Saturday, January 23, 2016


What a coup for SpeakEasy Stage. Director Paul Daigneault, who brought the Off Broadway version of VIOLET to Boston back in 2000, has found a way to make the current production soar even higher. (The musical’s creators had been reconfiguring it over the years and in 2014 VIOLET played Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award in the Best Musical Revival category.) The new version is now at the BCA through Feb. 6th. SpeakEasy’s production features a real gospel choir for the (religious) “revival” where Violet implores a charismatic televangelist to heal her of her scars. In fact eleven local choirs were recruited so that each performance has a different chorus to make a joyful noise. And do they ever!

VIOLET is billed as a story of hope and renewal, mainly because Violet finds strength as she journeys from her small rural home in North Carolina to the big city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. And she finds someone to love her despite a disfigured face. The Jeanine Tesori-Brian Crawley songs are catchy, uplifting and often, delightfully funny. We meet young Violet (the spunky Audree Hedequist) and there’s a grown up Violet (a fiery Alison McCartan) often together when memory and the present collide. Daigneault’s cast is perfection, from Tyla Collier’s star turn as a music hall singer to Carolyn Saxon’s show stopping church soloist to Kathy St. George’s hilarious turns as a gossipy old lady one second and a drugged out, liquored up hooker the very next second!

John F. King cuts quite a swath as the bombastic faith healer who only ministers to the needy when the cameras are on. He’s callous at first but King gives him a sympathetic streak when he turns Violet down but ultimately lifts her up with some sage advice. Nile Scott Hawver, too, impresses as the headstrong white soldier only interested in a one-night stand, until he undergoes a conversionbut it’s Dan Belnavis who gives a powerhouse performance as the Black soldier who accepts Violet for what’s beneath her scars. As Fats Waller famously wrote about prejudice, “I’m white on the inside but that don’t help my case.” Belnavis’ sergeant has experienced his share of rejection, as Waller’s Black and Blue says “for what is on [his] face.”

It seems to me that the musical attempts to make the case that he and Violet are an ideal fit because both are “damaged.” For me, that’s what disturbing about the story. I can accept that both are hurting. Women are still judged by their face (value) and African-Americans, Lord knows, are targeted because of the color of their skin, but skin color is not a deformity. I’m afraid I think it’s a false equivalency.

So see VIOLET for the stirring performances, for Matthew Stern’s fine music direction, for potent songs like Belnavis’ remarkable “Let It Sing” or the choir’s rousing “Raise Me Up.” Then you be the judge about the subliminal (or not) message in VIOLET.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016


You can’t best Imaginary Beasts for sheer joy and inventiveness. You might say the foot is on the other shoe for IB’s mismatched mash-up of THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ, their Winter Panto 2016 playing at the BCA through Jan 30th. Matthew Woods plunders all (and there are many) Frank L. Baum’s OZ books for characters who didn’t make it in to the Judy Garland movie version. Then again, he plunders Judy Garland movies for songs which don’t belong, traditionally speaking, in the story. Now they do, along with a passel of songs from myriad sources including Edvard Grieg, which will have you giggling over the cheekiness of their choices. By the by, this is now my favorite version!

You can’t top their gender bending (which is typical of the British Panto): Joey Pelletier as Auntie Em, (who seems a lot like Dorothy for some reason and wears the ruby shoes), has the hots for the slightly flustered Tin Man (Nick Chopper). Amy Meyer as the charming scarecrow is smitten with Molly Kimmerling’s Patchwork Girl (Who isn’t? She’s adorable and spunky, to boot… and a feminist in her own right!) Woods himself gets to play the deliciously ferocious Wicked Witch of the West. And talk about bending, Michael Underhill is the (slightly sleazy) meandering Yellow Brick Road.

Bob Mussett takes the cake as all the (tall, small and in between) Munchkins, that is, when he’s not the royal historian. Patchwork Girl goes to great lengths to point out to him that for us women, it ought to be “herstory.” Thank you, Patchwork Girl. Now even though Pelletier wears the braids, the shoes and the blue checkered dress, there is a Dorothy, in kneepants, portrayed with immense earnestness, by Sarah Gazdowicz. William Schuller is hilarious as an erudite, philosophizing Toto. If only they would listen to him.

Elizabeth Pearson is the enormously resilient Wicked Witch of the East. Since Pantos require audience participation to be truly authentic, we have to keep reminding this witch of her demised status. The kids in the audience loved doing it. Kiki Samko, fluttering in and out with bubbles (and that wonderfully vague Billie Burke voice) is the always helpful Glinda (not really but we won’t go there. Gregory Maguire has taken her to task enough in WICKED.)

Cameron Cronin gets the plum role of the loveable Cowardly Lion and Mikey DiLoreto flies away as a winged monkey, via Noah Simes’ strong back. Everyone is resplendent in Cotton Talbot-Minkin’s extraordinary costumes (which put the movies’ duds to shame). She manages to fit personality into each and every stitch. Word to the wise: Don’t miss the Beasts’ magnificent, irreverentand yet somehow faithful WIZARD OF OZ.