SpeakEasy's "Scottsboro Boys": Retaking the Cake through Jan.22nd

The Cast of "Scottsboro Boys" returns through January 22nd
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have provided a considerable number of musical theater productions that have often involved a good deal of risk. The musical Scottsboro Boys was controversial even in its title, echoing how a group of African American youth aged thirteen to nineteen were referenced as “boys”. Based on the true story of how these young men were unjustly jailed and (mis)treated, Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway in 2010 and lasted just 49 performances, despite the reputation of Kander and Ebb (Music and Lyrics, their last collaboration), and David Thompson (Book), and despite being nominated for twelve Tony Awards including Best Musical (unfortunately for this show, in the same season as “Book of Mormon”). Its genius was to tell the story via a minstrel show, but this may also have led to its undoing. Intended as satire with minstrelsy songs, jokes, and dancing, and, yes, even blackface, it was picketed by people who never actually saw the show, and thus missed the point, namely the exposing of the evils of the system. Kander and Ebb once again revisited the Great Depression and the racial unrest of the thirties (as they had in “Steel Pier”, and, much before that, “Flora the Red Menace”), all held together in this show by an interlocutor as the host speaking directly to the audience. What resulted is a piece of musical theater like no other, in a class by itself, arguably Kander's and Ebbs' most inventive and unforgettable work.

Though the story is on record as part of this nation's checkered history, its anonymity requires a bit of a synopsis. (Fair warning: there are a few almost-spoilers). The lights come up on a lady (Shalaye Cavillo) carrying a cake box and waiting for a bus, which is late. She smells the cake, bringing back memories. The scene changes to a minstrel show in 1931, arranged by the Interlocutor (Russell Garrett), who introduces the nine youths, including Haywood Patterson (De'Lon Grant), who hop a freight train through Alabama. Just outside of Scottsboro, the men are pulled off the train, along with two white girls Victoria (Darrell Morris, Jr.) and Ruby (Isaiah Reynolds). Afraid they'll be arrested for prostitution, the girls accuse the men of rape, who are then brought to trial. Found guilty, they are condemned to death. The youngest, Eugene (Wakeem Jones) has nightmares about the electric chair. Just before the scheduled executions, word comes that the Supreme Court has overturned the verdicts and they are given a chance for another trial. One of the accused, young Roy (Sheldon Henry), teaches Haywood to write. And write he does, about their plight, making many in the North outraged. The Communist Party takes up their defense by hiring famous lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (Brandon G. Green) to take their case, raising some anti-Semitic issues. In her testimony, Ruby admits the men are innocent, but they are found guilty and sent back to prison. Haywood attempts unsuccessfully to escape to see his dying mother. After several additional trials, all with guilty verdicts, and after even Victoria recants, a deal is made to release four of the youngest boys, leaving the remaining five in custody. As one character blurts out, “you are guilty because of the way you look”. Haywood is promised parole if he admits guilt. He refuses and is sent back to jail where he dies twenty-one years later, having written their story. The Interlocutor announces the finale of the show but this time the Scottsboro Boys refuse to do the cakewalk, wondering if it has all been worth it and if people will remember.

Haywood was urged to “write it all down, the truth” even as he was asked “who's gonna learn from it?” . The lights come up on the lady who has been waiting, who then demonstrates the impact of their story on her and on history. The tagline for this production describes it as “a true story that changed history”. Rounding out the team are the characters of Ozie (Reynolds again), Andy (Darren Bunch), Willie (Taavon Gamble), Olen (Steven Martin) and Clarence Norris/Preacher (Aron Michael Ray). And then there are Mr. Bones (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Mr. Tambo (Green again), about whom more later.

What initially grabs one is the quality and variety of the score, encompassing fast ragtime to slow rag to folk song and of course cakewalk. There are echoes of Mr. Cellophane (from Chicago) in the plaintive Nothin' and Ruby's song Never too Late (to atone) as well as You Can't Do Me and Southern Days, their a cappela revision of a long-revered plantation song. Some of the subjects in the show's numbers, like parts of the book, are discomforting and macabre (“Daddy hangin' from a tree”, the electric chair or burning crosses), intentionally so. Yet there are also hearfelt songs like the bittersweet Go Back Home, the best number in the show, and one of the finest in the Kander and Ebbs pantheon. The score and book are deceptively upbeat in the initial minstrel show set-up, but they soon turn darker and more daring. The structure subliminally follows that of traditional minstrelsy: an introductory song-and-dance routine, then what was called the “olio” (a series of entertaining bits) and the “afterpiece” in the form of an extended skit or burlesque. But, as with their other serious works, especially Cabaret and Chicago, the message is as vital as the medium.

This is a brilliant piece of theater both in conception and (excuse the expression) execution. Wonderfully directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with fine
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, and rousing Choreography by Ilyse Robbins, with very effective Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Donald Remedios, it's a creative marvel. But its true glory is in the performances. Parent and Green, in historically stereotypical roles as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, excel in other multiple roles, as does Reynolds as Ozie and especially as Ruby. Grant is mesmerizing as the central figure of the case (though artistic license is at work here, as the real Haywood was focused on because he was the “ugliest” of the group, certainly not an adjective anyone would ever apply to Grant). But then, every member of the cast is a stunner, each with great vocal and acting chops and (you should also excuse this expression) rhythm.

SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Daigneault in particular, have always been known for their expert hand with musical theater. This may not be the best-known work by Kander and Ebb, but it deserves to be seen by any serious theater buff. With its sardonic black comedy (one final expression you should excuse), awe-inspiring dancing and all-around transcendence, it's the finest work thus far this season. “The truth: who's gonna learn from it?” Guess.


Fathom Events' "Nutcracker": Life Is but a Dream

The Bolshoi's "Nutcracker"
(photo: Bolshoi Ballet)

One of the highlights of any holiday season is the beloved ballet The Nutcracker, featuring the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It was premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg on this date, December 18, and never more exquisitely performed than by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet (which was founded in 1776). Their 2014 production of the work was HD broadcast in a movie theater near you this past weekend. Featuring Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, as Directed by Vincent Bataillon with Music Direction by Pavel Klonichev leading the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, the broadcast was hosted by the company's spokeswoman Katya Novikova who interviewed one of the principals, Denis Rodkin, between acts.

As most ballet buffs will already know, the story, based on E.T.A. Hoffman's tale, begins in Act I on Christmas Eve, as young Maria (Anna Nikulina) is given a present by her godfather Drosselmeyer (Andrei Merkuriev) in the form of a nutcracker. At midnight, after all of the celebrations have ended, all the toys come to life, including the Nutcracker, now a handsome young Prince (Rodkin). He and his corps of tin soldiers come to the rescue of Maria, who is threatened by the Army of the Mouse King (Vitaly Biktimirov).

Act II continues after the defeat of the Mouse King. The Nutcracker turned Prince whisks Maria away in a magic boat to the Land of Sweets. Maria and her Prince are overwhelmed with sheer happiness, having reached the kingdom of their dreams. Joyous celebrations thus may now begin, but it begins to become clear that this kingdom of their dreams is literally that, all a mere dream. (One could be forgiven for an occasional thoughtful Disney-induced digression in the direction of ostriches and hippopotami).

This production, hailed as a “bonbon” for the holiday season, was full of superior dancing by the principals as well as the entire Bolshoi Corps de Ballet, and a visual treat thanks to the imagination behind the creative elements (notably the clever and colorful sets and costumes) and the faultless performances. It's no wonder that this has become a staple for holiday viewing, well worth experiencing for the first time or on a return visit.

Presented Sunday Dec.18th at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA and a theater near you.


ART's "Fingersmith": To the Victorians Go the Spoilers

Tracee Chimo & Company in "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Fingersmith, based on the ingenious novel by Sarah Waters, has seen the light of day not just in print but on television (a three-hour BBC miniseries with Imelda Staunton) and film (the recent Japanese/Korean movie entitled “The Handmaiden”). Now it arrives at ART in Cambridge as a live theatrical thriller, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (premiering there in 2015), here directed by that same company's Artistic Director Bill Rauch (of All the Way fame). It's a mystery within a mystery within a mystery, rather like one of those nestled Russian matryoshka dolls. And it is quite impossible to describe much of these Victorian hijinks without letting drop some unpardonable spoilers. Having read the book and seen the BBC teleplay (though not the film), one was all too eager to see this staged version as written by Alexa Junge. Such eagerness, alas, can't be shared, as it would have to consist of plot points best discovered on one's own. Suffice it to say that Junge's tale is as though Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had had a love child (though of course impossible then as now) and had given birth to a convoluted thriller in which nothing is as it seems at first, or even second, thought.

In Victorian London, pickpocket Sue Trinder (a superb Tracee Chimo) lives with a rough and rowdy bunch of fellow outcasts, from John Vroom (Luke Marinkovich) to Mr. Ibbs (Patrick Kerr) to Dainty Warren (Jo Mei), led by the Fagan-like Mrs. Sucksby (the marvelous Kristine Nielsen). Into this far-from-idyllic den of thieves arrives Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Josiah Bania), with nefarious plans of his own involving a future heiress by the name of Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind). Other characters include Spiller (Lauren Modica), Charles (Zachary Infante), Mrs. Styles (Kate Levy), Dr. Christopher (Kingsley Leggs), and Marianne (Lenne Klingaman). How all these characters, and more (since several actors play multiple roles), interact will be left undisclosed here. Most of them are complex, with the struggles for power intense; only a few of the characters are simple. The
plot(s) are complex, too, and are a lot of fun as each one is revealed.

The Cast of "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The impressive and versatile ensemble is a wonder and nearly impeccable (Bania needs to slow down his delivery so as to be more intelligible). Especially brilliant are the two female leads, Chimo and Lind. The creative team has conjured up fantastic Scenic Design by Christopher Acebo, impressive Costume Design by Deborah Dryden (with Lind's costumes by Carmel Dundon), crucial Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, eerily appropriate Sound Design and cello composition by Andre Pluess, and restrained but imaginative Video Design by Shawn Sagady. Acebo's revolving sets are especially awe-inspiring, from rowboats to carriages to instantaneous dissolves, but there is absolutely seamless work all around.

And that's about all one can say except to urge you to see this fascinating and surprising play while you can, as it's a masterful achievement on every level. Time and again you may find yourself comparing this work to that of Dickens. Where it diverges from the Dickensian model is in identifying anyone to root for, at least at first, even if you favor strong feminine characters and gender politics in general. In the printed version of her work, the playwright aptly quotes the late theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire”. Or, as Chardin also said, and will only be alluded to cryptically here: “Everything that rises must converge”.


Fathom Events' "Allegiance": It Can't Happen Here

Fathom Events' "Allegiance"
(photo: Matthew Murphy) 

At the heart of Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical, is the oriental concept of gaman, or “endurance with dignity and fortitude”. The show, an obvious labor of love on the part of all concerned, ran for about a hundred performances, and was recently given an HD broadcast in movie theaters across the nation. It received mixed notices for its Book (surprisingly well-constructed given that it was written by three people, Jay Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Theone) and Score (with Lyrics and Music by Kuo), but was nonetheless recognized for its originality. The musical was created by, directed by, starred and was presented from the point of view of predominantly Asian-Americans, a first for Broadway. Though the story it tells focuses on a fictional family, the Kimuras, it's a composite based on true-life experiences by Japanese-Americans just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, including the family of George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame). Director Stafford Arima was also praised for his portrayal of a family's varied but dignified endurance to a reprehensible period in our nation's history.

The story begins with a flashback as the Kimuras, headed by patriarch Ogii-san (a wonderful Takei), are forced to move from their home in Salinas, California to an internment camp near Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The family consists of his son Tatsuro (the beautifully-voiced Christopheren Nomuka), his granddaughter Kei (an incandescent Lea Salonga), in love with Frankie Suzuki (the talented Michael K. Lee), and young grandson Sammy (exciting new discovery Telly Leung), who falls for military nurse Hannah Campbell (an appealing Kate Rose Clarke). Also featured is the real-life character of Mike Masaoka (a conflicted Greg Watanabe). As were some 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, they are presented with a “loyalty questionnaire” which some refuse to sign on principle. Some, like Frankie, are so enraged by this pledge that they organize a camp revolt. And therein lie a few plot points best not divulged here. On Broadway, about 120,000 people saw the musical, the same number of those interned. Hopefully many more will have opportunities to experience the work in the future, perhaps on PBS, a logical home.

Critical reaction to the show seems in retrospect to have been unduly harsh. There is in the development of the story line a repeated tendency to inject a happy number right after a real downer, so it might have been more successful as a straight play without music, since there are some major issues addressed. Its somewhat melodramatic book and sometimes derivative score didn't help, though the performances carry the day. The creative elements include Choreography by Andrew Palermo, Scenic Design by Donyale Werle, Costume Design by Alejo Vietti, Sound Design by Kai Harada, and Projection Design by Darrel Maloney. All deserve to have their contributions more widely seen, especially for a work with so much heart (admittedly too often on its sleeve). It's a triumph for Takei especially, but Solonga shares in the glory, as does Leung with his matinee idol looks (now on display in a just-opened musical, In Transit, Broadway's first a cappella musical).

Of course, it couldn't happen here anymore. We as a country have grown, to a place in which no group would ever be denied entrance, registered, rounded up or restricted based on their beliefs, appearance or ethnicity. Oh, wait.....

Perhaps the French saying is correct: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose; that is, the more things change, the more they remain the same?


Met Opera's "L'Amour de Loin": Far Out

Susanna Phillips in "L'Amour de Loin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

L'amour de Loin, the new Metropolitan Opera co-production with L'Opera de Quebec, in collaboration with Ex Machina, is newsworthy on several counts. The Music is by female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the Libretto by Amin Maalouf, and it is performed under maestra Susanna Malkki in her Met Opera conducting debut. It was first produced at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, and is now being given its American premiere. A short opera (just over two hours), it consists of five brief acts alternating between Blaye in Aquitaine and Tripoli (modern Lebanon). It's a typically startling Production by controversial designer Robert Lepage, with some spectacular (and some not) lighting effects.

The love story, literally about “love from afar” in the mid-twelfth century, is that of Jaufre Rudel (bass-baritone Eric Owens), Prince of Blaye, who yearns for a distant love though resigned to the unlikely reality that he will ever find it. A chorus of his companions (under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo) mocks him about this as he informs them that his true love doesn't exist. However, a Pilgrim (mezzo Tamara Mumford) who has arrived from overseas claims she does exist and that he has met her. Jaufre then can't get her out of his mind. When the Pilgrim returns to the East he tells the Countess of Tripoli, Clemence (soprano Susanna Phillips), that she is celebrated in song by a troubadour prince who calls her his “distant love”. She is at first offended, then warms to the idea, but doubts she is worthy. The Pilgrim returns to Blaye and tells Jaufre that Clemence now knows of his singing, so he decides to visit her in person. Both have a sort of approach-avoidance going on, his being so intense that he falls ill on the ship he takes to meet her. He arrives in Tripoli dying. The Pilgrim precedes him in order to inform Clemence that Jaufre has arrived but that he is at death's door, on a stretcher. Their mutual attraction revives him as they promise to love one another forever. But forever is often not a long time in opera, and Jaufre expires in her arms. Raging against heaven, and blaming herself for his tragic end, she resolves to enter a convent. The final scene finds her at prayer, ambiguously directing her words either to her distant God or perhaps her far-out lover.

Despite its brevity, this work is a demanding challenge for all three soloists, since they share together the bulk of the singing (other than the choral work). Owens, who has impressed in recent Wagner roles, makes a commanding presence, Mumford is suitably intense, and Phillips has some lovely music to perform. Much of it was repetitive however and not very memorable. The HD Host was the ever-dependable Deborah Voigt, and the opera was Directed for HD Broadcast by Gary Halvorson. The Set and Costume Design were by Michael Curry, with Sound Design by Mark Grey, Lighting Design by Kevin Adams and Lightscape Image Design by Lionel Arnould. Much of the LED lighting was, after a while, a bit like contemplating one of Boston's landmarks, the Citgo sign.

This was an unusual outing for the Met, but one that will undoubtedly find an audience, given its theme, its rarity, and above all the often approachable musical composition. Perhaps a concert version without so many visual distractions might help. It's a bit too premature, given one hearing, to say with certainty, but it may deserve to find a place in the company's repertoire. And maybe not.

L'Amour de Loin” will be rebroadcast Weds. Dec. 21 at a theater near you.


PPAC's "Gentleman's Guide": And Then There Were None

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey & Kristen Hahn in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

The story behind the story of the musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, now being presented at Providence Performing Arts Center, is a lengthy one. Based on a popular 1949 British film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, with Alec Guiness playing eight parts, it was adapted for the stage over six decades later, in 2012, premiering at Hartford Stage Company, then at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2013, and subsequently moving to Broadway where it won four 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical. With a witty Book by Robert L. Freedman and sprightly Music by Steven Lutvak, and incredibly clever Lyrics by both Freedman and Lutvak, it was an unusually literate work by typical Broadway musical standards. It's an amazing amalgam of music hall, vaudeville and operetta forms. Though the film and stage versions are sixty years apart, they share an indisputable commonality, namely an ingenious mixture of high and low comedy, in what amounts to a hilarious murder mystery spoof.

It's also nearly impossible to describe or synopsize without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say that the basic plot remains the same, with some name changes and alterations that help move the story along, requiring that members of the very upper class D'Ysquith clan be eliminated in order for the anti-hero Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) to inherit the family fame and fortune, with each new character's disposal funnier than the last. There are various means and methods of dispatch, some romantic entanglements, and an awful lot of farcical expertise. What matters most is that the performances be firmly tongue in cheek without going too far over the top, which is here dependent on the skill of Director Darko Tresnjak (reprising his Tony Award winning effort) and the comic timing of his cast.

That cast of characters include virtually the entire D'Ysquith Family, (all played by the versatile John Rapson). That would be Asquith Jr., Adalbert, Ezekial, Asquith Sr., Hyacinth, Bartholomew, Salome and Henry. That would leave only Pheobe D'Ysquith (Kristen Hahn) unscathed by the unexpected D'Ysquith, Monty, who aspires to the family status and wealth, as well as the hand of the lovely Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams). Rounding out the cast are Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), Lady Eugenia (Kristen Mengelkoch), Tom Copley (Matt Leisy), a Magistrate (Christopher Behmke), Chief Inspector Pinckney (Ben Roseberry), Miss Barley (Catherine Walker), and a Tour Guide (Megan Loomis). All are very properly unproper as the plot requires. And who could resist a show with a character whose very name evokes guffaws: Asquith D'Ysquith (and try saying that one fast thrice).

The creative team includes fine Choreography by Peggy Hickey, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, ingenious Costume Design by Linda Cho, marvelous set-within-a-set-within-a-set Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, Lighting Design by Phillip S. Rosenberg, glorious Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, and Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.

In the end (and most of the cast meet theirs), the show is a series of murderous escapades that certainly deserved the awards it garnered, and this production is well worth a visit for a hysterically funny time, brilliantly harmless; that is, unless you're another D'Ysquith yourself.


New Rep's "Fiddler": Another One in a Minyan

The Cast of New Rep's "Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

To choose to present Fiddler on the Roof , arguably the most universally beloved piece of musical theater, is certainly resonant in our current political and cultural revolutionary time. But there are mighty intellects afoot in this New Rep production nonetheless, beginning with the theatrical magician known as Director Austin Pendleton. Renowned for his enormous body of work, from Off-Broadway's The Last Sweet Days of Isaac in 1970, to originating the role of Motel in Broadway's Fiddler in 1964, to his voice-over role as Gurgle in 2003's animated film, Finding Nemo and in 2016's Finding Dory, his touch is everywhere in this production, most of the time successfully. Fifty years after its Broadway debut, this company is presenting a moving revival of this work based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet it ran almost eight years on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, winning nine (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. It has been revived on Broadway several times since, including one version this season. Clearly this work is, as Tevye himself might say, one in a minyan, in its tenacity about the traditions that keep their community alive and together.

A large part of its popularity is the depth of the book by Joseph Stein, a well-constructed, age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by arguably the most brilliant opening number ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The show barely begins before the audience knows how essential traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here memorably played by Jeremiah Kissel). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (the amazing Amelia Broome) is old-fashioned and superstitious, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (an expressive Abby Goldfarb) seeks to marry Motel (the wonderful Patrick Varner), not the intended Butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (a hilarious Bobbie Steinbach). The next in line, Hodel (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Ryan Mardesich) without her father’s permission, only his blessing. Then, the ultimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (Victoria Britt) wants to marry outside the faith, and to one of their oppressors at that, the Russian Gentile, Fyedka (Dan Prior). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Teyve proclaims, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a significant story, with a phenomenally multi-leveled score. Jerry Bock (Music) and Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics) were never better. Who can ever forget “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles” (never performed with such chemistry as by Varner and Goldfarb), and to “To Life”, or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself, with its exquisitely moving wedding scene. It was an evening of great moments, from the trio of “Matchmaker” (never as enjoyably staged as here), with Choreography by Kelli Edwards, who provides a marvelous bottle dance that has never been done better, and is even more difficult to stage than it might seem.

The score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast. Under the sensitive and detailed direction of Pendleton (who shows his intimate appreciation of the show at every turn), the huge cast of over two dozen is fabulous both individually and as a unit. There is also the on-stage presence of a miming fiddler (Dashiell Evett, fondly remembered from the company's recent Camelot), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. In one directorial misstep, however, the director has him remain on stage for most of the show, thus often interacting with a metaphor instead of God or the audience; he makes the same questionable choice in several scenes where characters (Tzeitel, Chava, Fyedka) are part of scenes they weren't written to be present in, in a heavy dose of magic realism that works against the story. The technical credits are by and large extraordinary, from the perfect Costume Design from Kathleen Doyle to the complex Lighting Design by Keith Parham and the meticulous Music Direction by F. Wade Russo (who has done this for Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals for a quarter century, including “Fiddler” two seasons ago). The only mistep is the lovely Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, which would be more appropriate for a Disney-staged version of “Frozen”; a shtetl like Anatevka needn't be ugly but it should at least appear authentically rustic.

Overall, one might well sing “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles” indeed. This production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity and great heart, one for all ages. As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. And as Alisa Solomon puts it in her published history of the show, “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."


Fathom Events' "She Loves Me": We All Scream....

Gavin Creel & Jane Krakowski in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus)

Joyous as it is to fall in love, it's infinitely more wondrous to fall in love again, with the same musical theater piece, some fifty years later. In any heated discussion of what comprises the best musical ever created, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd each have their champions, but She Loves Me will always be regarded as a sentimental favorite of true theater buffs. It premiered on Broadway in 1963, and has been revived several times since. This latest version, from New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, provides ample evidence for its place in musical theater history. Its Book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszio, with a plot which will be familiar to film fans: 1940's The Shop around the Corner , 1949's Judy Garland flick In the Good Old Summertime , and 1998's You've Got Mail. With Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who would later collaborate on Fiddler on the Roof), it was this critic's second Broadway musical ever, and remains his personal favorite of all time. In this production, the direction and choreography are seamless, and it boasts an impeccable cast, each with her or his solo number.

The story revolves (often literally) around a parfumerie in 1930's Budapest owned by Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), and his employees, the handsome but single head clerk Georg Novack (Zachary Levi), the dashing ladies' man Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), the lovely Ilona (Jane Krakowski), the timid Sipos (Micheal McGrath), and the youthful errand boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch). Into this melange arrives one Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti), desperate for a job. She is hired by Mr. Maraczek, but for her and Mr. Novack it's loathe at first sight. Unbeknownst to either of them, they are secret pen pals in a lonely hearts club. They arrange by mail to meet in a discreet cafe led by a hysterical (in several senses, and a bit over-the-top) Headwaiter (Peter Bartlett), but the plans go astray, as these things often do in the first act of musicals. After some complications along the way, they finally realize their ongoing connection. It's a very sweet tale involving music boxes, chocolates, and above all vanilla ice cream, which literally breaks the ice between our predestined lovers.

In a promising move to make such theatrical goodies more available to the general public, Fathom Events has just broadcast its first HD capturing of this original cast in performance, and, if this is any indication of what other possibilities lie in our future, theatergoers should expect true wonders. This production, under Director Scott Ellis, is a winner. With Warren Carlyle as Choreographer and Paul Gemignani as Conductor, along with the creative talents of Costume Designer Jeff Mahshie, Lighting Designer Donald Holder and Sound Designer Jon Weston, it's a joy to behold as well as to hear. Special mention should be made of the exquisite revolving Scenic Design by David Rockwell, which garnered every award in sight, including the Tony Award.

Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath, Zachart Levi, Gavin Creel & Nicholas Barasch
and the Tony-winning Set Design for "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus) 
Who could resist such a charming and heartwarming story, lushly romantic while not too heavy on the schlag? Benanti, following in the footsteps of the original Amalia (a then-little-known Barbara Cook) makes the role her own, and Levi is her perfect match, the most moving rendition (in all senses of the term) ever. Add to this the wacky turns by Krakowski, McGrath and Barasch, and even Byron Jennings in an often-underwhelming role, and you have a really embarrassing cornucopia of riches. How delicious to hear Benanti speak of how the views of George and herself “so correspond”, Krakowsi of her book-loving suitor's “novel approach”, and learning that Arpad's last name is Laszlo (a tribute to the original playwright), and the heroine's paean to the ice cream the hero brought her. The little-known musical is no secret anymore. We all scream we love She Loves Me. So bring on the vanilla ice cream already.


BMOP's New Releases: Rose by any other Name

David Rakowski's "Stolen Moments" & "Piano Concerto No.2"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

Continuing its impressive scheduled releases of new music as well as of overlooked twentieth century works, Gil Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project has recently completed two new recordings, David Rakowski's Stolen Moments and Piano Concerto No.2 and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and Capital Capitals. Under its eight-year-old “BMOP/sound” independent record label, these two CDs are more evidence of the significant role of Rose in providing access to important contemporary compositions as well as classics of the previous century.

David Rakowski's Stolen Moments is a listenable and approachable example of his witty take on emotion which challenges one's cerebral involvement with his music. With a healthy emphasis on jazz elements (as well as the blues and even the tango), the four movements are assisted by the pianist Sarah Bob in a bravura display of technique and stamina. The same could be said for the incredibly complex and demanding playing of Rakowski's frequent collaborator, the amazing pianist Amy Briggs and what she brings to the Piano Concerto No.2, demonstrating just how incredibly versatile and competent she is as a performer. What she does with the three movements in the concerto is absolutely amazing. Few pianists would even attempt to play the demanding piece, and one wonders how someone survives beyond such taxing and seemingly exhausting demands. While it would be wonderful, if a bit daunting, to see her do such a marvelous interpretation of Rakowski's composing, it's still a wonder to listen to.

Virgil Thomson's "4 Saints in 3 Acts" & "Capital Capitals"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)
Virgil Thomson's work on the other of the two new CDs may be considerably older than that of Rakowski's, but it doesn't sound like it. The first of two operas which he set to text by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts could indeed be mistaken by listeners unfamiliar with the piece as certainly contemporary, even though in reality it's almost a century old. In its time (1934) it was considered a theatrical and musical landmark. Thomson looked to his upbringing in the American Midwest for traditional forms such as folk dances, religious hymns, marches, tangos and even waltzes. Rose notes how “first time listeners will be taken aback by its outlandishness”. They would surely be puzzled even more so by the second piece on the album, the aptly named Capital Capitals, which goes on a bit self-indulgently and archly for some twenty minutes of verbal horseplay, but it is no less witty in its repeated allusions to four cities in Southern France. It's also a pleasure to hear some of Boston's favorite artists who have graced the operatic stage in Rose's Odyssey Opera, such as baritone Andrew Garland and soprano Deborah Selig, as well as the chorus performing under Chorus Master Beth Willer. It may be a bit of a challenge to listen to, but many will find meeting that challenge rewarding, as with virtually any of BMOP's undertakings.