ArtsEmerson's "Cuisine": Well Worth the Whisk

Melvin Diggs & Sidney Iking Bateman in "Cuisine & Confessions"
(photo: Alexandre-Galliez)

ArtsEmerson's current production, Cuisine & Confessions, is the fifth visit to Boston by Les 7 doigts de la main, or “7 Fingers” as they are now calling themselves, the wonderfully wild and witty circus troupe based in Montreal. The “cuisine” on the menu is less of a dinner or buffet than a collection of tapas, consisting of the “confessions”, or individual back stories of the nine performers as they prep, mix and cook, ultimately resulting in banana bread made, baked and served by them.
The multitalented cast of nine provided an array of visual delights that ranged from tumbling to juggling to aerial spectacle. Everyone in the ensemble was sublimely professional and a joy to see and hear. There were some highlights that stood out, but in the end it was the sort of communal presentation that defies singling anyone out, though the heartbreaking narration and accompanying acrobatics by Matias Plaul as he tells of his father's being “disappeared” in Chile is unforgettable. Sidney Iking Bateman, Melvin Diggs, Mishannock Ferrero, Anna Kichtchenko, Heloise Bourgeois, Nella Niva, Emile Pineault, Matias Plaul and Pablo Pramparo were individually and collectively splendid. So were the Creation and Staging by Shana Carroll and Music Director Sebastian Soldevila (even including an audiovisual Bolero), Sound Design by Colin Gagne, Lighting Design by Eric Champoux, Scenography by Ana Cappelluto and Costume Design by Anne-Seguin-Poirier.

The cast crossed off ingredients on a blackboard as the performance proceeded. Even the program notes got into the act, providing the recipe for the banana bread. For the record, that goes like this: Cream 4 ounces butter with 4 ounces of sugar. Mix in six crushed bananas, then two eggs, one at a time. Add vanilla extract and chocolate chips to taste. Combine 9 ounces of flour, one teaspoon of baking soda and a pinch of salt, then slowly mix into the creamed mixture. Pour into greased and floured loaf pan. Bake at 350 degrees for about fifty minutes or until cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. (Though they had the audience set their cellphones at thirty-six minutes, so take the timing with a grain of salt).

The results of their labors and incredible flour power was not merely a dessert, but about eighty-five minutes of astonishing acrobatics and hysterical humor. While their efforts were extraordinarily difficult and demanding, this troupe made it all seem like, well, a piece of cake.


Ogonquit's "Hunchback": Hump, What Hump?

F.Michael Haynie as Quasimodo and the Cast of "Hunchback of Notre Dame"
(photo: Julia Russell)

Parental guidance warning: this is decidedly not your childrens' cartoon version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame ; rather, it's a “musical created for the adult audience”, according to Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Productions. Based primarily on the original source, the 1831 Victor Hugo novel Notre Dame de Paris, with some songs from the 1996 Disney film, it had its premiere in Berlin in 1999, where it ran for three years. Subsequent versions honed the tale, including the effective prominent presence of a choir, and the elimination of most of the antics of a trio of comic gargoyles. First seen by this critic at Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, this is an amazing and satisfying transformation all around, with significant differences in tone, subject matter and sophistication, drastically diverging from the story line of the film. Now in its New England premiere at Ogonquit Playhouse, only the third American production, after having been presented at La Jolla in San Diego and then at Papermill, it's a stunning achievement, much deeper, darker and more deadly, and, ironically, much more animated than the film.

As “The Bells of Notre Dame” in Paris toll, a chorus introduces the story that takes place in and around the cathedral. Two orphaned brothers, Frollo (Bradley Dean) and Jehan (Matthew Amira), were raised by priests of the cathedral; Frollo flourished and became a priest, while Jehan ran off with gypsies and died, leaving his deformed son Quasimodo (F. Michael Haynie) to be brought up by Frollo in the belfry of the cathedral. The boy grows up to be the bell ringer of the cathedral, longing for a fuller life “Out There”. He slips out to the marketplace below during the Feast of Fools celebration and is captivated by the gypsy dancer Esmeralda (Sydney Morton), who arranges for him to be chosen as the King of Fools by the gypsy leader Clopin (Paolo Montalban) in the wonderfully danced “Topsy Turvy”. Esmeralda sings her plaintive plea “God Help the Outcasts” as both Frollo and the handsome Phoebus, Captain of the Guard (Christopher Johnstone) become enamored of her. When Frollo catches Esmeralda and Phoebus in a kiss, he plots revenge, arresting both of them on trumped-up charges. When Esmeralda is brought out to be burned at the stake, Phoebus rescues her but is wounded by Frollo in the process as Quasimodo watches helplessly from the belfry tower (“Esmeralda”). She convinces him to hide Phoebus, but they are found by Frollo who arrests them again. Esmeralda is to be burned at the stake, inspiring Frollo's great solo turn in “Hellfire”. Quasimodo rescues her and takes her to the tower where....well, let's not spoil things. He has a terrific “eleven o'clock number” in “Made of Stone”. Ultimately, he descends to the square, where all the people come to realize what humanity they have in common with the hunchback, seeing him in a new light.

This theatrical version boasts the same creative team as the film, with Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and Book by Peter Parnell, adding almost a dozen new songs and dropping some (such as the frivolous gargoyle number, “A Guy Like You”). Masterfully directed here by Shaun Kerrison with expert Choreography by Connor Gallagher, it's memorable on so many levels, from the breathtaking Scenic Design by Adam Koch, to the clever Costume Design by Martha Bromelmeier (except for the silly gargoyle outfits), complex Lighting Design by Richard Latta and the brilliant Sound Design by Kevin Heard. This version is Conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman, with the added bonus of a powerful thirty-two member choir under Chorus Master Wendell Scott Purrington. The cast is uniformly excellent, most notably the crucial and demanding central role of Haynie's Quasimodo. Morton and Johnstone sing beautifully, and Dean earns a well-deserved ovation for his depiction of the incarnation of evil to counterbalancing the simple goodness of the Hunchback.

The program notes that Hugo discovered a one-worded piece of graffiti in Notre Dame Cathedral, “ANAKTH”, Greek for “fate”. The word FATE appears on the pre-show curtain, referencing Hugo's melancholic approach. The choir, acting as a Greek chorus, actually sings in Greek (Kyrie Eleison) as well as Latin and Romani. The show is mostly serious with very few comic moments, such as a visual gag concerning St. Aphrodisius (Neal Mayer, who has the distinction of having performed in all three American productions of the show). There is a very different ending from the Papermill version, which portrayed the people putting smudges on their faces like those of Quasimodo, symbolically demonstrating their commonality with him as outcasts. Nonetheless, this is still a very moving piece, a Broadway-ready triumph for this company, that truly rings.


Goodspeed's "Bye Bye Birdie": Puberty in Prime Time

The Cast of "Bye Bye Birdie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

In 1976, Charles Strouse was busily engaged in the creation of an improbable musical based on a comic strip about a little orphan and a dog. It was premiered at Goodspeed Opera House, with Book by Michael Stewart, Music by Strouse, and Lyrics by Lee Adams; it was to go on to win the next season's Tony Award as Best Musical. The show was in development for years before it finally saw the light of day at Goodspeed in its world premiere, and required a good deal of revision before it was ready for its ultimate opening on Broadway. That show, of course, was Annie. Seventeen years prior to that, when most of the creative team and cast were unknowns, Broadway had enjoyed this team's first musical, also a Best Musical Tony winner; this one scored as a long-running tenant on Broadway, a film version (more about this later), a televised 1995 adaptation, and countless high school productions over the years. Despite its title, Bye Bye Birdie has never really left us.

Set in 1961, the show bisects the real life event of Elvis Presley's induction into the Army.  As anyone who has seen one or more of those endlessly-produced high school versions of the show can attest, it's the sweet story of Albert Peterson (George Merrick), talent agent and songwriter who once had a dream of becoming an English teacher, his secretary/girlfriend Rosie (Janet Dacal), and the prospect of their biggest rock and roll star, Conrad Birdie (Rhett Guter) being drafted. They concoct a publicity stunt in which Conrad would bestow “One Last Kiss” on a lucky member of his fan club live on the “Ed Sullivan Show”. By lottery, Kim MacAffee (Tristen Buettel) of Sweet Apple, Ohio (somewhere between Pittsburgh and Dayton) wins the dubious honor, which prompts one of the cleverest ensemble numbers ever performed, the gossipy “Telephone Hour” (which uses its lyrics to reference the original title proposed for the show, Let's Go Steady), one of theatre's greatest opening numbers (though the show was originally written with a scene between Albert and Rosie that lacked the high energy of this eventual opener). Kim's boyfriend Hugo (Alex Walton) is decidedly unthrilled, especially when Birdie moves in with the MacAfees. Kim's father Harry (Warren Kelley) shares Hugo's lack of enthusiasm, until he learns the whole family is to appear on the televised smootch; this inspires a number with Mrs. MacAfee (Donna English) and their eleven-year-old son Randolph (Ben Stone-Zelman), the serio-comical “Hymn for a Sunday Evening”. Albert tries to comfort the fan club members, notably Kim's best friend Ursula (Dorcas Leung), in “Put on a Happy Face” (the eventual title of composer Strouse's memoir). When Kim runs away, her family sings the hysterical “Kids” number, as Albert's mother Mae (Kristine Zbornik) arrives with tap dancer Gloria Rasputin (Lauren Fijol) to entice him away from Rosie, who's off to a local dive run by Maude (Branch Woodman). Meanwhile Birdie tries to convince his fans that it isn't the end of the world as we know it in the song “Got a Lot of Livin' to Do”. Loose threads get tied up when Birdie leaves town (on the train with Mae aboard), Kim and Hugo reunite, and Albert learns of a job teaching English in Pumpkin Falls, Iowa, requiring that the teacher be married. This finale is somewhat low key, but all that precedes it was truly exciting on a level rarely seen these days. A favorite scene, the hysterically funny dance Rosie performs with a group of Shriners is among the missing.

Some of the jokes are dated, even jaded, but most land wonderfully given this expert cast. As is often the case with Goodspeed, everyone on stage is so amazingly good that it's impossible to single anyone out, though Kelley shines in “Kids”, with a line of dialogue adlibbed by the original actor in the role, Paul Lynde, “Ed (Sullivan), I love you!”. Zbornik excels in her solo, and Dacal is a true Spanish spitfire, as anyone who saw her in In the Heights can attest.  Obviously Stewart, Adams and Strouse, tongues firmly in cheeks, had a lot of fun satirizing this typical town and its people in the sixties, and the whole rock-and-roll revolution. Oddly enough, the show had no title song until the film version with Ann-Margret, who at twenty-two was a way-too-voluptuous Kim, especially in wide-screen format. Goodspeed has incorporated that title song, and reinstated another, “A Mother Doesn't Matter Anymore” written for the televised version. The original Broadway show garnered four Tony Awards out of eight nominations, thanks to its lovingly and unabashedly corny plotting, terrific score, and the signature approach by its original director, Gower Champion. The 1981 sequel, Bring Back Birdie, was a flop, lasting just four performances. (This just a couple of years after this critic was told by Stewart that he'd sworn off writing for musicals). But Strouse, at 88 years old, has never stopped composing. In 2002 Boston's Huntington Theatre Company presented his musical Marty and in 2005 Providence's Trinity Rep mounted his semi-autobiographical Dancing with Time, and he (with Adams, and others) has several new works in various stages of development.

As usual, Goodspeed spins yet another miracle, a high-spirited romp with Direction by Jenn Thompson (who keenly respects the original material but has a lot of fun with it) and original Choreography by Patricia Wilcox. The Scenic Design by Tobin Ost uses venetian blinds to manage quick set changes cleverly, and the Costume Design by David Toser, Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg and Sound Design by Jay Hilton are all up to the company's very high standards. The expert Music Direction is by Michael O'Flaherty in his twenty-fifth year with Goodspeed. Special attention must be paid to the extraordinarily terrific projections before each act, with television highlights from the period, including Ed Sullivan himself, as well as a brief nod to Maureen Stapleton, who played Mae in the film version.

It's no wonder this show has been extended until September 8th. And it wouldn't be surprising to find this lively production had a future life. To quote Sullivan, “folks, this is a really big shew”.