MSMT's "Sister Act": Habitual Motion

The Cast of "Sister Act"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)

Picture the famous Radio City Rockettes in their signature kick line, but costumed as nuns, and you have the essence of the musical “Sister Act”. Based on the popular 1992 film, brought to Broadway in 2011 after its initial London run, it's the second production of the current season of shows by Maine State Music Theatre. The Broadway version was nominated for five Tony Awards and ran over 500 performances. The plot follows the movie's basic concept of a lounge singer, an innocent accidental witness to a murder, hiding out in a protection plan from a gang of gangsters. If this synopsis sounds familiar, it's probably because it depends on the same basic plot conceit as that of the 1972 musical “Sugar” (based on a 1959 film,“Some Like It Hot”). This time, however, we're not in Chicago anymore, but the witness protection placement is in Philadelphia.....in a convent. The story, such as it is, follows the same basic plot of the film, with the addition of its enhanced lively Music by Alan Menken, predictable Lyrics by Glenn Slater, and threadbare Book by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner (with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane). It's Menken's first score that's mostly disco, after his numerous successes with more traditional work in Disney films, though there are echos in the few ballads in this show of “Beauty and the Beast”. The show, while based on a Touchstone movie written by Joseph Howard for Disney, is not in fact a Disney-created adaptation. Despite these shortcomings, it's a surprisingly effective crowd-pleaser. Much of its impact is directly due to the amazingly detailed choreography (by Director Donna Drake) as performed by its hard-working, energetic cast.

That ensemble is led by the exquisitely talented Trista Dollison, who continually brings down the house as Delores Van Cartier, supported by the hilarious Charis Leos as Sister Mary Patrick. There are, in fact, quite a few wonderfully choreographed performances afoot, from the antics of St. Mary Martin-of-Tours (Jillian Jarrett) to St. Mary Theresa (Birdie Newman Katz), Sister Mary Robert (Cary Michele Miller) and Sister Mary Lazarus (April Woodall). Of course there's a turn or two from Msgr. O'Hara (David Girolmo) and solid work from the gangsters, with such mob monikers as Curtis Jackson (Kingsley Leggs, recreating his Broadway role), TJ (Nik Alexander), Joey (Jason Elliott) and Pablo (Brian Maurice Kinnard). There are standout characters such as Eddie Souther or “Sweaty Eddie” (Jay McKenzie), who executes an awe-inspiring triple quick change, and Mother Superior ( the beautifully-voiced Mary Jo McConnell). The Musical numbers, many of them interchangeable, include such titles as “Take Me to Heaven”, “Here Within These Walls”, “It's Good to Be a Nun”, “Raise Your Voice”, “Sunday Morning Fever”, “The Life I Never Led”, “Haven't Got a Prayer”, and, believe it or not, “Bless Our Show”. The songs are all terrifically delivered, but it's the choreographed movement that is this show's strongest asset. Mention should also be made of the striking Set Design by Charles S. Kading, unforgettable Costume Design by Jeff Hendry, and effective Lighting Design by Jeffrey Koger. The Sound Design by Brett Rothstein, a bit heavy on the volume, experienced some difficulties which were easily overcome by Dollison's suddenly unamplified but searingly emotional work, ironically producing the most moving moment of the entire production.

At the close of the show there was a well-earned and enthusiastic standing ovation, but all through it, the audience seemed in heaven, mirroring the point in the show where the re-energized nuns get a published review: “If you see only one Roman Catholic Mass this season....”, and the twice-repeated admonition, “God has put you here for a reason....take the hint”. So do take the hint and fill a pew for this devilishly angelic show. It's bound to put a dimple in your wimple.


Odyssey Opera's "Powder Her Face": Making Up Is Hard to Do

Patricia Schuman in "Powder Her Face"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The British are leaving. The “British Invasion” festival of works performed by Odyssey Opera has come to a close with its final offering, that of the 1995 tragicomic chamber opera by composer Thomas Adès and librettist Philip Hensher. Though sung in English, it was played here by a fourteen piece orchestra which, with its exuberant sound, too often made one long for surtitles. The score is varied and approachable, with some homages to the music of Schubert, Strauss and Stravinsky. December 10, 1998 was its U.S. Premiere, and Adès also wrote and conducted the Met Opera's “Tempest” three seasons ago.

In the course of about two and a half hours, it was presented in eight scenes and an epilogue. This production starred Patricia Schuman as the Duchess (in real life, Margaret Whigham, wife of the Duke of Argyll) who was said to have had eighty-eight lovers over the course of her life, ultimately divorced by him when he discovered nude photographs of her with one of her naked lovers (including one notorious for its graphic sex scene). The story begins in 1990 in a hotel in the West End, with flashbacks to 1934 when she was at her social peak. It evolves to 1990 again when she is evicted by the manager of the hotel over an eight-month-old bill. Famously (or infamously) performed a few years ago by City Opera in New York with some two dozen naked men and a very explicit sex scene, here it was far more modestly recreated. She's supported by three other singers, in multiple roles including: Beg Wager as Hotel Manager, Duke, Laundryman and Hotel Guest; Amanda Hall as the Maid, Confidante, Waitress, Mistress, Rubbernecker and Journalist; and Daniel Norman as the Electrician, Lounge Lizard, Priest, Rubbernecker, Delivery Boy and Waiter. All sang splendidly, despite the demanding score, which jumps precipitously from the lowest to the highest ranges. The technical contributions were all well done, from the versatile Set Design by Nic Muni (who also directed), to the atmospheric Lighting Design (including superb projections) by Linda O'Brien, to the humorous Costume Design by Amanda Mujica. Hensher's libretto, when audible (which unfortunately wasn't often) had its share of trite rhymes, but the complex music was what the audience seemed to enjoy most.

As modern operas go, this was a bit jarring at times; at other points, the music was fascinatingly varied, from an accordion tango to a bit of jazz trumpet to a rousing bass clarinet to the clash of cymbals. As noted in the program, the composer's “musical language here is memory itself- fragmented, dreamlike shards of tunes that seem familiar and strange at the same time...episodic, exaggerated and somehow exotic”. The instruments range from two bass saxaphones to three bass clarinets to about forty forms of percussion. As Conducted by the company's Artistic and General Director Gil Rose, it was a masterful interpretation of a very challenging piece to play, easily filling the venue at the Boston Conservatory theater.


Jennifer Coolidge: The Return of the Native

Jennifer Coolidge in "Saving Kitty"
(photo: Nora Theatre Company)

Ask someone what their favorite Jennifer Coolidge role is and you're likely to have quite a few answers. While some might opt for the hilarious characters she played in Director Christopher Guest's films “A Mighty Wind” or “Best In Show”, others might choose one of her numerous appearances on several television series. This critic would vote for her beautiful creation of the manicurist Paulette (with more than a passing interest in the UPS deliveryman) in the “Legally Blonde” movies. Even with such varied comic roles already on her resumé, it might surprise some fans to hear that she's about to take on a part that's a further challenge for this versatile actress, in a live theater production at a theater near you. The play is “Saving Kitty” by Marisa Smith, which Coolidge first did at a staged reading in Williamstown. The play received its world premiere at Wellfleet Harbor Actors Theatre in 2012, and, from WHAT, it's now transitioning with Coolidge, in a true local coup, to none other than the Central Square Theater in Cambridge for the Nora Theatre Company.

Jennifer Coolidge (center) in PBT's "Cinderella"
(photo: Priscilla Beach Theatre)
It may also surprise her fans that Coolidge is a Massachusetts native, having grown up in Norwell and attended Emerson College. She also took part in productions in Plymouth at Priscilla Beach Theatre or “PBT”. Ironically, she appeared there in “Fiddler on the Roof”. Next month the renovated PBT barn reopens with an adult theatre production of that very same musical, after the building had fallen into such bad condition that it was threatened with demolition. It was saved by its new owners, Bob and Sandy Malone, and transformed into a state-of-the-art venue. (In yet another irony, Bob Malone also appeared in “Fiddler on the Roof” at PBT as a child actor). The upcoming “Fiddler” will have a special Tevye, Michael Bernardi, son of the legendary actor Herschel Bernardi who played Tevye on Broadway. So there's a lot of local history around PBT, including the multi-talented Coolidge.

Priscilla Beach Theatre today
(photo: PBT)
Coolidge, in a recent phone interview, shared how exciting it was to be taking on the role of an urbane and wealthy Manhattan matron, Kate Hartley. Living in a swank Fifth Avenue apartment, ostensibly ultra-liberal, she and her husband (a U.N. official) have become a rather bored couple. The arrival of a single person (the new beau of Kitty, their television-journalist daughter) changes their lives. There are similarities to the basic situation in “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner” as the couple speculates about this new boyfriend. Rather than racial bigotry, however, this play has other targets in mind, not to be revealed here. The play will be performed from July 9th to August 2nd. (Tickets are available at www.centralsquaretheater.org)


Broadway in Boston's "Kinky Boots": Not All Men Are Heels

Kyle Taylor Parker in "Kinky Boots"

“Kinky Boots”, previously reviewed in the Providence Performing Arts Center production, coming this August to Boston, was a surprising choice for a musical when it debuted in the 2013 Broadway season. Based on a relatively unknown 2005 British film featuring a then-unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (later to be recognized for his fine work in a subsequent film, “Twelve Years a Slave”), which in turn was based on a real-life story, it concerned the plight of a Northampton shoe factory owner named Charlie whose business, which he inherited from his father, needed a major lift. There followed an unlikely business partnership that resulted from an encounter with a drag queen named Lola whom Charlie rescued from a gang of bigots, discovering in the process that Lola's inferior boot heels were a disgrace. The two of them eventually combine their respective talents for manufacturing and design to produce a superior line of, well, kinky boots. In the process, they also won over an entire village to the realization that all people have a good deal more in common than they might first be aware of, and that being different isn't that big a deal. A simple story, told well, with fine music, yes, but one that would emerge eventually as a critical and commercial hit, after garnering no fewer than thirteen Tony Award nominations, winning six of them, including Best Musical. What it also won was the hearts of its audiences who warmly embraced its themes of community and father-son bonding, as well as being an anthem against prejudice and stereotyping. Which all goes to show you, not all men are heels.

In this National Tour, the starring roles are in the capable hands of Kyle Taylor Parker, aka KTP (Lola) and Steven Booth (Charlie), with fine support from Lindsay Nicole Chambers (Lauren, one of the shoe factory workers, who falls for Charlie), Joe Coots (Don, the factory foreman), Grace Stockdale (Nicola, Charlie's initial fiancée), and Craig Woletzko (George, another factory worker). KTP is a charmer and totally believable in his transformation into high fashion boot designer, kicking up those proverbial heels at the drop of a chord. Booth provides the perfect foil with boyish charm as Lola's (you should excuse the expression) straight man. Each of them has an “eleven o'clock number” and each brings the house down. The rest of the cast is terrific as well, with a standout performance by Chambers. It's Directed and Choreographed by Tony winner Jerry Mitchell, with Tony-winning Music and Lyrics by Cindi Lauper and Tony-nominated Book by Harvey Fierstein. While the libretto starts out as one of Fierstein's finest, it has a few second act lulls in momentum, but the heart is there all the same, even if there are a few heavy-handed kinks in a scene in Lola's father's nursing home. It's the score by Lauper, her first attempt for a Broadway-style show, that inevitably raises up the production, ranging comfortably from solo character turns (Charlie's “Step One”, entitled “Charlie's Soliloquy” on the original cast album) to moving duets (“Not My Father's Son” by Lola and Charlie) to showstoppers (Lauren's clever paean to men who are heels, “The History of Wrong Guys”) to the smashing chorus numbers (“Sex Is in the Heel”, and the fabulous finale, “Raise You Up/Just Be”). The best line in the show goes to Oscar Wilde: “Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”. The best visual: Scenic Designer David Rockwell's stunning use of the assembly line machinery transformed into a chorus line.

All this and more sequins, glitter and red patent leather (with Costume Design by Gregg Barnes) than one could wish for. It's no wonder that this work took home not only all those Tonys, but Best Musical awards from the Drama League and Outer Critics Circle as well. It's at the Opera House in Boston from August 11-30.  As the first act closer puts it, “Everybody Say Yeah”.

Cape Playhouse's "Velocity of Autumn": Shifts Happen

David Mason & Beth Fowler in "The Velocity of Autumn"
(photo: Cape Playhouse)

The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, MA, as the first offering of its 89th season, is presenting a production of the recent Broadway play, “The Velocity of Autumn”, by Eric Coble. This work is actually the last of a trilogy of plays about an elderly woman named Alexandra Benton, the first two having been “A Girl's Guide to Coffee” and “Stranded on Earth”. A ninety-minute two-hander without intermission, it's a captivating story about the challenges of aging, both for the elderly and those who attempt to deal with them. While it gets off to a somewhat wacky start, it evolves into an absorbing character study about more than aging; it's about one's values and priorities.

Alexandra (Beth Fowler) has lived in her brownstone in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn for forty-five years, and refuses to leave it despite the urgings of her children. She has essentially barricaded herself in the flat with numerous Molotov cocktails strewn around her, a lighter in hand, as she threatens to blow up the immediate world. Her long-absent son Christopher (David Mason) arrives, rather unconventionally, having climbed up her favorite tree, by a (second story) window. There is mention of an incident in a grocery store and some hostility at a bridge game, as well as her threat to blow up her home, that has led to the reappearance of the son after twenty years. What follows makes it clear that these two family members differ considerably from the other uptight members of the clan; where the others are apparently pragmatists, these two are artists and see the world from their more enlightened perspectives. They've lived apart for twenty years, but have more in common than it first appears. Alexandra delivers numerous witty one-liners, about her late husband's discomfort with his son's being gay (comparing it to his dislike for gorgonzola cheese), the accusation that “leaving is the only thing you're good at”, or “you know you're getting old when you make sound effects for your own body”. Though the funny lines are many, the most impressive scene in this work is not a comic one, but a serious one, when both reflect on the ephemeral nature of a sand painting that lives on only in one's memory, and in God's memory; the shifting sand is of course a metaphor for time slipping away.

As Directed by Skip Greer, the two actors are splendid, with Fowler's meticulous depiction of a true sense of the losses that come with aging, and Mason's believable frustration in coming to terms with his mother's stubbornness. Fowler (a two-time Tony nominee) and Mason are truly perfect foils for one another as they portray a relationship with a complicated history. The technical contributions are all fine as well, from the perfect deterioration of Alexandra's home in the Scenic Design by Nicholas Dorr, to the apt Costume Design by Christina Selian, Lighting Design by Erik Fox and Sound Design by Dan Roach.

The title of the play refers to the speed of the approach of one's final days, inevitably coming faster as they near. Each has experienced the dichotomy that comes from wanting to plant oneself in a place of one's own while longing for the chance to move on. The interpersonal dilemma reflects the interior battle going on within each of them between roots and freedom. Each taught the other how to see the beauty of the shifting sands coming together as well as the beauty of their coming apart. There's a lesson in there for all of us.


Huntington's "after all the terrible things I do": Taking Inventory

Tina Chilip & Zachary Booth in "after all the terrible things I do"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The title of Huntington Theatre Company's final production of this season, the New England premiere of “after all the terrible things I do”, might initially remind one of the literary efforts of archy and mehitabel (by e. e. cummings), but it's actually a reference to a work by gay poet (and Harvard grad) Frank O'Hara. His poem (entitled “Poem”) says: ”after all the terrible things I do, how amazing it is to find forgiveness and love”. Written by A. Rey Pamatmat, the play is the story of David (Zachary Booth) a recent college graduate who returns to his hometown and accepts a job at a store named “Books to the Sky” (described in the program as “an independent bookstore before and after business hours, in an average-sized, unremarkable Midwestern town”). It's run by a Filipino-American woman named Linda (Tina Chilip). While David is a young gay author of fiction struggling to find his voice, Linda is repressing some secrets about her own family. While things start out well, there's a moment when obvious friction threatens to upend their budding relationship. Each has stories to share about bullying and cruelty in their community, and the narratives are not what you'd expect.

The bullying is in large part related to the concept of “American exceptionalism”. Our society encourages and rewards winners in competition who defeat others, proving that the losers are not the best they could be, and never will be. They share a catharsis that the author has stated reminds him of authentic yoga where one strives to reach the ultimate goal of peace and balance, connecting with one's core self amid the disappointments and distractions of the external world. There's typically a moment in his plays, he also has commented, when a character reaches a catharsis that's essentially a shared experience between people of differing perspectives, based on the character's self-realization that there are worldly illusions to which one shouldn't attach. In about a hundred intermission-less minutes, the playwright explores finding that aforementioned forgiveness and love, as well as second chances, in an environment that's not as cozy and comfortable as it first appears. By the time some withheld secrets are revealed, the work asks whether there exist any truly unforgivable acts, and if there's any hope for the people who perform them.

As with any brief two-hander, this play is almost by definition dialogue-heavy. It's to the credit of Director Peter Dubois, the company's Artistic Director, that the interchange between these characters goes so smoothly and swiftly. Both Booth and Chilip are mesmerizing, individually and together. Their dialogue feels natural even when it threatens to become a bit purple, given that both are presented as unusually literate and articulate. The technical aspects of the production are stunning, from the Scenic and Costume Design by Clint Ramos (a beautifully complex set as opposed to his recent simple design for Trinity Rep's “Melancholy Play”), to the striking Lighting Design by Lap Chi Chu, to the effective Sound Design by M. L. Dogg.

And what about those issues of forgiveness and hope? Pamatmat wisely raises questions without providing pat resolutions. His writing is often both compelling and beautiful, leaving the audience to experience not only some unexpected directions but also some open-ended decisions. It's rare these days to find a new work as engrossing as this, with such perceptive thought and expression. The term “riveting” may be an over-utilized word, but it's an accurate description of this playwright's work, which challenges our sometimes simplistic assumptions about the scourge of bullying. By the end of this play, audiences should find themselves with a view that's more intricate and nuanced, as the characters take inventory not just with respect to the items for sale, but take stock of themselves as well. “Books to the Sky” indeed.


Trinity Rep's "Melancholy Play": Almond Joy?

Charlie Thurston & Rachael Warren in "Melancholy Play"
(photo: Mark Turek)

Sometimes you feel like a nut; sometimes you don't. That may determine your response to “Melancholy Play: a chamber musical”, the final production in Trinity Rep's current season, a world premiere of a musical version of a play first written in 2002 by Sarah Ruhl. Now presented with a sung-through score by Todd Almond, played by a pianist and a string quartet of musicians and a small quintet of actors, on the simplest imaginable set, it's a roller coaster of a play. As Directed by Liesl Tommy, who describes this work as a “no-holds-barred farce”, with limited Choreography by Christopher Windom, it's performed in ninety intermission-less minutes. It's about Tilly (Rachael Warren), a melancholic bank teller with whom everyone falls in love. But all of them, from her therapist “Lorenzo the Unfeeling” (Joe Wilson, Jr.) to her boyfriend tailor Frank (Charlie Thurston), to her bank customer British nurse Joan (Mia Ellis), and her hairdresser Frances (Rebecca Gibel), have to adjust when she's “cured”. The central problem arises when Tilly's melancholy disappears. That was what attracted everyone to her in the first place; once she's happy, everyone finds the new and improved version of her irritating. Where one character opened with “a proposition: a defense of melancholy”, it's not long (although it seems long) before the excessive melancholia is replaced by excessive sunniness.

A common thread in much of Ruhl's work over the years (as in “The Clean House”, or “Dead Man's Cell Phone”) is how, as she puts it, very ordinary objects are used as metaphors for emotional responses, balancing empathy with abstraction. In this play, one character is transformed into an almond (no relation to the composer), which drives everyone else more generically nuts. (It might help here to note that the amygdala of our brains, shaped like an almond, controls our emotions). What begins as a rather repetitive exposition evolves into an amusingly bizarre piece of absurdist theater. The talented crew of five singing actors subsist in a sort of bipolar happy daze. The minimalist (and probably intentionally melancholic) Set Design is by Clint Ramos, with apt Costume Design by Jacob A. Climer, Lighting Design by Peter West, Sound Design by Broken Chord, and Musical Direction by Andrew Smithson. Almond's music, often lovely, is superbly played and sung throughout. It's in the book that this work sometimes disappoints, given Ruhl's track record. (For example, “I wish I could paint you...I can't paint” or the threat that one character makes: “I'm a-gonna drool all over you”).

As one of the characters puts it, “Is that weird? Yes, it is weird”. The play is undeniably and frequently pleasant; whether this sort of playfully zany work is up your alley is questionable, and it takes quite a while to get to its wacky destination. Once there, you might well agree with one of the more memorable lines voiced by one of the players: “We don't care if we're all nuts”.