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.


Lyric Stage's "Camelot": Royalty Revitalized

Maritza Bostic, Jared Troilo , Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Lyric Stage's current production of the musical Camelot is a reminder of what a fascinating history the original Broadway production had. Anticipation had been high among critics and the general public back in 1960 for Camelot, the next musical to be presented by the creative team behind My Fair Lady. Once again, the book and lyrics were to be by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, to be directed by Moss Hart. It was to be based on the story of King Arthur and his Round Table in three of the four books in The Once and Future King series by T.H. White (the rights to the first having been obtained by Walt Disney for his animated Sword and the Stone about Arthur’s youth with Merlin). After almost two years of writing and rewriting and painfully troubled pre-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and here in Boston, with Loewe recuperating from a massive coronary and Hart also ailing, Lerner took over as director. The advance word wasn’t good, and the show finally opened in New York to a fairly tepid reception among critics and the public. The cast album had been rushed to record stores before the New York opening, in hopes of increasing demand for tickets (famously having musical numbers recorded out of their final order). Just as things were looking dim, Lerner and Loewe were offered a tribute on Ed Sullivan’s televised variety show, so they chose twenty minutes of songs from Camelot, which enraptured the public at last. In its fourth month, the show increased sales, ultimately lasting two years on Broadway.

The show survived, despite the qualms Loewe expressed about the subject of cuckoldry and the troublesome denouement (the “Guinevere” song), which described all the action taking place off-stage, a curious choice. The second act continued to strike audiences as by far the weaker act, until history intervened. After President Kennedy was killed, his widow Jacqueline revealed that he had frequently listened to the cast album; she likened his loss to the feelings Arthur expressed at the dissolution of his round table and the ideal of Camelot. Suddenly the ending of the show had unexpected resonance for the audiences of the day. Those of a certain vintage will always make the internal connection, but it isn‘t necessary to feel the myth and its message. The book of this current production was adapted by David Lee, with new orchestrations by Steve Orich, in a fairly successful attempt to solve the second act's problems, primarily with the use of the stage technique used years ago by Paul Sills in his
Story Theater, with the story told by cast members, lending the show more coherence, necessary for true appreciation of the work.

Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

What is also necessary is a trio of singing actors that can truly deliver on its magically wondrous score. This production surely will do that, despite some apparent press opening nerves that will no doubt dissipate with future performances, given the cast's past individual triumphs. Under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, whose clever touches are everywhere, King Arthur (Ed Hoopman), for example, must be a bit out of touch with his times (an idealist in a bellicose era), and gentle as well (“the way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her”). Hoopman delivers as usual, with a hitherto little-known singing voice. Guinevere (Maritza Bostic) must be full of youthful spirits (“shan’t I be young before I’m old? Shall kith not kill their kin for me?”) and eventual remorse (“now there’s twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, twice the despair, twice the pain for us, as we had known before”). She too delivers, particularly poignant in a difficult role; she and Hoopman are charming together in their duet, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. The knight in shining armor, Lancelot (Jared Troilo), requires a commanding actor with a large baritone voice, so winning that he can get away with lyrics such as “had I been made the partner of Eve, I’d be in Eden still”, (with such self-flaunted traits as virtue, nobility, iron will, godliness, purity, boldness, self-restraint, but seemingly not modesty) and finally steadfastness. Troilo was especially memorable delivering the lines that clarified his character's narcissism . Mordred (by Rory Boyd), Sir Lionel (Davron S. Monroe), Sir Dinadan (Brad Foster Reinking), Sir Sagramore (Jeff Marcus) and Dap (Garrett Inman) were all truly outstanding in a small cast that included three Ladies (Jordan Clark, Margarita Damaris Martinez and Kira Troilo).

The technical team was outstanding, from the Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta, to the spirited Choreography by Rachel Bertone, atmospheric Scenic Design by Shelley Barish (with a set that would be at home in Into the Woods), appealing Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, and well coordinated Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

What this production becomes in these capable hands is a Camelot that deserves to be seen by any serious musical theater buff. Though it doesn't completely overcome those second act flaws, it's a huge improvement on the original play, and should satisfy lovers of that score.  The essence of the Arthurian myth is idealism. When a small boy, Tom of Warwick (Inman again) appears in the final scene wishing to become a knight of the Round Table, Arthur realizes this means his vision still lives and he hasn’t failed; “men die, but an idea doesn’t”. The topicality of wishing in 2017 for a purer administration should be clear without belaboring the obvious. And thus naturally come the last words of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.


PPAC's "Matilda": The Children Are Revolting

The Company of "Matilda the Musical"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Matilda the Musical, now being presented at PPAC, is a show based on the original children's novel by Roald Dahl, with Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin and Book by Dennis Kelly. It first won seven Olivier Awards in London, transferring to Broadway in 2013 where it lost the Tony Award for Best Musical (to Kinky Boots). While renowned for creativity on many levels, the show lacked the heart audiences sought. Still, it managed to last over 1550 performances in the New York run, and remains a popular favorite on the road, with its audience-pleasing aspects of anarchy, brutal honesty and dark humor, sometimes wasted on unsophisticated adults who don't always “get” the central five-year-old telekinetic character.

Attempting a synopsis of Matilda is like putting a genie back in the bottle, but let's give it a go. Children ponder life as adults, while meanwhile their parents declare they're all a Miracle. As Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) warns that they are preaching a dangerous moral, namely that books are superior to shows on the telly, the students at Crunchem Hall posit that sometimes one has to be a little bit Naughty, and Lavender (Gabby Beredo) shares that she's going to put a newt in headmistress Miss Trunchbull's (Dan Chameroy's) water bottle. Matilda Wormwood also announces that no one but she is going to change her story, and she will fight injustice. The student body sings of never escaping tragedy in the School Song: just wait for Phys Ed!  Meanwhile one atypically nice teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles) describes herself as Pathetic when she can't even knock on the door of Miss Trunchbull's office, containing her trophies from The Hammer-throwing days of conquests and advice that you “stay within the lines”. Then Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) chimes in with her own advice about being Loud, namely that what you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know, is expressed. Miss Honey sings that another door closes and she,This Little Girl, is left outside. Another student known for his eating prowess, Bruce (Soren Thayne Miller) proves you can have your cake and eat it too. And there's that chilling admission that all one knows comes from watching Telly- that you can tell how clever one is from the size of one's telly. Mr.Wormwood expresses pleasure at duping wealthy Russians into buying his worn-out old autos. And that's just the first act.

The second act begins with the students' rebellious anthem, When I Grow Up, wherein they sing “just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean you just have to grin and bear it”. One character declares I'm Here for the little girl as the Smell of Rebellion pervades. Now the virtues of Quiet are proposed (“this noise becomes anger and the anger is light and this beast inside me would usually fade but isn't today”) and Miss Honey extols the virtues of My House. The students plot their revenge in Revolting Children (“if enough of us are wrong, then wrong is right”). Just how this happens, (that is, how Matilda learns about Miss Honey's past and her future prospects), well, you wouldn't want a spoiler to ruin all the malicious fun, now would you?

The cast at the press opening performance included Jenna Weir as Matilda. (Three actresses alternate in the role; at other performances, Gabby Gutierrez and Jaime MacLean take turns playing the title role). The creative team included Musical Direction by Bill Congdon, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Set and Costume Design by Rob Howell and Sound Design by Simon Baker. The Director was Matthew Warchus and the Choreographer was Peter Darling. One problem persisted in this huge hall; even with reasonable familiarity with the lyrics, most of the cast might as well have been singing in Swahili. But, heart or no heart, it was surely an energetic show embraced by most of the audience (except some who were inappropriately way too young for live theater).

If these days call for demonstrating one's resistance (and they do, they do), one couldn't hope for a more perfect role model than that Dahl-ing Little Girl, Matilda.


ART's "Arrabal": "El Contacto"?

The Cast of ART's "Arrabal"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Back in 1999, a theatrical concept was developed that was described as a “dance play”, in essence three separate one-act playlets with little or no dialogue, with a “Book” by playwright John Weidman, entitled Contact. While some (including this critic) viewed it as theatrical only in the broadest sense of the term, it went on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical. Fast forward two decades later; Weidman is now credited with the “Book” for a new tango-infused “dance theater piece” at ART, Arrabal, centered around the horrific era in Argentina when the government ruled by the right-wing military junta seized power (in 1976) and for the next eight years “disappeared” some thirty thousand resisters. The story of Arrabal is that of an eighteen-year-old woman searching for the truth of her own father's disappearance when she was an infant, as she navigates the underground world of Buenos Aires tango clubs.

Arrabal, (which literally means “neighborhood”), played by Micaela Spina, receives a letter from her father's best friend, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola) requesting that she come to B.A., where he runs a tango bar. Her father was one of the desaparecidos who disappeared during the period of the 1970's. She interacts with characters like Berta (Valeria Celurso), El Diende (Mario Rizzo), Nicole (Soledad Buss) and Juan (Juan Cupini), but mostly with her Abuela (“Grandmother”) played by Marianella Massarotti, who joins with the other families questioning what truly happened to their (literally) lost ones. When she finally learns the truth, it comes as no surprise if you have been following what little story there is. In fact, there is really nothing that isn't telegraphed, no subtlety or nuance. There is of course the dancing to be admired, but largely non-contextual, disjointed and uninvolving, unless dance shows are your thing. Comic relief is provided by the rubber-jointed Rizzo, reminiscent of the character Evil-Eye Fleegle in the Al Capp newspaper cartoon strip Li'l Abner.

Arrabal can be seen as a Latin American Contact, story told through dance, with Music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo, Choreography by Julio Zurita (who also plays the rolf of the “disappeared” father, Rudolfo), Directed and Co-choreographed by Sergi Trujillo, with an on-stage band, Orquesta Bajofonderos. Previously presented in Toronto in 2014 and Bogota in 2016, this is its first United States production, at ninety intermissionless minutes. The technical credits are impressive, with effective Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, unabashedly sexy Costume Design by Clint Ramos, dramatic Lighting Design by Vincent Colbert, Sound Design by Peter McBoyle and Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

But it is of course the dancing that matters most, and this is accomplished by a troupe that clearly knows what it is about. If this is the kind of experience you've enjoyed in previous dance pieces, you won't be disappointed. It should be noted that, before performances, there are tango lessons offered, and afterwards, a chance to join in on the dancing, literally in the aisles. One can only guess at what the future will hold as we attend Trump the Musical. And will there be dancing then, perhaps in the streets?


Met Opera's "Rosenkavalier", Richard & Renee

Renee Fleming (seated) & Elina Garanca in Met's "Rosenkavalier"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Der Rosenkavalier is often, as it should be, all about Richard (Strauss, that is) and his composing and orchestrating; but this production by the Metropolitan Opera, is all about Renee (Fleming, that is) in her final performance at the Met in this role that has become so identified with her acting and vocalizing. There was a moment at the end of Act I when Fleming as the Marschallin wistfully took one last long look at her surroundings that cannot have failed to echo her audience's feelings. Though she has essayed some twenty-two roles in her Met career, this was in many ways her signature. With its nuances of the bittersweet passage of time, her bemused smiling through tears, and her attentive detailed knowledge of her character (just watch her contemplate the veins in her hands), this was a moment to cherish.

The story is updated to Vienna 1911, which carries with it a good deal of meaning not envisioned or intended by librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, or Strauss himself for that matter, with the presence of military characters in pre-World War I garb. The “aging” (32!) Marschallin having an affair with the young count Octavian (Elina Garanca), is visited by her country cousin Baron Ochs (Gunther Groissbock) who is engaged to marry the youthful Sophie (Erin Morley). Octavian has assumed the dress of a peasant “maid” to protect the Marschallin's reputation, leading Ochs to flirt with “her”. Many visitors come and go, including an Italian singer (Matthew Polenzani). The Marschallin, seeing the inevitable handwriting on the wall, arranges for Octavian and Sophie to meet by having Octavian go to the home of Sophie's father Faninal (Marcus Bruck) to present Sophie with a silver engagement rose; and as she had hoped, the two fall instantly in love. Sophie is appalled at Ochs' rudeness and an argument ensues in which Ochs is slightly wounded (at least in his pride). To teach Ochs a lesson, Octavian arranges for Ochs to receive a letter suggesting a rendezvous with the Marschallin's “maid”. All hell breaks loose at the rendezvous site (in the original text an inn), until the Marschallin arrives to inform Ochs it was all a “farce”. Admitting defeat, he leaves and Octavian and Sophie are united, leaving the Marschallin to wonder how she lost her lover so suddenly.

Sensitively conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with a mixed bag of Stage Direction by Robert Carsen and Set Design by Paul Steinberg (where with WWII encroaching, numerous military characters, and a palace for Faninal that resembled munitions storage, were a bit too creepy for comfort). The use of enhanced perspective with three sets of doors in Act I was, however, lovely; not so, the bordello scene (!) in Act III. The Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel was outstanding and the Lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet was expertly executed. But it is of course the singing in a Strauss opera that best serves the composer, and this cast was superlative, from the glorious singing of Garanca (also an excellent farceuse) and Morley to the atypically virile Groissbock and the hysterically funny Polenzani (Carlo Bergonzi, may you rest in peace). Fleming was transcendent, nowhere as much as in the final glorious trio by the three principals.

This was a performance to rank amongst the most memorable by the Met, in this or any other season.
The Fathom Events Met Opera rebroadcast will be shown on Weds. May 17 at a theater near you.