2/14/2019

"Spamilton": In the Room Where It Harpoons

The Company of "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)
 

One went last night to “Spamilton”
a parody of “Hamilton”
an eighty minute laugh-a-minute
bunch of jokes, a lot of fun!

Created written and directed
by Gerard Alessandrini
native Needham wunderkind
(Forbidden Broadway's gentle meanie)

Its satire skewers Broadway
just as Ahab did to Moby Dick
the hippest-hoppist live stage show
(Lin-Manuel first did the trick)

 
Chuckie Benson, Ani Djirdjirian & Datus Puryear in "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)


It's multi-racial through and through
With no regard for blacks or whites
And multi-role'd, not one or two,
But that's just how Miranda Writes

Chuckie Benson is Ben Franklin
As well as several others,
Ani Djirdjirian's all the ladies
(And some of them are muthas!)

Brandon Kinley's George the Third, a hoot
Adrian Lopez, Lin-Manu-el,
Daveed Diggs by Dominic Pecikonis,
And Datus Puryear's Burr- all swell 


Dominic Pecikonis in "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)

Gerry McIntyre's Choreography's
The current best in Boston Beanery,
As is Dustin Cross' Costuming
And Morgan Large's red brick Scenery

Michael Gilliam's Lights illuminate
Fred Barton music-supervised
Curtis Reynolds directed music
All creative choices very wise

Rest assured you needn't see it
In the form of Broadway's “Hamilton”
To appreciate the references
As presented now by Huntington
 
 
The Company of "Spamilton"
(photo: Roger Mastroianni)
 
For the targets of this parody
Include more shows as parity
Though some references are hidden
There is much here re-Forbidden

Get thee quick by April 7th,
While the Calderwood's still hot
Where the cast is still revolting
So you won't throw away...

...your shot.


2/10/2019

Bedlam's "Pygmalion": Silent Music Starts to Play

Vaishnavi Sharma, Eric Tucker, James Patrick Nelson, Grace Bernardo
 & Edmund Lewis in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)


Ever since George Bernard Shaw's 1913 comedy Pygmalion (now being performed at Cambridge's Central Square Theater by the New York company known as Bedlam, presented by Underground Railway Theater) was transformed by the team of Lerner and Loewe into their 1956 musical megahit My Fair Lady (successfully transformed yet again in the 1964 film version), it has become challenging to attend any staged performance of Shaw's original work without “hearing” a cue for a song. The story and the musical score are forever bound up in our collective memory, as is the romanticized happy ending (at least for the male lead) that was the musical's most significant alteration from Shaw. In this riotous production from Bedlam (who graced the local stage scene in recent seasons with their presentations of Saint Joan and Sense and Sensibility), all of the Shavian wit and wisdom remain intact.



Vaishnavi Sharma & Eric Tucker in Bedlam's "Pygmalion"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)


Yet with a few changes, and the choice to cast the role of Eliza Doolittle as a young woman from Delhi (Vaishnavi Sharma), Bedlam has introduced new levels of conflict and interest. There remains the issue of the bullying and misogynistic condescension and petulance of phoneticist Henry Higgins (Eric Tucker, also the wondrous and versatile Director and Sound Designer of this production), but Higgins is what he is, a snob unwilling to admit his affection for his “creation”. Shaw's play is indebted to the Cinderella fable on the one hand, and the realism of Ibsen's treatments of middle-class life on the other. As Eliza, Sharma is a comic gem, and the perfectly pompous Tucker is her perfectly imperfect foil, whereas Colonel Pickering (James Patrick Nelson, also playing Mrs. Eynsford-Hill) conveys his avuncular championship of Eliza, and her father Alfred P. Dolittle (Michael Dwan Singh) bemoans middle class morality. Also in the cast, in multiple roles, are housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Grace Bernardo, who also plays Clara Eynsford-Hill, and a parlor maid), and Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Edmund Lewis, also hysterically portraying Mrs. Higgins). They are all at their funniest when rapidly switching roles and hats. The creative contributions include Costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, Lighting by Les Dickert, and Scenic Design by Joseph Stallone and Elizabeth Rocha.

Whereas the film version of the musical portrayed Eliza's roots as being exposed in the Ascot scene (“Come on Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!”), Pygmalion does so at a garden party where, when asked if she's going to walk, she declaims, in pluperfectly elegant diction: “Not bloody likely! I am going in a taxi!”. If Shaw were to attend the current Broadway production of the musical version (at Lincoln Center), he would doubtless be pleased to hear how his female lead has regained the upper hand as, rather than fetch his slippers, she throws them at him and storms triumphantly out of the theater, faithful to Shaw's original intent. In the final scene of the 1956 staged My Fair Lady, Higgins bellows “Eliza? Where the devil are my slippers!”, after which she is described in the script: “with tears in her eyes, she understands”. In Pygmalion, on the other hand, rather than restoring her role as slipper-fetcher, she is the one to bellow “what you are to do without me I cannot imagine” and then “she sweeps out”. In microcosm, Shaw here demonstrates whose story this is, who has become confident, determined and independent. It is Eliza who understands that it is Pickering who proves to be the true gentleman of class, having treated her as a lady long before she became one. As Shaw once wrote, art can never be anything but didactic; this play is more about class distinctions than speech. Bravo, Bedlam, you've done it yet again.

And would Shaw take umbrage with the minor little changes to the script, given our modern day issues of immigration and wall-obsessed hysteria? 
 
Not bloody likely.


2/02/2019

Symphonic Superbowl: Haydn, Mendelssohn & Janacek

Juanjo Mena conducts Julian Rachlin & the BSO
(photo: Hilary Scott)

Attending a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in midwinter is often a truly welcome antidote to the external elements assaulting one outside Symphony Hall. This was never truer than the orchestra's most recent, memorably balanced program, with selections spanning three centuries and several mood swings. The program got off to a self-reflective start with Haydn's Symphony No. 44 in E minor (“Trauersinfone” or “Mourning Symphony”) but lightened with Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor Opus 64 especially towards its more spirited end. After the intermission, the program turned the other Czech, as it were, with two pieces composed by Leos Janacek, his operatic suite from Cunning Little Vixen and his Sinfonietta. It was a full buffet under the direction of Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena, with Lithuanian violin soloist Julian Rachlin impressively delivering the Mendelssohn, and the orchestra itself increasing in size with each piece as the afternoon program built to an extraordinary climax in the final piece by Janacek, with something for everyone.

The Haydn symphony betrayed its Sturm und Drang contemporary influences (first heard around 1771) offsetting the era's somewhat cool rationality with more expressively subjective contrasting elements, usually, as in this case, in minor key. Its contrapuntal orchestration calls for a classical treatment with its relatively modest-sized assembly of strings, two oboes, two horns and a bassoon, with a lovely solo by the principal oboist. Haydn is said to have wanted the penultimate Adagio movement to be played at his own funeral, which led to its commonly known unofficial title as his “Mourning Symphony”, though, as the program notes put it, it was really more wistful than mournful. However one sees it, its themes are fundamentally natural with considerable wit and charm, as evidenced in the contributions of both conductor and orchestra throughout this first piece of the afternoon.


Juanjo Mena conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The Mendelssohn concerto for violin (first heard in 1845) demands an enhanced orchestral presence, with two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, two trumpets and timpani and strings. It's generally considered one of the finest, as well as most original and pleasing concertos ever written. The composer solved some of the problems inherent in the form by first intertwining in the opening movement both orchestra and soloist, employing the composer's own cadenza, and allowing for virtually no pause for applause between movements. Rachlin was in superb form, intensely moving without the excessive gestures some violin soloists often employ; he confidently confirmed in performance the astonishing promise of his biography.

But it was in the Janacek pieces that the program delivered the goods. After the brief but pleasant suite based on his Cunning Little Vixen opera, an enjoyable if slightly bizarre hint of things to come, conductor and orchestra really came into their own with the composer's 1924 Sinfonietta. It was bombast at its most overwhelming and challenging to execute especially for the four trombones, joined by no fewer than four flutes and piccolos, two oboes, English horn, two clarinets, E-flat and bass clarinets, two bassoons, four horns, fourteen trumpets, three tubas, timpani, bells, cymbals, harp and strings (and, not to worry, there won't be a quiz). The piece has roots in folk and dance music, but the size and scope of its orchestration is undeniably stirring and unforgettably moving.

There was ample impetus for a well-deserved standing ovation (too common and often undeserved these days) that continued longer than is typical, as the enraptured audience confirmed that this concert qualified as the Superbowl of the present symphonic season.
 

1/13/2019

Huntington's "A Doll's House, Part 2": Knock Knock Who's There?

Nancy E. Carroll & Mary Beth Fisher in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne) 

At one point in Huntington Theatre Company's current production of A Doll's House, Part 2, the character of Anne Marie (Nancy E. Carroll) barks at her former employer Nora (Mary Beth Fisher): “There's the door...I know you know how to use it”. She's of course referencing the potent final scene in Ibsen's A Doll's House when Nora slammed that door and left her husband and children behind. Huntington presented its version of Ibsen's original work, albeit with a slight change of punctuation in its title (Doll House), just two seasons ago. In 2017, playwright Lucas Hnath created a sequel that takes place some fifteen years after Nora's dramatic departure in Ibsen's storytelling. It inexplicably earned eight Tony Award nominations including Best Play and has become the most produced play to be performed throughout the country this season. This version, a co-production with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, directed by Les Waters, attempts to be as much a commentary on our times and how things haven't changed as it is on the issues dealt with by Ibsen himself. Not unlike Bruce Norris' 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning Clybourne Park sequel to Lorraine Hansbery's 1959 A Raisin in the Sun, this play serves as an epilogue to the original source, or at least tries to do so.


John Judd & Mary Beth Fisher in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne)

Now a successful independent writer, Nora has come knocking on that proverbial door, seeking for various reasons to finalize her divorce from her husband Torvald (John Judd), but there are complications, most of them implausible, that must first be aired with him and their daughter Emmy (Nicki Massoud). If Ibsen's play was about the suffocating issues of the time, this work aims to expose the sublimated underbelly of society, then and now. By juxtaposing contemporary dialog with period costumes, the concept is neither fish nor fowl, raising the question of the intention behind this schizoid effort. With this play's placement just a decade and a half after Nora's departure, what is the point of illustrating that nothing much has changed in society within this brief period? If this supposedly matured Nora is truly a woman of the world, how is it that she is so incredibly naive? That said, there are some apt comic lines, anachronisms though they may be; less apt are a number of totally out-of-character f-bombs and expletives, jarring in this supposedly historic context. Crucially, the basic premise is what lacks interest or development, merely a statement of what Nora's limited “options” are.


Nicki Massoud in "A Doll's House, Part 2"
(photo: Kevin Berne)

Under the Direction by Waters, the compact ensemble of four actors all (save Carroll) end up declaiming rather than portraying characters. Even the minimalist Scenic Design by Andrew Boyce is strange, consisting of no furniture except a table, two chairs and a clothes rack; we are told that all of Nora's possessions were tossed out (and never replaced in a decade and a half?). The stark Lighting Design by Yi Zhao and Sound Design by J. Jumbelic are effective, as is the period Costume Design by Annie Smart, though it too seems incongruous given the colloquial dialog Hnath employs.

This company's previous production of Doll House also suffered from curiously “updated” writing that required a massive suspension of disbelief. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now. This time Nora's exit “line” isn't a slammed door, but her exclamation that she thought the world would have changed in the intervening fifteen years but didn't, and that she hopes to live to see it. We're all still waiting.



1/07/2019

SpeakEasy's "Small Mouth Sounds": Speaking Volumes

The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

One can't say enough about SpeakEasy Stage's current production of Small Mouth Sounds, the 2015 play by Harvard grad Bess Wohl. While seemingly simple and direct, in reality this is a profoundly complex treatment with much more to offer than first meets the ear. There is virtually no dialog (in the traditional sense, at least) in what transpires, though as the title suggests there are quite a few sighs, grunts and other non-verbal means of communication. Directed by M. Bevin O'Gara, who correctly states that “silence is everything in this play”, it's a brilliantly warped approach to much of the tribal conflict spanning the nation and the world in this age of doublespeak and “fake news”. 
 
As the work begins, six strangers (whom we will come to know as broken) are seeking refuge and healing through a silent wellness retreat. They are informed by the disembodied voice of “The Teacher” (Marianna Bassham) that they are to embrace the silence, and open their hearts and minds to it. The group consists of a lesbian couple Joan (Kerry A. Dowling) and Judy (Celeste Oliva), the ultra-quiet Jan (Barlow Adamson), the disorganized Alicia (Gigi Watson), the you-tube yoga mentor Rodney (Sam Simahk) and the intensely serious and seriously intense Ned (Nael Nacer). Each harbors secrets that will gradually be revealed as the retreat progresses (or regresses). At one point the teacher and students even reverse roles, as she becomes progressively more unhinged, though in typical yoga classes students are at the mercy of the teacher and are her or his disciples. The play devolves into a parody of wellness movements, both the valuable and the invalid, skewering much of the modern fascination with fashionable trends.
 


Nael Nacer & Sam Simahk in "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

The playwright has spoken of how we constantly project fantasy on each other, the question of (and quest for) inner peace, and how her play is so much about pain and how we deal with it. She also posits just how temporary and fragile everything is, and how difficult, especially in our times, it is for us to be quiet. In successful retreats, she also observes, finding your inner landscape can teach greater stress tolerance and emotional balance that lasts long after the retreat is over. And all is not sobriety, as there is much humor (such as The Teacher's discovery that the key to enlightenment might just be over-the-counter cold meds). Her frequent response to a crisis is a world-weary “oh, well”. There are numerous hints as to the backstories of these half dozen characters, not to be revealed here, that gradually expose their individual crises. Attention must be paid to SpeakEasy's production which makes up in its formidable actors (all of whom will be familiar to local audiences) and creative contributors what it lacks in verbosity. Each of the cast members, including the never-seen Bassham, are as good as it gets in the acting department, though only Nacer's Ned gets a relatively lengthy monologue when all are asked to write down their “intention”; Ned states his is to breathe and find peace with all of the others. The creative work on hand includes the simple but evocative Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, Costume Design by Mary Lauve, Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.


The Cast of "Small Mouth Sounds"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

At the end of the play, one participant references The Teacher's earlier story of how a frog from a small well encounters the vast ocean: “when you see the ocean... you may not be able to return to the well.” After all the others have left, this sole remaining character sits silently waiting for the next lecture to begin. An Australian study concluded that resistance to silence is learned behavior. At one hour and forty minutes without intermission, this play proves this, as well as its own somewhat tongue-in-cheek maxim, “you are not alone”. In the face of such thunderous talent, on page and stage, one can only remain speechless.


12/20/2018

"Cinderella": If the Show Fits

Kaitlyn Mayse, Sarah Smith, Natalie Girard & Joanna Johnson in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Way back in the Neanderthal era (that would be 1957), an established theatrical duo by the names of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to go where others feared to tread, by writing a completely original new musical directly for television. With music by Rodgers and Book and Lyrics by Hammerstein, it was an immediate and unqualified success, though it remains their sole attempt at composing and writing for the medium. It had proven to be a popular story since the written French fairy tale by Perrault and the beloved animated Disney film, so it shouldn't have been a huge surprise (“You Can Do It, Cinderelly”). The 1957 televised version starred Julie Andrews; the 1965 iteration, Lesley Ann Warren; the 1997 production, Brandy Norwood; and the 2013 Broadway presentation, Laura Osnes. The only Broadway version (now at Boston's Colonial Theatre) ran for 770 performances, with nine Tony nominations, winning one for costumes (by William Ivey Long).


Lukas James Miller in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

This updated take on the traditional story, with Cinderella urging social reforms for the poor, is at its strongest when its visual elements take center stage, especially Long's creative half dozen or so miraculous costume transformations literally right before your eyes. It's at its weakest when the new book by Douglas Carter Beane (with Additional Lyrics by Beane and David Chase) reveals a sting of anachronistic lame jokes. Enough of the original story is intact, as Ella (Kaitlyn Mayse, in a winning turn with just the right touches), called “Cinderella” by her stepmother Madame (Sarah Smith) and stepsisters Gabrielle (Natalie Girard) and Charlotte (Joanna Johnson), longs for a better life. Prince Topher (Lukas James Miller) has lost both of his parents (and thus also their musical numbers) and is advised by Lord Chancellor Sebastian (Christopher Swan). Topher meets Ella on his way to the palace and she gives him water. She speaks with her friends the revolutionary Jean-Michel (Nic Casaula) and Marie (Zina Ellis, the best singer in the show), a poor woman who lives on scraps who turns out to be a fairy godmother; who knew? Meanwhile, Sebastian and his henchman Lord Pinkleton (Carlos Morales) convince Topher to host a royal ball for him to choose a wife. The balance of the plot will be familiar, except for Ella's opening Topher's eyes to all the injustices in his kingdom, just before she flees the ball. There is a subplot involving a romance between Charlotte and Jean-Michel, and a subsequent banquet that Ella again flees before midnight (but this time pointedly leaving her shoe behind intentionally). You pretty much know the rest. Along the way, there are four added songs from the R & H trunk (two, “Now Is the Time” and “Loneliness of Evening” were dropped from South Pacific; one, “Me, Who Am I?”, dropped from Me and Juliet; and one, “There's Music In You” is heard briefly in the film Main Street to Broadway). From the original, the standouts continue to be “Impossible”/Possible”, “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and perhaps especially “Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?”.


Lukas James Miller, Kaitlyn Mayse & Cast in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

This national tour was Directed by Gina Rattan, with Choreography by Lee Wilkins, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, and those (deservedly) Tony-winning Costumes by Long. Despite misgivings about the new-and-not-improved book, this is a stunningly beautiful production. After all, impossible things are happening every day.... until December 30th, that is.



"Barber Shop Chronicles": Who No Know Go Know

The Cast of "Barber Shop Chronicles"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva) 


Barber Shop Chronicles, the current production being presented by Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, is another performance by this company that seeks to tell a community's story given by these people themselves. It's consistent with ART's ongoing endeavors to encourage such storytelling by the people who are the possessors of their own chronicles.
 
Written by Inua Ellams, a poet in his own right, the play consists of created tales that portray the universal truths discovered in a half dozen disparate black communities throughout the world and the commonality that is found in black barber shops, which serve as safe spaces for a country's black population. These stories take place in fourteen brief scenes in several locales, in conversations presented from London to South Africa to Zimbabwe, to Uganda to Nigeria to Ghana. Their topics include choosing a white woman over a black woman, the treatment of gays in Uganda, the deterioration of Pidgin English (and the cultural erosion produced), the hostile response to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and above all else the failed leadership that is mirrored in the futile attempts at father-son relations. They share a concern for the preservation of true masculinity, male sexual health, careers and finances, with the ancient admonition to be silent and to listen to one's elders.


The Cast (& Audience Members) of "Barber Shop Chonicles"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Presented in the course of one intermissionless two hour act, it's a challenge to perform as well as to attend. This exuberant production was Directed by Bijan Sheibani, with Design by Rae Smith, Lighting Design by Jack Knowles, Movement Direction by Aline David, Sound Design by Gareth Fry, Music Direction by Michael Henry and even a Barber Consultant in the person of Peter Atakpo. There are some truly serious acting chops on display as the dozen actors give countless portrayals, though much is at times lost in unintelligible accents and diction issues. On the whole, it comes off as an honest attempt to communicate a world different from our own but contemporaneously familiar in fundamental ways.

With men talking about what it means to be a man, the playwright has remarked about how global and similar we are. There is a Nigerian saying quoted in the work, “who no know go know”, which refers to the lack of knowledge before being exposed to realities that one will then take with him on his journey.

This barbershop will be cutting such a journey and open for business until January 5th.