6/15/2017

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
 

6/03/2017

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!
 
 

6/01/2017

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.
 

5/22/2017

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”.
 

5/19/2017

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.

5/18/2017

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?

5/14/2017

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.

5/12/2017

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.

5/08/2017

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?
 

5/05/2017

Spring Opening Nights: Preview


Bridges of Madison County
SpeakEasy Stage (Calderwood Pavilion)
Tony Award winner for Best Score & Orchestrations

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Goodspeed Musicals (East Haddam, CT)
6 Tony Awards including Best Musical

Arrabal
ART (Loeb Theater, Cambridge, MA)
Dance Musical from Argentina

Mamma Mia!
Ogunquit Playhouse (Maine)
The ABBA musical

Camelot
Lyric Stage (Boston, MA)
Lerner & Loewe's 4 Tony Award winner

Ripcord
Huntington Theater (Calderwood Pavilion)
Acclaimed comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire

Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride
Odyssey Opera (BU Theater)
Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta
 

5/01/2017

New Rep's "Gift Horse": Life's a Bowl of Cello

Alejandro Simoes, Zachary Rice, Obehi Janice & Maurice Emmanuel Parent in "Gift Horse"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The Gift Horse, a work which premiered almost twenty years ago (an eternity in the theater) by Lydia R. Diamond of Stick Fly and Smart People fame, is finally getting its Boston regional premiere at New Rep Theater in Watertown. For starters, let's establish that just as it's unfair to compare one playwright to another, that should also apply to judging the same playwright at hugely different stages of artistic development. One is tempted to go for the most obvious, easiest and cheapest shot and describe the work as a Diamond “in the rough”, especially given its unrefined unevenness and the evolving style of a relative novice in her early playwriting. If it were merely an object of interest on the progressive maturation of a major writer's talent that would be reason enough to hear and see this piece, but it's so much more than that in such loving hands as this cast and team provide.

The play initiates with the mimed playing of a cello by a character named Jordan (Cloteal L. Horne). The storytelling then focuses on Ruth (Obehi Janice), an artist and teacher with some unresolved issues from her past, moving back and forth in time. Her relationships with her gay Latino buddy Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes) and his new lover Bill (Lewis D. Wheeler), and her therapist Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), as well as Ernesto's subsequent boyfriend Noah (Zachary Rice), form the context of the play. The first act displays some novitiate flaws. It's too talky, with way too much fourth-wall-breaking, amounting to too many mini monologues as opposed to interaction between the characters, like verbal ping pong. It's in the second act that Diamond begins to gleam, showing the promise of what level of playwrighting was to come. It's also when Janice gets to display her acting chops to the fullest. The production, which would be considered lengthy by today's standards (when the commute to the theater can be longer than the play itself), is very well directed by New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa, with Scenic Design (in white, black and fifty shades of grey) by Jon Savage, Costume Design by Penney Pinette, Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra, and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Alejandro Simoes & Lewis D. Wheeler in "Gift Horse"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

While one might have assumed that the play's title referred to the famous Trojan horse, (and one of the characters assumes that), it's apparently not that ancient; per the dictionary, the adage means: “don't be ungrateful when you receive a gift or imply you wished for more by assessing its value”, a phrase that would appear to have been first seen in print in Auld English in the 1500's as “don't look a geuen (given) horse in the mouth”. Whatever the origin, you should take its advice and seize the opportunity to see the youthful output of an eventual giant in the theater world today. And any chance you can catch Janice and Parent on the same stage, with a bonus like Simoes or Wheeler, by all means do it. They are the future of our regional theater scene, and are carving out the sort of careers way beyond their youth. It's for more than merely historical curiosity that you are urged to support their work in this era of government by non-artistic philistines. If these artists are the future, then the future is here, and attention must be paid.

4/29/2017

BLO's "Marriage of Figaro": Droit d'Employeur?

Emily Birsan & Evan Hughes in "The Marriage of Figaro"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)


Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a challenging undertaking for an opera company to mount, but Boston Lyric Opera is surely up to the task. Among other hurdles, it requires no fewer than thirteen singers: two each of bass-baritones, tenors, and baritones, as well as three mezzo-sopranos and four sopranos, most of them principal roles. When he composed this opera buffa in 1786 to a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, though, Mozart would surely never have expected to see the work performed with as many distractions as the current production has, including major acoustic problems with the venue at John Hancock Hall, but more about that later. For the moment, here is a very brief reminder of all that transpires in this multi-plotted work.

Figaro (bass-baritone Evan Hughes) and Susanna (soprano Emily Birsan), servants in an Italian villa in the 1950's (updated by a couple of centuries), are to be married, but their employer, sportscar enthusiast (in this production) Count Almaviva (baritone David Pershall) has been ogling the bride-to-be (droit d'employeur?). Meanwhile, the housekeeper for Doctor Bartolo (baritone David Cushing), Marcellina (soprano Michelle Trainor), wants Figaro for herself (and, to complicate things further, he owes her money). But this will prove impossible, for relative reasons (the sort of “reveal” that Gilbert and Sullivan were much later to make such fun of). Susanna, who is maid to the Countess Almaviva (soprano Nicole Heaston), conspires with her to outwit the Count by dressing the Count's teenaged male page, Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Emily Fons) as a girl. Things get a bit mixed up, though, and Cherubino ends up falling into the garden where he's caught by the Gardner (and Susanna's uncle) Antonio (bass-baritone Simon Dyer). Susanna promises the Count a tryst, and things get far too complex to enumerate here. Also involved are Antonio's daughter Barbarina (soprano Sara Womble) with her aria that is inexplicably the sole solo written in a minor key; a music teacher, Basilio (tenor Matthew DiBattista); a judge, Don Curzio (tenor Brad Raymond); and two bridesmaids (mezzo-sopranos Felicia Gavilanes and Emma Sorenson). In the end, loose ends are tied up and the honeymoon car arrives.
 

The Cast at the Finale of "Marriage of Figaro"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The performance was meticulously Conducted by David Angus, with controversial Stage Direction by Rosetta Cucchi, unusual Set Design by John Conklin, lovely Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and apt Lighting Design by D. M. Wood. The technical elements were all one would expect from this company, especially the rather unorthodox placement of a huge slanted mirror and chalked floor spaces that Cucchi describes in the program notes as reflecting two films, the 1954 Sabrina and the 2003 Dogville (in which the chalked areas were equally strange and diverting in a bad way). The on-stage presence of supernumeraries who were almost constantly called upon for set changes, prop supplying and complicated stagehand coordination helped keep the multiple plots in play, but ended up adding to the distracting goings-on that were usually irrelevant to the libretto, though accomplished with precision and lightheartedness. Once again with this company, though, the mounting of the work proved to be unnecessarily busy. Just because this opera is so well-known and often performed doesn't mean our minds would wander if left to the music of the moment.

That said, any production of this opera demands singers who can act, and in that regard the composer would have been quite pleased indeed. Hughes and Birsan made a believable couple who could deliver musically and convey the lightness and poetry of the piece with genuine musicality and sparkling presence. The same could be said for Fons in full Keith Urban getup, as well as Pershall and Heaston, representing the upper classes (perhaps of less impact in the 1950's); Heaston in particular brought the house down with an exquisite rendering of the Countess' aria. But then the entire cast impressed with the level of apparent ease with such difficult music, including the BLO Chorus under Michelle Alexander's direction. It was a shame that the hall didn't perform as well as they did. Though the makeover of the venue is visually pleasant, the acoustics are not conducive to a crisp, responsive performance space; it was as though one were revisiting one's dusty treasure trove of monaural LPs. Thankfully, none of next season's offerings is scheduled for John Hancock Hall.

Any opportunity to see and hear Mozart at his wittiest, performed so brilliantly, is a chance that shouldn't be missed, however. When that honeymoon vehicle finally arrives after three hours of plot points, one needs no translation for the phrase with which it is so amusingly bedecked: oggi sposi.

Repeat perfs: Sun.Apr.30 at 3:30pm, Weds.May 3 at 7pm, Friday May 5 at 7p & Sun.May 7 at 3:30p.

4/28/2017

Celebrity Series of Boston's "Alvin Ailey Dance Theater": Still Revealing

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer) 

What can one say about a dance company that has been enthralling audiences and critics for the past six decades? That would be the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has held a significant position on the global dance stage since its inception way back in 1958. Few if any professional performing arts organizations can lay claim to that kind of history. A much beloved staple of the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1968, the company returns this spring to the Boch Center Wang Theater for five performances, each of them including a fascinating mix of Boston and company premieres as well as their signature piece, Revelations (which had its world premiere in 1960). In addition, there will be pieces such as Deep (2016, in its Boston premiere), Walking Mad (2016 both company and Boston premiere) Ella (also a company and Boston premiere), The Winter in Lisbon (new production), Untitled American (world premiere), After the Rain Pas de Deux and r-Evolution, Dream (world premiere).

At the performance on April 27, the program consisted of Deep, Walking Mad, Ella and of course Revelations. (The performance on Saturday April 29 at 8pm duplicates this program).  Deep, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, was enhanced by the music of Ibeyi (twin sisters who sing in both English and Yoruba). Walking Mad was the work of choreographer Johan Inger and featured music from Ravel (Bolero) and Arvo Part, as well as a whimsical moving wall (if the concept of a wall can be an object of whimsy in our politically skewed era). Ella was choreographed by Robert Battle (the company's current Artistic Director) to the scat singing of the great Ella Fitzgerald's Airmail Special, an amazingly challenging workout for Michael Francis McBride and Renaldo Maurice.  Revelations was of course first choreographed by the company's namesake. Alvin Ailey took the balletic world by storm back in 1960 when this work had its premiere, and it has continued to thrill audiences ever since, this time with Belen Pereyra, in her sixth year with the piece. It never failed in the past to bring an audience to its feet, and this was no exception. In the end, this was a well-chosen quartet of works that demonstrated the breadth and depth of this company, from its percussive music and dance in Deep to the humor of the Magritte-like Walking Mad to the scattershot Ella (with its nods to tunes such as The Ballad of Davy Crockett) to the wondrous Revelations.


Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer)

The remaining performances are variations from the nine works on offer. Both the Saturday April 29 matinee at 2pm and the Sunday April 30 matinee at 3pm include The Winter in Lisbon and r-Evolution Dream as well as After the Rain Pas de Deux and Revelations. Lisbon, by choreographer Billy Wilson, features music from Dizzy Gillespie's four decades of composing. Choreographer Hope Boykin's r-Evolution Dream is based on sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, utilizing music by jazz drummer Ali Jackson and narrated by Tony Award winner (for Hamilton) Leslie Odom, Jr. After the Rain Pas de Deux is a former favorite since 2005, with music by Arvo Part, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The program on Friday evening April 28 at 8pm consists of Winter in Lisbon, After the Rain Pas de Deux, and Revelations. It also includes the only performance during this visit of Untitled America, a company and Boston premiere of a piece choreographed by Kyle Abraham, which presents the issues encountered by African American families dealing with the prison system and includes spoken word interviews. It features music by Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai and Kris Bowers, along with traditional spirituals such as No More My Lord.
 
Thus it's obvious that any one of the programs to be presented this season has its unique yet complementary place in the work of this company, still a revelation even for the most avid balletomanes. What can you say about this company? Everything good, and that art matters. 


4/24/2017

ArtsEmerson's "17 Border Crossings": Build That Wall?

Thaddeus Phillips in "17 Border Crossings"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The tagline for the ambitious ArtsEmerson calendar of events, “The World on Stage”, has never been truer than in the case of its current production, 17 Border Crossings. It's a one-person show created, designed and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, amounting to ninety minutes of uninhibited creativity, as he takes us on a round-the-world trip. Phillips' tour-de-farce, now appearing at Emerson's Paramount Center black box theater, sometimes necessitates relating the relatively mundane story behind the smuggling of fried chicken, other times with the more unexpected peculiarities of airline security. This theater artist gave birth to this work before the emergence of the concept of banning immigrants based on their religion or ethnicity, so its title implies relevance that it fails to deliver. For the most part, this is a well-performed comedic show when one might have expected one that was more topical.

This series of vignettes begins with a quotation from Shakespeare's Henry V as Henry speaks on the occasion of St. Crispin's Day about providing passports for anyone wishing to go home from the battlefields in France. Then it's on to trips from Hungary to Serbia by train, Italy to Croatia by ferry, and walking from the U.S. To Mexico, with Phillips playing himself as well as several different customs agents, with only a few set pieces (a small desk, a chair, a set of lights) to help differentiate the magical and very invisible abstract and absurd lines we call international borders. Many are funny, only one is sad. They range from London, Paris, Prague, Belgrade, Colombia, and Holland to crossings as remote as the Amazon rain forest. In each case he is not as impacted as many travelers he meets, as he is traveling as a white American male. His migrations even include one mental one, caused by an encounter with the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew ayahuasca. Even this journey of the mind is played for comic effect. And Phillips by and large nails the accents, the inflections and posturing of the characters he encounters, making for a very enjoyable if slight theatrical experience.

This piece, co-produced by Lucidity Suitcase International (memorable for their production seasons back of Red-eye to Havre de Grace), and previously seen in theaters from Michigan to Hong Kong, is directed by the author's wife and collaborator Tatiana Mallarino, with Lighting by David Todaro, Sound by Robert Kaplowitz and technical work by Spencer Sheridan.

Future musings on the perils of international travel may, unfortunately, prove more serious and provocative, based on political knee-jerk reactions in this country and others, such as France. In the spirit of 17 Border Crossings, maybe each country shouldn't have to maintain and pay for the boundaries they erect. Maybe Mexico should pay for them.

4/23/2017

Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Onegin": On Again, Off Again


Anna Netrebko in "Eugene Onegin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Timing is everything, as illustrated by the lyric opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, with libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky, after the poem by Alexsandr Pushkin. It's the story of love and indifference that pass as two ships in the night, not unlike the two protagonists in the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music , where two other ill-timed would-be lovers lament the ironic timing of their relationship in the song Send in the Clowns. In the case of this opera, which received its world premiere in Moscow in 1879, it's more the star-crossed and ill-timed lovers in Russian tragic literature, made more compelling by the composer's lush and elegant music. One might defy an opera goer not to find the main theme imbedded in one's mind for days after hearing Tchaikovsky's much-repeated leitmotif throughout this piece, reflecting the stasis in which these characters find themselves (or, rather, never quite find one another).

It is fall in the 1820's in the Russian countryside, where the widow Madame Larina (mezzo Elena Zaremba) lives with her daughters the bookish Tatiana (soprano Anna Netrebko), a romantic, and the spirited Olga (mezzo Elena Maximova), the latter being pursued by their neighbor the poet Lenski (tenor Alexey Dolgov). When his friend the aristocratic Eugene Onegin (baritone Peter Mattei) visits him, Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, writing him a very passionate letter, which she sends via her maid Filippyevna (mezzo Larissa Diadkova). He responds that he can offer her merely friendship, advising her to curb her emotions should a man seek to take advantage of her. Come January, Lenski convinces Onegin to accompany him to the name day celebration for Tatiana, where Onegin becomes bored and flirts with Olga. Lenski jealously challenges him to a duel, at which Lenski is killed. Years later, Onegin returns from a self-imposed exile and visits the dashing Prince Gremin (bass Stefan Kocan) in St. Petersburg, where he learns Tatiana has wed the prince. This time it is Onegin who writes to express his love and urge her to run away with him. She confesses she still loves him, but refuses to leave her husband, leaving Onegin in despair.

In this Co-Production by the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera, there's much to admire, notably from Conductor Robin Ticciati, (Music Director of the Glyndbourne Festival) who splendidly leads the Met Orchestra in this Production by Deborah Warner. The Costume Design by Chloe Obolensky, Lighting Design by Jean Kalman, Video Design by Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway and Stage Direction by Paula Williams all contribute to a feel for the period. The Set Design by Tom Pye is a vast improvement on the Met's previous stark and boring one, and the Choreography by Kim Brandstrup, though in cramped spaces, is lively, as is the always-reliable Met Opera Chorus under its venerable Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Director Gary Halvorson and HD Host Renee Fleming add to the enjoyment. But highest among the accolades one could confer on this production is the singing, which is of course as it should be in opera. Netrebko is outstanding, especially in the justly famous “letter scene” aria, as are Mattei in the unsympathetic title role and Dolgov in the poignant “Lenski's aria”. Even Kocan in his brief role of the Prince is unforgettable, with his seemingly impossible low range and eyes meant for HD closeups.

In the end, the quality of the music and its mostly eloquent delivery in this performance make the case for this opera once again. One need not urge Beethoven to “roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news”; Piotr is yet again in the operatic headlines.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast "Eugene Onegin" on Weds. April 26th at a cinema near you.

4/15/2017

Odyssey Opera's "Dwarf": Diminutive or Gigantic?

Ales Briscein in and as "Der Zwerg"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)


Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a one-act opera by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, freely adapted by librettist Georg Klaren from Oscar Wilde's short story The Birthday of the Infanta, is the third production in Odyssey Opera's “Wilde Opera Nights”. It premiered in 1922 in Cologne, just as Zemlinksy had ended his relationship with Alma Mahler (future wife of Gustav, as well as subsequent spouse of architect Walter Gropius and of novelist Franz Werfel). Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose refers to Zemlinsky as “a brother of Korngold”, whose Die Tote Stadt was presented so memorably by the company last season. Korngold was the last great prodigy of the romantic era, whose voluptuous music with its highly melodic and expressive nature was one of two influences that inspired Zemlinky. The other was the highly psychological and complex work of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Rose speaks of Zemlinsky's opera as a rather “bizarre hybrid...a cocktail” that echoes Richard Strauss. It was no wonder that Zemlinsky would respond to the kind of scandalous Oscar Wilde story reminiscent of Strauss' own opera Salome, which Der Zwerg frequently sounds like. It's in fact a tragic fairy tale, which, as so many such stories do, ends grimly.

A sultan sends a dwarf (tenor Ales Briscein) as a present to the royal eighteenth birthday celebration of the Infanta, the Spanish princess Donna Clara (soprano Kirsten Chambers). The dwarf falls in love with the Infanta, singing a love song to her in which he imagines himself as her brave knight, all this while he is described by others as a jest of cruel nature with his notable hump. She toys with him, knowing he is unaware of his own physical deformity, giving him a white rose as a present. He finds a mirror when he is on his own, seeing his reflection (and his deformity) for the first time in his life. When he tries to get her to kiss him, she spurns him, calling him a monster. Heartbroken, he dies clutching the rose, while the Infanta rejoins her party, which includes Ghita, her attendant (soprano Michelle Trainor), Don Estoban, her chamberlain, (bass James Johnson), her First Maid (soprano Erica Petrocelli), her Second Maid (soprano Dana Varga), and her Third Maid (mezzo soprano Vera Savage) as well as Friends of the Infanta (the sopranos and altos of the Odyssey Opera Chorus). Don Estoban had warned that truth could be the death of the dwarf, as God has created us all blind to ourselves. For her part, the Infanta declares that “for the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts”.

The performance was, as noted above, conducted by Gil Rose, with his typical sensitivity, and superbly played by the Opera Odyssey Orchestra. It was beautifully sung in German with English titles by the cast of seven principals who seemed to revel in the acoustically wondrous venue that is Jordan Hall. A standout was the titular little person, sung and acted by Briscein (who was a hit at the Boston premiere of Dvorak's Dimitrij last year), with his stunningly impressive voice and facial expressions that convincingly conveyed his character. Equally memorable were Chambers as the almost mechanical Princess (a la Olympia in Tales of Hoffman) and Trainor, who seemed genuinely surprised at the audience's enthusiastic reception. In a city where people give standing ovations to the openings of supermarkets, this one was indisputably deserved. All of the soloists and chorus shone. The sound of a hundred musicians on stage (the orchestra of seventy, chorus of thirty, seven soloists and conductor) was extraordinarily thrilling. It was, in the end, ninety minutes of lush post-Romantic music with a story that was dark and compelling, with what the program notes rightly state as a “score that magnified the text and educed the drama's extremes of emotions” with “vocal leaps and bold harmonies, horror and hysteria”. It was an apt production for Good Friday from a company whose local presence every season can only be described as.....gigantic.

4/10/2017

Moonbox's "Barnum": Rah Humbug?

The Cast of Moonbox Productions' "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)
 
What can one say about the 1980 musical Barnum, which, despite a weak book, managed to be hugely entertaining and had a lengthy run of almost 900 performances on Broadway? It tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the self-described king of hype and humbug, from 1835 to 1881. Barnum was never given its due by critics, but was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, for its title performer, sets and costumes. Despite its sketchy Book by Mark Bramble, it had terrific jaunty Music by Cy Coleman and clever Lyrics by Michael Stewart. It was such a smash for audiences that it transferred to London and was revived several times over the past few decades. One need only overlook the libretto and enjoy the performances of the rousing songs in this unabashedly exciting, energetic, dynamic show in its present snazzy Moonbox Productions mounting.

From the opening number, “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute”, sung by Barnum (Todd Yard) in the pursuit of promoting his sideshow attractions, we're aware, via the presence of the Ringmaster (Zaven Ovian), that we're about to encounter Barnum's life as a loosely connected series of circus acts. His sideshow attractions include the Oldest Woman Alive, Joice Heth (Carla Martinez) who delivers the number “Thank God I'm Old”, Tom Thumb (Bransen Gates) who sells the number “Bigger Isn't Better”, and Jumbo the Elephant (who doesn't sing at all). Meanwhile not all is well in the Barnum household as he and his long-suffering wife Charity (Shonna Cirone) share in “The Colors of My Life”. Also along for the tour is Jenny Lind (Jessica Kundla), the Swedish Nightingale (“Love Makes Such Fools of Us All”). Later the Barnums exchange loving promises in “Black and White”. Still later Barnum is urged to “Come Follow the Band” and to “Join the Circus” by James Bailey (Ovian again) of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Barnum's final attraction is the reprise of “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” as co-producer of The Greatest Show on Earth.


Bransen Gates as General Tom Thumb in "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)

Stupendously directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, with great Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, this production is a smashing success. The multi-talented ensemble consists of Dance Captains Matthew Kossack and Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, Andrea Lyons, Dan Prior, Allison Russell, and Alexa Wang, all of them triple or quadruple threats who demand to be mentioned. It's a cast of thousands (well, OK, a baker's dozen; that was a bit of humbug). The creative work includes the perfect Set Design by Cameron McEachern, bright and beautiful Costume Design by Marian Bertone, fine Sound Design by Brian McCoy, and electrifying Lighting Design by John Malinowski. This was an extraordinarily complicated show to present and the hard work shows, even thought they make it seem so easy, especially those solo showstoppers Martinez (with great deadpan delivery) and Gates, a fabulous find whose singing and dancing were absolutely infectious. Yard kept things together with a terrifically animated presence. Bertone's inventive choreography (though too dependent at times on the jazz hands made iconic by Bob Fosse) keeps everything fast paced and the acrobatics quite believable. It's not Cirque du soleil, but it's not hogwash either, as it juggles all the elements of the greatest show on Tremont.

Back in 1980, just after the opening of Barnum, this critic was present for a talk by Stewart in which he stated he was through with Broadway and that his type of musical was no longer in vogue; he then conducted a quiz about authors of musical comedy librettos, which this critic won, telling Stewart that his gift was like manure in that it only did any good if you spread it around (a reference to his Hello Dolly work). He did subsequently work on a few musicals (even including a sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) which by and large didn't meet with much acceptance, but he at least showed that he was game for it. The prize for winning the quiz, incidentally, was an autographed (by Stewart) original cast album LP (remember those?) of the then-new Barnum.

So what are you waiting for? Come follow the band and join the circus. These days a bit of hoopla goes a long way, and we need the pure escapism a show like this provides. “Of course that was a long time ago”, Barnum sums up at the end of the show, “and Joice Heth is gone and forgotten
...Jenny Lind...and my poor Tom Thumb...so my kind of humbug's disappeared. Pity”. Or maybe not, if you've been paying attention to the last six months in politics. Perhaps hype and humbug (sadly, of a much more sinister type) are still very much with us. Pity.