8/20/2015

ART's "Waitress": Life-Depends-on-How-You-Slice-It Pie

Keala Settle, Jessie Mueller & Jeanna de Waal in "Waitress"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The poignancy (and promise) of the opening song “What's Inside” from the new ART musical “Waitress” says it all: “sugar...butter...flour”, a phrase that is to be repeated until the revelation of its origin in the early life of the titular piesmith. These, and a pinch of love, are all the ingredients she kneads. Based on the small but widely beloved 2007 film of the same name, on the surface, it's a tale about the hard work of being a waitress (though both social and gratifying) in a “small town off Highway 27”, in the present. When this production's Director Diane Paulus experienced the film, she saw that its “story could sing” with “a score that could capture the unique tone of the film...whimsical, quirky and deeply emotional”. The choice of the already successful young composer and performer, Sara Bareilles (composer of pop songs “Love Song” and “Brave”), was a natural one. Book writer Jessie Nelson resonates with women seeing a character “extricating herself from a relationship in which she had had to diminish herself in order to survive it”. In the program notes, Alison Owings describes from her study “Hey, Waitress!” that waitresses are symbolic of both upward (a sign of hope) and downward (a warning sign) mobility, the “virgin chroniclers and commentators of our time...from the other side of the tray”. But this is just the framework for its story of friendship, motherhood, the strength and courage to recapture a dream long ago shelved, and above all, sisterhood (embodying and celebrating female spirit). Enlisting Bareilles was an inspiration.

As was the casting of Jessie Mueller (Tony-winner for “Beautiful”) as Jenna, the deeply flawed but soulful woman, pained and broken by a loveless marriage, “used by a man who can't love”, Earl (Joe Tippett), who prefers to possess rather than love, and sees that “so much is happening, mostly to (him)”. Jenna's work at the diner owned by elderly curmudgeon Joe (Dakin Matthews), specifically baking wittily-named pies, is her sole remaining source of pride and usefulness. She also finds more emotional connection in the workplace, in the persons of Becky (Keala Settle) and Dawn (Jeanna de Waal), and even their boss Cal (Eric Anderson). The arrival in town of a new handsome obstetrician, Dr. Pomatter (Drew Gehling), complicates matters, to say the least. As does the sudden appearance of the slightly daft “mad stalking elf” Ogie (Jeremy Morse), a suitor to Dawn. That's it for the principals in the cast, supported by an ensemble in several supporting roles, and a child actress (Giana Ribeiro at the performance attended in a role shared with Addison Oken). It's a wonderful troupe, with each given her or his chance to steal the spotlight. Matthews is particularly memorable, matched by the antics of Settle, de Waal and Morse (especially with his dance moves), as well as the menacing presence of Tippett and the hilarious Gehling. But it's Mueller's show, and she, and the score by Bareilles, (and of course Paulus) are its stars.

Mueller captures the soul of her character, “messy but kind, lonely most of the time”, and has stated elsewhere that “life is like a pie...you have to have a sturdy, flaky, buttery crust in order to hold your filling”, and that one shouldn't be afraid of the vulnerability that often accompanies strength. She fills the first act with her longing, and the second act with her gradual awakening to the possible, especially in the number “She Used to Be Mine” (“a part of you that doesn't recognize who you are anymore...I don't recognize me...she is good but she lies, she is hard on herself, mixed up, nasty but kind”). It's another award-worthy turn, both for Mueller and for Bareilles (whose eighteen numbers include such profound lyrics as “like some stranger you recognize”). They're totally believable whether in the complex first act (captured in the daily pie title “life is a rocky road pie”) or in the changed tone of the second act (finally symbolized in the day's pie title “Joe's heavenly chocolate pie”). There is always a tinge of tartness, as when Cal, when asked by Jenna if he's happy, answers “happy enough”, just as Jenna is moving forward, as Bareilles puts it, having to be her “own island...to exist”, comfortable with being alone. Nelson keeps the libretto close to the original source material, while making the men in the story (except for Tippett's heavy) less stereotypical and much more endearing. It's still quite a moving anthem for female empowerment, but somehow manages to be so without marginalizing the testosterone, more grounded in a much more complicated context than in the original film.

It's a bittersweet story and score, with impeccable direction by Paulus and fine Choreography by Chase Brock. The remainder of the creative team is the same group that enlivened the company's production last season of “Finding Neverland”: Scenic Design by Scott Pask (even more ingenious this time around), Costume Design by Suttirat Larlarb (who rightly says that a costume should be “an extension of character behavior”), Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and Sound Design by Jonathan Deans. The Musical Supervision is by Nadia diGiallonardo (drums, pedal steel, guitar, cellos and keyboard), and it's here that the show is less than an immaculate confection; in the first act especially, the sound needs balance, for too much of the lyrical gets lost in the shuffle. It's less of an issue in the second act, which consists of more ballads (and thus less percussion).

The combination of a strong libretto, a lovely score, unforgettable performances and just plain heartfelt sentiment (not sentimentality) make this a true winner, a real keeper. There's scant little to change in a successful recipe like this one. As the production stands now, it shows a great deal of promise, and not the kind referred to in “The Music Man”: “a pie-crust promise, easily made, easily broken”. Bareilles notes that the creative team was “making something from a place of love”, adding that it's the only way she ever wants to bake. May the already-announced move to Broadway never crimp her style, may she and this cast persist with their flakiness, and may that be the very last of one's pie-centric puns.

8/08/2015

PBT's "Chicago": A Show with Legs

The Cast of "Chicago"
(photo: Priscilla Beach Theatre)

There may be a newly-installed air-conditioning system at Priscilla Beach Theatre, but the buzz word for the company's second production in its newly renovated barn is “hot”, as in the heat generated by the wildly popular musical, “Chicago”. It's the quintessential dancing show that has really proven to have legs. It's hard to believe that it premiered on Broadway forty years ago. This has proven to be a shrewd choice on the part of PBT's producers, Bob and Sandy Malone, given the obvious contrast with their season opener, “Fiddler on the Roof” with its deep-rooted sense of community, family and heart; “Chicago” has Hart (as in Roxie) but little heart. This show, from the first line to the last bump and grind, has always been not about sentiment but about sex, a guilty pleasure for the ages (if not exactly appropriate for all ages). This production proves beyond a doubt that PBT can do just about anything and do it well in the tradition of the versatility of the fondly remembered summer stock of yore. It's brash and bold, which should come as no surprise to theatergoers familiar with the music of John Kander and the lyrics by the late Fred Ebb (with book, such as it is, by Ebb and Bob Fosse), whose bravely cynical output runs the gamut from “Cabaret” to “Scottsboro Boys” to the most recent production of their work this past season, “The Visit” (astoundingly, starring Chita Rivera, the first interpreter of “Chicago's” co-starring role of Velma Kelly).

The story was first seen in 1926 as a dramatization by Chicago Tribune scribe Maureen Dallas Watkins, who based it on the real-life murder suspects she had reported on during the Prohibition Era. Cecil B. DeMille directed a silent film version a year later. The first musical production of the story was suggested to Bob Fosse by his wife Gwen Verdon, who went on to originate the role of Roxie Hart in 1975. Initially unappreciated by many critics, it grew in popularity when a throat operation caused Verdon to miss a month of performances, filled in by a certain youngster named Liza Minelli. Though Liza wasn't known as a dancer, she and Rivera were stunning together, and Minelli's presence in the show brought national attention, helping it to reach over 900 performances. It began to be more appreciated, reflected in the Tony Awards that season. It earned ten Tony nominations, though it won none. (Unfortunately for poor “Chicago”, It was the year of “A Chorus Line”, coincidentally next season's opener for PBT). What is extraordinary about the work is that its subsequent revival in 1996 has been running for twenty years becoming the second-longest revival in Broadway history, despite its having been filmed in 2002 and having been awarded the Oscar for Best Picture. The obvious query is, how did an undeniably salacious and cynical story about celebrity murderesses (long before the internet) reach such a popular peak? How has this show had such legs?

A great part of its success lies in the score, since, one would have to admit, it really doesn't have a very strong book. The songs range from the familiar “All That Jazz” to “Razzle Dazzle” to “Mr. Cellophane” to “Class” (the last a hysterical number cut from the movie, but included as an extra on the DVD, and thankfully included in this PBT version). The songs were wisely (even shrewdly) created as vaudeville numbers, with specific vaudeville performing types in mind. Thus a good deal of its impact depends on the quality of the singing and dancing actors in a given production. PBT has assembled quite a talented crew in their own right. The two leading villainesses, Katy Corbus (as Velma, exhibiting impressive dance moves) and Andrea Sweeney (as Roxie, with an equally impressive singing voice) set the perfect tone, balancing the surface sex with an underlying hint of sweetness. The score, true to its vaudevillian intent, gives a chance for memorable solos to several cast members, including lawyer Billy Flynn (Matt Torrance), prison matron Mama Morton (Maggie Irvine), Roxie's husband Amos (Steve Dooner) and newspaper reporter Mary Sunshine (J. Angel Valentin). Part of the fun for loyal PBT theatergoers is the enjoyment in seeing former “Fiddler” players create vastly different characters, from Fred Casely (Sam Patch) to June (Caitlin Donohue) to Liz (Maya Jacobson), as well as members of the ensemble (Bryan George Rowell, Jeremiah O'Sullivan, and Ben Gibson), joined by PBT newcomers Rob Russ and Ritchard Wingert. Add other PBT novices in the roles of Go-to-Hell Kitty (Erica Morris), Annie (Kate Ryan), Mona (Kaylene Snarsky), and Hunyak (Eilis Quinn) and you have a formidable troupe indeed. As expertly Directed and meticulously Choreographed (in the style of Fosse) by Michael Hammond, this production is a revelation. Also worthy are the contributions of Musical Director Christopher Ricci (once again wonderfully leading the band christened “The Barn Doors”), the Costume Design by Richard Danehy, the Lighting Design by Kasey Sheehan and the Spotlight Operation by Grace VanBuskirk (so vital to the impact of this work in its headlining and highlighting).

This was a show with quite a few standout moments, from Valentin's bravura falsetto, with live pooch Milo (who will only be in the first few performances, in the uncredited role of Milo) in hand, to Wingert's extraordinary curtain call. But it's in the precision of the dancing and the dazzle in the razzle of the singing that will endure in memory. In case you missed getting tickets to this sold-out show, be advised that summer theater has just matured while you weren't looking, and may never be the same again, for which we may all be thankful. The choice to mount this grown-up show was both courageous and canny, attesting to the fact that PBT is our kind of company, and “Chicago” is surely our kind of town.

8/07/2015

MSMT's "Young Frankenstein": A Hit Below the (Borscht) Belt

The Cast of "Young Frankenstein"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)
 
It's a calm summer night as Maine State Music Theatre presents the fang-in-cheek musical “Young Frankenstein”, with Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks and Book by Brooks and Thomas Meehan, based on the cherished 1974 film comedy. Things will soon be a lot less calm as the play progresses. Having opened on Broadway in 2007 to a mixed reception (perhaps due in part to the unavoidable comparisons to Brooks' phenomenal first musical “The Producers”, as well as bad press because of this show's producers' creation of the monstrously greedy concept of Premium Seating, and their haughty refusal to share box office figures) it had a disappointing run of only about 500 performances, although winning the Outer Critics Circle Award as Best Musical, as well as being nominated for three Tony Awards. This parody of 1930's horror films with its under-appreciated score deserved better, and if any company could reanimate the work, surely MSMT could. And has.

As the musical begins, we see the citizens of 1934 Transylvania Heights, including the creepy Inspector Kemp (he of the various wooden appendages, played here by David Girolmo), the even creepier Igor (for whom every day is hump day, wonderfully played by Robert Creighton) and Ziggy the village idiot (Steve Gagliastro), gleefully burying the remains of Dr. Victor von Frankenstein, the mad scientist (aren't they all?) who infamously created his Monster from miscellaneous body parts. They all express relief that Dr. Frankenstein's grandson Frederick (Jeremiah James, with great presence and superb voice), dean of Anthony Hopkins School of Medicine in America, who has inherited his father's castle, lives too far away to threaten them. But contrary to their beliefs, we soon see the very same Frederick taking leave of his fiancée Elizabeth (the wacky Jessica Lee Goldyn) to check out the castle in person. Encouraged by Igor and the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Charis Leos in her best MSMT role out of four this season), the very mention of whose name produces equine terror, Frederick creates his own version of The Monster (a marvelous Timothy Hughes), and horror, as they say, ensues.
 
Meanwhile Elizabeth herself arrives in untimely fashion to find Frederick and a local farmgirl Inga (the wondrous Missy Dowse) having a proverbial roll in the hay, while Frau Blucher (cue those horses again) frees the Monster who runs, as they also say, amok. After a brief spell in the home of a blind hermit, the Monster encounters Frederick who convinces him he has a future on the stage. Couples are uncoupled and recoupled so that the Monster ends up with Elizabeth, Frederick ends up with Inga, and Frau Blucher ends up with the hermit. When asked by Inga what Frederick got in exchange for the Monster, he replies that he gained his renowned schwanstuker (in context, no translation required). Others in the large cast include Paul Aguirre (as Victor in a flashback) and the multi-talented Ensemble: Chrissy Albanese, Michaela K. Boissonneault, Sara Bond, Alec Cohen, James Spencer Dean, Kenneth Quinney Francoeur, Michael Graceffa, Benjamin Henley, Jordan Lipes, Connor McRory, Leah Nicoll, Reagan Danel Ogle, Buddy Reeder (Dance Captain), DeAngelo Renard, Stefanie Sable, Liz Schmitz, and Lauren Brooke Tatum.

The musical numbers, in addition to one directly from the film (“Puttin' on the Ritz” by Irving Berlin) include “The Happiest Town in Town”, “The Brain”, “Please Don't Touch Me”, “Together Again (for the First Time)”, “Roll in the Hay”, “He Vas My Boyfriend”, “Welcome to Transylvania”, “Transylvania Mania”, “Man about Town”, and “Deep Love”. They echo memorable lines from the film that cried out for musicalization, and Brooks responds with homages to various composers and lyricists, such as Cole Porter, Romberg, Herbert, Friml, Weill and Brecht, as well as lovingly recalled performers including Danny Kaye, Shirley Temple, Fred and Ginger, and Al Jolson. (The liner notes for the original cast album, by the New York Sun's Will Friedwald, are especially helpful in this regard). It's a cleverly eclectic and electric score executed superbly by the cast and orchestra, with all of Brooks' often inspired (and sometimes perspired) wit, sometimes subversively subtle, sometimes rude and crude, intact while laying on an extra level of triple entendres; this is Mel Brooks, after all, and qualifies as a guilty pleasure. Subtlety has never been his strong point; sophomoric humor is his forte. Some of it is quite winning, some plain losers, such as the hermit scene with his song “Please Send Me Someone” which, as it was in the movie, is discomforting and cruel, and could easily be omitted, as could the superfluous “Listen to Your Heart” by Inga. On the whole, however, if a bit overstuffed, the music scores well.

When all the creative stars come together as in the brilliant realization of “Roll in the Hay”, with its (you should excuse the expression) broad humor, or the lengthy but extraordinarily tap routine that accompanies “Puttin' on the Ritz”, this production of the show comes truly alive. The impossibly complex multiple sets of the Scenic Design by Kyle Melton are amazing, as are the Costume and Wig Design by Kurt Alger, the atmospheric Lighting Design by Jeffrey S. Koger, the eerily effective Sound Design by Brett Rothstein, the exceedingly clever and witty Projection Design by Dan Efros, and the very capable Music Direction by Samuel Thorne Bagala. The major star of this production, however, is Director/Choreographer Marc Robin; rarely has any show in recent memory been as energetic, coordinated and almost pluperfect as this one.

As for your enjoyment of the work, it will depend on your tolerance for the strange-bedfellow union of low humor and high art, but this may well be the best production the company has ever done. Leave your inhibitions at the door; may the borscht ever flow.

8/06/2015

Ogunquit's "Nice Work If You Can Get It": More than "Oh, Kay!"

The Cast of "Nice Work If You Can Get It"

The current Ogunquit Playhouse production of “Nice Work If You Can Get It” is nice work indeed. It's a new old show with Music by George Gershwin and Lyrics by Ira Gershwin, with a Book by Joe Pietro based on material by Guy Bolton and P.G. Wodehouse (in fact, largely but loosely based on “Oh, Kay!”). First presented by Goodspeed Musicals in 2001 (as “They All Laughed”), it opened on Broadway in 2012 with its new title, was nominated for ten Tony Awards and won two for supporting performances. Though it had a respectable run of almost 500 performances, it deserved better, at least so it would seem based on this wild and wacky, unexpectedly charming show. The New York version reportedly had a major flaw in that one of its stars was not a trained dancer, and this is without a doubt first and foremost a dancing show. Fortunately for audiences at Ogunquit Playhouse, Director Larry Raben and Choreographer Peggy Hickey (easily the star of this production) have assembled a cast of extraordinary dancers, who can also sing and act. It's a tribute to the expertise of the company that each of five couples in the ensemble gets their own curtain call.

The story is intentionally silly in the same vein as the 1920's musicals that it's engagingly spoofing. It seems Jimmy Winter (Joey Sorge, winningly channeling Dick Powell) is engaged to Eileen Evergreen (the limber Breighanna Minnema), daughter of Senator Max Evergreen (well played by Steve Brady). But while drunk, Jimmy meets bootlegger Billie Bendix (Amanda Lea LaVergne, a real find) who schemes to hide her hooch in his ample cellar. At the mansion of Estonia Dulworth, Duchess of Woodford (the hilarious Sally Struthers), he meets Cookie McGee (James Beaman, who heists just about every scene he's in), Jeannie Muldoon (the very talented Elyse Collier), Chief Berry (the handsome Valton Jackson) and Duke Mahoney (the very funny Aaron Fried). In a true Deus ex machina touch worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, Jimmy finally encounters his mother, Millicent Winter (the true trouper Brenda Vaccaro, subbing for an ailing Valerie Harper), whose revelations tie up more than a few loose ends.

The show gives a whole new dimension to the term “jukebox musical”; the score is an assembled one, utilizing songs lifted from films (the title song, first heard in “Damsel in Distress”; “Let's Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They All Laughed”, both from “Shall We Dance?”) as well as previous Gershwin musicals (such as “Someone to Watch over Me” from “Oh Kay!”; “S'Wonderful” from “Funny Face”; “Fascinatin' Rhythm” from “Lady Be Good”; “I've Got a Crush on You”, which the Gershwins themselves used twice, in both “Treasure Girl” and “Strike Up the Band”; and “But Not For Me”, heard in the Gershwin show “Girl Crazy” in 1930 and placed in the score of 1992's “Crazy for You”). Lovely songs all, but of course not originally intended for use in the current musical's scenes, thus hardly integral to the story as such. When one thinks of how Broadway musical teams may spend five to ten years laboring over what musical numbers to include and where, it should come as no surprise that the songs in this show don't propel the action or the arc of the story. Not to worry, as the plot, in true 1920's fashion, doesn't much matter. What does matter is that the whole cast has both the art and the craft to deliver with the deadest-pan faces not just the corny jokes but the gorgeous trunk songs in this patchwork score.

As noted above, it's a tribute to the Direction by Larry Raben and Choreography by Peggy Hickey (as well as the Musical Direction by Charlie Reuter) that this production succeeds so impressively The other technical elements are quite astonishing, from the ingeniously complicated Scenic Design by Shoko Kambara, to the lovely Costume Design by Martin Pakledinaz, to the extremely intricate Lighting Design by Richard Latta to the Sound Design by Kevin Heard (though a bit heavy in the woofer department at first, until a better balance was reached).

But as winning as the creative team's efforts are, the real delight is in the cast's performances, notably the expertise of Struthers and Vaccaro (who had previously starred together in a Broadway revival of “The Odd Couple”) and the excellent farceuse work by the powerfully voiced Lavergne. One scene in particular, involving Struthers and a chandelier (not to be revealed here), is just about the funniest visual in theatrical memory, almost literally side-splitting, and alone would be sufficient reason to see this beguiling show. One's expectations (given the show's prior history) were modest, yet this one is a keeper, and way more than merely “Oh, Kay!”.

7/29/2015

Cape Playhouse's "My Fair Lady": Move Your Bloomin'.....

Ashley Brown & Jeff McCarthy in "My Fair Lady"
(photo: Edie Weitrich)

Astonishingly, the current Cape Playhouse production of “My Fair Lady” is the first ever in the 89 year history of the company. The hugely successful and universally praised 1956 Broadway musical, with Lyrics and Book by Alan Jay Lerner (based on George Bernard Shaw's 1912 play “Pygmalion”) and Music by Frederick Loewe, won six Tonys including Best Musical. Shaw's play had been filmed in 1938 (winning him an Oscar for adapted screenplay). The musical was subsequently adapted for the screen in 1964, winning Oscars for Best Film, Director and Actor as well as five other Academy Awards (infamously not including the miscast, clearly dubbed and unnominated Audrey Hepburn). While Shaw's concerns were about the inequitable distribution of wealth, the unjust English class system, and the submission of women (a man surely ahead of his time), the musical was much more of a love story. It was blessed with an incredibly lovely score that led to the original cast album's two-year chart-topping status and produced such popular hits as “I Could Have Danced All Night”, “I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, and “On the Street Where You Live”. (The latter was conceived as a throwaway song included in order to make a major set change in the days before today's complex technical expertise). The choice of this work as the centerpiece of Cape Playhouse's season was a risky one, considering how well received the original stage musical, film adaptation and several revivals were. The question was whether this revival of the beloved musical would measure up to its storied past.
 
One needn't have had any concern, as, despite the requirements of the piece, this version is a winner. Directed by Tony-nominated Hunter Foster, this production's Eliza Doolittle is Ashley Brown (Broadway's memorably supercalifragilisticexpialidocious “Mary Poppins”, soon to be portraying the Mother Abbess in the National Tour of “The Sound of Music”) and its Professor Henry Higgins is Jeff McCarthy (“Urinetown”, “Side Show”, “Chicago”). As the Cockney flower seller, Brown is totally believable, as is her transformation into high society; equally important, her vocal chops are amazingly perfect from the moment she bursts into song (with “Wouldn't It Be Loverly?”). As her professor of phonetics, McCarthy is also perfectly cast, managing the difficult balance of pomposity and endearing curmudgeonliness seemingly effortlessly, with a fine voice to boot. The roles of Higgins' sidekick Colonel Pickering (Ed Dixon), Eliza's suitor Freddy Eynsford-Hill (Constantine Germanacos), Mrs. Higgins (Catherine Flye), and the housekeeper Mrs. Pearce (Ruth Gottschall) are all impeccably performed. And in the crucial role of Eliza's dustman father, Alfred P. Doolittle, James Brennan plays with gusto (with two opportunities to shine in his numbers “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time”). The ensemble dances and sings with remarkable skill and energy, which is more than can be said for the relatively bland rendition of “The Rain In Spain” sung by the principals.

The Direction by Foster and Choreography by Lorin Latarro are by and large superbly executed for the Cape Playhouse stage. There are a few directorial missteps (the scene at Ascot, for example, with touches that are quite funny but inappropriately anachronistic for the setting in 1912), but they're overshadowed by the general excellence of this production. The technical contributions are all effective, from the ingenious Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, to the very well-executed Costume Design by Gail Baldoni, and the Lighting Design by Erik Fox and the Sound Design by James R. McCartney. The fine Musical Direction (and reduced orchestrations) were by Nick DeGregorio, who at one point had to deal with a blackout in the pit.

One might envy the newcomer to this piece of musical royalty; familiarity with the story and score (even to the anticipatory song cues) can impact one's full enjoyment of the play. But even if it's a well-remembered treasure, it's still a treasure today as much as it was in its first incarnation almost sixty years ago. In short, while we've often walked down this street before, the pavement won't stay beneath your feet. Don't miss this one, but get tickets while you still can. It's only here until August 8th, so it's time you moved your bloomin'.....well, you know.


7/16/2015

Goodspeed's "La Cage": Glitter and Be Gay

Les Cagelles in "La Cage aux Folles"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The 1978 film “La Cage aux Folles”, based on a play by Jean Poiret, was a surprise hit (given that it was the story of a gay couple, in French with subtitles) when it opened, becoming the highest grossing foreign language film in U.S. History. There were two French sequels, as well as a non-musical English language remake in 1996 that was less memorable. Perhaps most surprising was its subsequent success in 1983 as a Broadway musical. With a Book by Harvey Fierstein and Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman, it probably shouldn't have been such a big surprise. It went on to be nominated for nine Tony Awards, winning six, including Best Musical, Book and Score, and ran for four years. Its Broadway revivals in 2004 and 2010 both won Tony Awards for Best Musical Revivals as well. The current Goodspeed Musicals version has a stupendously talented cast of twenty-one and an awesome creative team who've pulled out all the stops for this one.

The setting is a drag nightclub in St. Tropez, managed by Georges (James Lloyd Reynolds) and starring his romantic partner of twenty years and headlining entertainer, Albin (Jamison Stern). All's going reasonably well until Georges' twenty-four-year-old son, Jean-Michel (Conor Ryan) wants his father to meet his fiancée Anne (Kristen Martin) and her ultra-conservative parents (Stacey Scotte and Mark Zimmerman, the latter being the Deputy of the Family and Morality Party). Also involved are Georges' and Albin's butler (who prefers to be called their maid) Jacob (Cedric Leiba Jr.), and their friend Jacqueline (Sue Mathis), owner of an upscale restaurant. And then there are those dancers in the nightclub, Les Cagelles! Suffice it to say that once all these characters intermingle, as they say, hilarity ensues.

The story is a wise and witty one, at full throttle in this marvelous and unforgettable production both with respect to the performances (by a flawless cast of twenty-one) and the inventive creative team. Leading the cast in every sense of the term is Stern, whose turn as the diva of the day is utterly mesmerizing, at one moment hilarious, at the next, heartbreaking. Giving tremendous support are Reynolds as his devoted lover, the bedimpled Ryan and Martin as the charming newly engaged couple, the uptight twosome of Scotte and Zimmerman, and the over-the-top terrific scene-stealing Leiba. The barbs fly effortlessly, as does the singing. They all do great justice to the score which, while consisting of only nine songs (several of which are reprised), has some true standouts, notably the lovely “Song on the Sand”, the moving gay anthem “I Am What I Am” and the most popular, “The Best of Times”.

But its the stunning Direction by Rob Ruggiero (who helmed last season's unforgetable “Fiddler on the Roof” for Goodspeed), and the wondrous Choreography by Ralph Perkins, that make this production near-perfect, especially with regard to those aforementioned Cagelles: Darius Barnes, Michael Bullard, Alexander Cruz, Wade Dooley, Alex Ringler, Nick Silverio, and Nic Thompson, as well as (surprise!) Erin M. Kernion and Barbara McCulloh. The work of the creative team includes fabulous Costume Design by Michael McDonald, breathtaking Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt (awash in pink, no less), excellent Lighting Design by John Lasiter and Sound Design by Jay Hilton, with superb Musical Direction by Goodspeed regular Michael O'Flaherty.

Given a certain recent Supreme Court decision, the show is more relevant and resonant today than ever, a true marvel of our age, and a “La Cage” for the ages. This is indeed “The Best of Times”, the perfect time for "La Cage aux Folles" to come out fully from that age-old closet.

7/14/2015

Nora Theatre's "Saving Kitty": Guess Who's Coming to Sinners

Alexander Cook & Jennifer Coolidge in "Saving Kitty"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair Photography)

A local theater near you has just pulled off quite a coup, with a starring role in its current production played by a star in her own right, local native Jennifer Coolidge. As noted elsewhere on this website, 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 taken on a part that's a further challenge for this versatile actress, in a live theater production. 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, to none other than the Central Square Theater in Cambridge by the Nora Theatre Company.

One may now add another likely candidate for one's favorite Coolidge role. This play centers on an urbane and wealthy Manhattan matron, Kate Hartley (Coolidge). Living in a swank Fifth Avenue apartment, ostensibly ultra-liberal, she and her husband Huntley Hartley (Alexander Cook), a U.N. official, have become a rather bored couple, purportedly both agnostics. The impending arrival of a singular dinner guest, Paul Cook (Lewis D. Wheeler), the new beau of Kitty (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan), their television-journalist daughter, changes all their lives, especially that of Kate, whose unedited barbs are priceless. The couple speculates about this new boyfriend whom they are about to meet, as they reveal some hitherto unrevealed biases they share toward certain religious evangelicals, confusing them with the subset of fundamentalists and creationists. Certainly they're fair game for satire, and the playwright skillfully skewers them. Underlying the more obvious issue of religious prejudice, though, is the gradual, shrewd and unquestioned expectation that wives, implicitly and explicitly, should make their husbands the center of their universe. This is expressed through the focused Direction by Lee Mikeska Gardner, Artistic Director of the company (whose program notes, however, are disappointingly sexist), predominantly through Kate's frequent witticisms. Coolidge is more than capable of delivering her character's slings and arrows with superb deadpan timing, and Cook's long-suffering husband has a battery of fine facial expressions to counter her relentless forthrightness. The technical effects are all outstanding, from the gorgeous Scenic Design by Steven Royal (with clever subtle accents like the illuminated portrait of Kitty on one wall), to the effective Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski and Sound Design by Jennifer Timms, to the detailed Costume Design (down to a bejeweled hair clamp) by Barbara Douglass.

The production has some pacing issues, which with more performance time and a healthy dose of tightening will no doubt improve, and the ending doesn't sizzle but fizzles. The trip to Central Square is worthwhile, however, for all the quips that Coolidge lands (including a hilarious take on the “Second Coming” and her dismissal of her Biblical knowledge as her “great mind for trivia”), as well as those of Cook (at one point declaring that “life is a pause between two eternities”, and elsewhere that “life is war with intermissions”). There are also several mimed bits with an (uncredited) prop-changing “waiter” that are funny in themselves. Thanks to Smith's writing and Coolidge's acting,“Saving Kitty”, in the end, unquestionably redeems itself.