Ogunquit's "Ragtime": Ever the Melting Plot

The Cast of "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

Adapting a huge and sprawling book for the stage is always a daunting task, rife with challenges. Ragtime, the 1998 musical, winner of Tony Awards for its Book by Terrence McNally, Music by Stephen Flaherty, Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens and original Orchestrations by William David Brohn, was such an adaptation, based on the popular 1975 book by E. L. Doctorow, which had been made into an equally popular film in 1981. In this musicalized version, it's the score that primarily makes the show as wondrous as it is, including cakewalks, gospel, marches and, of course, ragtime (winning Tonys for score and orchestrations over Lion King no less). Scott Joplin would have been proud, as the music itself proudly proclaims the greatness of America as the great melting pot, covering the stories of three representative families. In this company, with Direction by Seth Skylar-Heyn and Choreography by Jesse Robb, there is much to enjoy and applaud, despite those inherent problems in adapting a novel so stuffed with characters into this overstuffed melting plot. This is a superb rendition of this deservedly acclaimed piece of theater.

As those familiar with the novel and film version will recall, those three families portrayed (beginning in 1902) have eventual interlocking stories, each with a strong central character. There is the tale of the black Harlem musician Coalhouse Walker (Darnell Abraham) and his lover Sarah (Lindsay Roberts), who gives birth to their baby. Then there is the upper class white suburban family from New Rochelle consisting of characters known only as Father (Jamie Laverdiere), Grandfather (David Studwell), Mother's Younger Brother (Julian Decker), and its central figure, Mother (Kirsten Scott), as well as The Little Boy, Edgar (Tyler Wladis, alternating with Sol Thomas). Lastly there is the Jewish immigrant Tateh (Josh Young) from Latvia, and his daughter, identified only as The Little Girl (Ella Luke-Tedeschi, alternating with Ella Riley). Also involved in their lives, somewhat peripherally, are real-life characters such as Admiral Peary (Joel Robertson), Harry Houdini (Freddie Kimmel), Evelyn Nesbit (Carly Hueston Amburn), Booker T. Washington (Rod Singleton), Emma Goldman (Klea Blackhurst), Henry Ford (Jack Doyle), Stanford White (Sam Hartley) and J. P. Morgan (Joel Robertson), as well as some fictional roles such as Sarah's friend (Galyana Castillo), the head of a local fire brigade Willie Conklin (Joey Elrose) and Kathleen (Mary Malaney).

Josh Young (Tateh) & Ella Luke-Tedeschi (Little Girl) in "Ragtime"
(photo: Ogunquit Playhouse)

Even a cursory glance at the cast's size and variety, obviously heavy with historical figures, gives a clue to its being overpopulated with so many characters to absorb or get to know, and many of them are only tangential to any of the three main stories. Nonetheless there are several songs that feature some of these minor roles, sometimes distracting and detracting from the heart of the tales. There are some rousing songs (“Wheels of a Dream”, “Till We Reach That Day” and especially the haunting “New Music”), but also some insignificant ones. As is the case with many a musical based on a novel, (for example, the original “Color Purple” before its recent transforming condensation), one's involvement with fundamental themes is diluted. There is also the issue of highly improbable coincidences that interconnect the stories which won't be divulged here. Despite these issues, the score carries the day, making for a truly memorable theatrical experience. The opening number alone, at about ten minutes, is worth the price of admission, surely one of musical theater's greatest, right up there with A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum as an introductory masterpiece of stagecraft. But there are also more than a few clever yet subtle touches, such as Father betraying his bigotry by not shaking hands with a black seaman and not singing later in the ensemble number that hails equality, or Tateh gradually losing his tallis along with his Jewish identity.

The standout performers include Roberts, whose voice makes you wish Sarah was a larger role, the powerful Abraham, whose acting is pivotal to the believability of the show, the gradual emergence of Scott and Young, and Wladis, a scene stealer if there ever was one. The creative elements, from the fluid Scenic Design by Tim Mackabee (including an amazing Model T), to the Sound Design by Kevin Heard, Lighting Design by Richard Latta, Music Direction by Jeffrey Campos, and the original Broadway Costume Design by Santo Loquasto, are all professional.

As the audience took their seats, they were confronted not with a curtain but with the majestic sight of the face of the Statue of Liberty, hinting at the poignancy to come, especially given today's attitudes toward immigrants and minorities. A show that treats the issues of poverty and wealth, justice and freedom, and hope and despair, and does so with such strength, is even more pertinent in these troubling days. This time around, the unabashedly patriotic piece of Americana that is Ragtime overflows with riches, summed up in the words to the title number that opens the show:

The sound of distant thunder
Suddenly starting to climb...
It was the music:
Of something beginning,
An era exploding,
A century spinning
In riches and rags,
And in rhythm and rhyme.
The people called it ragtime...Ragtime!


Goodspeed's "Oklahoma!": Fresh off the Cob

Rhett Guter (as Curly) & The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Oh, what a beautiful musical. When the ground-breaking show Oklahoma! burst onto the theatrical scene back in 1943, it easily earned its exclamation point. This was largeIy due to its evolving status as what would come to be called the “book musical” (with a nod to “Showboat”) as well as its amazing novel integration of song and dance numbers into the plot. Based on the play Green Grow the Lilacs by Lynn Riggs, it would run for 2212 performances on Broadway. Revolutionary as it was in form, the plot reflected the undeniable fact that it was a far simpler time, when the crux of a libretto could be the question of whose homemade apple jelly and gooseberry tarts for the Box Social got auctioned by whom, and so went the story in the 1955 film version. More recent theatrical productions have re-emphasized its darker elements, notably the role of Jud Fry, and restored his song Lonely Room, right after the lighter comic Poor Jud number. It was the product of its times in other respects, such as its tinges of female inferiority and even some racial undertones (the portrayal of the peddler Ali Hakim, and a reference to the ragtime dance seen being performed by “some colored fellers”, cut in this verson). Yet despite these historical negative notes, it endures, primarily due to its lovely score and unabashedly optimistic central tale. It comes as a surprise that the show has never before been produced at Goodspeed Musicals, an oversight that is currently being corrected by a superb cast and crew. It's corn, but superbly fresh off the cob.

The Cast of "Oklahoma!"
(photo by Diane Sobolewski)

Directed by Jenn Thompson, with Choreography by Katie Spelman (based on the original Agnes de Mille routines), this one is a winner. It remains the story of handsome cowhand Curly (Rhett Guter) and local lovely Laurey (Samantha Bruce), supported by her Aunt Eller (Terry Burrell), and the subplot involving farm hand Will Parker (Jake Swain) and his main squeeze, Ado Annie (Gizel Jimenez), with some humor interjected by Ali Hakim (Matthew Curiano) and menace by Jud Fry (Matt Faucher) as well as complications with Ado Annie's “Paw” Andrew Carnes (C. Mingo Long). All are wonderful, with standouts Guter, Bruce and especially Faucher. The creative elements are all up to Goodspeed's renowned level of professionalism, from the Scenic Design by Wilson Chin, to the Costume Design by Tracey Christensen, the Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg, the Sound Design by Jay Hilton, the Orchestration by Dan DeLange and Music Direction by Michael O'Flaherty.

From the moment the first strains of Curly's Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' are heard from offstage, the score continues to enchant, with such songs as People Will Say We're in Love, Out of My Dreams, Many a New Day, and the title number, exclamation point and all. Then there are the less elegiac but humorous The Surrey with the Fringe on Top, Kansas City, I Cain't Say No, The Farmer and the Cowman, and All er Nuthin', which add up to a baker's dozen of memorable hits. It's easy to see why it hasn't lost its popularity even though its plot points are less pointed than they once seemed.
Yet it speaks to the universality and endurance of the perpetually popular and prevailing cowboy-meets-farmgirl theme that this show still captures our hearts and moves our souls. Perhaps it's a testimony that, no matter how profane our politics might become, there remain some very basic and fundamental truths and aspirations that most of us continue to embrace against all odds. In the mythical world of Curly and Laurey, which one should be urged to revisit, though the corn is still as high as an elephant's eye, it's cobbled together into a true testament to how happy endings are still possible, fences are for mending and not dividing us, and the world can be less of a cynical swamp and more of a bright golden haze on a meadow.




Fathom Events' "Angels in America": The Great Work Continues

James McArdle & Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)
Difficult to believe as it is, it has been twenty-five years since playwright Tony Kushner wrote his earthshaking Angels in America, a Gay Fantasia on National Themes. With its eclectic mix of the political and the mythical, featuring some highly original characters as well as some historical figures, its impression and impact on contemporary theater then and now remains an indictment of cynicism and hypocrisy. It, sadly, not only seems as relevant to today's American scene but in fact more relevant than ever. While the original work was written as a response to the faults of Reaganism, and the scourge of HIV/AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, we as a nation are still far from ideal; in fact, there is much more reason to protest and resist. Thus it should come as no surprise that London's National Theater should have chosen to remount the work, with a truly stellar cast and technical crew, directed by Marianne Elliott, which turned out to be a testament to both the original productions in May 1993 and November 1993, and their subsequent television miniseries version in 2003.

Nathan Lane in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)

Kushner originally planned to produce the two parts of his masterwork in repertory, but the second part was delayed by a season, enabling him to win the Tony Award for Best Play twice in successive years, for both of the parts, in addition to many other accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize. Part One: Millennium Approaches, was, in a term the author himself used frequently, a threshold of revelation. The story line (or rather story lines) for both parts centers around two men suffering from AIDS, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield, whose prior work as the hero of Spiderman and Hacksaw Ridge gave mere glimmers of promise) and Senator Joe McCarthy's right hand man Roy Cohn (the usually droll Nathan Lane in a ferocious departure from such roles as in The Producers and the like), and the reactions to their common disease from those around them, notably Prior's lover Louis (a boyishly endearing James McArdle), nurse Belize (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett), Mormon Joe Pitt (a convincingly conflicted Russell Tovey), Joe's wife Harper (the stunning Denise Gough) and mother (the versatile Susan Brown). And, of course, the first of many angelic presences (Amanda Lawrence). It's a cosmic melting pot with fundamentally political ends, as when a cynical Justice Department flackman Martin Heller (also played by Gough) declaims the “end of liberalism, the end of the New Deal socialism, the dawning of a genuinely American political personality”. Even Kushner couldn't have anticipated how prescient his vision was. Prior, through AIDS, perceives the absurdity of the world, while Cohn, ironically an anti-Semite Jew and homophobic gay man, sees the reality as a joke. Except the joke's on him, and it isn't funny.

Part Two: Perestroika (which you will recall means a “thaw”), is longer, more verbose, more populated by celestial beings. It's also harder to follow, at least on stage, without benefit of the published play with its helpful stage directions. His characters increasingly talk over one another (a device he later perfected in his The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures). Suffice it to say that Kusher delves much more deeply into the realm of the mystical, with significantly increased roles for his supporting cast, notably Belize (who wasn't even named in the first part), Ethel Rosenberg (Brown again) and the weirdest of his cast, Harper's imaginary friend Mr. Lies (Stewart-Jarrett again), of the International Order of Travel Agents. It's a far funnier and more whimsical play than the first part, more poetic and less accessible at the same time. We are shown a Prior who is now ready to undertake his role in the Great Work that is to come. He interacts with Harper (both of them left by their loved ones) in looking into the past in order to ascertain America's answer for the future. Prior is ready for the chance for “more life” which was denied the more cynical Cohn; he has hope “to be around (for summer) to see it (Central Park's Bethesda fountain). I plan to be...This disease will be the end of many of us, but not nearly all...We are not going away. We won't die secret deaths anymore...We will be citizens. The time has come...And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” And so it has come to pass, that declarations that Marx and God are dead were quite possibly premature. As the comic strip character Pogo once put it, “God isn't dead; he's just unemployed”.

And yet the tiniest tinge of terror persists, with the knowledge that, for a period of a decade or so, Roy Cohn was a legal advisor to one Donald J. Trump.


Andrew Garfield in "Angels in America"
(photo: Helen Maybanks)



Americana Theatre's "Lucky Stiff": Weekend at Tony's?

Ahrens & Flaherty's premiere musical "Lucky Stiff"
(photo: Americana Theatre Company)

From the creative team that brought you A Man of No Importance, Once on this Island, Anastasia and perhaps especially Ragtime, comes the farce musical by the witty name of Lucky Stiff, which happens to be the first musical collaboration ever by the since-successful team of Lynn Ahrens (Book and Lyrics) and Stephen Flaherty (Music). Based on the 1983 novel The Man Who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo by Michael Butterworth, it was produced off-Broadway in 1988 by Playwrights Horizon, where it lasted fifteen performances, subsequently produced in London's West End and revised as a film. Critics at the time remarked at how promising the fledgling work was, expecting great things from the duo in the future, which indeed came to pass. With a score that includes almost two dozen numbers (including reprises), it has come to be embraced by theater companies throughout the country. This latest Americana Theatre production at the Spire Center for the Performing Arts in Plymouth (through July 22) finally brings the opportunity for local theatergoers to experience this seminal work, which takes place in the present in England, Atlantic City and Monte Carlo.

Think of it as “Weekend at Bernie's, the Musical”, if you like. (That film opened a year later than this musical, in case you were wondering who had the idea first). The story concerns the plight of one shy English shoe salesman, Henry Witherspoon by name (Jessie M. Sullivan), living in an East Grinsted boarding house bursting with colorful characters and a herd of dogs. (Henry hates dogs). The landlady (Erin Friday) and her other boarders intercept a telegram meant for Henry which informs him he's about to inherit six million dollars from his recently deceased Uncle Tony (Brigdon York), a casino croupier, with a catch. Henry learns from his solicitor (Brian Kenerson) that in order to collect, he must (successfully) take his Uncle Tony's corpse to his dream destination, Monte Carlo, for a week, or the fortune will revert to the Universal Dog Home of Brooklyn, represented by Annabel Glick (Katie Johangten). His landlady and fellow boarders have other ideas, from the deceased's nearsighted girlfriend Rita La Porta (Hannah Jo Weisberg) to her mild-mannered henpecked brother Vinnie Di Ruzzio (Derek G. Martin), an optometrist, as well as a seductive nightclub chanteuse named Dominique du Monaco (Jennifer Martin), a would-be guide, Luigi Gaudi (David Friday) and Nick Hancock in multiple roles. Plot twists ensue.

Fortunately for you the reader, space considerations rule out a more comprehensive synopsis of the plot twists and turns, which would be stultifying, and best seen in person. As in all such complicated capers, all's well and ends well, more or less. As Directed by Brance Cornelius, the company performs at breakneck pace, accompanied by pianist Nicole Sjolin (the Music Director is Nancy Sparklin), with suave yet simple work by Choreographer Derek G. Martin, clever and versatile Set Design by David Friday, colorful and creative Costume Design by Brian Kenerson, and some really brilliant props (Props Master is Erin Friday) including an umbrella roulette wheel (which you'll have to see to appreciate).

The work by Ahrens and Flaherty is fundamentally a one joke premise, with often cute, if too predictable, lyrics and a score that is mostly musical recitative rather than a series of melodies though two songs, “Times Like This” and “Nice”, stand out. There's an inside joke about a Mr. Butterworth (the author of the source novel), and timing that clearly shows this cast was extraordinarily well rehearsed, and one might question whether these talented artists need miking in such a relatively compact venue. While they're uniformly memorable, one should note the chemistry between Sullivan and Johangten, the smooth movement by Kenerson and the sultry singing by Jennifer Martin. All made for a fun summer evening with some a-Spiring future stars.


Ogunquit's "Bullets over Broadway": Don't Speak!

Vincent Pastore, Reed Campbell & The Ensemble of "Bullets over Broadway"
(photo: Julia Russell)

There is more talent on display on the stage of the Ogunquit Playhouse in its current production of Bullets over Broadway the Musical, a work written by Woody Allen, than on any ten stages anywhere today. Based on the 1994 film written by Allen and Douglas McGrath, it's a shame all that talented energy isn't being put to more use than this virtually empty play. Produced on Broadway in 2014, it ran only156 performances. The musical follows the original screenplay fairly faithfully, focusing on the first play by novice David Shayne (John Rochette), to be premiered on Broadway by Julian Marx (Kenny Morris), financed by wealthy gangster Nick Valenti (Vincent Pastore, recreating his role from the New York production) who requires that it feature his girlfriend Olive Neal (Jemma Jane). Valenti appoints his henchman Cheech (Reed Campbell) to monitor the goings-on, but Cheech ends up making some important changes in the play, while leading man Warner Purcell (John Paul Almon) ogles Olive. Aging diva Helen Sinclair (Michele Ragusa) makes a play for the young playwright, who already has a girlfriend of his own, Ellen (Bridget Elise Yingling). Also on hand are the imposing character of Eden Brent (Ogunquit favorite Sally Struthers) and her dog Mr. Woofles.

As Helen Sinclair declares in the famous oft-repeated line in the film, “Don't speak!”. So they don't very much, leaving a lot of exposition to the choreography originally devised by Susan Stroman and recreated here by Director Jeff Whiting, as well as to the score. The dancing is clever and contributive, which is more than one can say about the musical numbers borrowed from many sources, with such songs as “(Up a) Lazy River”, “I'm Sitting on Top of the World”, and “There'll Be Some Changes Made”, many of which have little to do with any significant context to the plot. There are some twenty such old timers (and five reprises). With some additional lyrics by Glen Kelly, they run the gamut of jazz and pop standards from World War I to the 1930's. But no one seems to care about them in the end, preferring to wallow happily in the nostalgia of it all. Reviews for the Broadway production, especially concerning the “jukebox” musical style, were decidedly mixed. Here, the musical direction by Robbie Cowan, Sound Design by Ken Goodwin, Lighting Design by Richard Latta (an IRNE winner for last season's Hunchback of Notre Dame), and Costume Design by William Ivey Long (from the Broadway version) are all superior work.

The performances are also memorable, from Ragusa (a powerhouse), Jane (hysterically dumb) and Campbell (menacing), not to mention Struthers, who's unfortunately given little chance to share her estimable theatrical chops, relegated to speaking ig-pay atin-Lay and sing one number as a dog. Really. The gangsters dance wonderfully if weirdly as they mimic various crimes. But it's the fundamental crudity and crassness that one remembers, not even at the level of vaudeville but burlesque, offensive and dumb, veering from the amoral to the immoral, which may sound prudish, but there you are. Add to this several severely underdeveloped characters and some wildly inappropriate (considering their original contexts) versions of songs, such as “Taint Nobody's Biz-ness If I Do”, and the work approaches what one character declares as “new heights of vacuousness”. It's a hodgepodge that reminds one of building Frankenstein from spare body parts. At one point Ragusa declares “don't sing”, but they do. The show left some of the audience nearly orgasmic with joy, while some left early, an option, alas, not available to critics.


MSMT's "Guys and Dolls": What the Fugue?

The Cast of "Guys and Dolls" in the number "Luck Be a Lady Tonight"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)

As this site has noted in the past, you know you're not in Kansas anymore when the opening number of a musical is entitled “Fugue for Tinhorns”, and it's still true, as Maine State Music Theater in Brunswick presents the much-beloved 1950 musical “Guys and Dolls, A Musical Fable of Broadway”. With Music and Lyrics by Frank Loesser and Book by Abe Burrows (who rewrote the first draft by Jo Swerling) based on the popular underworld stories of Damon Runyon, its original Broadway incarnation won five Tony Awards including Best Musical, and ran for an incredible 1200 performances. It also was about to be chosen to receive the Pulitzer Prize, until the Pulitzer board learned of Burrows' contretemps with the House Un-American Activities Committee. It has seen several successful revivals since, and was made into a largely forgettable 1955 film that miscast Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons and Frank Sinatra. The play, praised for its faithfulness to the source material in style, characterizations and above all Runyon's depiction of the patois of the world of really-off-track-betting, it has endured in large part due to its unbelievably melodic and topical score. Besides its title song, there are a dozen and a half wonderful hits, such as “Luck Be a Lady”, “I've Never Been in Love Before”, “I'll Know (When My Love Comes Along)”, and “If I Were a Bell.” Then there are the comic songs such as “Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat”, “Sue Me”, “The Oldest Established (Permanent Floating Crap Game)” and, perhaps the ultimate show-stopper, “Adelaide's Lament”. It's no wonder most experts include it as one of the handful of all-time best Broadway musicals.

The Cast of "Guys & Dolls" in the "Crapshooters' Dance"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)
The musical magic begins, as noted above, with that groundbreaking opener, “Fugue for Tinhorns”, a very complex (for Broadway, anyway) contrapuntal composition that perfectly sets up the story to follow. In a mythical New York, having been thrown out of the local Save-a-Soul Mission for conducting an illegal crap game there, Nicely-Nicely Johnson (Steve Gagliastro), Rusty Charlie (Raymond Marc Dumont) and Benny Southstreet (Brad Bradley) and their boss Nathan Detroit (James Beaman) need money to relocate, so Nathan makes a bet with inveterate gambler Sky Masterson (Stephen Mark Lucas) about taking a “doll” to dinner in Havana (how topical as well as tropical), with Sergeant Sarah Brown (Kristen Hahn) of the mission as the target of the bet. Nathan leaves to attend the night club act of his “doll”, Adelaide (Charis Leos), to whom he's been engaged for fourteen years, while Sky makes a very unsuccessful play for Sarah, even though promising to send the mission a dozen sinners. Sarah relents under pressure from her boss, General Cartwright (Cathy Newman) to produce genuine sinners, and flies off to Cuba with Sky, realizing once there (in Bacardi veritas) that she's in love with him. On their return, she realizes just where the floating game drifted, namely her beloved mission, and assumes that's why Sky got her out of town. She complains to her mission co-worker, Arvide (Glenn Anderson), but he urges her to follow her heart. Meanwhile in the sewers of the city, Sky falsely states that he failed to take Sarah to Cuba and makes a bet to all present, including Chicago gangster Big Julie (Danny Rutigliano), of $1000 each against their attendance at the mission. Sky wins, the gamblers attend a mission service, the local cops led by Lt. Brannigan (Joe Gately) are satisfied, and everyone ends up a winner, Sarah with Sky, Adelaide with Nathan.

Simple, yes? Deceptively so, as the show calls for a secure grasp of what the Runyonland folk are really like, especially with respect to the lower-level New York accents. (Many are those amateur versions that “rock the boat” in the wrong way). It also calls for respectful hands that can balance the seemly with the seedy, the lyricism with the lowlifes. In this production, the Direction and Choreography by DJ Salisbury are superb, with many fine touches. The cast is up to the challenge, from the first note delivered by the outstanding Bradley with memorable performances by all, most notably the hilarious Beaman (an IRNE winner for Nice Work If You Can Get It at Ogonquit Playhouse) and Leos (the latter unforgettable in her rendition of “Adelaide's Lament”). The technical aspects, from the tongue-in-cheek Costume Design by Ryan Moller, inventive Scenic Design by Robert Andrew Kovach, Lighting Design by Annemarie Duggan, Sound Design by Shannon Slaton, and the Music Direction by Brian Cimmet are all terrific. Fair warning: there's little subtlety in the telling, but it's prime rubber chicken comedy nonetheless, right down to Nicely-Nicely Johnson's trombone turn. The chemistry between Lukas and Hahn is palpable. It's a glorious night at the theater, playing through July 15, far above and beyond all the other floating crap games around.

And need one be gently reminded that, for Boston residents, MSMT is a mere hour and a half or so away by car (or, more relaxing, Amtrak's NorEaster)? You've got the house right here.


2017 Crabbies for Outstanding Theater

Play: “Fingersmith” ART
Musical: “The Scottsboro Boys” SpeakEasy Stage

Lead Actress, Play: Paula Plum “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, Lyric Stage

Lead Actor, Play: Tony Travostino & Nick Bucchianeri “Lines in the Sand”, Cotuit Center for the Arts

Lead Actress, Musical: Jennifer Ellis “Bridges of Madison County”, SpeakEasy Stage

Lead Actor, Musical: De'Lon Grant “Scottsboro Boys”, SpeakEasy Stage

Ensemble Acting, Play: “Mrs. Packard” Bridge Rep

Ensemble Acting, Musical: “The Scottsboro Boys” SpeakEasy Stage

Supporting Actress, Play: Erica Spyres “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” , Lyric Stage

Supporting Actor, Play: Matthew Zahnzinger “Mrs. Packard”, Bridge Rep

Supporting Actress, Musical: Bobbie Steinbach “Sunday in the Park”, Huntington Theatre

Supporting Actor, Musical: Bransen Gates “Barnum”, Moonbox Productions

Musical Direction: Matthew Stern “Bridges of Madison County” , SpeakEasy Stage

Choreography: Rachel Bertone “Barnum”, Moonbox Productions

Scenic Design: Derek McLane “Sunday in the Park” , Huntington Theatre

Costume Design: Marianne Bertone “Barnum” , Moonbox Productions

Lighting Design: John Malinowski “Barnum” , Moonbox Productions

Sound Design: Rene Talbot “Machine de Cirque”, ArtsEmerson

Career Achievements: Nancy E. Carroll


Odyssey Opera's "Patience": Hey Willow Waly O!

Paul Max Tipton & Sarah Heaton in "Patience"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Farce is perhaps the most difficult form of theater to pull off, and so easy to overdo. It's a credit to Odyssey Opera, especially with regard to the choice of Stage Director Frank Kelley and Choreographer Larry Sousa, that they have produced such a faultless winner with Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride, with Music by Sir W. S. Gilbert and Libretto by Sir Arthur Sullivan. This is the the sixth of a dozen operettas by the duo. First performed in 1881, it pits Victorian straight-laced ideals against the passions and indulgences of the 1870's Aesthetic Movement. Thus it makes perfect sense, as all Gilbert and Sullivan works of course do, with their inherent logic intact, for Odyssey Opera to offer this as the final piece in its season of (Oscar) Wilde Nights. Be forewarned, however, that this is no trifle of the “easy listening” sort; as with much of Gilbert and Sullivan, there is a lot of complicated music to be sung and played (at least at one point requiring contrapuntal music at alarmingly differing tempi, rather like listening to two LPs, one at 78 rpm and the other at 45 rpm). One thing that's not particularly complicated is the plot.

All of the village maidens, especially Lady Jane (mezzo-soprano Janna Baty) and her cohorts Lady Angela (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), Lady Ella (Sara Womble) and Lady Saphir (Heather Gallagher), are rapturously in love with local handsome poet Reginald Bunthorne (baritone Aaron Engebreth), who only has eyes for the simple milkmaid Patience (soprano Sara Heaton). In fact, he actually hates poetry. Patience in turn is in love with her childhood sweetheart, a real poet, Archibald Grosvenor (bass-baritone Paul Max Tipton), but feels she cannot marry him as he is too perfect. Meanwhile the serious and decidedly non-poetic Heavy Dragoon Guards, led by Colonel Calverley (baritone James Maddalena), Lt. The Duke of Dunstable (tenor Steven Goldstein) and Major Murgatroyd (Sumner Thompson), hoping to marry those rapturous maidens, find themselves with no likely prospects. In any case, since this is Gilbert and Sullivan after all, in the end (almost) everyone is suitably coupled. Only Bunthorne himself remains single, and so he must live and die, contented with a tulip or a lily.

Janna Baty in "Patience"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)
There is magnificent choral singing throughout, and some real standout solos, duets and even a lovely sextet. It was great fun to see and hear Engebreth and Tipton out-fop one another, Heaton portray the perfect G & S ingenue, and Baty attack her cello, all four with their singing gloriously intact. It was also a treat to have longtime local favorite James Maddalena sail through his two patter songs. The Scenic Design by Dan Daly, Costume Design by Amanda Mujica and Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom were impeccable from the first tableau vivant to the finale. This Odyssey Opera production, performed in English with fang in cheek vivacity and with the orchestra wonderfully led by Conductor Gil Rose, is a perfect capstone for its current season. So do not thou hesitate; go and get thee Wilde. Or, as Archibald might put it, Hey willow waly O!


Huntington's "Ripcord": Walking the Prank

Nancy E. Carroll & Annie Golden in "Ripcord"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One of the stranger current play titles is that of Ripcord by David Lindsay-Abaire (Rabbit Hole, Good People), the final seasonal production of Huntington Theatre Company. It refers to the ripcord that must be pulled in order for a parachute to open from its pack. Unusual though it may at first seem, the title comes to be understood as appropriate for this comedy, which is cause for rejoicing, or at the very least, skydiving. As Directed by Jessica Stone (fondly remembered in her previous life as an actress in such works as Huntington's She Loves Me ), even down to the synchronized blackouts, this one's a keeper. As the playwright notes, this play is a return to his earlier style of writing, which Stone describes as an “absurdist sense of comic sensibility that cloaks themes of real pain and loss and need...(where) comedy is used like a gateway drug...to explore our darker impulses safely.” It's zany, wacky, wildly inventive, and hysterically funny.

The setting is Bristol Place Senior Living Facility, somewhere in New Jersey in 2015, in the twin room about to be occupied by two supremely antithetical humans. Abby Binder (Nancy E. Carroll), who, if you looked up the meaning of the word “cantankerous” in the dictionary, would have her photo there, suddenly finds herself a roomie to Marilyn Dunne (Annie Golden), a ceaselessly chipper antagonist for the more volatile Abby. It must first be noted that female actors of a certain vintage are too often relegated to the sidelines long before their sell-by dates. Thankfully, regional theater tends to recognize treasures without overtly enshrining them; such is the case with the amazingly versatile Carroll and Golden. It's not long before their two characters propose a bet, namely that Abby will make Marilyn feel anger before Marilyn can make Abby feel fear. Ah, surely it's never been truer that we ought to be careful what we bet on. The playwright, as in some of his previous plays, knows full well that humor is a coping mechanism, and, like life itself, it shouldn't be a surprise that underneath it there's pain and hurt and desperate need...and, especially in some cultures, ethnic survival methods. As the saying goes, “what happens next” is logical and quite easily anticipated, but even if you see it all coming, the specifics won't fail to amuse and even amaze.

Annie Golden, Ugo Chukwu & Nancy E. Carroll in "Ripcord"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

There are set-ups and pay-offs galore: a troubled figure from Abby's past, Benjamin (Eric T. Miller); appearances by Marilyn's daughter Colleen (Laura Latreille) and son-in-law Derek (Richard Prioleau); a helpful attendant and part-time actor Scotty (Ugo Chukwu); and some comfortable familiarity with situation comedy touches of a forced mismatch. As the playwright has stated elsewhere, by the end of the play, the two leads actually find they need one another, and have changed each other, becoming different people, in a setting that all too often ends up being the last stop in the lives of its occupants. Where Abby had been a dictatorial misanthropic queen bee and Marilyn an impossibly sunny drone, their interactions have devolved into increasingly cruel and personal pranks, mirroring how each had become more disengaged from the world in differing responses to their being so hurt, wounded and damaged by life. How the playwright deftly manages to balance the bitter and the sweet is a marvel. He's aided by the ingenious Scenic Design by Tobin Ost (realistic and absurdist), Costume Design by Gabriel Barry (even to Marilyn's schmattes), Lighting Design by David Weiner, Sound and Original Music by Mark Bennett, Projection Design by Lucy Mackinnon, and a wonderful acting ensemble, led by Carroll and Golden, each of whom is in her prime.

Full disclosure: this critic worked as a nurse in several assisted living communities over the past few decades, and has to admit.....it's all true. Well, except maybe the skydiving. And, by the way, while you should be careful what you bet on, you can surely bet on this one.


Lyric Stage's "Camelot": Royalty Revitalized

Maritza Bostic, Jared Troilo , Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Lyric Stage's current production of the musical Camelot is a reminder of what a fascinating history the original Broadway production had. Anticipation had been high among critics and the general public back in 1960 for Camelot, the next musical to be presented by the creative team behind My Fair Lady. Once again, the book and lyrics were to be by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, to be directed by Moss Hart. It was to be based on the story of King Arthur and his Round Table in three of the four books in The Once and Future King series by T.H. White (the rights to the first having been obtained by Walt Disney for his animated Sword and the Stone about Arthur’s youth with Merlin). After almost two years of writing and rewriting and painfully troubled pre-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and here in Boston, with Loewe recuperating from a massive coronary and Hart also ailing, Lerner took over as director. The advance word wasn’t good, and the show finally opened in New York to a fairly tepid reception among critics and the public. The cast album had been rushed to record stores before the New York opening, in hopes of increasing demand for tickets (famously having musical numbers recorded out of their final order). Just as things were looking dim, Lerner and Loewe were offered a tribute on Ed Sullivan’s televised variety show, so they chose twenty minutes of songs from Camelot, which enraptured the public at last. In its fourth month, the show increased sales, ultimately lasting two years on Broadway.

The show survived, despite the qualms Loewe expressed about the subject of cuckoldry and the troublesome denouement (the “Guinevere” song), which described all the action taking place off-stage, a curious choice. The second act continued to strike audiences as by far the weaker act, until history intervened. After President Kennedy was killed, his widow Jacqueline revealed that he had frequently listened to the cast album; she likened his loss to the feelings Arthur expressed at the dissolution of his round table and the ideal of Camelot. Suddenly the ending of the show had unexpected resonance for the audiences of the day. Those of a certain vintage will always make the internal connection, but it isn‘t necessary to feel the myth and its message. The book of this current production was adapted by David Lee, with new orchestrations by Steve Orich, in a fairly successful attempt to solve the second act's problems, primarily with the use of the stage technique used years ago by Paul Sills in his
Story Theater, with the story told by cast members, lending the show more coherence, necessary for true appreciation of the work.

Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

What is also necessary is a trio of singing actors that can truly deliver on its magically wondrous score. This production surely will do that, despite some apparent press opening nerves that will no doubt dissipate with future performances, given the cast's past individual triumphs. Under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, whose clever touches are everywhere, King Arthur (Ed Hoopman), for example, must be a bit out of touch with his times (an idealist in a bellicose era), and gentle as well (“the way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her”). Hoopman delivers as usual, with a hitherto little-known singing voice. Guinevere (Maritza Bostic) must be full of youthful spirits (“shan’t I be young before I’m old? Shall kith not kill their kin for me?”) and eventual remorse (“now there’s twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, twice the despair, twice the pain for us, as we had known before”). She too delivers, particularly poignant in a difficult role; she and Hoopman are charming together in their duet, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. The knight in shining armor, Lancelot (Jared Troilo), requires a commanding actor with a large baritone voice, so winning that he can get away with lyrics such as “had I been made the partner of Eve, I’d be in Eden still”, (with such self-flaunted traits as virtue, nobility, iron will, godliness, purity, boldness, self-restraint, but seemingly not modesty) and finally steadfastness. Troilo was especially memorable delivering the lines that clarified his character's narcissism . Mordred (by Rory Boyd), Sir Lionel (Davron S. Monroe), Sir Dinadan (Brad Foster Reinking), Sir Sagramore (Jeff Marcus) and Dap (Garrett Inman) were all truly outstanding in a small cast that included three Ladies (Jordan Clark, Margarita Damaris Martinez and Kira Troilo).

The technical team was outstanding, from the Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta, to the spirited Choreography by Rachel Bertone, atmospheric Scenic Design by Shelley Barish (with a set that would be at home in Into the Woods), appealing Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, and well coordinated Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

What this production becomes in these capable hands is a Camelot that deserves to be seen by any serious musical theater buff. Though it doesn't completely overcome those second act flaws, it's a huge improvement on the original play, and should satisfy lovers of that score.  The essence of the Arthurian myth is idealism. When a small boy, Tom of Warwick (Inman again) appears in the final scene wishing to become a knight of the Round Table, Arthur realizes this means his vision still lives and he hasn’t failed; “men die, but an idea doesn’t”. The topicality of wishing in 2017 for a purer administration should be clear without belaboring the obvious. And thus naturally come the last words of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.


PPAC's "Matilda": The Children Are Revolting

The Company of "Matilda the Musical"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Matilda the Musical, now being presented at PPAC, is a show based on the original children's novel by Roald Dahl, with Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin and Book by Dennis Kelly. It first won seven Olivier Awards in London, transferring to Broadway in 2013 where it lost the Tony Award for Best Musical (to Kinky Boots). While renowned for creativity on many levels, the show lacked the heart audiences sought. Still, it managed to last over 1550 performances in the New York run, and remains a popular favorite on the road, with its audience-pleasing aspects of anarchy, brutal honesty and dark humor, sometimes wasted on unsophisticated adults who don't always “get” the central five-year-old telekinetic character.

Attempting a synopsis of Matilda is like putting a genie back in the bottle, but let's give it a go. Children ponder life as adults, while meanwhile their parents declare they're all a Miracle. As Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) warns that they are preaching a dangerous moral, namely that books are superior to shows on the telly, the students at Crunchem Hall posit that sometimes one has to be a little bit Naughty, and Lavender (Gabby Beredo) shares that she's going to put a newt in headmistress Miss Trunchbull's (Dan Chameroy's) water bottle. Matilda Wormwood also announces that no one but she is going to change her story, and she will fight injustice. The student body sings of never escaping tragedy in the School Song: just wait for Phys Ed!  Meanwhile one atypically nice teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles) describes herself as Pathetic when she can't even knock on the door of Miss Trunchbull's office, containing her trophies from The Hammer-throwing days of conquests and advice that you “stay within the lines”. Then Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) chimes in with her own advice about being Loud, namely that what you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know, is expressed. Miss Honey sings that another door closes and she,This Little Girl, is left outside. Another student known for his eating prowess, Bruce (Soren Thayne Miller) proves you can have your cake and eat it too. And there's that chilling admission that all one knows comes from watching Telly- that you can tell how clever one is from the size of one's telly. Mr.Wormwood expresses pleasure at duping wealthy Russians into buying his worn-out old autos. And that's just the first act.

The second act begins with the students' rebellious anthem, When I Grow Up, wherein they sing “just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean you just have to grin and bear it”. One character declares I'm Here for the little girl as the Smell of Rebellion pervades. Now the virtues of Quiet are proposed (“this noise becomes anger and the anger is light and this beast inside me would usually fade but isn't today”) and Miss Honey extols the virtues of My House. The students plot their revenge in Revolting Children (“if enough of us are wrong, then wrong is right”). Just how this happens, (that is, how Matilda learns about Miss Honey's past and her future prospects), well, you wouldn't want a spoiler to ruin all the malicious fun, now would you?

The cast at the press opening performance included Jenna Weir as Matilda. (Three actresses alternate in the role; at other performances, Gabby Gutierrez and Jaime MacLean take turns playing the title role). The creative team included Musical Direction by Bill Congdon, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Set and Costume Design by Rob Howell and Sound Design by Simon Baker. The Director was Matthew Warchus and the Choreographer was Peter Darling. One problem persisted in this huge hall; even with reasonable familiarity with the lyrics, most of the cast might as well have been singing in Swahili. But, heart or no heart, it was surely an energetic show embraced by most of the audience (except some who were inappropriately way too young for live theater).

If these days call for demonstrating one's resistance (and they do, they do), one couldn't hope for a more perfect role model than that Dahl-ing Little Girl, Matilda.


ART's "Arrabal": "El Contacto"?

The Cast of ART's "Arrabal"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Back in 1999, a theatrical concept was developed that was described as a “dance play”, in essence three separate one-act playlets with little or no dialogue, with a “Book” by playwright John Weidman, entitled Contact. While some (including this critic) viewed it as theatrical only in the broadest sense of the term, it went on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical. Fast forward two decades later; Weidman is now credited with the “Book” for a new tango-infused “dance theater piece” at ART, Arrabal, centered around the horrific era in Argentina when the government ruled by the right-wing military junta seized power (in 1976) and for the next eight years “disappeared” some thirty thousand resisters. The story of Arrabal is that of an eighteen-year-old woman searching for the truth of her own father's disappearance when she was an infant, as she navigates the underground world of Buenos Aires tango clubs.

Arrabal, (which literally means “neighborhood”), played by Micaela Spina, receives a letter from her father's best friend, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola) requesting that she come to B.A., where he runs a tango bar. Her father was one of the desaparecidos who disappeared during the period of the 1970's. She interacts with characters like Berta (Valeria Celurso), El Diende (Mario Rizzo), Nicole (Soledad Buss) and Juan (Juan Cupini), but mostly with her Abuela (“Grandmother”) played by Marianella Massarotti, who joins with the other families questioning what truly happened to their (literally) lost ones. When she finally learns the truth, it comes as no surprise if you have been following what little story there is. In fact, there is really nothing that isn't telegraphed, no subtlety or nuance. There is of course the dancing to be admired, but largely non-contextual, disjointed and uninvolving, unless dance shows are your thing. Comic relief is provided by the rubber-jointed Rizzo, reminiscent of the character Evil-Eye Fleegle in the Al Capp newspaper cartoon strip Li'l Abner.

Arrabal can be seen as a Latin American Contact, story told through dance, with Music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo, Choreography by Julio Zurita (who also plays the rolf of the “disappeared” father, Rudolfo), Directed and Co-choreographed by Sergi Trujillo, with an on-stage band, Orquesta Bajofonderos. Previously presented in Toronto in 2014 and Bogota in 2016, this is its first United States production, at ninety intermissionless minutes. The technical credits are impressive, with effective Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, unabashedly sexy Costume Design by Clint Ramos, dramatic Lighting Design by Vincent Colbert, Sound Design by Peter McBoyle and Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

But it is of course the dancing that matters most, and this is accomplished by a troupe that clearly knows what it is about. If this is the kind of experience you've enjoyed in previous dance pieces, you won't be disappointed. It should be noted that, before performances, there are tango lessons offered, and afterwards, a chance to join in on the dancing, literally in the aisles. One can only guess at what the future will hold as we attend Trump the Musical. And will there be dancing then, perhaps in the streets?


Met Opera's "Rosenkavalier", Richard & Renee

Renee Fleming (seated) & Elina Garanca in Met's "Rosenkavalier"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Der Rosenkavalier is often, as it should be, all about Richard (Strauss, that is) and his composing and orchestrating; but this production by the Metropolitan Opera, is all about Renee (Fleming, that is) in her final performance at the Met in this role that has become so identified with her acting and vocalizing. There was a moment at the end of Act I when Fleming as the Marschallin wistfully took one last long look at her surroundings that cannot have failed to echo her audience's feelings. Though she has essayed some twenty-two roles in her Met career, this was in many ways her signature. With its nuances of the bittersweet passage of time, her bemused smiling through tears, and her attentive detailed knowledge of her character (just watch her contemplate the veins in her hands), this was a moment to cherish.

The story is updated to Vienna 1911, which carries with it a good deal of meaning not envisioned or intended by librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, or Strauss himself for that matter, with the presence of military characters in pre-World War I garb. The “aging” (32!) Marschallin having an affair with the young count Octavian (Elina Garanca), is visited by her country cousin Baron Ochs (Gunther Groissbock) who is engaged to marry the youthful Sophie (Erin Morley). Octavian has assumed the dress of a peasant “maid” to protect the Marschallin's reputation, leading Ochs to flirt with “her”. Many visitors come and go, including an Italian singer (Matthew Polenzani). The Marschallin, seeing the inevitable handwriting on the wall, arranges for Octavian and Sophie to meet by having Octavian go to the home of Sophie's father Faninal (Marcus Bruck) to present Sophie with a silver engagement rose; and as she had hoped, the two fall instantly in love. Sophie is appalled at Ochs' rudeness and an argument ensues in which Ochs is slightly wounded (at least in his pride). To teach Ochs a lesson, Octavian arranges for Ochs to receive a letter suggesting a rendezvous with the Marschallin's “maid”. All hell breaks loose at the rendezvous site (in the original text an inn), until the Marschallin arrives to inform Ochs it was all a “farce”. Admitting defeat, he leaves and Octavian and Sophie are united, leaving the Marschallin to wonder how she lost her lover so suddenly.

Sensitively conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with a mixed bag of Stage Direction by Robert Carsen and Set Design by Paul Steinberg (where with WWII encroaching, numerous military characters, and a palace for Faninal that resembled munitions storage, were a bit too creepy for comfort). The use of enhanced perspective with three sets of doors in Act I was, however, lovely; not so, the bordello scene (!) in Act III. The Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel was outstanding and the Lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet was expertly executed. But it is of course the singing in a Strauss opera that best serves the composer, and this cast was superlative, from the glorious singing of Garanca (also an excellent farceuse) and Morley to the atypically virile Groissbock and the hysterically funny Polenzani (Carlo Bergonzi, may you rest in peace). Fleming was transcendent, nowhere as much as in the final glorious trio by the three principals.

This was a performance to rank amongst the most memorable by the Met, in this or any other season.
The Fathom Events Met Opera rebroadcast will be shown on Weds. May 17 at a theater near you.


Goodspeed's "Modern Millie": Dapper Flapper

Taylor Quick & The Cast of "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Thoroughly Modern Millie, currently being given new life at Goodspeed Musicals, was first a 1967 romantic musical film comedy, with a score that was a mixture of old and new songs, winning seven Oscars and five Golden Globes. But prior to that, the story was the basis for a 1956 British musical, Chrysanthemum. It finally arrived on the Broadway stage as Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2000, with additional music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Dick Scanlan, and a Book by Scanlan and Richard Morris (who had written the screenplay for the film version). This Broadway version won seven Tonys including Best Musical. It remains a very enjoyable if slight story about....well, you've probably heard variations of this one before.

Millie Dumont (Taylor Quick), a small-town young woman from Kansas, arrives in New York with the intention of marrying for money, not for love. She finds a fast friend flapper in Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm), an aspiring actress from California, when checking into a hotel run by the mysterious Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre). She also meets paper clip salesman Jimmy Smith (Dan Deluca) and the head of the Sincere Trust Company, Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts). The hotel (which turns out to be more than it seems) has two oriental employees (more about this later), Ching Ho (James Seol) and Bun Foo (Christopher Shin) and another roomie, Miss Peg Flannery (Lucia Spina). Also in the ensemble are the stepmother of Jimmy and Miss Dorothy, Muzzy van Horsemere (Ramona Keller) and the head steno at Sincere Trust. Anyway, when Peg abruptly goes missing, Millie and Miss Dorothy smell a rat, and a bit of a convoluted mystery plays out. What then transpires (and perspires) is a healthy dose of great, truly irresistible choreography, (by Director Denis Jones) predominantly of the toe-tapping sort, which while accurately described as flapper dancing, the 'funky chicken” it's not. Once again the small stage at Goodspeed defies gravity and all spatial relationships. (Just check out Goodspeed's video on their website featuring the score's most infectious number, “Forget about the Boy”).

What also transports are great renderings of some snappy music. The title song, as well as “Not For the Life of Me”, “Jimmy”, “The Speed Test” and the snappiest of the lot, “Forget About the Boy”. Ironically, the score isn't the strongest element of the show, with is frankly a hodge-podge of different musical sources, but they serve their purpose, which is to support all that imaginative dancing. The other technical contributions excel, from the Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePoo III, (winner for his sets for “Showboat” at a recent IRNE Award ceremony by the Independent Reviewers of New England), to the Costume Design by Gregory Gale, Lighting Design by Rob Denton and Sound Design by Jay Hilton. Which is to say that this bright, bubbly and buoyant bit of fluff is in great hands, and wondrous terpsichorean feet.

And in great voice, one might add. Leading the festivities is a real find in Quick, chosen after a countrywide search, who's the perfect dapper flapper, followed by the ingratiating Dan DeLuca (recently in the HD broadcast of “Newsies”) and the dewy-eyed Sturm. It's a terrific cast that plays the plot fairly straight and respects the source material. Now about that “hotel” run by Mrs. Meers and her two Chinese henchmen. In case you've not seen a previous iteration or have forgotten a major plot point about their operation, let's just say it borders precariously on the stereotypical and politically incorrect. (And that goes for the original Broadway version as well). But at least none of it is malicious or dangerous to one's health, which is more than one can say about politics these days. This is a perfect choice for starting off this season at Goodspeed.


SpeakEasy's "Bridges": Even Double Crossed, Love Is Always Better

Jennifer Ellis & Christiaan Smith in "Bridges of Madison County"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
There is striking visual imagery in the set (designed by Cameron Anderson) for SpeakEasy Stage's Bridges of Madison County; everywhere one looks there are double-crossed patterns suggesting the wooden beams in the bridges, as well as the slice of life the play depicts, with its divergent paths (with some not taken). This musicalized story was of course first a popular novel (by Robert James Waller), arguably describable, if perhaps in politically incorrect terms, as “chick lit”, (though it sold sixty million copies), then a film, and finally this stage musical, first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2013, then on Broadway in 2014. The Music and Lyrics were by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World, and especially Parade). Inexplicably, given Brown's wonderful work, it lasted only 137 performances. His complex score, incorporating styles ranging from folk to blues to rock to almost operatic lushness, was the best element of the show. The musical's Book, by Marsha Norman (of 'night Mother fame), was a vast improvement on both the novel and the film, managing to flesh out some minor characters and delving more into the demons of the principal players. Brown's lyrics move the slight story forward from a young foreign housewife's arrival in America to the ultimate fork in the road that presents itself to her. Near the beginning of the play, the heroine proclaims “I already have everything I need”, as the plaintive strokes of a solo cello accompaniment suggest otherwise.

Set in Iowa in 1965, the story centers on farm wife Francesca Johnson (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian war bride who is proud that she came to her new land, singing of her hopes To Build a Home. Her husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) leave her at home while they travel to an Indianapolis 4-H fair for three days. Enter free-lance photographer Robert (Christiaan Smith) who inquires about the seventh covered bridge he wants to add to his portfolio of six bridges in Madison County. He's “been lookin' for something at ev'ry bridge (he) crossed...the way to find the key is to be Temporarily Lost.” Francesca takes him to the bridge, and very slowly a relationship grows between them, partly observed by the neighbors Marge (Kerry A. Dowling) and Charlie (Will McGarrahan), as it's a small town where not much goes unnoticed. Robert tells Francesca of his former wife Marian (Alesandra Valea), “someone long ago”, in Another Life. Francesca gets a call from Bud, telling here they will be a day longer at the fair, while a romance brews between Robert and her, leading to an affair, as she asks him Look at Me and “he looked at (her) like he could really see... and all the things that I've hidden away one glance reveals”. When Robert asks her to leave with him, stating “that what she has been waiting for is not the World Inside a Frame, but just outside the frame”, and that he knew where he was, “but not where (he) was going” as she agrees in the song Falling Into You. She decides to leave with him; but upon the return of her family, she realizes when reality sets in that she may have no other choice but to continue in her roles as wife and mother. The musical shows the dilemma of paths between which she must choose, divided into life Before and After You. She does make that choice; years later, when a letter arrives, she thinks back on what might have been: “what I did is that I loved, and love is Always Better”, even when doubly star-crossed.

It should be noted that there are some distinct differences in the various forms that this simple story has taken. The original novel source (along with its sequel A Thousand Country Roads) and the subsequent film depict Francesca's grown children posthumously discovering her journal and thus discovering previously unknown facts about her private life. In the musical's more linear format, the music serves to underscore the tale. Under the superb Direction by M. Bevin O'Gara, with fine Choreography by Misha Shields, perfect Costume Design by Mark Nagle, Sound Design by David Reiffel and Music Direction by Matthew Stern, the magic of musical theater with a strong score makes this a more fully-developed world. Special mention should be made about the extraordinary Lighting Design by Annie Weigand, as well as the Projection Design by Garrett Herzig, which work visual magic for changes of scene and mood. And oh, that score, that glorious score, one virtually guaranteed to transport you. To paraphrase Brown's lyrics, it is hard, it is insane, to place one score above another, but “what a choice, what a gift and what a blessing” is Brown's singular work. It starts with that solo song to a solo cello, and the musical complexity develops as the characters do. As Stern has said, “Robert's musical journey (is) from dissonance to operatic...Francesca's from classical to more soaring...(in) rhythmically active style using guitar rather than more typically piano...for jazzy riffs...in 7/8 time signature”. It sounds overly pedantic, but is in fact utterly romantic.

The Cast of "Bridges of Madison County"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
SpeakEasy in this production mirrors the film work of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), here aided and abetted by the cast led by Ellis, who has never been more radiant, and Smith, who is a matinee idol to the teeth. (As Norman puts it in her written stage directions: “it's clear enough that these are two great-looking people on either side of the bridge, and this bridge will be crossed”). They're superbly matched, as are Dowling and McGarrahan, who have their characters down pat. Chew, Siccone and Elinoff are wonderful as well. Even a minor role such as a State Fair Singer (Rachel Belleman) is a showstopping turn. Three other ensemble performers (Peter S. Adams, Ellen Peterson, and Edward Simon), in various roles, are also terrific.

In this production, the camera is metaphor, the world in a box, and the fundamental question is, what would you do if you had the choice to change your life? Some of the lyrics point the way such as those sung by Smith that “there's nothing in this world today but who we are and who we're meant to be”, “we have just one second and a million miles to go” and “there are places that I've traveled and so many things I've seen, but it all fades away but you”, and even in the lyrics for the two husbands, Chew and McGarrahan: “when I'm gone this love will be all that's left of me”. Brown states that Francesca and Robert are “broken characters who each see a piece of themselves inside the other”. Norman says she typically writes “for the trapped girl”, notably in this spare and thoughtful piece that asks the question, what decisions do you make about whom to love and when? As Weller says about his novelization, “people in Madison County didn't talk this way about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box”. Francesca and Robert's pent-up feelings and dreams are suddenly communicated where they never were vocalized before.

It's threatening to become a cliché to attest that SpeakEasy keeps outdoing itself. Known more for their “dark and edgy” work (as described in the program by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault), here we find them delving into the realm of the romantic, with their usual near-perfection. Thanks to its visual technical elements and the ravishing leads (did one mention they're both gorgeous?), this production is cause for joy. It's hard to imagine a more moving, enjoyable and involving show performed with such artistry, with every one of the cast having her or his moment to excel. The story serves as a reminder that things once seemed simpler (on the surface at least), but even as long ago as four decades, much was suppressed and much sublimated. Need we also be reminded that these days we should be focusing on bridges and not walls?