Monday, December 7, 2015

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.