Friday, June 24, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey SHOWBOAT’s Comin’ to the Shubert

SHOWBOAT sails into the Shubert Theatre this week (a new home for the Fiddlehead company), to churn up the waters through July 3rd. It’s a vast undertaking for co-directors Meg Fofonoff and Stacey Stephens, with a cast of thousands, well it feels like thousands, when over 60+ actors fill the stage to bring Edna Ferber’s sprawling novel to life. Oscar Hammerstein II tweaked the novel quite a bit to get a handle on the innumerable characters spanning three generations of performers, town folk and dock workers who made the Mississippi riverboats bustle.

What makes SHOWBOAT a classic of the American theater is the memorable music. Jerome Kern’s score and the clever Hammerstein lyrics can take your breath away. Music director Charles Peltz, choreographer Wendy Hall and the vibrant performers on the Shubert stage make the Fiddlehead version feel fresh. The production overflows with standout performances, especially Jeremiah James as Gaylord Ravenal, the dashing riverboat gambler who steals the heart of the Captain’s daughter. Kim Corbett as Magnolia Hawks and James make the operatic “You are Love” one of the show’s highlights. (James’ extraordinary voice has a lustrous range which thrills with its sonority and singularity.)

Brian Kinnard’s resonant bass for Joe’s anthemic “Ol’ Man River” sets the emotional tone that guides the sorrowfully familiar story of bigotry in the South. Sarah Hanlon as the hounded Julie breaks your heart with her bittersweet rendition of “Bill.” Lindsay Roberts as Queenie not only anchors the chilling “Misery” in Act I, she dances up a storm in the “Ballyhoo.” (I used to view Act II as rather scattered and inconsequential but Hall’s vivacious choreography makes you forget altogether what doesn’t jibe dramatically.)

Your head will spin trying to negotiate the math to figure out how some of the characters are still the same age some forty years hence – which the directors expand with an additional character (Kathy St. George) silently reflecting on the story. My advice is, don’t try. Just concede… Perhaps they’ve paid a visit to BRIGADOON! I suspect the Captain’s wife dipped her toes in the TUCK EVERLASTING fountain. She looks three decades younger at the end of the show! (OK. It’s Stephens’ snazzy costumes for the jazz age that do it.)

John Davin follows in the famous footsteps of comedians Joe E. Brown and more recently, Tom Bosley, as the antic Cap’n Andy, pursued at every turn by the delightful Dawn Tucker (against type) as his shrewish wife; with more charming comic relief from Lindsay Sutton (affecting a hilarious squeak) and a cheeky Carl-Michael Ogle as the “featured performers” on the Cotton Blossom stage. You don’t have to “Make Believe.” This SHOWBOAT delivers.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Memorable Merry-Go-Round at Reagle

Some of Rogers & Hammersteins’ best songs are in their CAROUSEL. Even if you’ve seen the musical (many times) before, The Reagle Music Theatre’s version (playing through June 19th) offers up some irresistible performances – and spectacular choreography from director Rachel Bertone.

The elephant in the room—and it will be until someone figures out a way to fix the book – is the domestic violence which is passed down from mother to daughter, from an abusive father who gets way too many chances to redeem himself. Let’s put the elephant aside for the moment and tell you what makes this production worth the visit: it’s the women who carry the show!

With this CAROUSEL, Reagle’s artistic director Bob Eagle proves that local performers (including local director Bertone, as well as local music director Dan Rodriguez) can stand shoulder to shoulder with the New York people Reagle usually imports for the leads. This is not to minimize the star performance of Ciaran Sheehan as Billy Bigelow. He has the frame and the charisma of a guy who can attract every mill girl in Maine – but it’s his voice that seals the deal: a gorgeous, silky tenor with mesmerizing low notes. And he acts the heck out of his “Soliloquy.”

Again, it’s the locals who give the show substance. Jennifer Ellis gives one of the best performances of her career as the gal who falls for, marries and bears the brunt of Billy’s frustration. Ellis plays Julie with enormous quiet strength and an enduring will which mitigates the dialogue explaining away Billy’s nasty temper. And you can’t get enough reprises of Leigh Barrett’s powerful “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” You may have heard it a million times, but Barrett astonishes. (Yes, tears every time, despite myself.)

Jessica Kundla provides gentle humor as Ellis’ flighty friend and Todd Yard makes his mark as the slimy villain who “brings out the brute” in Billy. BUT oh, the choreography: Bertone’s lusty hornpipe for the sailors, her frolic for the impressionable young girls, her nightmare carnival sequence, and most of all her touching, vulnerable ballet for Billy’s troubled teenage daughter (exquisitely danced by Kyra Christopher). Quite a ride on this CAROUSEL.

Monday, June 13, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Tragi-Comic Déjà Vu

Patrick Gabridge’s political send-up, BLINDERS (@ Flat Earth Theatre through June 25th) features an outsider candidate for President (a scientific twinship, actually) who appeals to the lowest common denominator, promising to eradicate poverty by imprisoning poor people and to silence dissenters by walling them up. Believe it or not, BLINDERS was written when Bill, not Hillary, was running for President, at a time when Gabridge thought such comic ideas were too outlandish ever to come true. Let that be a lesson to all.

Director Korinne T. Ritchey’s intense, well oiled production for Flat Earth features nine on-the-money actors, led by Kimberly McClure as the one courageous woman in America who won’t be sold a bill of goods. As good as McClure is, the most fun in BLINDERS comes from the double, triple and quadruple casting, with hilarious performances from Glen Moore as a mad scientist, a dimwitted mailman, a nasty policeman and a conniving Southern Senator (Is there any other kind?) and from Marge Dunn as an airheaded shopaholic, a crazy psych patient, an ecstatic whiner and an operative named Fat Dominic.

Alas, the law of unintended consequences after the massacre in Orlando early this morning kept me from finding gunshots (intended as outrageous satire) amusing.

There is no satire in gunfire anymore. As one of the survivors sadly said, “There is no going back.”

Monday, June 6, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Call of the Wild

Sleeping Weazel Productions has turned its attention to THE BIRDS AND THE BEES for a festival of three new plays through June 11th. The first, by Kate Snodgrass, is THE LAST BARK, directed by Melia Bensussen. What better muse is there, I ask you, than Steven Barkhimer?

Not so long ago, the entire theater community was shocked to learn of his emergency heart surgery, and was much relieved to have him back. Playwright Kate Snodgrass was prompted to write and perform in a play starring Barkhimer, based on his brush with mortality.

Now she’s written another about mortality, but this time it’s all of us who will perish, in three days when a comet mows us down. Snodgrass plays a therapist. Barkhimer plays an insecure actor (Is there any other kind?) riddled with doubts about his artistic contributions to the world. She reassures him, he knocks off a little Falstaff (!) and they face the unknown together. It’s a sweet and funny valentine to one of the most prolific and talented artists in Boston.

The two remaining plays in the evening are absurdist exercises. The more cogent of the two is Charlotte Meehan’s BEESUS & BALLUSTRADA in which two unlikely creatures, caretakers of squirrels and birds — and evidently the last humans left on earth (or maybe the first two), become a wild and wooly Adam and Eve: Humiliation, violence and thunderstorms are foreplay for these two.

 Cliff Odle as a posturing, grass covered Beesus isn’t so sure he wants to join up with Karen MacDonald’s bizarre Ballustrada because, as he knows full well, “people are trouble.” Ballustrada gives him ample reason to hesitate: One minute she’s a flirty coquette and the next she’s a harridan. Their antics are a bit repetitive (especially the mixed media portion) but Meehan is fortunate to have director Melia Bensussen and two superb actors to turn “a mild entertainment” into illuminating flesh and blood.

Adara Meyers’ BIRDS, alas, is a jumble of images which elude perception. When Vaclav Havel embraced theater of the absurd to indict totalitarianism, the penalty was prison. When Beckett uses absurd imagery, the dread is palpable. There isn’t anything at stake in Meyers’ strange send-up of an “American Institute for Stress” — if that’s indeed her target. If it were a stand-in for Scientology or the government, I could make a connection. I didn’t see any.

BIRDS starts off with promise with a young birder, a “citizen-scientist,” (an intense Alexander Rankine) tracking the sudden demise of pigeons in the park. We see countless dead birds overhead, hanging upside down, in mid-flight extinction. OK, I thought, Meyers’ play is about the deleterious effects of pesticides or global warming. (By the by, where were the bee trackers since BEES are in the title of the festival for heavens sake!) But no, the bird counting is quickly abandoned and we follow Rankine and his girlfriend (a quirky Julia Alvarez) to the Institute for Stress where violence is the main course of study.

Cruelty at the institute is taught to perfection by Professor Steven Barkhimer. Student automatons tie themselves up with scotch tape (not red tape?) and regurgitate the party line. To what end? I haven’t a clue. This entry eluded me entirely — and I like theater of the absurd.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Let Slip the Dogs of War

The dogs in SpeakEasy Stage’s compelling musical, DOGFIGHT (ending this weekend), aren’t the soldiers about to ship out for Viet Nam. They’re the unfortunate young women the sleazy marines have corralled for a nasty contest on their last night in the good old USA. Whoever brings the fattest/homeliest/ugliest woman to their party wins a whole pot of money. (I’m trying to squelch my revulsion over the premise of the story.) The musical is based on a film starring River Phoenix and Lili Taylor.

DOGFIGHT does have an uplifting trajectory but before you get there, it’s mighty unpleasant watching women being degraded. As one of the “contestants” bravely asks when she discovers why they’re really there, “How do you let a bunch of jerks tell you this is how the world works?” The horror is that DOGFIGHT takes place in the ‘60s and despite our fight for women’s rights, the ERA failed to pass and we haven’t been able to change attitudes in the last fifty years: Large women are still stigmatized and as is clearly evident here, cast only in “large” roles. It’s rare to see a musical where the leading lady isn’t rail thin and Glamour Magazine-gorgeous. (Pity because all the lovely, talented women in the SpeakEasy show, no matter their size, could easily star in GUYS & DOLLS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, RENT, SPRING AWAKENING, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE, MARY POPPINS and on and on…)

Director Paul Daigneault adds his magic to Peter Duchan’s less than exciting book by making the characters matter (and the performances pop). Larry Souza devises one of the funniest dance sequences I’ve seen in a long while, when Drew Arisco’s marine coaxes Jenna Lea Scott’s catatonic Ruth Two Bears onto the dance floor for a rather one-sided two-step. Jose Delgado works miracles with the music: Benj Pasek and Justin Paul’s songs are mostly uninspired and don’t do anything to move the story along but Delgado’s singers deliver them with gusto.

The best moments in the show, aside from the burgeoning romance for Alejandra M. Parilla as Rose and Jordan J. Ford as Eddie, arise out of the comic scenes, like Patrick Varner’s hilariously over confidant lounge lizard; Then he tops that cameo, scoring as a snooty waiter just itching for comeuppance. McCaela Donovan, too, gets laughs as the hooker Jared Troilo’s arrogant soldier hires to rig the un-beauty contest, as does Edward Rubenacker as another unsuspecting dance date.

 Daigneault gets fine work, too, from Dave Heard and Dylan James Whelan as loyal company marines and from Liliane Klein as Rose’s understanding mother (and a few more parts, to boot). The performances are definitely the reason to see DOGFIGHT. You won’t learn much about the Viet Nam era. What you do learn about the sixties from the musical is suspect. (The creators play fast and loose with the facts but that’s literary license, isn’t it?) Semper Fi, SpeakEasy!