Monday, August 20, 2018

MUSICAL REVIEW By Beverly Creasey Rapturous RAGTIME

Sometimes—and it doesn’t happen very often—theater can move you like nothing else. It can lift you up, fill you with joy and despair, take you out of yourself and transform you with its ephemeral power. It can do all this in an instant, with a moment, with a turn of a phrase, the sound of a note, the unison voice of forty singers… the soaring beauty of a musical like RAGTIME.

Company Theatre’s radiant production of the Ahrens & Flaherty masterpiece (book by Terrence McNally from the sprawling E. L. Doctorow novel) moved a whole audience as if we were one being—with its rousing promise of opportunity at the turn of the century. (WWII lies ahead but only one character in RAGTIME knows that.) Alas, RAGTIME, at this time in this century, resonates for quite another (horrifying) reason.

The musical contrasts three segments of society to represent the colliding, coalescing forces in the newly prosperous industrial nation: Immigrants arriving, as the Emma Lazarus inscription pledges, to a welcoming nation; African-Americans moving to America’s cities and prospering, despite the indelible legacy of slavery; and the affluent whites, becoming richer as the working class becomes poorer.

When McNally/Ahrens/Flaherty wrote RAGTIME, they of course had no idea that their portrait of an optimistic America would have us gasping at a line about separating children from their parents, or interpreting a depiction of police beating a woman to death as “living,” not “past” history, or seeing the elated RAGTIME immigrants arriving on our shores, knowing that in 2018, they’d be turned away, reviled.

The beauty of directors Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman’s spirited production is that it contains this terrible resonance, yet it pulls us through it to experience RAGTIME’s magnanimous story of hope and despair. Every character stands out in relief in their production, punctuating the (many) throughlines. (The Doctorow tome is four inches thick so McNally’s distillation proves quite a feat.)

Sally Ashton Forrest’s choreography is a marvel of gestural intricacy: The dancers become cogs in Henry Ford’s assembly line and they become the syncopation within the bars of the ragtime rhythm. (Kudos to music director Steve Bass for elevating the importance of the gorgeous score. Sometimes it’s lost in the maelstrom.)

I’m recalling so many remarkable performances. I wish I could highlight them all. First and foremost is Davron S. Monroe in a tour de force as the ragtime pianist at the center of the musical. Next and foremost is Paula Markowicz as the privileged but caring Mother. You expect the big production numbers to wow but Markowicz brings down the house with her solo(s), especially the song about not being able to go “Back to Before.”

You can’t have RAGTIME’s coping mother without a blustering father and Peter S Adams captures the essence of a man who knows he’s lost and can’t go backward in this burgeoning new world. (You don’t often see a three-dimensional Father in other productions.) And you can’t have Monroe’s righteous Coalhouse without his Sarah. Arielle Rogers as his true love, carries us with her in her journey from shy, naïf to committed mother in the exquisite solo she sings to her newborn boy. (The directors smartly cast singers with operatic voices...which enhances the characterizations and makes the choral numbers sublime.)

More standouts: Sarah Kelly as a “real” character not just a cipher (as the Girl on the Velvet Swing); the same with James Fernandes as Houdini; Melissa Carubia, too, makes Emma Goldman a necessary part of the story. Todd McNeel, Jr. is a strong Booker T. Washington; Mildred E. Walker’s grieving soprano rises in flight over the mourners; Owen Veith, a fourth grader no less, can hold his own with the pros as the “little boy” who warns us that war is coming. Jeffrey Sewell gets the best line in the script and Hannah Dwyer charms us as the frail daughter of Michael Hammond’s immigrant father.

Sometimes, and it doesn’t happen very often, you see a one-of-a-kind, transcendent version of a favorite work and you realize that it can’t be frozen (in film or smart phone video) or ever repeated with the same cast. That’s the fleeting, magical nature of theater. You want to see it again. You will see it again in your mind, over and over but you want others to see it and feel the alchemy. Sadly, it’s gone. If only I hadn’t seen the very last performance.

Friday, August 10, 2018

QUICK TAKE REVIEW By Beverly Creasey The Piper Pays Him!

He’s so slick that folks don’t even know they’ve been had, ‘til he’s on the train fifty miles away, about to swindle the townspeople at the next stop. He’s Harold Hill, THE MUSIC MAN, temporarily in residence (through August 12th) at the Reagle Music Theatrecelebrating their fiftieth anniversary this summer.

Meredith Wilson’s hit musical has won a slew of prizes, including five Tony awards… and Reagle’s many productions over the years have been recognized by the local critics. So how do you make this MUSIC MAN stand out above the others we reviewers have seen at Reagle? You get Susan Chebookjian to restage the original Broadway and film choreography and make it look like a million bucks. Nothing can compete with a top flight chorus of fifty professional hoofers.

Director/choreographer Chebookjian kicks up the comedy as well as those heelsbut without stinting on the charm and romance: After all, the quintessential traveling salesman meets his match in River City’s Marian the Librarian and the clinches have to touch our hearts. (They do and I have the wrinkled hankie in my purse to prove it.) You might think casting for corn would be a gamble but this is Iowa for heaven sakes. I found Mark Linehan’s jaunty music man absolutely refreshing. He knocks ‘em dead from the get-go with a snappy, rousing “Ya Got Trouble.” Then he does it again, with “Seventy Six Trombones.”

Jennifer Ellis’ Marion the Librarian doesn’t just “fall” in love; she plays a willing participant, all the while keeping her petticoats starched and proper, not an easy trick to pull off. No saccharine bookworm, she. Ellis’ wry smile tells us that she might just enjoy the mayhem erupting on top of the reading tables!

Reagle has music director Dan Rodriguez at the helm so you know the singing is first rate, even from the childen (Jonathan Tillan and Cate Galanti). Many of the performers in the secondary roles often have principal roles in other shows, so even the smallest of gestures adds to the whole. Reagle favorite Harold “Jerry” Walker returns in top form as the wonderfully clueless River City Mayor. Lori L’Italien, too, scores laughs as the Mayor’s over-enthusiastic wife. I could go on: The always willing, easily distracted barbershop quartet… the gossiping ladies, singing counterpoint… the spectacular, syncopated opening number: I had forgotten what a lovely, genuinely funny show THE MUSIC MAN is. Don’t miss the train.

Monday, August 6, 2018


Local professional opera companies like Boston Midsummer Opera, Opera Hub, MetroWest Opera (and others) are on to something: They’ve performed recently in theater venues at Boston Center for the Arts and at Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown, where New Repertory Theatre makes its home. And they’ve hired theater directors with new ideas and a fresh perspective on the art. The result is that their productions are hip and innovative without destroying the charm or integrity of a “traditional” opera.

What’s more, they’ve attracted (younger) theater audiences who are used to theater venues. Several women in line for the ladies room (yes, we become fast friends in those interminable lines) revealed this was their first opera! They came because of a poster up at a familiar theater company. Theater reviewers, too, are crossing over to cover these productions. Maybe opera isn’t doomed after all.

Boston Midsummer Opera just sold out their Watertown run with a crackerjack production of Rossini’s THE BARBER OF SEVILLE. Their delightful take on the classic amped up the comedy, sending the singers flying into the aisles, in director Antonio Ocampo Guzman’s freestyle romp. Music director Susan Davenny Wyner won the day in two ways: Her orchestra never overpowered the singers (something that happens A LOT) and her singers were encouraged to go to town with the ornamented rouladeswhich were breathtaking, hilarious and most importantly, executed without microphones!

Robert Balonek as Figaro stood out in high relief: Duets with Balonek made all the other singers shine even brighter. As the lovers, Theo Lebow and Alisa Jordheim shared sweet harmonies and treacherous high notes but the secondary comic roles made the evening. Jason Budd fumed and blustered as the foolish old doctor who planned to wed the heroine (not a chance) and David Cushing ran away with the evening in his showstopper about the thunderous power of slander.

Opera, even more than theater, can elevate a supporting role so that it lingers on in the memory. Case in point is local soprano, Abigail Whitney Smith, who appeared in two separate productions I saw, one at Metro West (THE BEAUTIFUL BRIDEGROOM) and one at Opera Hub (DIVAS). She was surrounded by extraordinary voices in both operas but it’s her performances that I remember in vivid detail: one wildly comic and one, truly heartbreaking. Opera, for me, is theater on a high wire. All your senses, your emotions, and your intellect are enthralled.