feat which is both impressive and entertaining at the same time. Jade Guerra and Jeff Marcus are highly amusing as the broadcasters. Liz Adams and Dana Block are masters of the slow burn and who knew Ann Carpenter could rap (“Potatoes and Gravy”)!

Emily Edstrom excels in the quirky role of the outcast and Floyd Richardon tries to bring calm to the proceedings as grandpa. Sylvia Sword and the aforementioned Kelly are twins, siblings, spouses and Republicans, all of whom get their comeuppance via a plot twist no one will see coming, I’d bet on it.

If you enjoy theater of the absurd, then Benson’s oddball BEAUTIFUL DAY IN NOVEMBER will provide you with lively diversion and amaze you with its twist.

Sunday, December 20, 2015


When you think of WAR AND PEACE, you imagine the sheer heft of the novel with its massive cast of characters. You wouldn’t think Tolstoy’s masterpiece could even be contained in a modern (pop opera) musical. Well, it can. Director Rachel Chavkin’s extraordinary production of Dave Malloy’s adaptation, called NATASHA, PIERRE AND THE GREAT COMET OF 1812, has completely transformed the American Repertory Theater into a 360 degree, very Russian, opulent playing spaceand you’re right in the thick of it.

You’re surrounded by characters who crave meaning, intensity and desire…who are devoted to the pursuit of passion: Sometimes hopelessly, sometimes perilously, sometimes for the better. Malloy’s lyrics employ, and pay homage to, Tolstoy’s text, even as they’re winking at the folly of the characters’ stilted, nineteenth century notions.

Chavkin and company fuse music, text and creative design into one all encompassing concept, swirling around the audience. The result is thrilling. Throbbing, electronic chords match the urgency of the characters’ pursuits and a cast of twenty two (plus a ten piece orchestra) feud, fight and love, the Russian way, with all their heart and soul. Malloy’s seductive music pulses with familiar Russian rhythms, reaching fever pitch in the wildly entertaining drinking scenes.

The characters may be facing Tolstoy’s obstacles but they struggle like Chekov’s disillusioned Muscovites: Natasha (the lovely Denee Benton) is engaged to the patriotic Prince Andrey (Nicholas Belton in two impressive roles, the Prince and his addled father) but while he is away in the army, Natasha is swept off her feet by a handsome cad (Lucas Steele in a tour de force). His scheming sister (a vibrant Lilli Cooper) conspires with her brother to deceive the innocent country girl. Her husband, the Pierre of the title (the immensely sympathetic Scott Stangland) drinks to forget he is married to her.

The plot may seem familiar but the staging isn’t. You’re immersed in a unique world with audacious stagecraft, dazzling costumes (Palomoa Young mixes 19th and 21st centuries to create hip, amusing hybrids) and cheeky songs like “Andrey Isn’t Here” or “We Write Letters” and gorgeous ballads like “I Will Stand Outside Your Door” for Sonya (a luminous Brittain Ashford). It’s an exhilarating experience. Don’t miss it.

Word to the wise: Friends who sat on the floor in the middle or in the newly fabricated banquette seating to the rear of the playing area couldn’t hear as well as we, in the old permanent A.R.T. raked seats, did. It’s location, location, location as they say in the old country.

Monday, December 14, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Delightful Shenanigans @ Lyric and Tir Na

If naughty really is the new nice, as they say, then I have two irreverent theatrical treats for you this holiday season. Tir Na’s RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER (@ Davis Square Theatre through Dec. 20th) and Lyric Stage’s BUYER & CELLAR (through Jan.3rd) will give you enough giggles to forget (momentarily anyway) the troubles of the world.

Bernard McMullan’s wild “Irish Christmas Comedy” introduces yet another Messiah myth to the canon: This time out, Mary and Joseph stop into an Irish pub to find a place for Mary to give birth. She does, and the two high-tail it out of town, leaving the infant Jesus in the care of a childless barkeep and his wife. At first, the couple is overjoyed. Then they’re overwhelmed by Jesus’ vexing propensity for trouble. The poor child lacks good judgment and any sense of decorum. But when he ruins their water heater by turning its contents into wine, they begin to see the light. Problem is, now God wants the winemaker back.

Carmel O’Reilly directs the lively spoof with special attention to character detail. Derry Woodhouse as Jesus does not disappoint: From toddler to teenager, each new phase of his development is a vision of spectacular ineptitude. And Stephen Russell’s God is a rock star. What else can you say: the Dude abides.

Nancy E. Carroll has several hilarious roles, as adoptive mother, as Jesus’ sovereign step-mother and as a scheming old nun. Colin Hamell runs roughshod over the lot as the deliciously unconscionable barkeep…who fully intends to outwit God in a battle of wills. (And he can dance a mean gigue.) It’s all blissfully silly and you get some nifty songs (including an Irish favorite) in the bargain! What’s not to like?

Jonathan Tolins’ one man show about meeting Barbra Streisand has Phil Tayler front and center in a tour de force as an out of work actor employed by the superstar to manage her shops. (People who need people are out of luck unless they have limitless funds to hire someone to amuse them.) Streisand does have a personal shopping mall in the cellar of her barn. That’s a fact. The rest of the play isn’t factual. Tolins stresses this point because the last thing he needs is trouble from “someone so famous, talented and litigious.”

Tayler has a twinkle in his eye and a seductive slow motion double take to make us complicit in his adventure. Tolins’ script has Tayler totally smitten with Barbra but his boyfriend is decidedly not. Tayler plays Barry, the boyfriend, as the devil’s advocate (sounding suspiciously like David Sedaris). The battle over Barbra is half the fun. The other half is comprised of everyone else, Herself included (which he achieves by miraculously lengthening his finger nails and drawing them over Barbra’s imaginary tresses).

Courtney O’Connor directs the piece with breakneck speed: Tayler turns on a dime to become a different character. It’s quite an “aspirational” feat, to borrow one of Tolins’ clever viewpoints. You’ll be wowed by Tayler’s transformations and highly amused by his chutzpah. What’s not to like?

Monday, December 7, 2015

New Rep's Snow Queen Is Good Weird Fun (4 Stars) By Michael Hoban

THE SNOW QUEEN - Book by Kirsten Brandt and Rick Lombardo;  Music by Haddon Kime; Lyrics by Kirsten Brandt, Haddon Kime, and Rick Lombardo; Directed and Choreographed by Rick Lombardo; Musical Direction by Emily Intersimone. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Arsenal Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through December 20th.
It's time for the winter and holiday themed productions to roll onto local stages, and while New Rep's 'The Snow Queen' has lots of snow and ice and even an aging reindeer in the mix, this is not a Christmas-themed show per se, despite delivering on the season's most important meme - that love is the answer. This weirdly entertaining fairy tale, which is much truer to the original Hans Christian Andersen story of the same name than Disney's smash hit "Frozen" (which also was based on the tale), is fun for kids of all ages, with a score that's got a much more of a lively pop and rock score than standard Broadway fare. It's also powered by a cast of talented local favorites and a beautifully understated performance by the story's heroine, Gerda.
Gerda and her best friend Kai discover the story of the "Snow Queen" when she pulls an old book off the shelf and her Grandmother adds some additional color, but the tale takes on a life of its own when Kai is sprayed with shards of cynicism (in the form of snowflakes) and has his heart and vision altered. With his attitude improperly adjusted, he no longer shares Gerda's love of kid play, and he is ripe to be preyed upon by the beautiful but icy-hearted bombshell Snow Queen - decked in fishnet stockings and garters, no less - who steals his heart and mind with a couple of kisses. She spirits him away to her ice palace and puts him to work solving the secret of eternity, which he dives into with a Gollum-like obsession in order to please his queen and procure another kiss.
When Kai disappears, Gerda sets off on an adventure to find her friend, and we join her on a strange journey where she encounters a host of new anthropological friends (mostly flowers, birds, and the aforementioned reindeer), and enemies, plus a couple of oddball princesses and witches (including a co-dependent mother figure). One of her first and best new pals turns out to be a crow - who also happens to be a WWI British Royal Air Force flying ace. Despite its Disney-sounding cuteness, the character is actually very funny in the hands of Maurice Emmanuel Parent, who takes the part way over the top with hilarious results. Emmanuel effectively plays a handful of other characters, including a troll and the wise old reindeer who keeps Gerda safe on her journey.
Maureen Keillor also excels playing multiple roles - as Gerda's grandmother, as the clingy garden witch who wants to keep Gerda as her daughter, as the evil robber who threatens to cut Gerda to pieces, and as the wise old woman who helps her see her strengths. Aimee Doherty (in a blond wig) has the necessary combination of beauty and commanding presence in her role as the Snow Queen, and her excellent vocal work is yet another reminder that she is one Boston's premiere musical theater actresses. And Jackie Theoharis does a great job melding Lene Lovich and some kind of early John Waters character into the robber's knife-wielding, homicidal maniac daughter in the production's punkiest number, the completely berserk, "I Want That". But it is pint-sized Victoria Britt that subtly steals the show as the determined Gerda who won't give up in her quest to rescue her friend and return him home (both physically and spiritually). Her performance grew stronger with every scene, her vocal work is superb, and in the final scene when she melts the hearts of Kai and the Snowflake Army, she melts ours too.
The steampunk costuming for this production is colorful and imaginative and the five piece band was terrific, ripping through the rockers and playing beautifully during the show's ballads. The special effects (it snowed throughout many of the scenes) were really effective at evoking the bleak winter setting. My only real complaint with the production lies with the book, as there are too many scenes that appear to be jammed into the story for the purpose of remaining true to the tale, instead of advancing the narrative. The songs, while not destined to become musical theater classics, are solid if unspectacular, with the first act closer "Flying" and the show ender, "Eternity" especially standing out. This is a fun, non-traditional holiday fare that won't send you into a diabetic coma with the excessive sweetness, so see it. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/the-snow-queen/

Matchless & The Happy Prince Delivers Sorrow and Love (3.5 Stars) By Michele Markarian

Matchless, Written by Gregory Maguire, and The Happy Prince, Written by Oscar Wilde; Directed by Debra Wise. Presented by the Underground Railway Theater, Central Square Theater’s Studio Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge through January 3.

The Central Square Theater’s Studio Theater is news to me, and what a magical little space it is.  Scenic Designer David Fichter has created an interesting world for this production of Matchless, paired with The Happy Prince. The stage is cluttered with all kinds of curious, old fashioned odds and ends – furniture, wooden dowels, baskets – anything you might find in your grandmother’s attic.  High center stage is a large wooden chest, which serves first as a pedestal for The Happy Prince and then as a hiding place for a young boy’s secret in Matchless.  The effect was one of a precious diorama, or snow globe, that encased the audience as well as the actors.  It made for a very intimate and immediate theatrical experience.

Gregory Maguire cleverly weaves his back story of The Little Match Girl to fit perfectly with Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince, using a fanciful, slightly addled boy Frederick (David Keohane) to link the stories together.  Keohane also doubles as The Happy Prince, a sad, glittering statue who finds real happiness in giving all that he has to the poor.  When in the end he loses everything - including his faithful and obedient friend the Swallow (Eliza Rose Fichter) - he is dismantled from his post and melted. 

Eliza Rose Fichter’s Little Match Girl has a quicker, but no less tragic, end, despite her deceased mother embracing her from Heaven.  Maguire’s reworking makes for a happier addendum, which I won’t tell you in case you see it, but it does not involve resurrection of its main character.  Eliza Rose Fichter is a very compelling, grounded presence onstage, whether it be fluttering the puppet representing the Swallow or huddling with matches as The Little Match Girl.  And Debra Wise is just terrific as Frederick’s Mother as well as with some ensemble work. 

Despite the very beautiful and well-acted presentation of the pieces, and the suggestion of happy endings, this reviewer had to wonder who the intended audience was.  Although the pace and rhetoric suggested a children’s show, I would think that the sadness of the material would be too heavy for kids (it was actually a little heavy for me).  And while the message of The Happy Prince was nice – rich people should help the poor – a huge part of me was inwardly pontificating, as The Happy Prince sacrificed his eyesight to give the impoverished money, “Give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for life.”  Which I’m pretty sure was not Wilde’s intent when he wrote this fable for his children. 

Matchless & The Happy Prince runs an hour and 15 minutes, with a short intermission. For more information, go to: https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/matchless/

QUICK TAKE REVIEW(S) By Beverly Creasey Holiday Helpers at Stoneham Theatre and New Rep

Sadly, visions of sugar plums have been replaced this season by televised visions of mayhem and terrorism. These sober reminders crowd the news reports and grab the headlines. You can’t escape the horror or the dread, despite reassurances from the government. You can’t pretend that all is well, when African-Americans are being killed by the very police who are supposed to protect its citizenry. It keeps happening over and over and it seems like it will never stop.

What to do so that you’re not completely overcome by sadness? Distractions. They help us reconnect to the beauty in the world. I’m reminded of the Joseph Addison quote about the power of music: “The greatest good that mortals know, and all of heaven we have below.”

Two theaters celebrate Hans Christian Anderson with music this month: Disney’s THE LITTLE MERMAID closes this weekend (reviewed previously) but New Repertory Theatre’s THE SNOW QUEEN will run until Dec. 20th. Now if you crave nostalgia and old fashioned Christmas songs in four part harmony, Stoneham’s CHRISTMAS ON THE AIR will take you back to 1949. Their mock “radio show” runs through Dec. 27th.

THE SNOW QUEEN musical is brought to us by the creative team which used to stage a magical, annual CHRISTMAS CAROL with musicians as characters. (Former New Rep artistic director Rick Lombardo’s Dickens treat was the best version of the classic I’ve ever seen.)

For THE SNOW QUEEN he’s joined composer Haddon Kime (he’s also missed here in Boston) and Kristen Brandt for a wild and wooly pop/rock version of the Anderson tale. (The megahit FROZEN, too, is based on the Anderson story but I’m told Lombardo’s version hews closer to the original.) I must say I prefer their “You Gotta Learn to Let Go (to Learn How to Fly”) song over FROZEN’s sappy “Let it Go.”

When Gerda (Victoria Britt) loses her best friend (Nick Sulfaro) to Aimee Doherty’s nefarious, seductive Snow Queen (Three kisses and you’re toast!), she journeys from pillar to post to fetch him back. Along the way, she’s enchanted by a needy witch (Maureen Keiller), taught to fly by a wonderfully wacky crow (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), and celebrated by a riotous royal couple (Jackie Theoharis and Din A. Griffin). Sometimes the hard driving music seems more like HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH than Danish adventure fare but the cast brings it all home.

Lombardo even returned to New Rep to direct the production. His principals all give solid performances but the actors who have multiple roles get to show their remarkable versatility. My favorites are Keiller’s clingy garden witch and her luminous Gaelic-Danish wise woman (“Breathe”), Theoharis’ droll, stiff upper lip Princess (“Never Give Up”) and her off the wall robber girl (“I Want That”) but best of all are the “murder of crows,” led by Parent as an hilarious, eccentric old bird of a British war vet. Teaching Gerda to soar on his back (“Flying”) is the show’s highlight.

CHRISTMAS ON THE AIR by Lucia Frangione was originally set in Canada but Stoneham Theatre has “customized” the show for Boston audiences. So radio station WKOS now broadcasts out of the Presbyterian Church in Swampscott, with “local” references to Jordan Marsh’s Enchanted Village, McCormack’s food coloring and Arthur Murray’s Dance Studio, to name a few.

There aren’t a lot of us left who grew up with radio but I remember vividly those thrilling “wireless” shows (pre-television), that Enchanted Christmas set-up at Jordan’s and, yes, in 1949 I was probably helping out by decorating cupcakes with what we now know as a carcinogen, Red Dye # Four. (And, no, I never took lessons from Arthur Murray. Virginia Williams gave dance lessons down the street, long before she founded Boston Ballet.)

Just about everything but the kitchen sink makes it into director Shana Gozansky’s production, although Mother Parker, curiously, is left out of the cooking segment. (Parker held considerable sway on Boston radio in the ‘40s, having guided local cooks successfully through wartime rationing.) The faux station in CHRISTMAS ON THE AIR offers homey advice, recipes, holiday music and a slew of familiar Christmas tales from years gone by. There’s a romance in the background but mostly, the script exists so that a crackerjack cast can morph into the delightful characters in the stories they share over the airwaves.

We get to be a “live” audience which means we can sing along, ask questions of the sweet lady with sage advice, and applaud when the “cue card” is waved. The best part of a mock radio show is watching the actors supply sound effects, like knocking coconuts together for clip-clopping hooves. Even better, is when those sound effects go gloriously awry, deftly mismanaged by Mark Linehan. He and William Gardiner lock horns as father and son, with Margaret Ann Brady as mother/referee, resplendent in Gail Astrid Buckley’s glamorous, knockout, green satin party dress. And she can think on her feet: She nailed an inspired answer in the Q&A. (No ringers either.)

Maureen Stypinski portrays Linehan’s love interest in the storyline which (sort of) mirrors the nativity narrative. Meryl Galaid supplies the piano accompaniment as well as the corny cooking lessons. Music director Bethany Aiken gets fine singing all around, with lovely harmonies in the ancient carols. Their voices blended so beautifully that I would have been happy with just a concert of hymns and songs. But it was grand to laugh, if only for an hour or two—to try and forget the world outside, a “world” strangely echoed in the lyric of O Holy Night, “in sin and error pining.” A propos, the NY Times just warned its readers that “God isn’t going to fix [this].”

If only we could reach out and touch every heart on the planet with theater and music, maybe the Arts could. Short of divine intervention, it’s all we’ve got.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Oceans of Delight

The Disney version of THE LITTLE MERMAID (playing at the Strand through Dec. 6th) was a wild success as an animated film, then yet another success for Disney on the stage. How I have resisted seeing either version until now is beyond me! Now that I have witnessed the captivating musical, I understand why it’s such a crowd pleaser. The Alan Menken music is catchy and hip, smartly borrowing a tune or two from Saint-Saens—and the Howard Ashman/Glenn Slater lyrics are cheeky enough for adults to savor.

Doug Wright’s clever book (based on the Hans Christian Anderson tale) references far flung topics like ocean conservancy and even vegetarianism (King Triton warns his fellow sea creatures against the barbaric humans’ hooks and traps)…He disapproves of dating outside one’s race (of course, it’s ‘species’ in this case) … and Wright gives Teddy Roosevelt a nod (who famously quipped that he could either run the country or rein in his daughter but not both). Triton, like TR, can’t keep his daughter, Ariel, away from a human prince and govern a kingdom at the same time.

That prince is, of course, mighty charming but Jared Troilo makes him more than a cipher. He’s got gumption, backbone and a funny bone, to boot. Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel, too, makes us believe she’s got spunk. She’s willing to do whatever it takes, including the loss of her home, her friends and her voice, to land her prince.

Director Stacey Stephens has a crackerjack cast to bring every eel and crustacean to buoyant life. His delightful costumes capture the essence of the characters, like lobster claw gloves and golf ball eyes perched on top of Sebastian’s head, to signify a crab. Triton has assigned Sebastian the formidable task of keeping an eye, or two, on his wayward, windward daughter.

Lucky for us because Sebastain, who hails from Caribbean waters, has two of the best songs in the musical: the calypso show stoppers, “Under the Sea” and “Kiss the Girl.” Jay Kelley is spectacular in the role, wringing his claws over Ariel’s disregard for safety…even endangering his own by getting awfully close to Andy Papas’ palace chef.

Best of all is Shana Dirik as the villainous Ursula. Poor, wretched creature: She lost out when her brother became ruler of the sea. Andrew Giordano as a stalwart Triton doesn’t brook much mischief in his waters so Ursula steers clear of her brother—but manages to reel in his unsuspecting daughter.

Dirik brings the house down with her vengeful, sardonic anthem, mocking her enemies as “Poor, Unfortunate Souls.” Thank heavens she gets to reprise it in Act II. Dirik is sublime, in her Phyllis Diller wig and tentacle skirted, sea foam gown. She devours the scenery, as they say, and we can’t get enough of her high voltage performance.

In case you’re giving this a literal read, I should say that there’s lots of Mac Young’s ingenious scenery left. Especially lovely are the waves which rise as we plunge down into the water to observe the skates and jellyfish in the deep. Kira Cowan-Troilo’s beguiling choreography for the creatures makes their limitations an asset, as in Eddy Cavazos’ amusingly awkward attempt to keep up with the other gulls in their gavotte. Charles Peltz’ orchestra sounds so full and robust that you’re happily swept away with the swelling music to the land of mermaids.