PPAC's "Gentleman's Guide": And Then There Were None

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey & Kristen Hahn in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

The story behind the story of the musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, now being presented at Providence Performing Arts Center, is a lengthy one. Based on a popular 1949 British film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, with Alec Guiness playing eight parts, it was adapted for the stage over six decades later, in 2012, premiering at Hartford Stage Company, then at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2013, and subsequently moving to Broadway where it won four 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical. With a witty Book by Robert L. Freedman and sprightly Music by Steven Lutvak, and incredibly clever Lyrics by both Freedman and Lutvak, it was an unusually literate work by typical Broadway musical standards. It's an amazing amalgam of music hall, vaudeville and operetta forms. Though the film and stage versions are sixty years apart, they share an indisputable commonality, namely an ingenious mixture of high and low comedy, in what amounts to a hilarious murder mystery spoof.

It's also nearly impossible to describe or synopsize without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say that the basic plot remains the same, with some name changes and alterations that help move the story along, requiring that members of the very upper class D'Ysquith clan be eliminated in order for the anti-hero Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) to inherit the family fame and fortune, with each new character's disposal funnier than the last. There are various means and methods of dispatch, some romantic entanglements, and an awful lot of farcical expertise. What matters most is that the performances be firmly tongue in cheek without going too far over the top, which is here dependent on the skill of Director Darko Tresnjak (reprising his Tony Award winning effort) and the comic timing of his cast.

That cast of characters include virtually the entire D'Ysquith Family, (all played by the versatile John Rapson). That would be Asquith Jr., Adalbert, Ezekial, Asquith Sr., Hyacinth, Bartholomew, Salome and Henry. That would leave only Pheobe D'Ysquith (Kristen Hahn) unscathed by the unexpected D'Ysquith, Monty, who aspires to the family status and wealth, as well as the hand of the lovely Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams). Rounding out the cast are Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), Lady Eugenia (Kristen Mengelkoch), Tom Copley (Matt Leisy), a Magistrate (Christopher Behmke), Chief Inspector Pinckney (Ben Roseberry), Miss Barley (Catherine Walker), and a Tour Guide (Megan Loomis). All are very properly unproper as the plot requires. And who could resist a show with a character whose very name evokes guffaws: Asquith D'Ysquith (and try saying that one fast thrice).

The creative team includes fine Choreography by Peggy Hickey, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, ingenious Costume Design by Linda Cho, marvelous set-within-a-set-within-a-set Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, Lighting Design by Phillip S. Rosenberg, glorious Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, and Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.

In the end (and most of the cast meet theirs), the show is a series of murderous escapades that certainly deserved the awards it garnered, and this production is well worth a visit for a hysterically funny time, brilliantly harmless; that is, unless you're another D'Ysquith yourself.


New Rep's "Fiddler": Another One in a Minyan

The Cast of New Rep's "Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

To choose to present Fiddler on the Roof , arguably the most universally beloved piece of musical theater, is certainly resonant in our current political and cultural revolutionary time. But there are mighty intellects afoot in this New Rep production nonetheless, beginning with the theatrical magician known as Director Austin Pendleton. Renowned for his enormous body of work, from Off-Broadway's The Last Sweet Days of Isaac in 1970, to originating the role of Motel in Broadway's Fiddler in 1964, to his voice-over role as Gurgle in 2003's animated film, Finding Nemo and in 2016's Finding Dory, his touch is everywhere in this production, most of the time successfully. Fifty years after its Broadway debut, this company is presenting a moving revival of this work based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet it ran almost eight years on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, winning nine (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. It has been revived on Broadway several times since, including one version this season. Clearly this work is, as Tevye himself might say, one in a minyan, in its tenacity about the traditions that keep their community alive and together.

A large part of its popularity is the depth of the book by Joseph Stein, a well-constructed, age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by arguably the most brilliant opening number ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The show barely begins before the audience knows how essential traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here memorably played by Jeremiah Kissel). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (the amazing Amelia Broome) is old-fashioned and superstitious, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (an expressive Abby Goldfarb) seeks to marry Motel (the wonderful Patrick Varner), not the intended Butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (a hilarious Bobbie Steinbach). The next in line, Hodel (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Ryan Mardesich) without her father’s permission, only his blessing. Then, the ultimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (Victoria Britt) wants to marry outside the faith, and to one of their oppressors at that, the Russian Gentile, Fyedka (Dan Prior). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Teyve proclaims, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a significant story, with a phenomenally multi-leveled score. Jerry Bock (Music) and Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics) were never better. Who can ever forget “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles” (never performed with such chemistry as by Varner and Goldfarb), and to “To Life”, or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself, with its exquisitely moving wedding scene. It was an evening of great moments, from the trio of “Matchmaker” (never as enjoyably staged as here), with Choreography by Kelli Edwards, who provides a marvelous bottle dance that has never been done better, and is even more difficult to stage than it might seem.

The score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast. Under the sensitive and detailed direction of Pendleton (who shows his intimate appreciation of the show at every turn), the huge cast of over two dozen is fabulous both individually and as a unit. There is also the on-stage presence of a miming fiddler (Dashiell Evett, fondly remembered from the company's recent Camelot), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. In one directorial misstep, however, the director has him remain on stage for most of the show, thus often interacting with a metaphor instead of God or the audience; he makes the same questionable choice in several scenes where characters (Tzeitel, Chava, Fyedka) are part of scenes they weren't written to be present in, in a heavy dose of magic realism that works against the story. The technical credits are by and large extraordinary, from the perfect Costume Design from Kathleen Doyle to the complex Lighting Design by Keith Parham and the meticulous Music Direction by F. Wade Russo (who has done this for Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals for a quarter century, including “Fiddler” two seasons ago). The only mistep is the lovely Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, which would be more appropriate for a Disney-staged version of “Frozen”; a shtetl like Anatevka needn't be ugly but it should at least appear authentically rustic.

Overall, one might well sing “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles” indeed. This production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity and great heart, one for all ages. As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. And as Alisa Solomon puts it in her published history of the show, “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."


Fathom Events' "She Loves Me": We All Scream....

Gavin Creel & Jane Krakowski in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus)

Joyous as it is to fall in love, it's infinitely more wondrous to fall in love again, with the same musical theater piece, some fifty years later. In any heated discussion of what comprises the best musical ever created, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd each have their champions, but She Loves Me will always be regarded as a sentimental favorite of true theater buffs. It premiered on Broadway in 1963, and has been revived several times since. This latest version, from New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, provides ample evidence for its place in musical theater history. Its Book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszio, with a plot which will be familiar to film fans: 1940's The Shop around the Corner , 1949's Judy Garland flick In the Good Old Summertime , and 1998's You've Got Mail. With Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who would later collaborate on Fiddler on the Roof), it was this critic's second Broadway musical ever, and remains his personal favorite of all time. In this production, the direction and choreography are seamless, and it boasts an impeccable cast, each with her or his solo number.

The story revolves (often literally) around a parfumerie in 1930's Budapest owned by Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), and his employees, the handsome but single head clerk Georg Novack (Zachary Levi), the dashing ladies' man Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), the lovely Ilona (Jane Krakowski), the timid Sipos (Micheal McGrath), and the youthful errand boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch). Into this melange arrives one Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti), desperate for a job. She is hired by Mr. Maraczek, but for her and Mr. Novack it's loathe at first sight. Unbeknownst to either of them, they are secret pen pals in a lonely hearts club. They arrange by mail to meet in a discreet cafe led by a hysterical (in several senses, and a bit over-the-top) Headwaiter (Peter Bartlett), but the plans go astray, as these things often do in the first act of musicals. After some complications along the way, they finally realize their ongoing connection. It's a very sweet tale involving music boxes, chocolates, and above all vanilla ice cream, which literally breaks the ice between our predestined lovers.

In a promising move to make such theatrical goodies more available to the general public, Fathom Events has just broadcast its first HD capturing of this original cast in performance, and, if this is any indication of what other possibilities lie in our future, theatergoers should expect true wonders. This production, under Director Scott Ellis, is a winner. With Warren Carlyle as Choreographer and Paul Gemignani as Conductor, along with the creative talents of Costume Designer Jeff Mahshie, Lighting Designer Donald Holder and Sound Designer Jon Weston, it's a joy to behold as well as to hear. Special mention should be made of the exquisite revolving Scenic Design by David Rockwell, which garnered every award in sight, including the Tony Award.

Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath, Zachart Levi, Gavin Creel & Nicholas Barasch
and the Tony-winning Set Design for "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus) 
Who could resist such a charming and heartwarming story, lushly romantic while not too heavy on the schlag? Benanti, following in the footsteps of the original Amalia (a then-little-known Barbara Cook) makes the role her own, and Levi is her perfect match, the most moving rendition (in all senses of the term) ever. Add to this the wacky turns by Krakowski, McGrath and Barasch, and even Byron Jennings in an often-underwhelming role, and you have a really embarrassing cornucopia of riches. How delicious to hear Benanti speak of how the views of George and herself “so correspond”, Krakowsi of her book-loving suitor's “novel approach”, and learning that Arpad's last name is Laszlo (a tribute to the original playwright), and the heroine's paean to the ice cream the hero brought her. The little-known musical is no secret anymore. We all scream we love She Loves Me. So bring on the vanilla ice cream already.


BMOP's New Releases: Rose by any other Name

David Rakowski's "Stolen Moments" & "Piano Concerto No.2"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

Continuing its impressive scheduled releases of new music as well as of overlooked twentieth century works, Gil Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project has recently completed two new recordings, David Rakowski's Stolen Moments and Piano Concerto No.2 and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and Capital Capitals. Under its eight-year-old “BMOP/sound” independent record label, these two CDs are more evidence of the significant role of Rose in providing access to important contemporary compositions as well as classics of the previous century.

David Rakowski's Stolen Moments is a listenable and approachable example of his witty take on emotion which challenges one's cerebral involvement with his music. With a healthy emphasis on jazz elements (as well as the blues and even the tango), the four movements are assisted by the pianist Sarah Bob in a bravura display of technique and stamina. The same could be said for the incredibly complex and demanding playing of Rakowski's frequent collaborator, the amazing pianist Amy Briggs and what she brings to the Piano Concerto No.2, demonstrating just how incredibly versatile and competent she is as a performer. What she does with the three movements in the concerto is absolutely amazing. Few pianists would even attempt to play the demanding piece, and one wonders how someone survives beyond such taxing and seemingly exhausting demands. While it would be wonderful, if a bit daunting, to see her do such a marvelous interpretation of Rakowski's composing, it's still a wonder to listen to.

Virgil Thomson's "4 Saints in 3 Acts" & "Capital Capitals"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)
Virgil Thomson's work on the other of the two new CDs may be considerably older than that of Rakowski's, but it doesn't sound like it. The first of two operas which he set to text by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts could indeed be mistaken by listeners unfamiliar with the piece as certainly contemporary, even though in reality it's almost a century old. In its time (1934) it was considered a theatrical and musical landmark. Thomson looked to his upbringing in the American Midwest for traditional forms such as folk dances, religious hymns, marches, tangos and even waltzes. Rose notes how “first time listeners will be taken aback by its outlandishness”. They would surely be puzzled even more so by the second piece on the album, the aptly named Capital Capitals, which goes on a bit self-indulgently and archly for some twenty minutes of verbal horseplay, but it is no less witty in its repeated allusions to four cities in Southern France. It's also a pleasure to hear some of Boston's favorite artists who have graced the operatic stage in Rose's Odyssey Opera, such as baritone Andrew Garland and soprano Deborah Selig, as well as the chorus performing under Chorus Master Beth Willer. It may be a bit of a challenge to listen to, but many will find meeting that challenge rewarding, as with virtually any of BMOP's undertakings.


Central Square's "Journey": Gong with the Wind

Cast Members in "Journey to the West"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair)

That gong you hear (as well as countless other percussive sounds) throughout Journey to the West is the outstanding highlight of this latest offering at Central Square Theater, a collaboration of Underground Railway Theater and Nora Theatre Company (quite a challenge to acknowledge, especially with their differing spellings for “Theater” vs. “Theater”). Also known as The Legend of the Monkey King, in a translation by Anthony C. Yu, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, this sixteenth century Chinese comic novel follows a seventh century monk as he travels to India from his native China, while searching for personal spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist scriptures in what has been refered to as a celebration of the vitality of human perseverance. Based on the real-life monk Xuan Zang, called Tripitaka (Jesse Garlick) in this version, and his first disciple, Sun Wu Kong, here referred to as the Monkey King (Lynn R. Guerra), this show focuses on their many adventures on their pilgrimage to the West. The original novel's author, Wu Cheng En, actually wrote it in order to criticize the Ming Dynasty's political system and society. It featured gods, demons, immortals, and much action and magic.

The characters in this production include the Jade Emperor (Thomas Derrah), the Sha Monk (Harsh J. Gagoomal), Pig (Shanae Burch), Guanyin (Jordan Clark), Moksa (Arianna Reith), the Dragon King (Will Madden), Princess Sravasti (Lisa Joyce), a King (Trevor Liu), Peach Girl (Lisa Nguyen) and Buddha (Sophori Ngin). Most of this talented ensemble play several other parts as well. As great as all these performers are (with Guerra a simian standout and Gagoomal a scene-stealing wonder in perpetual motion), it's that pervasive percussion that wins the day for this production, thanks to the precise perfection of Ryan Meyer, whose vital contribution creates non-stop musical immersion. As painstakingly Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, with fabulous Choreography by Judith Chaffee, colorful Scenic Design by David Fichter, wondrous Costume Design by Leslie Held and apt Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski, it's a worthy successor to the five-year reign of the previous holiday staple, Arabian Nights, though it seems a bit too long and cerebral for potential young audience members.

The show takes to heart one of its aphorisms: “If you hurry, you will never arrive”. A bit of trimming here and there would help, while not affecting the already episodic nature of the journey of some hundred and eight thousand miles, sixteen years, eighty-one ordeals, and almost three hours in performance. It's an embarrassment of riches, filled with scenes that serve as reminders of other great heroic journeymen (and women) from Odysseus to Beowulf to Siddhartha. In the end, our intrepid twosome's response to their final ordeal is laughter. You could do worse than spending an afternoon or evening with the monkey and the monk, especially if superior acting and movement are your cup of oolang.


Lyric Stage Company's "Murder by Two": Professor Plum in the Conservatory with a Candlestick....

Kirsten Salpini & Jared Troilo in "Murder by Two"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
As anyone who recalls playing the popular board game Clue can attest, murder can be fun. The perpetrators of the musical comedy Murder for Two now playing at Lyric Stage Company were no doubt aware of this, and attempted to provide a murder mystery with innumerable possible suspects. With an unfunny Book written by Joe Kinosian (who also composed the undistinguished music) and Kellen Blair (who also wrote the predictable lyrics) they created a whirlwind of largely unmemorable cliches of the genre in a rapid-fire ninety minutes or more. First developed as far back as 2011, their musical made it to New York in 2013, where it somehow garnered nominations for Drama Desk and Critics' Circle Awards, and ran for six months. Go figure. A simple murder mystery, it is chock full of hoary cliches of the genre, undoubtedly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but barely at a high school sophomoric level. There were about a half dozen laugh-centric moments; the rest were laughable, that is, not in a good way. One character references “the slow and painful deterioration of the American theater”, with no real sense of self-reflective irony.
It seems that the murder of novelist Arthur Whitney, at his surprise birthday party in an isolated mansion in present-day New England, has no end of suspects. It falls to Officer Marcus Moscowitz (Jared Troilo), aspiring to detectivedom, to solve the case and winnow out the guilty party from the many Usual Suspects (all played by Kirsten Salpini). Could it have been Whitney's widow Dahlia, the ballerina Barrette Lewis, the married couple Barb and Murray, the psychiatrist Dr. Griff, Whitney's niece grad student Steph or the trio (Timmy, Yonkers and Skid, not a law firm) of members of a boys' choir? Or the latecomer Henry Vivaldi? At the end of the show, it's not so much about who's exposed as it is about who isn't. But by then, who cares?

As Directed by A. Nora Long, there is a huge amount of energy both in front of and behind the curtain. Troilo has an established resume locally, but relative newcomer Salpini may be miscast in roles (usually, but not always, played by a male) requiring more variance in pitch for presenting such an array of distinctive characters. For the record, the Music Direction is by Bethany Aiken, with minimal Choreography by David Connolly, clever Scenic Design by Shelley Barish, quite apt Costume Design by Tobi Rinaldi, effective Lighting Design by Heather M. Crocker, and terrific surround-Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

One is typically urged at Lyric performances, tongue in cheek, that if one doesn't like the production, please don't say anything. So be it.


Handel & Haydn's "Messiah": Amen to That

The Handel & Haydn Society's "Messiah"
(photo: Chris Lee)

In Symphony Hall, the trumpets shall sound. The Handel and Haydn Society has been performing Handel's 1741 oratorio, the Messiah, since 1818, so you'd be on fairly safe ground to expect that they'd have it all down by now, and indeed they do. Handel may have written his great work over a period of less than a month, and this group has been delivering the goods for the past two centuries, but it never grows old or tired, not when it's in these hands. For unto us a child is born is a message convincingly conveyed by the company's Artistic Director, Conductor Harry Christophers, brilliantly leading an orchestra of some twenty-eight pieces and a chorus of thirty. Add to this such sublime soloists as soprano Joelle Harvey, countertenor Robin Blaze (singing the parts usually assigned to a contralto, with some slight difficulty in the lowest register), tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Sumner Thompson, and you have a performance to treasure. In a review published as far back as 1911, this company's rendition was even then regarded as a holiday institution, their first full performance having been in 1818, which was also its American premiere.

It has remained popular ever since, largely as a result of the sum of its parts, as Teresa Neff, a down-to-earth expert musicologist with the somewhat cumbersome title of the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow, notes in the program. Handel uses bold yet subtle text painting, creating an obvious relationship between words and music, both for soloists and chorus. The libretto by Charles Jennens (actually more of a compendium of biblical quotes from both the Old and New Testaments) would have been familiar to audiences at its inception, beginning with the prophecy and birth of Christ, then his death and resurrection, ending with redemption and the believer's response, as the crooked (are made) straight and the rough places plain. There are more than a few passages that are still applicable to our own era, such as All we like sheep have gone astray with its reflection on current political events.

Most folks are very familiar with the ubiquitous Hallelujah chorus, for which about half the audience stood, an established if outdated and meaningless custom. True music lovers of the piece most look forward to its Amen chorus, which is truly what it's all about. It's what sends one out into the cold of reality inspired by its warmth and excitement, and every valley shall be exalted. And what more could one ask in these otherwise troubling times? For, at least while listening to this work, His yoke is easy (ironically, anyone who has sung the piece will attest that this part is hardly easy). The Handel and Haydn Society's Orchestra and Chorus proved once again why theirs is the renowned Messiah in our area. Though there are more than a dozen other companies giving fine voice to this classic piece, for musical and philosophical re-energizing, get thee to Symphony Hall this weekend, where honor, glory and power be unto Him. The remaining Handel & Haydn Society concerts for the current season, in addition to the remaining Messiah performances on November 26 and 27, are as follows:
Bach Christmas
-Dec.15 & 18 at Jordan Hall

Mozart & Haydn
January 27 & 29 at Symphony Hall

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall