3/27/2015

NTL's "View from the Bridge": Soleless but Soulful

Phoebe Fox, Mark Strong & Nicola Walker in "A View From the Bridge"
(photo: National Theatre Live/Young Vic)
 
National Theatre Live's latest HD Broadcast was the London Young Vic production of Arhtur Miller's play "A View from the Bridge", helmed by Belgian Director Ivo Van Hove. This production was recently (and quite deservedly) nominated for a total of seven Olivier Awards (for best revival, director, actor, supporting actress, lighting, set, and sound). In the 1955 introduction to the first publication of the play, Miller referred to his play as “social drama”, with “man as victim, made unhappy by restlessness”. He also noted that the play was “in one act because, quite simply, I did not know how to pull a curtain down anywhere before its end; while writing it, I kept looking for an act curtain, a point of pause, but none ever developed”. Five years later, when a revised edition of the play was published, Miller's introductory notes elaborated on "the viewpoint of Eddie's wife, and her dilemma in relation to him, which made it necessary to break the play in the middle for an intermission. One afternoon, I saw my own involvement in this story; revisions subsequently made were in part the result of that new awareness.” As he further wrote, “it is more possible now to relate (Eddie's) actions to our own and thus to understand ourselves a little better not only as isolated psychological entities but as we connect to our fellows and our long past together.” Played once again without an intermission, making for a lengthy but viscerally exciting single act, that enhanced connection continues over half a century later, especially in this extraordinarily shattering production, full of soul, enacted by the cast in bare feet throughout.

The story, which takes place in the 1950's in an Italian American neighborhood near the Brooklyn Bridge, is narrated (as a sort of Greek chorus) by Alfieri (Michael Gould). It centers about a longshoreman, Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong), who is obsessed with his orphaned niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox) who lives with him and his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker). Beatrice's cousins Marco (Emun Elliott) and Rodolfo (Luke Norris), undocumented aliens from Sicily, arrive in the U.S. in need of a safe haven. Eddie invites them to stay with his family, a decision he regrets when Catherine and Rodolfo begin dating without his permission. Jealous to the point of paranoia, Eddie forces Rodolfo to box with him, partly in response to rumors expressed by his co-worker Louis (Richard Hansell) about the immigrant's sexual identity (since he sings jazz, cooks, sews and loves to dance, and there was no concept of metrosexuality in the 1950's). When Eddie learns the young lovers have slept together and will marry, he suspects Rodolfo's aim is to obtain citizenship, so he kisses him passionately to embarrass him, ultimately turning the refugees in to the immigration authorities, a cardinal sin in the Italian American community. Arrested by a local Officer (Pádraig Lynch), they are freed on bail set up by Alfieri. Marco accuses Eddie of the betrayal, and a fight ensues, bringing the story to a tragic climax as the neighbors look on. The staging of the final scene in this version was wonderful, raw and ingenious.

Van Hove's direction was meticulously fine, well-nigh perfect. Strong was firmly at the head and heart of this terrific ensemble, with Walker and Fox equally memorable. Actually, the entire cast was absolutely marvelous. The creative team members are all on the same page, providing the spare and sparse Set and Lighting Design (by Jan Versweyveld), the extraordinarily accentuated Sound Design (by Tom Gibbons, and authentically simple Costume Design (by An D'Huys), with the added effective use of several parts of the Fauré Requiem, from the Kyrie to Libera me, domine. In a season that included such productions as “Skylight”, “The Audience” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, each of which is now playing on Broadway, this latest broadcast was in many ways the most outstanding offering in National Theatre Live's very active and memorable year.

Screened at Cape Cinema in Dennis, MA; next from NTL: Stoppard's "Hard Problem" on April 16th

3/18/2015

SpeakEasy's "Big Fish": Hooked on Love in Bloom

Lee David Skunes, Steven Goldstein & Company in "Big Fish"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo)

As Tom Thumb sings in the musical “Barnum”, “bigger isn't better”, necessarily. At the end of the first act of the musical “Big Fish”, as presented on Broadway in 2013, the stage was suddenly filled with what appeared to be millions of daffodils in “glorious technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope, and stereophonic sound” (as “Silk Stockings” put it). At the same point in the current trimmed-down “revisal” of the musical at SpeakEasy Stage Company, there are several bouquets of daffodils held by almost the entire company of twelve (also slimmed down from the original Chicago and New York revisions of a cast of dozens). That, in microcosm, displays the fundamental difference in this production: instead of spectacle, there is simpler, humbler humanity, much more visually accessible and emotionally involving. There is charm, there is heart, there is sentiment (not to be confused with sentimentality). With alterations in the Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa (“Wild Party”, “The Addams Family”, and the oratorio “I Am Harvey Milk”) and the Book by John August, this is essentially a new work. The source material was Daniel Wallace's 1998 “Big Fish: a Novel of Epic Proportions”, which August first adapted for the screen in the popular 2003 film version by Tim Burton.

Although it was both a critical and commercial success in its Chicago tryout, the musical was changed considerably for Broadway, becoming overstuffed, overpopulated and overproduced, as is frequently the case when a complex book is adapted for the musical stage (as with “Ragtime” or “The Color Purple”). The special effects were truly wondrous, even epic, but they overwhelmed the sweetness of the story, with a run of fewer than a hundred performances on Broadway. Reminiscent of such sources as “The Wizard of Oz” and “The Music Man” and even the opera “Turandot”, with inspirations as diverse as the Odyssey and the twelve labors of Hercules, it's at its core unabashedly heartwarming and wholesome. This version has been trimmed down to its essentials by combining some characters and dropping others (“killing their darlings”, as the saying goes, such as the Siamese twins), and from a full orchestra to a six-piece band, adding new songs (reinstating “This River Between Us” from Chicago) and cutting others (such as the distracting “Red, White and True” trio). In so doing, there have been mostly welcome changes (heeding the advice playwright Moss Hart urged in his work “Act One” when an amazing gorgeous set was discarded when it proved to be a distraction during tryouts). It's challenging alchemy at work here, mixing the everyday with the fabulous while making the play more focused than before. In so doing, they've disproved that old conceit about bigger being necessarily better. Tom Thumb was right.

For those unfamiliar with the basic plot, it tells the story (or, rather, stories) of a traveling salesman Edward (Steven Goldstein) and his son Will (Sam Simahk) who has spent a lifetime listening to his father's fish stories. There's a flashback to Edward telling his son as a young boy (the talented Jackson Daley) about catching a huge fish or mermaid (the amusing Sarah Crane). Edward's wife Sandra (Aimee Doherty) tells young Will to go to sleep, but Edward narrates yet another tale when he and his high school nemesis Don Price (the menacing Zaven Ovian) met a witch (the funny Aubin Wise), prophesying their futures. Edward reveals some very private information at Will's wedding, leading to a fight. Later, the local doctor (Will McGarrahan) discloses the truth about Edward's health and Will reluctantly comes home. Meanwhile, Will's new wife Josephine (the impressive Katie Clark) hears Edward's literally tall tale of a giant named Karl (Lee David Skunes) who travels with Edward to a circus run by Amos Calloway (McGarrahan again). There he first meets Sandra, falling instantly in love with her. Edward proposes to her, promising her a life full of her favorite flowers (those daffodils), revealing that his name is...Bloom. Of course. Will later discovers a secret his father had been keeping, when Edward reveals the truth about a flooded town and its mayor (the effective Daniel Scott Walton) and leaving a girl named Jenny Hill (the very memorable Sara Schoch) behind. Will then tells his story about returning to the river where all of his father's friends in his stories await him. Will and his own son return to the river years later, and Will starts to tell him his tales. It has been, after all, a story of a son's search for his father.

The show, simple in its viewpoint but deceptively not simple in its structure, has been perfectly landed by Director Paul Daigneault (the company's Producing Artistic Director). Also put simply, this is easily the best production in SpeakEasy's storied history. The clue to Daigneault's triumph can be pared down to one word: casting. First and foremost there's the central role of Edward, sensationally embodied by Goldstein, who looks and sounds as though he were born to play this dynamo with a phenomenal voice (no surprise: he has a considerable history of operatic roles). Then there are the usual suspects from our area: Doherty, who apparently can do just about anything, has never been better; Simahk (memorable in recent Sondheim regional productions) finally gets a role worthy of his versatility; and Garrahan adds another duo of unforgettable roles to his astonishing repertoire. And relative newcomer Skunes is a towering presence in every sense of the term. In short, the entire ensemble is a gift. There are of course other important contributions to the work, including excellent Music Direction by Matthew Stern, fine Choreography by Larry Sousa, truly ingenious Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord, unbelievably intricate and varied Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, expert Sound Design by David Reiffel, and the magical combination of Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Projection Design by Seághan McKay. Oh, and there's that new-and-improved score by Lippa, which is absolutely glorious. Not many lyricists could get away with such lyrics as “I'm not afraid to stoop to scooping poop” but he manages to do that thanks to his lack of affectation and his disarmingly lovely score.

In the end, this musical play succeeds in that most elemental fundamental of theater at which August is quite adept: storytelling. Its moving finale works only if the audience is willing to believe the impossible. As Edward puts it,”the air was sweet and mild with disbelief implausibly surrendered”. Exactly. And as another character says, Edward's stories were “truth...(with) embellishments”; and yet another character sums him up: “if you understand the stories, you'll understand the man”. Even a list of the song titles reinforces the concentration on simple storytelling: “What Next”, “Time Stops” and “How It Ends”. “It ends with faith, it ends with love...it all ends well”. And as Will finally says to his dad: “That's how it happened; that's how you go”. And that means you, too. Go you must, to this triumph of musical theater at its greatest. It honestly doesn't get any better than this.

3/17/2015

Company Theatre's "J.C. Superstar": A Revelation

Brendan Duquette in and as "Jesus Christ Superstar"
(photo: Company Theatre)
 

In1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music) and Tim Rice (Lyrics) created the first megahit rock musical, and it was a revelation. The popularity of their concept album version of “Jesus Christ Superstar” led to its re-creation a year later on Broadway, where it had an unprecedented run (for such a radically new incarnation) of over 700 performances, leading to a film and revivals. It's the current production by The Company Theatre in Norwell, where it's closer to heaven. While the original 1971 Broadway production was so outrageously overproduced that Lloyd Webber himself disclaimed it (though he didn't do likewise with his royalties), this version is truer to its source and spirit.

A huge part of its success was the casting in the title role of Brendan Duquette, who has made almost a cottage industry out of playing J.C., having twice played the lead in two versions of “Godspell”, most recently at Plymouth's Priscilla Beach Theatre. (Full disclosure: this critic was a part of the cast of disciples in that production). Duquette, well received in these prior roles, has matured into an even more estimable actor, singer and dancer thanks to his recent studies in New York; his was a truly charismatic performance. It was a triumph for Duquette as he led a cast of almost three dozen actors featuring the terrific David L. Jiles, Jr. (in the pivotal role of Judas) and the lovely-voiced Caitlin Ford (Mary Magdalene). The rest of this energetic and talented cast consisted of fine singing actors in the roles of Pilate (Matthew Maggio), Caiaphas (Christopher J. Hapberg), Annas (James A. Valentin), 3rd Priest (Chris Joseffy), Peter (Ryan Barrow), Andrew (Francis Sheehan), Matthew (Christopher Spencer), John (Alex Moon), James the Greater (John Crampton), James the Lesser (Evan Pouch), Bartholomew (J. J. O'Sullivan), Thomas (Nick Alessi), Simon (Sam Patch), Phillip (Justin Selig), Jude (Bruno Barbuto), and King Herod (John F. King). The effective ensemble included Meghan Boutilier, Nicole Andreas, Emily Arsenault, Ellie Baumgarten, Madison Carroll, Kristin Lynn Connelly, Ora Neufville, Jessy Rowe, Maureen Rowe and Brianne Taber. Though all were memorable, there were a few standouts, including Maggio's “Pilate's Dream”, Ford and Barrow's duet “Could We Start Again, Please?” and of course Ford's “I Don't Know How to Love Him”. The production was directed by Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman, with Staging by Sally Ashton Forrest. The cast, it should be noted, always seemed to be aware of exactly where they should be, not an easy task with a troupe of this size. The Costume Design was by Cameron McEachern, with Lighting Design by Jonathan Sikora and Set Design by co-director Bradford. Musical Direction was by Michael V. Joseph, leading a fourteen piece orchestra.
 
For those looking for an appropriate show for this time of the year, “Jesus Christ Superstar” could be just the ticket, despite the questionable theology here and there. It's a bit of a spring awakening to find that what was once considered radical is now looked upon as mainstream. This production (unlike that glitzy original Broadway version) always has its heart in the right place. If it's too contemporary for some folks, there's always the original Book.

3/15/2015

Fathom Events' "Donna del Lago": Unsinkable

Joyce DiDonato as "La Donna del Lago"
(photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The latest HD broadcast from Fathom Events was the Metropolitan Opera's production of Rossini's “La Donna del Lago”, based on the novel “The Lady of the Lake” by Sir Walter Scott. Not seen at the Met for over a century, it's a tour de force for singers with incredible range. This production was among the most popular and critically acclaimed works of the Met's current season, despite a libretto by Andrea Leone Tottola that defies comprehension. Not as well-known as the “other Scottish Opera” (that is, Verdi's “Macbeth”), it could well become a favorite whenever the casting gods are in our favor, as they surely were this time around.

Since the opera is a relatively unfamiliar one to most of us, a brief synopsis might be helpful. The story takes place in Sterlingshire in the Scottish highlands in the sixteenth century. Elena, the titular Lady of Loch Katrine (mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato) makes her daily crossing of the lake, singing of her love for Malcolm (mezzo Daniela Barcellona in the pants role). Elena meets “Uberto”, actually the disguised King Giacomo V (tenor Juan Diego Florez), who learns that her father is his former tutor Duglas d'Angus (bass Oren Gradus), who now opposes him, and that she is betrothed to Rodrigo di Dhu (tenor John Osborn), the Highland Clan chief who is an enemy of the king. After the king departs, Malcolm arrives in time to hear Duglas order his daughter to marry Rodrigo. Once Duglas leaves, Elena and Malcolm proclaim their love. The Highland Clan gathers to support Rodrigo, who introduces Elena as his future bride. When news arrives that the King's army is attacking, the Clan goes off to war. Still disguised, the King finds Elena and declares his love for her, which she rejects. He gives her a ring which he says is from the King and will protect her. This is overheard by Rodrigo who vows to kill this “Uberto”. Later, Malcolm hears that Rodrigo has been killed and that Elena is at the palace, having used the ring to gain access in an effort to save Duglas, Malcolm and Rodrigo. Elena sees “Uberto”, surrounded by his subjects who reveal that he is the king. Moved by his love for her, he pardons Duglas and Malcolm. Elena and Malcolm are reunited and peace breaks out in Scotland.

This was a gloriously sung performance, with Didonato, Diego Florez and Osborn giving their all to the demanding requirements of bel canto music. All three were superb, with Osborn the biggest surprise, since the role of Rodrigo doesn't seem at first to be a major one. Their vocal talents were matched by their quite believable acting. The same could be said for Barcellona, who held her own with less difficult but no less impressive singing and acting, despite a rather distractingly unflattering costume. The rest of the cast, in the various supporting roles, also impressed with their contributions, including the chorus, though they didn't play as large a part as in other recent productions. Conductor Michele Mariotti led the Met Opera Orchestra with confident command. The Production was by Paul Curran (actually a co-production with Sante Fe Opera) with HD Direction by Gary Halvorson. The Set and Costume Design was by Kevin Knight, with Lighting Design by Duane Schuler, and Projection Design by Driscoll Otto. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus was under the direction of Chorus master Donald Palumbo for one of his final efforts before his retirement at the end of this season. The HD broadcast host was Patricia Racette. Everything was enjoyable, with the possible exception of the libretto.

There's no getting around the fact that the libretto is fundamentally flawed even by operatic standards. Both DiDonato and maestro Mariotti confessed as much during intermission interviews. Even so, given such marvelous singing, we could easily forgive the absurd plot. In the end it's that wondrous music that transports us across the lake with this memorable lady. With singers like these, it's a journey sure to be safe and unsinkable.

Screened at Regal Cinemas in Kingston; Encore Presentation Weds. March 18th at 6:30pm

3/14/2015

BLO's "Katya Kabanova": Turning the Other Czech

Elaine Alvarez as "Katya Kabanova"
(photo: Eric Antoniou for BLO)

Boston Lyric Opera's latest production is the area premiere of “Kátya Kabanová”, by Leoš Janǻĉek, composer of “Jenůfa” (as well as “Cunning Little Vixen”, “From the House of the Dead” and “Makropulos Affair”). This time around, the BLO turns the other Czech, so to speak, with this performance of the lesser known work. In fact, it also represents the first production of any of the works of Janáĉek in the history the BLO. Based on the 1859 Russian play “Graza” (“The Thunderstorm”) by Ostrovsky, it was first performed in Brno in 1921 when the composer was sixty-seven years old, but not produced in this country until 1957. This production uses an English translation by Norman Tucker, as well as surtitles. Like the novel “Anna Karenina”, it's the story of an unhappy marriage in a primitive society and time when divorce was unthinkable (in the era of the Greats, Peter and Catherine), leading to an episode of forbidden love. The Ostrovsky play was the subject of many operatic interpretations, but this one was the most successful and enduring version. Its depiction of a tyrannical and oppressive milieu, in which social taboos, customs and rites were to be preserved no matter the cost. This operatic piece is often referred to as the Czech “Madama Butterfly”, as tragedy looms throughout. Its three acts are performed in Boston with no intermission in just under two hours.

Diacritically speaking, this is a difficult work to write about and a challenge to any typist, but the libretto, by Francesco Vincenc Cervinca, is a relatively simple one for an opera. The story takes place in the Russian town of Kalanov, on the Volga River, in the 1860's. Glascha (Chelsea Basler), a servant in the household of the Kabanov family, listens as Kudrjasch (Omar Najmi) praises the beauty of the Volga. His revery is interrupted by an argument between the rich neighbor Dikoy (James Demler) and his nephew Boris (Raymond Very). After Dikoy leaves, Fekluscha (Heather Gallagher) extols the hospitality of the Kabanovs, which leads to Boris' confession of his love for Kátya Kabanová (Elaine Alvarez). Returning from church, Katya's husband Tichon (Alan Schneider) is ordered by his dominating mother Kabanicha (Elizabeth Byrne), which translates as “mean old sow”, to go on a business trip, leaving his humiliated wife vulnerable to the adulterous longings of Boris. Kabanicha's daughter Varvara (Sandra Piques Eddy) meets her lover Kudrjasch in a garden one night, and arranges a meeting between Kátya and Boris. At first faithful to her departed husband, Kátya eventually succumbs to Boris, declaring her love for him. Days later, when a thunderstorm drives Kudrjasch and his friend Kuligin (David McFerrin) to seek shelter, they are first joined by Dikoy, Varvara and Boris, then by Katya, Kabanicha and the returned Tichon. Kátya confesses her guilt and infidelity to Tikon and Kabanicha and runs off into the storm. Boris, exiled by his uncle, finds Kátya and tells her of his banishment. Alone and unable to endure her public shame and guilt, and even though terrified that she will not die in a state of grace, she realizes she now has nothing and acts accordingly. The beautiful Volga lives on in the final wordless chorus of the opera as a source of both some sort of salvation as well as oblivion, in Katya's final act of protest against an unjust system.

This is an emotional powerhouse of an opera, with music that matches the mood. Its many motifs are woven into a complex and challenging score. As Conducted by David Angus, and performed by an overall marvelous cast, backed up by the incomparable BLO Orchestra, this was an unforgettable musical triumph. The singers comprised a group with varied histories with BLO. Making their BLO debuts are Alvarez, Very and Byrne; Najmi, Basler and Gallagher are current BLO Emerging Artists, and McFerrin and Schneider are alumni of the Emerging Artists program. All were in fine voice, especially Alvarez in her final scene, and Byrne throughout in the unflattering role of one of opera's vilest characters. The Stage Direction by Tim Albery of Opera North in Leeds in England, in the revised performing version by Sir Charles Mackerras, is a recreation of Albery's staging there, and the Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler and Lighting Design by Peter Mumford are also transfers from the British production. Replete with dark greens and blues that mirror the colors of the river, they were the perfect complement to the tone of the opera.

This was a musical experience that will be long remembered, with the most critical role being that of the orchestra. Equally at home with the dissonant chords of the score as well as the melodic ones (the duet between Katya and Boris, “You know you are more than all the world to me”, for example), Angus and his orchestra were the costars of the production. It's a work that is relentlessly dark and dour, but has some of the most fascinating music in the today's world of opera. A light romantic romp of operatic trills this was not, but its impact was a thoroughly moving one, for which local opera goers can be exceedingly grateful. If one is serious about serious opera, this was one not to be missed.

3/12/2015

Huntington's "Colored Museum": Kvetch-a-Sketch

Capathia Jenkins, Ken Robinson & Nathan Lee Graham in "The Colored Museum"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company's revival of the1985 play “The Colored Museum” by George C. Wolfe is a series of satirical sketches, playlets depicting various cultural stereotypes of African-Americans. Described by Wolfe as both an exorcism and a party, it was first recognized as a jaw-dropping ninety-minute work; thirty years later, and extended in length, it's a testament to society's plodding progress in that it still bites. Each segment is more than mere kvetching, but has a particular point to make about that disappointing progress. As meticulously directed and choreographed by Billy Porter (a Tony winner for his leading role in “Kinky Boots”), this production is wildly memorable, whether one is being exercised, exorcised, partied or prodded. Suffice it to say that this slightly updated version is outrageously well directed, outrageously well performed, and outrageously out (of the closet, that is). Much of one's appreciation of the overall work may well depend on just how much baggage one brings to it, but more about this later.

Git on Board”, the first of eleven “exhibits”, features Miss Pat (Shayna Small), a programed flight attendant on a celebrity slaveship, instructing us to fasten ourselves in (one could almost hear her say, “it's gonna be a bumpy night”), referencing the Watusi, the Funky Chicken and Faulkner all in one breath. This is followed by “Cookin' with Aunt Ethel” (Capathia Jenkins), a cooking show in which we're taught how to “explore the magic and mysteries of colored cuisine” and cook ourselves an unusual batch of...well, no spoilers here. Then comes “The Photo Session”, dissing superficial glossy magazines like Ebony, wherein we're urged toward a fabulous world where “no one says anything profound or meaningful or contradictory”. On a totally different note, “A Soldier with a Secret” is next, when a soldier (Ken Robinson) foresees the future of his fellow combatants and devises a deranged solution to save them from the inevitable, “the secret to your pain”. In “The Hairpiece”, “Janine”,a 1950's Afro wig and “LaWanda,” a more au courant and assimilated long-tressed wig, debate their influences on their owner's life over twenty years and the fact that “it don't matter where you come from as long as you end up in the right place”. Then there's “The Gospel according to Miss Roj” (Nathan Lee Graham) where, in a gay nightclub, a drag performer declaims in a snap the debasement beneath the glitter: “If this place is the answer, we're asking all the wrong questions”.

The midpoint, and centerpiece, of the sketches is “The Last Mama-on-the-Couch Play”, a rather cruel, devastatingly brutal parody of black plays and films, specifically “Raisin in the Sun” (done a couple of seasons ago at Huntington), ending with a suggestion that everyone segue into an all-black, all singing, all dancing, musical: “If we want to live, we have got to dance”, all in front of an impossibly busy wallpapered set complete with a black Jesus. Next is “Symbiosis”, a tale of a man confronted by a younger version of himself, trying to throw away his past (“Man kills his own rage; film at eleven”), but his younger self is refusing to be trashed. Then there's “LaLa's Opening”, wherein singer Lala Lamazing Grace (Rema Webb) also discovers that her former self still haunts her (“You may think you made me, but...I was who I was...long before you made me what I am”). The zany “Permutations” follows, with Normal Jean Reynolds, a young girl from the South, explaining to us how she laid a giant white egg filled with babies: “any day now, this shell's gonna crack and my babies are gonna fly”. The final sketch is “The Party”, a fantasy feast given by one Topsy Washington, defying limits and logic, featuring Nat Turner, Eartha Kitt, Angela Davis and Aunt Jemima, with Topsy proclaiming “my power is in my madness...and my colored contradictions”.

The power of this work lies indeed in its occasional madness and “colored contradictions”; this is a museum, after all, aiming to educate while it entertains. Just as one might expect, as with most revues, some of these sketches work better than others, not unlike, say, “Saturday Night Live”. Inevitably, some of the once- topical references no longer are, and some parts will work best for theatergoers who can relate most to the jargon and jive. Several of the pieces are amusingly aimed at the jugular with knowing nudges to comfort the communally afflicted, while others exist primarily to afflict the comfortable. (We know who we are; this critic grew up in a 'hood where diversity meant a white Catholic who wasn't Irish). In either case, the cast, all playing a multitude of roles, land quite a few of the barbs, some gentle and some not, on their intended targets. The ensemble of Graham, Robinson, Jenkins, Small and Webb, with quite frequent onstage support from the fine Percussionist Akili Jamal Haynes, are wonderful as a group and impressive when each gets a chance to stop the show. Just one of numerous high points is that Supreme moment on hearing Jenkins channel Jennifer Holliday in “Dreamgirls”, a hysterically perfect take. In keeping with the tone of the work are the wildly funny Scenic Design with a rotating set by Clint Ramos, clever Costume Design by Anita Yavich, complex Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto, effective Sound Design by the team of John Shivers and Kevin Kennedy, and Projection Design by Zachary G. Borovay. There is also great Music by Kysia Bostic and Music Direction and Arrangements by James Sampliner. Everything about this production is Broadway-ready.

Except the length. In at least three of the playlets, the hijinks continue well past their sell-by dates. While the moments in drag are fabulously well done, they become a bit of a drag when extended way beyond making their points (though creating awareness of yet another sort of stereotyping), causing the show to lose its overall fast-paced precision and momentum. The same could be said for the “Raisin” parody with its intentional over-the-top emoting, once it becomes a seemingly endless musical. But that's easily fixed with a bit of editing here and there in Wolfe's amazingly clever book. Just to see LaLa Lamazing Grace almost hit that high note that only dogs can hear, or to attend Topsy's party where Bert Williams and Malcolm X are discussing “existentialism as it relates to the shuffle-ball-change” of tap dance, or any number of such memorable turns, is well worth a visit to this unique museum. Fifty years after Selma, we find ourselves either laughing until it hurts or laughing because it does. To appreciate this production fully, first you'll have to deal with your personal baggage, for, as it might be put by Miss Pat, any baggage you don't claim, they trash. 

3/09/2015

ArtsEmerson's "Tristan & Yseult": You've Got (Chain) Mail

The Club of the Unloved from "Tristan & Yseult"
(photo: Kneehigh Theater)

ArtsEmerson's current offering is “Tristan & Yseult”, a production by the Kneehigh Theater, the folks who brought the inventive “Brief Encounter” to Broadway in 2010. The company was founded in Cornwall in the southwest of England in 1980 by Mark Shepard. This play, written by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy, members of the company, and directed by Emma Rice, joint Artistic Director of the company, is a far cry from the more familiar 1865 version of Richard Wagner whose “Tristan and Isolde” is a monumental work. Their approach to the tale is decidedly less serious (until the finale) and unabashedly silly.
 
The basic story, which will resonate with those who cherish the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “Camelot”, concerns the clandestine affair of Tristan (Dominic Marsh), a French knight, who defeats the Celtic warrior Morholt (Niall Ashdown), and Morholt's “elfin” sister Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), who is claimed by his Cornish uncle King Mark (Stuart Goodwin). King Mark orders Tristan to return to Ireland to bring her back so that she may wed the king, which she does, even though meanwhile she and Tristan have fallen wildly in love. (Actually, the term “fallen” would be more accurately described as “soaring” wildly in love). When King Mark discovers their tryst, he has to decide between executing them and banishing them from the kingdom. Also involved are Yseult's maid Brangian (Ashdown again), the king's devoted Frocin (Damon Daunno), the narrator, Whitehands (Kirsty Woodward), and a sort of Greek Chorus of the Unloved (“Lovespotters”). Along the way they're supported by a fine four piece onstage band that performs an eclectic songbook including “Only the Lonely:, “Dream Lover”, and “Get Lucky”. Even Wagner.is heard, though on a prerecorded tape. Oh, and of course, there's a love potion, as in all versions of the fate of the fabled twosome.

Rice's direction is entertaining throughout the piece, pushing the energetic company to greater and greater heights (literally), while pretty much demolishing the third wall in the process. Standouts are Marsh and Vassallo as the titular duo of lovers (though we're not given much character development), the cross-dressing Ashdown's Brangian, and above all the rubber-legged Daunno. The writing sometimes suffers, especially when the rhyming is forced (as in this example: “fatherly love is all very well, but too much of it is a ticket to hell”). The circus-like Scenic Design by Bill Mitchell is terrific, as is the Lighting Design by Malcolm Rippeth (notably in that finale) and the wacky Sound Design by Gregory Clarke. The Costume Supervisor, Ed Parry, has clothed most of the cast in modified hoodies that mimic the chain mail outfits of medieval times.

It's a fast-paced frolic from the first scene to the penultimate one; the finale suddenly turns unexpectedly serious, becoming unarguably the most engaging part of the performance, with Wagnerian accompaniment at that. The operatic version was dismissed with some rather unkind words recently by Rice (though Wagner's work is far superior to this one, even if admittedly far less fun), so it's extraordinarily ironic that this closing scene is the most effective one. If broadness of humor and slapstick are right up your alley (think Monty Python, though not often approaching them at their best), you'll have a pretty good idea of whether or not this is your cup of mead.