Wednesday, August 24, 2016

NMST Delivers Invigorating 'Singin’ In the Rain' By Mike Hoban

'Singin In the Rain' - Screenplay and Adaptation by Betty Comden and Adolph Green; Songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed; Based on the MGM film by special arrangement with Warner Bros. Theatre Ventures, Inc. Directed and Choreographed by Richard Stafford; Music Direction by Milton Granger; Scenic & Lighting Design by Jack Mehler; Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg; Costume Coordination by Mark Nagle. Presented by The North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, through August 28.

It’s always tricky to bring a musical first created for the movies to the stage, and when it’s an iconic one on the scale of “Singin’ In the Rain” – regarded by many as the top musical of all time – it can be particularly challenging, especially when you consider that not only one, but two of the show’s dance numbers are the signature pieces of two of Hollywood’s most celebrated male hoofers. But powered by an outstanding cast, the North Shore Musical Theatre does not disappoint with this terrific production. 

'Singin' In The Rain' centers around the transition from silent films to the “talkies” by the major movie studios, and is also a sendup of the celebrity worship culture (yes, even then) of that era. Don Lockwood (Mark Evans) and Lena Lamont (a very funny Emily Stockdale) are America's favorite onscreen couple, making ridiculous silent romantic costume pieces for Monumental Studios. The pair are linked romantically in the tabloids as well, but it is all just part of the studio's publicity machine, as Don wants little to do with the beautiful but vapid Lena. 

Following the world premiere of his latest film, Don tries to escape from his adoring fans by ducking into a coffee shop, where he stumbles upon stage actress Kathy Selden, whom he uses as cover to avoid being mobbed by the hysterical crowd. After initial niceties, she tells him she isn't impressed by him or the movies in general because the acting is second rate. Don is insulted, but “true thespian” Cathy gets her comeuppance when she later pops out of a cake at the premiere party and is greeted by a smiling Don. The two spar, and since this is a musical comedy, he falls for her like a ton of bricks. Hilarity ensues. 

With the exception of dance number “Moses Supposes” the musical numbers in the original movie (and the theatrical production) were all taken from previous MGM musical films, and knitted together to fit the story developed by screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, but what a score! This show is chock full of great song and dance numbers like "Good Morning", “Broadway Rythym” and the title tune, and are executed superbly. But the comedy works equally well, especially the filmed sequences where the dialogue is being dubbed in with mixed (and very funny) results. 

Although the show opened a bit sluggishly on the night I attended, by midway through the first act it was firing on all cylinders. The ballads were especially well done, beginning with Tess Grady (as Kathy) and Evan’s duet “Lucky Star”, and Grady also does a wonderful rendition of the musical question “Would You?” Grady (who last season did a nice job as Stephanie Mangano in NSMT’s “Saturday Night Fever”), really owned the Cathy Selden role, playing it with a committed determination rather than the pure spunk of Debbie Reynolds, all while preserving the All-American girl sweetness. She also absolutely nails the difficult tap numbers. Evans also created a fresh Don Lockwood characterization, while Sean McGibbon (as Cosmo Brown) does a virtual carbon copy of Donald O’Connor, right down to his comic mannerisms. Evans and McGibbon bring down the house with the aforementioned “Moses Supposes” tap number, and both shine in their respective solo interpretations of “Singin’ In The Rain” and “Make ‘Em Laugh”. And as the fingernails-on-the-chalkboard voiced Lena, Stockdale is a gem, with her performance growing stronger as the show went on, including the comical number, "What's Wrong with Me?" (a song that was scratched from the movie version).

The show ends with the full company version of “Singin’ in the Rain” – complete with actual “rain” and it’s a great way to end the evening. This is a great show for both musical lovers and anyone who likes great theater. For more info, go to:

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rockin’ the Boat at Club Café

The Heart & Dagger romp at Club Café this Tues, Wed, Thurs only (ending the 25th) melds the naughtiness of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY to the gender bending of a SPLIT BRITCHES parody, glued together by the audacity of Mickey and Judy’s “Hey, kids. Let’s put on a show!”

Their spoof called DOLLS AS GUYS (which marries GUYS & DOLLS to WEST SIDE STORY) makes for a wild and wooly mash up. Heart & Dagger showcases some of Boston’s best chameleons… make that comedians… but definitely make that “some of.”

Joey Pelletier is always grande as a dame and his Adelaide’s Lament is a delight, as is his indignant duet with Lindsay Eagle as Nathan Detroit. Eagle is spectacular in drag. Cam Cronin (in six-inch, strappy, bright red stilettos) steals the show with his “I Feel Pretty,” high notes and all! And music director James Sims is drop dead gorgeous as the Salvation Army doll.

I should add that the men are forced to sing in an uncomfortable high range – which they do without any visible effort – and the women visa versa, in a successful, unnatural low range. Melissa Barker as Nicely-Nicely pulls it off, well, nicely, and she brings down the house with a rousing “Sit Down.”

A little (well, maybe a lot of) make-up and the guys are really attractive women. (Alas, the opposite is not true.) Take Mike Budwey. His Melania Trump – you knew politics would infiltrate this mob – pouts and struts her stuff like a pro. Only one of the goodfellas let his guard down and didn’t that ol’ tune just give him the slip! Well, never mind. With the exception of the notes that got away, this DOLLS AS GUYS is a harmless, mostly hilarious and much appreciated diversion to the harsh world outside.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Gloucester Stage’s “Songs for a New World” A Treat for Musical Theater Devotees By Michael Hoban

Songs for a New World – Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by Robert Walsh; Music Direction by Bethany Aiken; Choreography by Sarah Hickler; Sound Design by John David Eldridge; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St. Gloucester through August 27. 

It is rare that I read the notes before going to any theatrical performance (with the exception of Shakespeare), but for “Songs for a New World” I wished I had. I say this because it probably would have made the numbers even more impactful had I viewed the production as a theatrical whole rather than just as a (very good) revue. Which is not to diminish in any way the hugely entertaining production being mounted by the Gloucester Stage Company (running through August 27th). 

“Songs” is a theatrical song cycle composed by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown, and features a cast that seamlessly blends Broadway veterans with local talent with no discernible drop in performance level. As the company sings in the rousing opening title number, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." So while that may have been the theme that ran through the show, each of the story-songs – whether sung solo or in ensemble – work very well on their own. These are well-crafted theatrical pieces that are even more remarkable when one considers that Brown wrote them when he was only 25 (I did eventually read the notes). And while not quite as adventurous as “Jacques Brel” (which GSC did a brilliant job with in 2014), it’s a winner.

Following the rousing opener, the company launched into "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" – a gospel-styled number in which the captain (Chris Pittman) prays for the souls of his passengers. But not all of the numbers are so overarching. There are numbers about failed romantic relationships as well as life events, with “Stars and Moon” being the highlight of the solo performances. The ode to regret is an absolute gem as sung by Broadway performer Barbara Walsh, who was equally engaging in the very funny "Surabaya Santa", about a very unhappy Mrs. Claus, who is tired of spending Christmas alone. Wendy Waring, another New York import, is terrific in “Just One Step” about a married woman threatening her husband “Murray” with suicide by jumping from a ledge (although it wasn’t clear that was her intent until late in the song due to the staging), and she also shone in several other numbers, including “I'm Not Afraid Of Anything” as a young wife who clearly is afraid of quite a bit. The rakishly handsome Jack Donahue deftly handles the role of suave crooner in several numbers, and really hits the mark with “The World Was Dancing”. 

The homegrown talent more than held their own in this production. Pittman delivered a powerful rendition of “King of the World” (about a man spending his life in prison) and brings da funk in “Steam Train” about a basketball hotshot. I was also surprised to read that Nyah Macklin was an undergraduate at Brandeis, as her beautiful soprano augmented her more experienced female counterparts in several numbers, including her work in “Flagmaker 1775” about the anguish of a woman whose son and husband are fighting in the Revolutionary War. 

Not every number is a home run, but this is a consistently entertaining production, and a great night (or afternoon) out for musical theater fans. For more info, go to:

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Bridge Reps’ Dog Paddle Takes Darkly Comic Look at Insanity of Relationships by Michael Hoban

Dog Paddle (or, struggling inelegantly against drowning) – Written By Reto Finger; Translated by Lily Sykes; Directed by Guy Ben-Aharon; Larry Sousa, Scenic + Lighting Design; Chip Schoonmaker, Costume Design; David Reiffel, Sound Design. Presented by Bridge Repertory Theater at the Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge through August 14.
When a play begins with the dour line, “I can’t do it anymore… go on like this,” it’s not exactly a classic launch for a comedy. But “Dog Paddle”, now making its American premiere as Bridge Rep’s (fourth) season opener, is an intriguing and darkly comic one-act that takes an absurd but strangely comprehensible look at the inherent insanity of (unhealthy) relationships.
The opening line is delivered by Charlotte, the beautiful and intelligent but emotionally vapid 30-something who makes the announcement to Robert, her partner of seven years who is busily hanging photos of the couple’s recently completed trip to the South of France. The stunned Robert protests, producing said photos as evidence of how happy they are – to no avail. The relationship is over. No discussion. Charlotte has decided to move on, and has already lined up her future ex-lover to boot.
Showing all the compassion of a corporate executive announcing “restructuring” layoffs to factory workers, Charlotte lays out a precise plan for the how the breakup will proceed, with the first edict being that the couple’s friends will be divided into three categories – hers, his and the exclusive mutual friend group. The latter appears to be comprised solely of Ingrid, a study in low self-esteem that makes a habit of pursuing Charlotte’s castoffs while the wounds are still fresh. Charlotte also makes the concession that Robert will be allowed to live in the basement until he finds a suitable place to live, which turns out to be much longer than she planned as Robert stays on through two relationships, a marriage and a baby – all in the play’s 51 minutes.
The story is told in a series of short vignettes that are alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, as the detached Charlotte puts her damaged victims through the paces in a way that suggests that she is incapable of understanding that her actions could actually cause others pain. Her emotional core is efficiently distilled in one off-handed suggestion to her husband that they should get a dog – because it would look good in a photo with the baby. But despite the seeming ridiculousness of many of the scenes, none of them are patently implausible, as anyone who’s ever been in a non-Lifetime Movie Network relationship can tell you.
“Dog Paddle” features a strong cast, led by exceptional performances by Esme Allen as Charlotte (who never lets her cold-hearted character drift into caricature) and Omar Robinson as the dejected Robert. Bridgette Hayes, Jeremy Browne, and Ed Hoopman are also solid in their roles. Guy Ben-Aharon’s direction is fast-paced yet seamless, and is his second go-round with this piece, having directed a staged reading (with Dakota Shepherd and Nael Nacer in the lead roles) in 2013. One of the interesting elements of this production was the audience reaction, where in addition to the consistent laughs generated during the performance, multiple times a single audience member would explode in laughter, as if the scene struck a unique chord with the individual. Come and see where the insanity resonates with you. For more info, go to:

Monday, August 15, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Importance of Being Heard

Any effort that celebrates Oscar Wilde is near and dear to my heart. In fact, Bad Habit Productions has a Wilde history, producing the stunning, award winning GROSS INDECENCY a few seasons back, about the trials which resulted in Wilde’s horrific imprisonment in the Reading Gaol.

Bad Habit kicks off their 10th season with a little gem of a musical called A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (playing through Aug. 28th) inspired by the 1994 Albert Finney movie of the same name. The Terrence McNally (book)/ Stephen Flaherty (music)/Lynn Ahrens (lyrics) vehicle fits in perfectly with BH’s mission for this season: No Life Aside from Art. The man who thinks he’s not important will be heard and validated in this lovely musical.

Alfie Byrne (a melancholy Nicholas Megierowski-Howe) is a Dublin bus conductor by day and amateur thespian with every breath he takes. He even treats his passengers to theatrical readings as they ride to work. After hours, he runs a community theater in the basement of a nearby catholic church, specializing in plays by Oscar Wilde. This time out, he plans to stage the highly controversial Salomé. You can imagine the trouble he’ll face when church officials get wind of the seven veils, not to mention the severed head.

McNally’s script is extremely funny (for example, when the parish priest inquires about the play and is reassured that it’s a religious piece about John the Baptist). Strangely, the night I attended (and this does happen from time to time) the audience didn’t laugh very much (perhaps because they came in with heat exhaustion from the 90+ degrees outside), despite the wonderfully witty dialogue and delightful songs like Mary O’Donnell and Kevin Fennessy’s naughty “Books” (as the root of all evil!).

O’Donnell lights up the stage as Alfie’s long suffering, snippy sister and Fennessy dominates the boards as the sister’s suitor/ as a less than modest member of Alfie’s acting troupe/ and as the spirit of Oscar Wilde. (His soft shoe is a thing of beauty!) Director Daniel Morris and music director Meghan MacFadden get splendid work, as well, from Dan Prior as the dashing, amiable driver on Alfie’s bus, from Arthur Waldstein as the widower who misses his wife’s “Cuddles,” and from Gillian Mackay-Smith, spot on in two roles, one of them, utterly convincingly male!

The lack of audience engagement may have stemmed, I’m sorry to say, from the staging: The audience is configured on two sides of the playing area, with only one side having a clear view of the action. It was only by chance that I chose a seat on the side where the bus faced us – and there were many scenes on that bus – leaving half the audience looking at actors’ backs or at best, their sides.

Alas, I missed a good deal of Dani Berkowitz’s lines (as the young woman with no dramatic experience recruited by Alfie to play Salomé), although you could hear her when she sang, either because she spoke so softly (believe it or not, everyone has a mic) or because she had her back to us… I guess, in order to face the other half of the audience. Ironically, turning her back to the audience is the hilarious, spurious advice she is given by a jealous Salomé cast member because she was not chosen for the lead.

I don’t mean to convey that A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE (who turns out to be) is not enjoyable. It is. Just be sure you sit on the left side as you enter the space.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Reagle’s Got Rhythm to Spare

CRAZY FOR YOU (@ Reagle Music Theatre through August 14th) is one of those joyous musicals which pleases from every angle. Ken Ludwig’s valentine to the lavish musicals of the ’30s marries George and Ira Gershwin’s heavenly songs to a wacky “hey-kids-let’s-put-on-a-show” plot featuring laconic cowboys and high stepping showgirls. If you love those old Gershwin tunes, you’re happy. If you love tap, you’re in for a treat and if you love to laugh, there are enough chuckles to keep you in stitches all the way through. Broadway was so thrilled with Ludwig’s clever tribute to Song and Dance that CRAZY FOR YOU won the 1992 Tony for best new musical.

Broadway power duo Beverly and Kirby Ward, who have appeared many times at Reagle, are back in the roles they performed to rave reviews in the London production and the national tour, with Kirby directing this one. The Wards make it look easy and Eileen Grace’s re-staging of Susan Stroman’s wildly extravagant, original choreography makes the Reagle production pop with energy. Of course, it’s the dancers, many from Boston Conservatory, who give their all to the production. Witness the “I Got Rhythm” showstopper at the close of Act I. If you’ve never seen the show, the number is a phenomenon, with dancers hitting and tapping on anything and everything made of metal – and that’s only the half of it!

Beverly Ward lights up the stage as the gal with the broken down theater that needs saving. She gives a tour de force as the object of affection of both Kirby as the banker sent to foreclose and Leon Axt as the barkeep who wants to expand his saloon. What she doesn’t know is that the banker would rather sing and dance… which leads to a little lie that gets bigger and bigger until the banker has passed himself off as the famous Broadway producer of the Follies, no less.

You know the real producer is going to show up, right? Matthew Zahnzinger gives an inspired comic performance as the man mightily surprised to find he has a doppelganger, not to mention delighted to find himself kissed by mistake, while pursuing yet another chorine, played by Rachel Abbate. Aimee Doherty gets laughs as the femme fatale who tames the gun toting saloon owner with the hilarious “Naughty Baby” shtick.

CRAZY FOR YOU is packed with gorgeous Gershwin tunes (niftily music directed by Dan Rodriguez), especially Beverly Ward’s sweetly melancholy “Someone to Watch Over Me” and the romantic duo’s lovely, ethereal “Embraceable You.” It’s “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” as Ira Gershwin quipped – and boy, do they ever.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Legal Tender at Company Theatre

LEGALLY BLONDE, The Musical (playing through August 20th), based on the outrageous movie of the same name, is – well, I hope I don’t damn it by saying this – cute, very cute. Heather Hatch’s sorority story is a slow starter but Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin’s delightful songs get the engine moving so that by scene four, it’s purring along.

LEGALLY BLONDE’s saving grace is that even little girls (and there were lots of them when I attended) seem to know that it’s all tongue in cheek. At least I hope you can’t get into Harvard Law School merely by shaking up the stuffy academics with a shake of a pompom. (I must say the idea of a marching band invading those somber halls is mighty amusing). So see it for the silly songs, like “Bend and Snap” and for two stellar female performances in the Company production.

Sarah Kelly is utterly charming and just a wee bit “irritating” – (Mind you, she’s supposed to be, “She even irritates herself!”) – as Elle, the Delta Nu beauty who has to make herself over to get into Harvard (albeit for all the wrong reasons) and Kaleigh Rose Bradley brings down the house as Elle’s Irish step dancing, hairstyling partner in crime (solving). Bradley is a professional step dancer so you know choreographer Sally Ashton Forrest’s “Irish” finale will pop.

Opening weekend had a few glitches, like music director Steve Bass’ extremely LOUD orchestra (which often drowned out the clever song lyrics) and some very odd staging which I’m sure the directors have fixed by now, like the peculiar placement of the singing sorority sisters, all bunched up unevenly when there was plenty of room to spread out. That left me scratching my head, as did an awkward cross for an admissions dean who found himself on the wrong side of the marching band in the “What You Want” number. But that’s what opening night gremlins often wreak. By the time you see the show, I’m sure experienced directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman will have ironed out the kinks.

Look for some smart, cheeky turns from A. John Porcaro as the frightening shark of a law professor who can smell “Blood in the Water” from ten miles away and from Danny Bolton as the straight laced admissions chair totally overthrown by Elle’s all dancing, all singing “personal essay.” As they say in Gilbert & Sullivan’s MIKADO, “[He] doesn’t think he dances but would rather like to try.” Bolton’s amusing attempt nearly upstages the drum major. Speaking of (legal) scene stealing, Ryan Barrow as the UPS guy cuts quite a swath. Then he cuts an impressive rug, step dancing with Bradley! By the time the finale rolls around, you’ll be smitten yourself.