Lyric's "Road Show": Putting It Together

Tony Castellanos & Neil A. Casey in "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

Sooner or later, we're bound to get it right”; thus goes the final line in the musical Road Show
now being presented by Lyric Stage. The same might be said for the creators of the show. As Stephen Sondhiem, who wrote the score for the show, described in a very lengthy essay (no fewer than a hundred pages in four chapters or “acts” in his seminal work, Look I Made a Hat) this musical has had a complicated gestation. It evolved from its workshop reading to its first production (then entitled Wise Guys), then briefly as Gold, on to its revised form as Bounce, to the “final” version (if anything by composer/lyricist Sondheim has a real “final” form) as Road Show. Its Off-Broadway premiere by the Public Theater in 2008 lasted barely two months. A large part of its acceptance (or lack thereof) may be that Sondheim and his Book author John Weidman never quite managed to embrace the basic reality that their two lead characters, based on the real-life scheming Mizner Brothers, aren't very likable, to put it mildly. The form in which they first appeared in Wise Guys was transparently as two vaudevillian brothers: Wilson (here portrayed by Tony Castellanos) and Addison (here brought to life by Neil A. Casey).

Patrick Varner & Neil A. Casey in "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

The problems with the Book have only partly been solved; what remains is lack of involvement in the lives of these two con men. The vaudeville elements are still discernible in the first half of this ninety minute production (wisely kept as an intermission-less piece) which, for those unfamiliar with the story, may be a true challenge. There are clues dropped in the opening songs, way too rapidly, so that one might miss the fact that the play opens in the afterlife with the death of one of the brothers and that each has had a lifetime of ups and downs. It doesn't help that Sondheim steals music (abetted by Orchestrator Jonathan Tunick) from some of their own past work, most notably from their collaboration on Assassins, in the song It's in Your Hands Now, sung to the brothers by their Papa (Sean McGuirk).

It isn't until their Mama (Vanessa J. Schukis) sings the plaintive number, Isn't He Something, about Wilson, that the story begins to move us (and seems borrowed from Children and Art from Sunday in the Park with George). The alterations to the plot, making it move perhaps too quickly in the second half of the story, are rather extraordinary even for a work in progress. Arguably the most striking example of plot revision is the sudden introduction of a love affair between Addison (a closeted gay man in real life) and a rich young man named Hollis Bessemer (Patrick Varner). This resulted in a change from a heterosexual love song between Wilson and his girlfriend Nellie, a character from Bounce who was dropped for Road Show, to a love song between the gay lovers, Addison and Hollis, by far the most beautiful song in the show,You Are the Best Thing That Ever Has Happened. Also dropped, incidentally, was an oft repeated refrain, “bullshit” (just as well, since the expletive might be rightly deemed too presidential these days). Though the lyrics soar, they don't add any heart to the show, which had just portrayed their first meeting as a promising business relationship in another lovely song, You. All of the characters, without exception, seem bent on (to use the current buzz word) being transactional. Sondheim refers to them as the “community of suckers”, from the Alaskan Gold Rush to the sales of Florida swamp land and lots of other destinations along the way.

The Cast of "Road Show"
(photo: Maggie Hall)

Thanks to Co-Directors Spiro Veloudos and Ilyse Robbins, (with Choreography by Robbins), to the Music Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, and to the technical crew: Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill, things are about as clear as they may ever be, and make for mandatory viewing and hearing for any Sondheim buff. It's certainly not his best work, but it has some of his loveliest music and stinging lyrics, delivered by a talented cast of eleven in some three dozen roles.

Mention is made in the program notes that this show is about the warping of the American Dream and the need people seem to have to leave their mark on the country's culture. That the show ends up with crooked real estate developers overstaying their welcome may feel too close to home right at the moment. This shouldn't dissuade one's attendance, however, but increase the motivation for seeing this latest work (a decade ago!) from theater's greatest living composer/lyricist.

Let there be one caveat, in the words of Addison (who briefly became a Broadway play producer): “a drama critic is a person who surprises the playwright by informing him of what he meant”.


"Opera House": Edifice Complex

The Metropolitan "Opera House" in progress
(photo: Fathom Events)

Opera House, a two-hour historical treatment of the home for the past fifty years for the Metropolitan Opera in New York by award-winning documentary filmmaker Susan Froemke, is not just about the building but also the people involved in its creation. As you may see from the photo of the mortar and metal that form the foreboding framework at the area to become known as Lincoln Center, it was quite an undertaking. Utilizing archival footage and current interviews, as well as still photos from the 50's and 60's, the film takes an objective view of the building and its barriers, along the way portraying the roles of opera impressario assoluto Rudolph Bing, city planner Robert Moses and architect Wallace Harrison.

Where once the Sharks and Jets pirouetted to the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Steven Sondheim in the film version of West Side Story, would emerge a huge new complex. Moving from its downtown building erected in 1883, the construction of the Lincoln Center complex had its challenges, which Froemke wisely highlights with personal stories of the people involved, from high profile names such as Leontyne Price (who opened the new house for the Met in 1966 with Franco Zefferelli's production of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra), to the head of the supernumeraries and other tech workers. It makes for a fascinating story of its own, with even some blemishes intact (though the eminent domain issues displacing poor tenement residents is pretty much glossed over). All in all, it's a thoroughly researched and coordinated tale of a building that we all thought we knew so well.
There will be an encore HD presentation next Weds. January 17th at a theater near you.


ArtsEmerson's "Ada/Ava": Suspended Animation

The Cast & Crew of "Ada/Ava"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

Those who are fans of animation (and who isn't these days) will find the current production of Ada/Ava an enthralling experience, a fascinating amalgam of high art and modest technology. ArtsEmerson has presented many cutting edge programs, but this is an incredibly original use of visuals to tell a simple story, harkening way back to the first shadows created by a campfire on an ancient cave wall through the wizardry of Indonesian stick puppetry silhouettes to the cinema as we know it today.

The Cast & Crew of "Ada/Ava"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

In the short space of an hour, the Chicago-based group known as Manual Cinema creates a timely approach to the mysteries of love, loss and loneliness as they relate the story of two twin sisters who care equally for a New England lighthouse and one another. Reminiscent of the first part of the Disney animated film Up, with techniques mirroring the magic of Julie Taymor's puppetry in her stage version of Disney's The Lion King, the troupe utilizes vintage overhead projectors with their craft on full view of the audience, leaving theatergoers in a state of suspended animation as though immediately involved within the mechanics of their work, (with a live score, no less), requiring eight multi-tasking and multi-talented artists.

The show, with us only until this Sunday January 14th, is a unique (as in literally one-of-a-kind) offering that should be a must-see in these dark times. It's that illuminating.  


ART's "Sense & Sensibility": Austen-tatious Gossip

The Cast of "Sense & Sensibility"
(photo: Ashley Garrett)
Whenever the work of the theatrical troupe known as Bedlam emerges, one can rest assured that there will be plenty of “kinetic storytelling” afoot. This is certainly true of their current production being presented at ART, Sense & Sensibility, adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill from the beloved novel by Jane Austen, and directed by Eric Tucker, who helmed this show for a lengthy run last season at Gym @ Judson in New York. All of Bedlam's works portend an incredibly fast and high energy level, which one might not necessarily expect from a play based on Austen, who tended to write at a quite leisurely pace about society's values and human frailties. This is fundamentally about gossip, overt and conspicuous, which is seen to be the tangible and dynamic shaper of both society's and individual's destinies; it's no wonder that in this adaptation, there is continuously someone eavesdropping, despite Austen's very benevolent depiction: “for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”. This is Austen, in an age before ritalin, with all the emergent stops out, resulting in...well, bedlam. And it's a tossup as to who seems to be having the most fun, cast members or the audience. It's a far cry from the more serious scorched earth productions by Bedlam seen in the past; this is a non-stop source of joy.

As the Bedlam company enters in contemporary dress, they gradually put on period attire that transforms them, as Austen's world begins to take shape before our very eyes, morphing into the world of late eighteenth century England. The story takes place over a five year period, from 1792 to 1797, in southwest England, London and Sussex, beginning with the death of old John Dashwood (Benjamin Russell), leaving his widow Mrs. Dashwood (Lisa Birnbaum) and their three daughters: their eldest daughter, most sensible, Elinor (Maggie Adams McDowell); their middle daughter, romantic Marianne (Jessica Frey); and their youngest daughter, impressionable Margaret (Violeta Picayo). Their relationships with their suitors, unassuming Edward & Robert Ferrars (both played by Jamie Smithson), the unscrupulous John Willoughby (Russell again), and the loyal Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson), ensure that before the story is over, there will be pledges of love as well as broken hearts. As the title indicates, there are significant approaches to life identifiable as “sense” (referring to prudence and good judgment, as in the case of Elinor), or “sensibility” (meaning emotionality and sensitivity, demonstrated by Marianne). Also involved are Mrs. Jennings (Nigel Gore), John Middleton (Ryan Quinn), Fanny/Lucy Steel (Katie Hartke) and Anne Steele/Mrs. Ferrars (Birnbaum again). The basic story (or, rather, stories) are well enough known from the novel as well as the numerous television and film adaptations, but this version by Bedlam (as is their wont) is a real trip like no other. And every single member of this tenfold ensemble is brilliant. As just one example, in the blink of an eye Birnbaum flashes from motherly concern as Mrs. Dashwood to airhead Anne Steele to ancient Mrs. Ferrars with lightning speed in a bravura display.

The Cast of "Sense & Sensibility"
(photo: Ashley Garrett) 

Along the way, there are more than a few Austenian wry nuggets. The novelist rather benignly wound down in a similar manner in which she had begun, with the statement that “though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands”. Yet in its truthful depiction of the fate of single or widowed women with no means or station, there is a somber undertow to the play, but if one can accept that the siblings end up with men not of their dreams, it's an undeniably merry romp. Thanks in large part to the precision provided by the creative team, led by Tucker with his inexhaustible bag of tricks, all's well that ends well, though not, as noted, as its lead characters would have planned it. The (literally) fluid Scenic Design on wheels by John McDermott, complex Lighting Design by Les Dickert, witty Costume Design by Angela Huff and effective Sound Design by Alex Neumann all contribute to this polished and professional frolic. It's absolutely breathtaking.

This production will be presented through January 14th, and Bedlam will be returning to Boston in March to ArtsEmerson to display their more serious side with their double bill of Hamlet and St. Joan (the latter fondly remembered from its production at Central Square Theatre a few seasons ago). Meanwhile, one may revel in the superficial silliness at hand. At the same time a member of an audience entertained by this show will be all the better for experiencing those broken hearts and troth pledgings, for, as Marianne challenges Elinor (and Austen challenges her readers): “do not ask me not to feel”.


"Christmas Carol" Encore: The Solo of Wit

Encore!: Neil McGarry's as Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol"

The following is a republishing of a previous review of this show, with encore performances Dec.19-21 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, with the entire original cast intact.....

Every Christmas season, as predictable as the swallows’ spring return to Capistrano, there arrive at one’s theatrical doorstep (or one’s door knocker) an abundance of productions of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol”, and this year is no exception. Among the more typical megacast and musical versions, however, there was one exception, that of a fledgling local troupe. While this critic reads the original novella every Christmas, the prospect of attending yet another staged version was daunting, and had prompted in past reviews the headline “Three Ghosts Walked into a Bar…”

Until this version. This is not your grandmother’s “Christmas Carol”, but she surely would have loved it. The striking difference that makes this production stand out from all the others is that all the roles, with one brief exception, are filled by one actor, Neil McGarry in a demanding, astounding, and charming performance. This “Carol” is worth singing about, for it supplies a crucial voice most other versions miss, namely that of Dickens himself. From the moment McGarry arrives onstage literally carrying the baggage of Scrooge’s life, we’re struck by the incomparably wise and witty language of the author. Where other productions tend to stick to the well-known words of various characters, this one depends much more on the literate beauty and deviously comic viewpoints one appreciated only on the page, until now. Such asides as having “often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now”, or “awaking in the middle of a prodigious tough snore” are hilarious examples. The star of this version is none other than Dickens himself, in the person of the narrator, and in that role McGarry truly shines.

McGarry is not your typical Scrooge, given his youth and good looks, but he manages to convince, with intricate gestures, fluid movement and seemingly infinite facial expressions, not only in the pivotal role of the old miser but in all the supporting roles save one, with wondrous turns as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the long-suffering Bob Cratchit, and especially the small role of the boy sent to buy the prize turkey. Wisely, avoiding what could have been unintentionally funny, only the love of his young life, Belle, is portrayed by another actor, by an offstage voice. With few props (a scarf that doubles as a blindfold, a coat rack that doubles as a Christmas tree, street lamps and a trunk), and an almost bare stage, stripped to its bare essentials, the story has never been so alive and real. To see and hear McGarry exclaim “Oh, there never was such a goose!” is absolutely brilliant. He runs the gamut of emotions from Scrooge’s first horror at the vision of Marley’s face to the uniquely believable transformation at the end. Not only is this performance a triumph of memorization, it’s the most energetic effort seen on any stage thus far this season; at one point, at the Fezziwigs’ ball, one could have sworn there were ten lords a-leaping.

Mention should be made that this is a production unafraid to reference the religious meaning of the season, with Dickens’ quote “and he took a child and set him in the midst of them” and “he (Scrooge) went to church” near the end of the storytelling. As Scrooge finally puts it, “I am not the man I was”, and neither are we when reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, especially for those who believe, but even for those who do not. This is “A Christmas Carol” for the ages, and for theatergoers of all ages as well. Anyone who misses this production, to quote Dickens himself, “should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. If you haven’t ordered tickets yet, what the dickens are you waiting for?


New Rep's "La Mancha": To Reach the Impossible Note

The Cast of "Man of La Mancha"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

As is the case with theatergoers who were fortunate enough to attend productions of the 1959 “musical play” that was Man of La Mancha on Broadway, or one or more of its four New York revivals in 1972, 1977, 1992, or 2002, this show remains a beloved memory. Based on the 1965 novel Don Quixote (written between 1605 and 1615) as well as other works by Miguel de Cervantes, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning five (including Best Musical). It had first seen the light of day as a non-musical teleplay by Dale Wasserman in 1959, later adapted by him for the musical stage (at Goodspeed Opera House, also the original home of Annie in 1976), with Music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion. It was Wasserman's ingenious move to portray the eccentric title character in a play-within-a-play, a tribute to the historical reality that Cervantes himself, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was not primarily a poet but first and foremost a playwright and actor on the road with his own little troupe. This “musical play” reflected the idealistic hopes of the time, becoming known primarily for its best song, The Quest , also known as The Impossible Dream (especially among Red Sox fans in 1967). It was also acknowledged as providing one of the rare Broadway musical male lead roles, along with the likes of Tevye and Harold Hill. It survived its being made into an almost completely forgettable film in 1972 starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, neither of whom could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket (though only O'Toole was dubbed). The question for modern audiences is this: does it still speak to them as it celebrates idealism and hope, in a more cynical age?

Alas, the question remains unanswered, at least with this production. For reasons known only to Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, the setting has been arbitrarily altered to Spain in the era of Franco (the 1960's) while still featuring a trial by the Spanish Inquisition (1478, last time one checked). One who had never seen a production of this show could be forgiven for not grasping the logic of that wrong-headed decision, one that mirrors the auteur approach all too common these days among operatic directors who thoroughly ignore a librettist's original intent. Unfortunately there were some other crucial missteps as well, from the distracting and ugly steampunk-like set, to the haphazard lighting that left one searching for which actor was speaking or singing countless times, to the equally unfocused movement direction, the weirdly unsettling sound and musical effects, the drab (even for prisoners) costumes and bizarre use of non-period instruments like an accordian and ukulele. Its most egregious mistaken choice was casting otherwise excellent actors in singing roles that were out of their comfort zones. It also ignored the explicit instructions by the librettist that Cervantes appear to grow old and gaunt (applying makeup and beard as he assumes the title role), and that his comic sidekick be “chubby” (not due to a prosthetic appliance). And then there is Wasserman's note that “the play is performed without intermission”, which was also ignored, leading to the breaking of tension as the play progressed. So many wrong-headed decisions were indicative that the creative team failed to grasp and/or convey the fundamental message of the piece.

One exception was the choice of Austrian opera diva Ute Gfrerer as Aldonza, the whore who evolves into Dulcenea, the “noble lady” chosen by the knight-errant Don Quixote, who is his sole convert in the end. Gfrerer was solidly at home in her acting and singing of the role (though she looked far too well-coiffed for the character), whose famous background in interpreting Kurt Weill really showed, a reminder of the power the play should possess.

Sadly, if one is looking for meaning in life and the courage to persevere with resilience against a tyrannical administration, one won't find either here in this missed opportunity.


Lyric's "Hold These Truths": It Can't Happen Here

Michael Hisamoto with Gary Thomas Ng & Samantha Richert
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sekata is a historical play about the internment of U.S. Citizens of Japanese descent in their own country during World War II; obviously, this was a national disgrace which could never again happen here.

As the current production by Lyric Stage Company, this work stars Michael Hisamoto (a Japanese-born and Singapore-raised actor) as Gordon Hirabayashi (of Japanese ancestry and Quaker upbringing). It's the story of his defiance and patriotism in resisting internment in camps. It also features three kurogos (essentiallty stage hands, sometimes “invisible” manipulators and dancers) in the kabuki and noh theatrical traditions, played by Khloe Alice lin, Gary Thomas Ng and Samantha Richert. Told by means of flashbacks, the story utilizes Hisamoto in numerous roles, from his parents and college friends to military leaders, Supreme Court justices, lawyers, prison bosses, and even Hopi native Americans. As a Quaker, he believed that “God is in each heart, not in a church”. His fifty years of effort resulted in the exposure of the supposed need to detain “non-alien U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry” for reasons of “national security”, to be ultimately the aftermath of hysteria and racism. This was in part due to the unearthing of letters, memos and military documents by legal historian Peter Irons. In this spare and stark one-hundred-minute intermissionless work, a powerful lesson ought to be apparent. Director Benny Sato Ambush likens this work to a one-person show “with a cast of thousands”, since the character of Hirabayashi is clearly representative of the huge number of people affected by their unconscionable mistreatment. He further notes that nativism and xenophobia (and consequent immigration laws) rear their ugly heads cyclically. And as the playwright herself puts it, “rather than be defeated by the America that was, (Hirabayashi) felt that he had to say a passionate “yes” to the America that was still to come”. As the powers that be finally had to admit, “ancestry is not a crime”.

Michael Hisamoto with Samantha Richert, Khloe Alice Lin & Gary Thomas Ng
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As Hirabayashi quotes his father: “the nail that's sticking out is the one that gets hit”. Toward the end of the play, Hirabayashi's earlier quote is expanded upon: “the nail that's sticking out is the one that gets hit.....unless the hammer is smaller than the nail”. Surprisingly funny at times, nearly always profound and of course resonant, the play has great power. Its force is dependent on the skill of Hisamoto, and he commands the stage, first with his wide-eyed innocence, then with growing disenchantment, finally with righteous anger. The production is choreographed by Jubilith Moore, with Scenic Design (effectively using typical Japanese screens) by Shelley Barish, simple Costume Design by Tobi Renaldi, critical Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and fine Sound Design and Music Composition by Arshan Gailus and Projection Design by Johnathan Carr.

As Hirabayashi noted, “we are here farther still from where we ought to be”. Appropriately, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, unfortunately, a posthumous recognition, given as it was just months after his death. And, of course, as noted above, in our more enlightened times, it can't happen again here. Oh, wait.....

You would do well to revisit this ever more timely era, to be presented through December 31st.