Fathom Events' "Angels in America, Parts I & II"..... COMING TONIGHT!!

James McArdle & Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)



(To be reviewed here after the completion of both parts)

Nathan Lane in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)

Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)


Americana Theatre's "Lucky Stiff": Weekend at Tony's?

Ahrens & Flaherty's premiere musical "Lucky Stiff"
(photo: Americana Theatre Company)

From the creative team that brought you A Man of No Importance, Once on this Island, Anastasia and perhaps especially Ragtime, comes the farce musical by the witty name of Lucky Stiff, which happens to be the first musical collaboration ever by the since-successful team of Lynn Ahrens (Book and Lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (Music). Based on the 1983 novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth, it was produced off-Broadway in 1988 by Playwrights Horizon, where it lasted fifteen performances, subsequently produced in London's West End and revised as a film. Critics at the time remarked at how promising the fledgling work was, expecting great things from the duo in the future, which indeed came to pass. With a score that includes almost two dozen numbers (including reprises), it has come to be embraced by theater companies throughout the country. This latest Americana Theatre production at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth (through July 22) finally brings the opportunity for local theatergoers to experience this seminal work, which takes place in the present in England, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo.

Think of it as “Weekend at Bernie's, the Musical”, if you like. (That film opened a year later than this musical, in case you were wondering who had the idea first). The story concerns the plight of one shy English shoe salesman, Henry Witherspoon by name (Jessie M. Sullivan), living in an East Grinsted boarding house bursting with colorful characters and a herd of dogs. (Henry hates dogs). The landlady (Erin Friday) and her other boarders intercept a telegram meant for Henry which informs him he's about to inherit six million dollars from his recently deceased Uncle Tony (Brigdon York), a casino croupier, with a catch. Henry learns from his solicitor (Brian Kenerson) that in order to collect, he must (successfully) take his Uncle Tony's corpse to his dream destination, Monte Carlo, for a week, or the fortune will revert to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, represented by Annabel Glick (Katie Johangten). His landlady and fellow boarders have other ideas, from the deceased's nearsighted girlfriend Rita La Porta (Hannah Jo Weisberg) to her mild-mannered henpecked brother Vinnie Di Ruzzio (Derek G. Martin), an optometrist, as well as a seductive nightclub chanteuse named Dominique du Monaco (Jennifer Martin), a would-be guide, Luigi Gaudi (David Friday) and Nick Hancock in multiple roles. Plot twists ensue.

Fortunately for you the reader, space considerations rule out a more comprehensive synopsis of the plot twists and turns, which would be stultifying, and best seen in person. As in all such complicated capers, all's well and ends well, more or less. As Directed by Brance Cornelius, the company performs at breakneck pace, accompanied by pianist Nicole Sjolin (the Music Director is Nancy Sparklin), with suave yet simple work by Choreographer Derek G. Martin, clever and versatile Set Design by David Friday, colorful and creative Costume Design by Brian Kenerson, and some really brilliant props (Props Master is Erin Friday) including an umbrella roulette wheel (which you'll have to see to appreciate).

The work by Ahrens and Flaherty is fundamentally a one joke premise, with often cute, if too predictable, lyrics and a score that is mostly musical recitative rather than a series of melodies though two songs, “Times Like This” and “Nice”, stand out. There's an inside joke about a Mr. Butterworth (the author of the source novel), and timing that clearly shows this cast was extraordinarily well rehearsed, and one might question whether these talented artists need miking in such a relatively compact venue. While they're uniformly memorable, one should note the chemistry between Sullivan and Johangten, the smooth movement by Kenerson and the sultry singing by Jennifer Martin. All made for a fun summer evening with some a-Spiring future stars.


Ogunquit's "Bullets over Broadway": Don't Speak!

Vincent Pastore, Reed Campbell & The Ensemble of "Bullets over Broadway"
(photo: Julia Russell)

There is more talent on display on the stage of the Ogunquit Playhouse in its current production of Bullets over Broadway the Musical, a work written by Woody Allen, than on any ten stages anywhere today. Based on the 1994 film written by Allen and Douglas McGrath, it's a shame all that talented energy isn't being put to more use than this virtually empty play. Produced on Broadway in 2014, it ran only156 performances. The musical follows the original screenplay fairly faithfully, focusing on the first play by novice David Shayne (John Rochette), to be premiered on Broadway by Julian Marx (Kenny Morris), financed by wealthy gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore, recreating his role from the New York production) who requires that it feature his girlfriend Olive Neal (Jemma Jane). Valenti appoints his henchman Cheech (Reed Campbell) to monitor the goings-on, but Cheech ends up making some important changes in the play, while leading man Warner Purcell (John Paul Almon) ogles Olive. Aging diva Helen Sinclair (Michele Ragusa) makes a play for the young playwright, who already has a girlfriend of his own, Ellen (Bridget Elise Yingling). Also on hand are the imposing character of Eden Brent (Ogunquit favorite Sally Struthers) and her dog Mr. Woofles.

As Helen Sinclair declares in the famous oft-repeated line in the film, “Don't speak!”. So they don't very much, leaving a lot of exposition to the choreography originally devised by Susan Stroman and recreated here by Director Jeff Whiting, as well as to the score. The dancing is clever and contributive, which is more than one can say about the musical numbers borrowed from many sources, with such songs as “(Up a) Lazy River”, “I'm Sitting on Top of the World”, and “There'll Be Some Changes Made”, many of which have little to do with any significant context to the plot. There are some twenty such old timers (and five reprises). With some additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, they run the gamut of jazz and pop standards from World War I to the 1930's. But no one seems to care about them in the end, preferring to wallow happily in the nostalgia of it all. Reviews for the Broadway production, especially concerning the “jukebox” musical style, were decidedly mixed. Here, the musical direction by Robbie Cowan, Sound Design by Ken Goodwin, Lighting Design by Richard Latta (an IRNE winner for last season's Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Costume Design by William Ivey Long (from the Broadway version) are all superior work.

The performances are also memorable, from Ragusa (a powerhouse), Jane (hysterically dumb) and Campbell (menacing), not to mention Struthers, who's unfortunately given little chance to share her estimable theatrical chops, relegated to speaking ig-pay atin-Lay and sing one number as a dog. Really. The gangsters dance wonderfully if weirdly as they mimic various crimes. But it's the fundamental crudity and crassness that one remembers, not even at the level of vaudeville but burlesque, offensive and dumb, veering from the amoral to the immoral, which may sound prudish, but there you are. Add to this several severely underdeveloped characters and some wildly inappropriate (considering their original contexts) versions of songs, such as “Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do”, and the work approaches what one character declares as “new heights of vacuousness”. It's a hodgepodge that reminds one of building Frankenstein from spare body parts. At one point Ragusa declares “don't sing”, but they do. The show left some of the audience nearly orgasmic with joy, while some left early, an option, alas, not available to critics.


MSMT's "Guys and Dolls": What the Fugue?

The Cast of "Guys and Dolls" in the number "Luck Be a Lady Tonight"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)

As this site has noted in the past, you know you're not in Kansas anymore when the opening number of a musical is entitled “Fugue for Tinhorns”, and it's still true, as Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick presents the much-beloved 1950 musical “Guys and Dolls, A Musical Fable of Broadway”. With Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser and Book by Abe Burrows (who rewrote the first draft by Jo Swerling) based on the popular underworld stories of Damon Runyon, its original Broadway incarnation won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and ran for an incredible 1200 performances. It also was about to be chosen to receive the Pulitzer Prize, until the Pulitzer board learned of Burrows' contretemps with the House Un-American Activities Committee. It has seen several successful revivals since, and was made into a largely forgettable 1955 film that miscast Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra. The play, praised for its faithfulness to the source material in style, characterizations and above all Runyon's depiction of the patois of the world of really-off-track-betting, it has endured in large part due to its unbelievably melodic and topical score. Besides its title song, there are a dozen and a half wonderful hits, such as “Luck Be a Lady”, “I've Never Been in Love Before”, “I'll Know (When My Love Comes Along)”, and “If I Were a Bell.” Then there are the comic songs such as “Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat”, “Sue Me”, “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” and, perhaps the ultimate show-stopper, “Adelaide's Lament”. It's no wonder most experts include it as one of the handful of all-time best Broadway musicals.

The Cast of "Guys & Dolls" in the "Crapshooters' Dance"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)
The musical magic begins, as noted above, with that groundbreaking opener, “Fugue for Tinhorns”, a very complex (for Broadway, anyway) contrapuntal composition that perfectly sets up the story to follow. In a mythical New York, having been thrown out of the local Save-a-Soul Mission for conducting an illegal crap game there, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Steve Gagliastro), Rusty Charlie (Raymond Marc Dumont) and Benny Southstreet (Brad Bradley) and their boss Nathan Detroit (James Beaman) need money to relocate, so Nathan makes a bet with inveterate gambler Sky Masterson (Stephen Mark Lucas) about taking a “doll” to dinner in Havana (how topical as well as tropical), with Sergeant Sarah Brown (Kristen Hahn) of the mission as the target of the bet. Nathan leaves to attend the night club act of his “doll”, Adelaide (Charis Leos), to whom he's been engaged for fourteen years, while Sky makes a very unsuccessful play for Sarah, even though promising to send the mission a dozen sinners. Sarah relents under pressure from her boss, General Cartwright (Cathy Newman) to produce genuine sinners, and flies off to Cuba with Sky, realizing once there (in Bacardi veritas) that she's in love with him. On their return, she realizes just where the floating game drifted, namely her beloved mission, and assumes that's why Sky got her out of town. She complains to her mission co-worker, Arvide (Glenn Anderson), but he urges her to follow her heart. Meanwhile in the sewers of the city, Sky falsely states that he failed to take Sarah to Cuba and makes a bet to all present, including Chicago gangster Big Julie (Danny Rutigliano), of $1000 each against their attendance at the mission. Sky wins, the gamblers attend a mission service, the local cops led by Lt. Brannigan (Joe Gately) are satisfied, and everyone ends up a winner, Sarah with Sky, Adelaide with Nathan.

Simple, yes? Deceptively so, as the show calls for a secure grasp of what the Runyonland folk are really like, especially with respect to the lower-level New York accents. (Many are those amateur versions that “rock the boat” in the wrong way). It also calls for respectful hands that can balance the seemly with the seedy, the lyricism with the lowlifes. In this production, the Direction and Choreography by DJ Salisbury are superb, with many fine touches. The cast is up to the challenge, from the first note delivered by the outstanding Bradley with memorable performances by all, most notably the hilarious Beaman (an IRNE winner for Nice Work If You Can Get It at Ogonquit Playhouse) and Leos (the latter unforgettable in her rendition of “Adelaide's Lament”). The technical aspects, from the tongue-in-cheek Costume Design by Ryan Moller, inventive Scenic Design by Robert Andrew Kovach, Lighting Design by Annemarie Duggan, Sound Design by Shannon Slaton, and the Music Direction by Brian Cimmet are all terrific. Fair warning: there's little subtlety in the telling, but it's prime rubber chicken comedy nonetheless, right down to Nicely-Nicely Johnson's trombone turn. The chemistry between Lukas and Hahn is palpable. It's a glorious night at the theater, playing through July 15, far above and beyond all the other floating crap games around.

And need one be gently reminded that, for Boston residents, MSMT is a mere hour and a half or so away by car (or, more relaxing, Amtrak's NorEaster)? You've got the house right here.


2017 Crabbies for Outstanding Theater

Play: “Fingersmith” ART
Musical: “The Scottsboro Boys” SpeakEasy Stage

Lead Actress, Play: Paula Plum “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Lyric Stage

Lead Actor, Play: Tony Travostino & Nick Bucchianeri “Lines in the Sand”, Cotuit Center for the Arts

Lead Actress, Musical: Jennifer Ellis “Bridges of Madison County”, SpeakEasy Stage

Lead Actor, Musical: De'Lon Grant “Scottsboro Boys”, SpeakEasy Stage

Ensemble Acting, Play: “Mrs. Packard” Bridge Rep

Ensemble Acting, Musical: “The Scottsboro Boys” SpeakEasy Stage

Supporting Actress, Play: Erica Spyres “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” , Lyric Stage

Supporting Actor, Play: Matthew Zahnzinger “Mrs. Packard”, Bridge Rep

Supporting Actress, Musical: Bobbie Steinbach “Sunday in the Park”, Huntington Theatre

Supporting Actor, Musical: Bransen Gates “Barnum”, Moonbox Productions

Musical Direction: Matthew Stern “Bridges of Madison County” , SpeakEasy Stage

Choreography: Rachel Bertone “Barnum”, Moonbox Productions

Scenic Design: Derek McLane “Sunday in the Park” , Huntington Theatre

Costume Design: Marianne Bertone “Barnum” , Moonbox Productions

Lighting Design: John Malinowski “Barnum” , Moonbox Productions

Sound Design: Rene Talbot “Machine de Cirque”, ArtsEmerson

Career Achievements: Nancy E. Carroll


Odyssey Opera's "Patience": Hey Willow Waly O!

Paul Max Tipton & Sarah Heaton in "Patience"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Farce is perhaps the most difficult form of theater to pull off, and so easy to overdo. It's a credit to Odyssey Opera, especially with regard to the choice of Stage Director Frank Kelley and Choreographer Larry Sousa, that they have produced such a faultless winner with Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, with Music by Sir W. S. Gilbert and Libretto by Sir Arthur Sullivan. This is the the sixth of a dozen operettas by the duo. First performed in 1881, it pits Victorian straight-laced ideals against the passions and indulgences of the 1870's Aesthetic Movement. Thus it makes perfect sense, as all Gilbert and Sullivan works of course do, with their inherent logic intact, for Odyssey Opera to offer this as the final piece in its season of (Oscar) Wilde Nights. Be forewarned, however, that this is no trifle of the “easy listening” sort; as with much of Gilbert and Sullivan, there is a lot of complicated music to be sung and played (at least at one point requiring contrapuntal music at alarmingly differing tempi, rather like listening to two LPs, one at 78 rpm and the other at 45 rpm). One thing that's not particularly complicated is the plot.

All of the village maidens, especially Lady Jane (mezzo-soprano Janna Baty) and her cohorts Lady Angela (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), Lady Ella (Sara Womble) and Lady Saphir (Heather Gallagher), are rapturously in love with local handsome poet Reginald Bunthorne (baritone Aaron Engebreth), who only has eyes for the simple milkmaid Patience (soprano Sara Heaton). In fact, he actually hates poetry. Patience in turn is in love with her childhood sweetheart, a real poet, Archibald Grosvenor (bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton), but feels she cannot marry him as he is too perfect. Meanwhile the serious and decidedly non-poetic Heavy Dragoon Guards, led by Colonel Calverley (baritone James Maddalena), Lt. The Duke of Dunstable (tenor Steven Goldstein) and Major Murgatroyd (Sumner Thompson), hoping to marry those rapturous maidens, find themselves with no likely prospects. In any case, since this is Gilbert and Sullivan after all, in the end (almost) everyone is suitably coupled. Only Bunthorne himself remains single, and so he must live and die, contented with a tulip or a lily.

Janna Baty in "Patience"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)
There is magnificent choral singing throughout, and some real standout solos, duets and even a lovely sextet. It was great fun to see and hear Engebreth and Tipton out-fop one another, Heaton portray the perfect G & S ingenue, and Baty attack her cello, all four with their singing gloriously intact. It was also a treat to have longtime local favorite James Maddalena sail through his two patter songs. The Scenic Design by Dan Daly, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica and Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom were impeccable from the first tableau vivant to the finale. This Odyssey Opera production, performed in English with fang in cheek vivacity and with the orchestra wonderfully led by Conductor Gil Rose, is a perfect capstone for its current season. So do not thou hesitate; go and get thee Wilde. Or, as Archibald might put it, Hey willow waly O!


Huntington's "Ripcord": Walking the Prank

Nancy E. Carroll & Annie Golden in "Ripcord"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One of the stranger current play titles is that of Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Good People), the final seasonal production of Huntington Theatre Company. It refers to the ripcord that must be pulled in order for a parachute to open from its pack. Unusual though it may at first seem, the title comes to be understood as appropriate for this comedy, which is cause for rejoicing, or at the very least, skydiving. As Directed by Jessica Stone (fondly remembered in her previous life as an actress in such works as Huntington's She Loves Me ), even down to the synchronized blackouts, this one's a keeper. As the playwright notes, this play is a return to his earlier style of writing, which Stone describes as an “absurdist sense of comic sensibility that cloaks themes of real pain and loss and need...(where) comedy is used like a gateway drug...to explore our darker impulses safely.” It's zany, wacky, wildly inventive, and hysterically funny.

The setting is Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, somewhere in New Jersey in 2015, in the twin room about to be occupied by two supremely antithetical humans. Abby Binder (Nancy E. Carroll), who, if you looked up the meaning of the word “cantankerous” in the dictionary, would have her photo there, suddenly finds herself a roomie to Marilyn Dunne (Annie Golden), a ceaselessly chipper antagonist for the more volatile Abby. It must first be noted that female actors of a certain vintage are too often relegated to the sidelines long before their sell-by dates. Thankfully, regional theater tends to recognize treasures without overtly enshrining them; such is the case with the amazingly versatile Carroll and Golden. It's not long before their two characters propose a bet, namely that Abby will make Marilyn feel anger before Marilyn can make Abby feel fear. Ah, surely it's never been truer that we ought to be careful what we bet on. The playwright, as in some of his previous plays, knows full well that humor is a coping mechanism, and, like life itself, it shouldn't be a surprise that underneath it there's pain and hurt and desperate need...and, especially in some cultures, ethnic survival methods. As the saying goes, “what happens next” is logical and quite easily anticipated, but even if you see it all coming, the specifics won't fail to amuse and even amaze.

Annie Golden, Ugo Chukwu & Nancy E. Carroll in "Ripcord"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There are set-ups and pay-offs galore: a troubled figure from Abby's past, Benjamin (Eric T. Miller); appearances by Marilyn's daughter Colleen (Laura Latreille) and son-in-law Derek (Richard Prioleau); a helpful attendant and part-time actor Scotty (Ugo Chukwu); and some comfortable familiarity with situation comedy touches of a forced mismatch. As the playwright has stated elsewhere, by the end of the play, the two leads actually find they need one another, and have changed each other, becoming different people, in a setting that all too often ends up being the last stop in the lives of its occupants. Where Abby had been a dictatorial misanthropic queen bee and Marilyn an impossibly sunny drone, their interactions have devolved into increasingly cruel and personal pranks, mirroring how each had become more disengaged from the world in differing responses to their being so hurt, wounded and damaged by life. How the playwright deftly manages to balance the bitter and the sweet is a marvel. He's aided by the ingenious Scenic Design by Tobin Ost (realistic and absurdist), Costume Design by Gabriel Barry (even to Marilyn's schmattes), Lighting Design by David Weiner, Sound and Original Music by Mark Bennett, Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon, and a wonderful acting ensemble, led by Carroll and Golden, each of whom is in her prime.

Full disclosure: this critic worked as a nurse in several assisted living communities over the past few decades, and has to admit.....it's all true. Well, except maybe the skydiving. And, by the way, while you should be careful what you bet on, you can surely bet on this one.