Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Turandot": Ice Aged

The Metroplitan Opera's "Turandot"
(photo: Met Opera)

When opera goes grand, it can be almost overwhelmingly so. In the current Metropolitan Opera production of Puccini's Turandot, this is made abundantly clear in its spectacularly ornate Set Design by Franco Zeffirelli. Along with the sumptuous Costume Design by Anna Anni and Dada Saligeri, as well as the literally brilliant Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, it commands our attention from the moment the curtain is first raised. Ironically, the lasting impact of the work depends on how effective it is on a human scale, where a once triumphant regal, even icy, princess melts at the discovery of true love. It's a challenging demand on singers who must convey natural emotions on a supernatural canvas. Add to this the fact that the title character first appears remote and unreachable, but must ultimately reveal a touching vulnerability. All this must take place convincingly despite the ying-yang of a complex setting and a rather simple story.

In ancient China, Princess Turandot (soprano Nina Stemme) has decreed that anyone wishing to marry her must try to answer three riddles; failure will result in death. When this edict is announced to the crowds, among them are the slave Liu (soprano Anita Hartig), her blind elderly master, and Calaf (tenor Marco Berti), who recognizes the aged master as his long-lost father, Timur (bass-baritone Alexander Tsymbalyuk), defeated King of Tartary. They all watch as the latest attempted suitor, the Prince of Persia, is sent to his death by the icy princess. Awed by her beauty, Calaf strikes the gong that announces his intention to guess the answers to the three riddles, though even Turandot's three ministers, Ping (baritone Dwayne Croft), Pang (tenor Tony Stevenson) and Pong (tenor Eduardo Valdes), try to discourage him. Calaf persists, however, and correctly guesses the answers. Yet he gives Turandot a chance for a reprieve, if she is able to name him by dawn's arrival, which would send him to his death. Liu, who has always loved Calaf, refuses under torture to reveal his name, and stabs herself to death rather than do so. When they are left alone, the Princess suddenly knows love when Calaf kisses her. He reveals his name, and Turandot then proclaims she now can announce his true name, which is Love.

In this HD broadcast performance, Stemme was stupendous, icy when needed and warm at last, her singing of her aria “in questa reggia“ about the violation of her female ancestor a highpoint. While Berti may have lacked full emotional impact in the famous “nessun dorma” his signing was also exemplary. The heartfelt role of Liu, with Hartig portraying a noble sacrifice with careful attention to the composer's lush score, was lovely. Tsymbalyuk was yet another plus, as were the trio of Croft, Stevenson and Valdes. Once again the Metropolitan Opera Chorus shone under the careful direction of Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo. Conductor Paolo Carignani did justice to the lovely music, perhaps Puccini at his most effective. The capable Live in HD Director Barbara Willis Sweete made things run smoothly, as did Live in HD Host Renee Fleming.

It was a wonderfully balanced performance all around, making for a particularly memorable addition to the current season. When it works, as it certainly did here, it can be difficult to single out what made it so special, which can sometimes be an intangible mystery...and you only get three guesses.

The broadcast of "Turandot" will be repeated this Wednesday February 3rd at a theater near you.


PPAC's "Cabaret": Don't Tell Mama, Come Join the Band

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles, Randy Harrison as the Emcee and the 2016 National Touring Cast of Roundabout Theatre Company's "CABARET"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Life is a Cabaret, old chum”, at least at the Providence Performing Arts Center, where the National Tour of Cabaret kicks off its countrywide schedule. This production evolved from the most recent very successful Broadway revival of the Kander and Ebb musical. The original show tried out in Boston in October 1966, opening in New York the following month. John Kander wrote the Music, Fred Ebb wrote the Lyrics, and Joe Masteroff wrote the Book. Kander and Ebb had previously partnered on their first musical, which also tried out in Boston, Flora the Red Menace, which introduced Liza Minelli. While Flora didn't blossom long, the first run of Cabaret surely did, for three years, with several revivals since. At the start of its original tryout in Boston, the musical had three acts, but was soon trimmed to two before it left the Shubert Theater, a wise move since the show ended up being a taut, unforgettably effective recreation of its time and place. This revival by Roundabout Theatre, which ran for six years, is a revelation. You haven't seen a production of Cabaret at its most powerful until you see this one.

The first act, as anyone familiar with the original production or the subsequent film version will recall, tells the story of Sally Bowles (Andrea Goss) meeting Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen) at the Kit Kat Klub as she sings “Don't Tell Mama”. It is Germany just as the Nazis are rising to power. Based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, in turn based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, it takes place in the raunchy Berlin night club with a bizarre Emcee (Randy Harrison). Bradshaw, an American writer, also meets Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) who offers him work and suggests he room in a boardinghouse run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran). Later Sally arrives on Cliff's doorstep, having been thrown out of her apartment. The first act ends with a song that becomes a march with some sinister overtones, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. In the second act, Sally and Cliff have fallen in love, and she confesses she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider catches her boarder Fraulein Kost (Alison Ewing) with her turnstyle of admirers, but Kost reminds her she's had her own dalliance with her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson). Cliff decides to leave Berlin, but Sally chooses to stay behind for what she sees as a life of freedom, unaware of the imminent descent of the Nazi stormtroopers. As he leaves on the train, Cliff begins to write of his experiences at “the end of the world”.

One of the delights of this stage version is the reinstatement of the romantic relationship between the landlady Fraulein Schneider and her lovely songs with Herr Schultz, “It Couldn't Please Me More (Pineapple)” and “Married”, both entirely cut from the movie. Cochran and Nelson are wonderful together, and her final number, “What Would You Do?”, has never seemed so moving. As she admits, “I regret...everything”. Another aspect that was, for all intents and purposes, lost in the film version is the ever-increasing menace of the rise of the Nazi party. With this aspect restored, on both emotional and political levels, it's a much more involving experience. This makes the ultimate fate of the relationships all the more telling and poignant. There is heart to be treasured, but fleeting and doomed in the path of the politics of the era. There is also a new song written for the Broadway revival, “I Don't Care Much”, which captures the attitude of those most oblivious to reality.

In this touring version, the company has a very believable Sally and Cliff in the persons of Goss and Rosen, both of whom sing exceptionally well and have real chemistry together. Goss is especially devastating in her rendering of the title song, at one and the same time ferocious and vulnerable. Noyes and Ewing are also strong in their pivotal roles hinting at how easy it was to go along to get along. But any production of this show rises or falls on the performance of its Emcee, and Harrison is a mesmerizing triple threat, his acting fierce, his movement sinuous, his singing stunning as he hovers almost non-stop over the proceedings. One is totally blown away by the visual ending (not to be revealed here) which is unexpectedly yet logically both overwhelmingly theatrical and shattering.

The success of this brilliant rethinking of the show is in large part due to the genius of the revival's creative team headed by its original Director Sam Mendes and Co-Director and Choreographer Rob Marshall. The touring company is helmed by Director BT McNicholl with Choreography recreated by Cynthia Onrubia. The unit set by Robert Brill is versatile (most effective in the night club scenes), the Costume Design by William Ivey Long is perfect, and the Lighting Design by Peggy Eisenhauer and Mike Baldassari, as well as the Sound Design by Keith Caggiano are fabulous. Even the entr'acte has been re-imagined with a terrific turn by the onstage orchestra with an accompanying kick line by the Kit Kat Klub Kittens.

Until the clouds of storm troopers gather, there's a great deal of divine decadence on display, notably those ripped abs and glamorous gams. It's racy, raunchy, raucous and risque. It's also a whole lot of fun. Go, but, as those Kittens warn, “Don't Tell Mama”.


ART's "Nice Fish": Prose with No Cons

Jim Lichtscheidl, Kayli Carter, Mark Rylance & Louis Jenkins in "Nice Fish"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

A work of ART can be a prose poem, as illustrated by their current production, “Nice Fish”, a collaborative work of Louis Jenkins (whose conversational poems are acted out) and actor Mark Rylance (who twice delivered them in Tony-winning acceptance speeches). Imbedded in prose form, Jenkins' writings are hardly prosaic, though they could easily be unrecognized as craft. They splendidly capture the dialogue of Minnesotans, whose isolation in a cold climate often gets expressed in non sequiturs. The play is compiled from more than five hundred poems rather like a jigsaw puzzle. As a prose poem is not really a poem, at least in form if not in content, so this production at first doesn't appear to be a play. On the surface, two men meet once every year on the last day of ice fishing season, searching for something deep enough to swallow them, a bit on the edge, in vast inward and outward space, imagining something swimming just beneath the surface. As the fourth wall thaws, so does the frigidity of normally accepted speech, with its inflexibility and unequivocal definitiveness, as described by Flo (the kooky Kayli Carter) the sole female in the cast, which includes three ice fisherman, Ron (the remarkable Rylance), Wayne (the witty Jenkins) and Erik (the comically laconic Jim Lichtscheidl), and an unnamed Natural Resources rep (the hysterical Bob Davis), all voicing, individually and collectively, Jenkins' views of “neighboring” one another, ultimately creating a sort of dynamic solidarity.

While creating poetry is solitary, a surreal play like this is much more of a communal effort, like a quilt stitched together from treasured remnants. This is exemplified by a cast whose take on Midwestern deadpan dialect is flawless, under Claire van Kampen's well-timed direction, her own music compositions like the sound traveling across a frozen lake. Then there are the creatively crazy settings by Todd Rosenthal, gloriously goofy costuming by Ilona Somogyi, illuminatingly lively lighting by Japhy Weideman and resoundingly ominous creaking and groaning sound by Scott W. Edwards, all coming together into an eventually coherent, terrifically entertaining whole that in the end requires the final crucial collaboration with an audience. As Rylance states in the program, an effort such as this lives or dies in the imagination and senses of the audience; thus in this free form poem, you are expected to take active part in this experience to enjoy fully this wonderfully imaginative work.

Even before the play begins, it is announced that “what happens in Minnesota leaves Minnesota” and we are urged to “kindly rely on the strangeness of others”. As the work closes, we will have been treated to polkas, dry and wry Pinteresque pauses, blackouts and vignettes. It's theater of the absurdly hilarious (e.g. “the road never snowplowed”) as the characters ice fish and hunt on a lake full of ingenious streams of unconsciousness. It becomes self-referential as the play features verbal signposts throughout, though “there is no message”, and a prospective audience member is depicted decrying that “”there's no plot” or “I didn't get it”. As one character puts it, there's gravity and then there's seriousness. This is, in the end, (and what an imaginatively ending it has!) just over ninety minutes of wild and wondrous language. There is but one logical sequela: do go down that rabbit hole; it's a wintery wonderland. See it!


Lyric's "Sondheim on Sondheim": God on God

The Cast of "Sondheim on Sondheim" with Sondheim
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In musical theater today, no one is more revered than composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim. Creating a musical revue, Sondheim on Sondheim, back in 2010, was a labor of love for James Lapine, a frequent collaborator with Sondheim over the years of their extraordinary careers. Utilizing some four dozen songs (including one original number written for the revue), with his lyrics and music from over six decades, with nineteen shows represented, Lapine conceived and created a wonderful collage of Sondheim's professional life. It featured familiar, lesser-known and even a half dozen cut numbers (especially from Company, notoriously revised in rehearsals and try-outs). This revue ran for a limited run of two months on Broadway, mounted by the Roundabout Theatre, and has now arrived in Boston as the current production by Lyric Stage Company.

The result is a thoroughly enjoyable collection of Sondheim's finest songs, not unlike looking through a family scrapbook and sharing one's recollections of unforgettable musical moments. One such special moment is a new song by Himself written directly for the Broadway version, “God”, in which the composer/lyricist makes tongue-in-cheek reference to his exalted position in the musical theater pantheon. To whit, his wit:

God! I mean the man's a God!
Wrote the score to “Sweeney Todd”.....
With a nod, to de Sade.....
Smart! The lyrics are so smart!
And the music has such heart!....
Still you have to have something to believe in
Something to appropriate, emulate, overrate
Might as well be Stephen, or to use his nickname
There are many memorable turns from the eight member cast that consists of Leigh Barrett, Mala Bhattacharya, Maritza Bostic, Christopher Chew, Aimee Doherty, Davron S. Monroe, Sam Simahk and Patrick Varner. While all are blessedly unmiked, some project better than others. Even a cursory listing of high points would have to include “The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened” (composed for a straight couple in the short-lived musical Bounce, then rewritten for a gay couple in the same show when it was revised as Road Show), “Franklin Shepard Inc” from Merrily We Roll Along, sung here by the charming Simahk, and of course the lovely and haunting “Send In the Clowns” performed by Barrett. (Simahks' expressive face with those cheek bones and dimples to die for should be insured, while either Barrett or Doherty could wow you just singing from the telephone book). The excerpt from Sweeney Todd makes one long for Chew's fondly-remembered rendering of the entire show.

As Directed here by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company, it's a treat, with excellent Choreography and Musical Staging by Ilyse Robbins, fine Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg, great Scenic Design by David Towlun, suitable Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, and dramatic Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs. Thanks in part to Projection Designer Seaghan McKay, Sondheim is the star of this show in more ways than one, and there's also a very clever enhancement of Veloudos' usual introductory speech. Where Broadway used over sixty plasma screens, McKay does wonders with just a handful.

Yet Sondheim wrote, “even Cream of Wheat has lumps”. As is the case with most book-less revues, many songs lose significant impact when performed out of context (for example, “Send in the Clowns” is decidedly not as moving as it is when it is sung in the context of the whole libretto of A Little Night Music). There's also the matter of arbitrary choices; Lapine opines and that's that. Nonetheless, even though as at most buffets one might feel one's plate overfilled and overstuffed, this is a feast for Sondheim fans.

Toward the end of the show, Sondheim, when asked if he missed ever having children of his own, admits he has such regret, but notes that art is the alternative way to have a legacy. He also quotes his teacher Oscar Hammerstein who described him as his friend and mentor, echoing the lines from Anna in The King and I: “By your students you'll be taught”. On the question of whether Sondheim is truly God, most of us would probably self-describe as agnostics; but the man's lyrics and music are certainly divine. When all is sung and done, this is a must-see for anyone who is a devotee of Sondheim. And who isn't?

PPAC's "Cabaret": Willkommen

The Cast of the revival of "Cabaret"
(photo: Providence Performing Arts Center)

Somewhere between Mason City, Iowa (forever enthroned in our minds as the birthplace of Meredith Wilson and The Music Man), and the Providence Performing Arts Center, an actress by the name of Alison Ewing spent quite a bit of time on various stages in the Kander and Ebb smash hit musical, Cabaret. She's performed several roles over the past couple of decades, including the part of Lulu on Broadway, the first National Tour and in Paris. In the current National Tour about to open in Providence (January 26-31), she's taking on the role of Fraulein Kost, who entertains (so to speak) a steady stream of visiting sailors in the boarding house where the lead character Sally Bowles (for which Alison is the understudy in this company) lives. Along the way she's also appeared in such shows as Mamma Mia!, Flashdance, Ain't Nothin' but the Blues, and Sweet Charity. She also plays in the “all-girl” band as Fritzie.

As anyone familiar with the original Broadway production or the subsequent film version will recall, this is the story of Sally (Andrea Goss) when she meets Clifford Bradshaw (Lee Aaron Rosen) at the Kit Kat Klub as she sings “Don't Tell Mama”. It is Germany just as the Nazis are rising to power. Based on the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood, in turn based on John Van Druten's play I Am a Camera, it takes place in the raunchy Berlin night club with a bizarre Emcee (Randy Harrison). Bradshaw, an American writer, also meets Ernst Ludwig (Ned Noyes) who offers him work and suggests he room in a boardinghouse run by Fraulein Schneider (Shannon Cochran). Later Sally arrives on Cliff's doorstep, having been thrown out of her apartment. The first act ends with a song that becomes a march with some sinister overtones, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me”. In the second act, Sally and Cliff have fallen in love, and she confesses she's pregnant. Meanwhile, Fraulein Schneider catches her boarder Fraulein Kost (Ewing, as noted above) with her turnstyle of admirers, but Kost reminds her she's had her own dalliance with her Jewish suitor Herr Schultz (Mark Nelson). Sally tells Cliff she's gone through with an abortion, and he decides to leave Berlin, leaving her behind to sing of her choice of a life of freedom, unaware of the imminent descent of the Nazi stormtroopers. As he leaves on the train, Cliff begins to write of his experiences “at the end of the world”.

One of the anticipated delights of this stage version is the reinstatement of the romantic relationship between the landlady Fraulein Schneider and her lovely songs with Herr Schultz, “It Couldn't Please Me More (Pineapple)” and “Married”, both entirely cut from the movie. There is also a new song written for the Broadway revival, “I Don't Care Much”. In this iteration of the revival, Ewing is thrilled to be continuing in a show she has grown to love more and more, though she confesses that her “wannabe” role would be that of Mrs. Lovett in Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Meanwhile, she's having a ball, but, as the all-female band on stage might put it, “Don't Tell Mama”.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Pearl Fishers": Cultured Under the Sea

Matthew Polenzani &The Cast of the Met Opera "Pearl Fishers"
(photo: Ken Howard)

It's been a while between mountings of Pearl Fishers by the Metropolitan Opera, namely a solid century. While another work by the same composer (that would be Bizet's Carmen) has endured through the years as a vastly more popular opera, this less familiar one has literally languished in relative obscurity, save for its widely beloved duet between a tenor and a baritone that is a mainstay of opera recitals. The reason for the infrequency of performance is often attributed the unevenness of its score and its implausible plotting (though the latter, it must be said, never seemed to hinder the acceptance of countless other operatic works with unlikely, incredible and/or downright silly libretti). In this present co-production with the English National Opera, the Met has provided a unique opportunity to appreciate the cultured pearls within this neglected work (though produced about a decade ago by Sarasota Opera in a fine version). As an illustration of its years in operatic limbo, in its last appearance on this stage, this opera headlined Enrico Caruso.

Given the rarity of its inclusion in the operatic repertoire, a brief synopsis would surely be more than appropriate. The setting, an unnamed village somewhere in the Far East in vaguely “ancient times” (originally set in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka), is that of a Hindu community with a virgin princess/priestess (aren't they all?), the lovely Leila (soprano Diana Damrau), dedicated to Brahma, the god of creation. She is, not coincidentally, subject to death if and when she ever loses her virginity. Years prior to the opera's first scene, she had been loved by two men, Nadir (tenor Matthew Polenzani) and Zurga (baritone Mariusz Kwiecien), but since they were the best of friends, they each pledged not to pursue the princess. As the opera opens, Zurga has returned and been chosen as head of the village, and Nadir has unexpectedly returned to the village (having followed Leila). They both have mixed emotions about their triangular love, vowing to stay friends while wrestling with their common attraction to Leila, in the famous duet alluded to above, Au fond du temple saint, which ranges from religious ecstasy to elevated platonic love in their friendship, ending with sadness and a sense of loss. Yet once alone, Nadir confesses his obsession with Leila in the lovely aria Je crois entendre encore, and proceeds to seduce her. Discovered by villagers, they are both condemned to death by the high priest Nourabad (bass-baritone Nicolas Teste). As a tsunami threatens the village, Zurga sets it on fire to distract the people and enable the lovers to flee, torn between his love for both of them. He then awaits his fate once he is found to have started the fire. Love has conquered and been defeated at the same time.

It's a taut story (in just two hours) and, despite some wild coincidences, an enjoyable one. Director Penny Woolcock and Conductor Gianandrea Noseda have worked magic on the stage, as has the company credited with the Projection Design, 59 Productions; the pearl fishers diving under the sea were exquisitely choreographed, and the realistic tsunami depiction made a good argument for the sale of Dramamine at the concession stand. The Met Opera Chorus has never been more crucial, from the very start of the work, and rightly got its own curtain call. The principals didn't disappoint, from Damrau's wondrous coloratura to both Polenzani's and Kwiecien's solos and thrilling duet. Kwiecien is especially memorable in his acting and singing in his critical last scene with Damrau. With respect to costuming, the mixing of men in baseball hats and plaid shirts, while women wore more traditional if nondescript costuming while they exchanged peasantries, was distracting to say the least; no doubt the hodgepodge of allusions to past and present attire was intended to enhance the timelessness of the piece. (But then why feature a prominent map of Colombo, capital of Ceylon?). The set is just about perfect (if they would drop the television set and laptop) as is the lighting. In just about every aspect, this is a true triumph for the Met.

Pure love, betrayal, vengeance: they're all here, and in HD no less. It may have its flaws, but the compensations this opera offers make them seem insignificant. Operagoers should be eternally grateful for the chance to experience this previously unheralded little gem. From its resting place on the operatic shelf, this lovely work has finally been rescued. Aw, shucks.
Encore presentations will be broadcast in HD this Wednesday January 20th at a theater near you.


Huntington Theatre's "Disgraced": Identity Theft

Shirine Babb, Rajesh Bose, Nicole Lowrance & Benim Foster in "Disgraced"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There are many levels on which Ayad Akhtar's Pulitzer Prize winning play “Disgraced” may be viewed as controversial. First and foremost, there is its portrayal of an American Muslim as a protagonist who is his own antagonist, leading to a repeated theme of self-loathing. Coupled with this is the playwright's frank refusal to make excuses or even to explain away the content of his work. Huntington Theatre Company's current production, in association with Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, manages to present the author's intentional ambiguity in a wonderfully nuanced form as helmed here by Long Wharf's Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein.

The play begins innocuously enough, with a seemingly civilized debate between Amir Kapoor (Rajesh Bose), an upwardly mobile Islamic-American mergers and acquisitions attorney in a prestigious New York law firm, and his WASP artist wife Emily (Nicole Lowrance) about a 1650 Velasquez painting of Juan de Parega that hangs in the Metropolitan Museum. She correctly describes the subject of the painting as one of the painter's workshop assistants; he equally correctly notes that he was in fact the painter's slave. Their disagreement is superficially civil, but the undertones of discord hint at more substantial discourse to come. It's only the first of many looming dangers in the playwright's threatening minefield, which comes to the boiling point over a dinner party involving another married couple, Isaac (Benim Foster) who is rather too conveniently Emily's Jewish art dealer and Jory (Shirine Babb), also too conveniently an African-American partner in Amir's firm. These types are about all that's conventional about this play, which is somewhat reminiscent of Yasmine Reza's God of Carnage, which Huntington mounted three seasons ago. Before the pork tenderloin (even the menu is culturally charged in this play) is served, there are revelations, lies and deceits aplenty. Central to the story in the life which Amir has chosen is his submission to the dominant American culture and his desperate striving for total assimilation, which is initially mirrored by his nephew Abe (Mohit Gautam). The cost of this choice becomes increasingly apparent as we learn more and more about the pain Amir (and, by extension, the American Muslim community) feels today.

In such a brief work (just shy of ninety minutes) there's little room for subtlety, but Akhtar has nonetheless created a societal world that's impossible to ignore. In this post-9/11 age, none of us can claim to be unaffected by the increasingly visible presence of Muslim identity, whether religious or cultural. The play asks, or rather demands, that we too become involved in this shared theatrical event, and question our own tenets regarding ethnicity, social standing and choice between order and justice. It's no coincidence that this is the most produced play across the country this theatrical season. It's relentlessly and powerfully disturbing, and ultimately discomforting, with only a little comic relief in the character of Jory, though she too is concealing truths and is finally confrontational. Toward its climactic end, as Amir faces his own corrupted image, we come to realize that the majority culture still defines the Muslim subculture even as it is forced to defend itself. What's at stake here is not so much the actual content of the play but in fact the reactions of its audiences. As Amir laments, the majority has “disgraced us and don't understand our rage”. In our largely Islamophobic world, Amir has disgraced himself while the larger community in turn disgraces his people and their culture. There's plenty of guilt to be shared. It's an extraordinary out-of-body experience to discover suddenly that there are in fact six actors in play, and the sixth is yourself.

In attempting to describe the piece, it may sound like a profound and pedantic polemic, but the superb acting of all five actors makes it live, breathe and persist in memory, as does Edelstein's superb direction. The creative team also contributes to grounding the work in reality, from the relatively simple but tasteful Scenic Design by Lee Savage to the smartly individualized Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi (who nails the bizarre couture of the Upper East Side), as well as the fitting Lighting Design by Eric Southern and Sound Design by David Van Tieghem. It extends to the Hair and Wig Design by Charles G. LaPointe, especially notable in the mop-like au courant creation atop Emily's head.

If there's one word that would aptly and succinctly sum up the play, it would have to be “topical”, especially during the current electoral circus. But it's way more than that. It's a deeply moving, even transformational experience (ironically, since those on stage are not transformed so much as revealed). Then again, at one point, Emily posits that “irony is overrated”; whether it is here remains for us the audience to decide. At another point, Isaac speaks of Emily's work as “important and new and needs to be seen widely”. The same could surely be said for this play.


SpeakEasy's "Violet": State of the Onion

Alison McCartan as "Violet"
(Photo: Speakeasy Stage Company)

Watching the drama unfold in SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production of the musical “Violet”, one is reminded of the familiar metaphor of peeling back layers of an onion to its core. First presented by the company some fifteen years ago, significantly revised in this one-act version, it's a fine choice to enhance Speakeasy's twenty-fifth anniversary season. In its present form there is improved focus and dramatic tension, even if it makes for an unusually lengthy tale at an hour and three quarters. That makes for a substantial challenge for an ensemble to carry, but the cast assembled by its Director, (the company's Producing Artistic Director) Paul Daigneault, is surely up to it. With Music by Jeanine Tesori (Tony winner for her score for Fun Home) and Lyrics and Book by Brian Crawley, based on the Doris Betts short story “Ugliest Pilgrim”, it's the saga of one woman's journey by bus from Spruce Pine, North Carolina to Tulsa, Oklahoma, in search of the healing of a severe facial scar. When the show first appeared off-Broadway in 1997, it lasted only a month, even though it won the Drama Critics Circle and Lucille Lortel Awards as Best Musical, and a special Obie for Tesori's score. Subsequently championed by Tony winner Sutton Foster, it was given a one-performance production as part of the “Encores!” season in 2013, leading to a full-scale Broadway mounting in 2014. That version was also short-lived, lasting only four months, but managed to be nominated for four Tony Awards. Its eclectic score, including folk music. gospel, bluegrass, and Memphis blues, was very well received, as was the fact that it was now more clearly a true vehicle for a star turn.

Fortunately, SpeakEasy has a true star in the title role, in the person of Alison McCartan, who was so memorable in the company's past production of Bad Jews. In a dramatically different role, as the initially vulnerable Violet, she's really impressive. While enroute to Tulsa on a Greyhound bus, she encounters two servicemen, the sex-obsessed Monty (Nile Scott Hawver) and the more reserved Flick (Dan Belnavis), as well as an unnamed Old Lady (Kathy St. George, who also plays another unnamed character, a hilarious Hotel Hooker). Their scenes along the way are often interspersed with flashbacks to the relationship of Young Violet (Audree Hedequist) with her Father (Michael Mendiola). There's also an unexpectedly programed revivalist meeting where, brilliantly utilizing some fine local gospel singers, a certain belter named Lula Buffington (Carolyn Saxon) brings down the house (as did Belnavis a bit earlier). McCartan brings poignancy as well as a remarkable voice to the character, and Hedequist is wonderful, both professionally adept and warmly natural at the same time. When Violet ends her quest, it's a very satisfying outcome indeed.

The heroine of this production is Tesori; as she did in Caroline or Change, and even moreso in her masterwork Fun Home, her depiction of the chemistry of father and child always rings true. The most fascinating aspect of the arc of the show is how the score effortlessly shifts from one style of music to another as the bus makes its way (for example, country music as they're in Nashville). Crawley's operatic book matches these themes well, though his lyrics can sometimes be a bit predictable. Under Daigneault's superb direction, as well as the complex Music Direction by Matthew Stern and integrated Choreography by David Connolly, it's a terrific hit from start to finish. The creative team also shines, from the simple but versatile Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, to the perfectly executed Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, to the atmospheric Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by David Remedios.

It should be noted that the character of Flick is an African American one, which is significant for the play, as he and Violet share, in different ways, prejudice based on their respective skins. Both turn out to display how beauty is more than skin deep. This deceptively simple story has a lot to say, and its topicality makes it a must-see. This “Violet” may start out as a bit of a wallflower with hope for healing, but at journey's end (hers and ours) she truly blossoms.