"Winn Dixie": Better by Arf Than Most Musicals

Josie Todd & Bowdie in "Because of Winn Dixie"
photo: Diane Sobolewski)

My name is India Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice and two tomatoes, and I came back with a dog.....

..So begins the story of Because of Winn Dixie, a musical adaptation of the novel of the same name by Kate DiCamillo. The young adult book was as bittersweet as the town's famous lozenges (full of sweetness with a hint of something mysteriously serious). In this musicalized version that mysterious ingredient is identified as sorrow (whereas in the novel it's a more poignant term, melancholy). But thanks to the discovery of a brand new star in the theatrical heavens, this joyous creation, now being performed by Goodspeed Musicals, emerges as the most enjoyable musical in a dog's age.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Though its pleasant score isn't as memorable as prior work by Nell Benjamin (Lyrics) and Duncan Sheik (Music), what makes it soar is the Book (also by Benjamin) which develops the subsidiary characters in more depth than the novel, and the performances of a uniformly excellent ensemble of players, led by a rising new star. That would be Bowdie, described in his bio as “a cross between a poodle and something large”, in the title role of a rescue dog. The range of his performance is astounding, requiring him to do just about every conceivable (and some inconceivable) action required by his gradual transformation from wags to riches.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

He has excellent support from a cast, superbly Directed by John Rando, that includes ten-year-old Opal Buloni (the incandescent Josie Todd), her father the Preacher whose wife has left home (the conflicted J. Robert Spencer), a nearly blind recluse named Gloria Dump (rousing Roz Ryan), avid reader with some heavy baggage, Amanda Wilkinson (Chloe Cheers), the diminutive Sweetie Pie Thomas (cutie pie Sophia Massa), Town librarian Miss Franny Block (the eccentric Isabel Keating), and the Dewberry family, consisting of Dunlap (Jamie Mann), Stevie (Jay Hendrix) and their mother Joanne (Kacie Sheik), not to mention the critically important local pet store proprietor Otis (David Poe) who dreams of a musical career and serves as a sort of Greek chorus. The remainder of the cast include Jiggs Thomas (Brian Michael Hoffman), Millie Wilkinson (Nicole Powell), Carl Wilkinson (John Edwards), and Townspeople Ryan Halsaver and MacKenzie Warren, all terrific actors and dancers (with Choreography by Chris Bailey), very natural without putting on the dog. 

J. Robert Spencer & Josie Todd in "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The creative team, always a strong point with Goodspeed, includes Scenic Design by Donyale Werle, Costume Design by Emily Rebholz, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Projection Design by Olivia Sebesky, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Wig & Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer, Music Direction by Adam Souza and Music Supervision and Orchestrations by Jason Hart. The exquisite Animal Direction is by a wizard named William Berloni. All help in giving Winn Dixie a whole new leash on life.

The Cast of "Because of Winn Dixie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

With the exception of the replacement of the word sorrow for the more profound melancholy, this is a near perfect adaptation to the stage. So what are you waiting for? Even if, like Winn Dixie, you're a bit scared of thunder (and there's a bit of that), move your tail and get tickets.

Better by arf than most contemporary musicals, it's been extended through September 5th.

"Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson Musical": DOA

Chris McCarrell in "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The most striking visual from the new musical The Lightning Thief, the Percy Jackson Musical (a TheaterWorksUSA production now at the Huntington Theatre) serves as an apt metaphor for the show, as it presents the titular hero with a toilet paper spewing rifle aimed directly at its pre-adolescent targets in the audience. Though this is clearly not a work for the entire family, it did seem to please its niche. It's adapted from the clever young adult novel by Rick Riordan by Joe Tracz with Music and Lyrics (largely unintelligible in this mega-decibel treatment) by Rob Rokicki, and directed at break-neck speed by Stephen Brackett with a cast that while energetic apparently have never been introduced to ritalin. It checks in at just under two hours, though it seems like an eternity, perhaps appropriately for a story about gods and demi-gods. Among the small cast of seven, the standouts are the title character played by the talented Chris McCarrell and, in multiple roles, T. Shyvonne Stewart. Mention should be made of the fabulously intricate Lighting Design by David Lander. As for the score, it's dependent on percussion and synthesizing, and one number is indistinguishable from another, save for the disco-age number (unfortunately descriptive) “Dead on Arrival”.
This production will continue until July 28th, when one may then concentrate on Huntington Theatre Company's very promising 2019-2020 season, which one hopes will be a welcome alternative to the equally endless-seeming political season.


"Tea at Five": Luck Be a Lady

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

 “Before I tell you anything about myself, I would like to tell you, or at least identify for you, the        world into which I was born. My background. I mean of course my mother - my father. My two parents.
Mother died when I was forty-odd.
Dad died when I was fifty-odd. Thus I had them as my...Well, they were always for over forty years- there. They were mine.
From where I stood:
Dad at the left of the fireplace.
Mother at the right of the fireplace.
Tea every day at five.
They were the world into which I was born.
My background.”

So begins the autobiography by Katharine Hepburn “Me: Stories of My Life”, which was the basis for a 2002 one-woman play, a monologue, entitled Tea at Five. In its revised shorter form by playwright Matthew Lombardo, now being presented at the Huntington Theatre, it's a more focused piece that shows what happens when one force of nature inhabits the role of another.

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

That would be Faye Dunaway, now commanding the stage as the celebrated actress when she was 76. The earlier two-act version portrayed Hepburn's Fenwick Estate in Old Saybrook, Connecticut; Act I (September 1938) dwelt on her childhood in Hartford, education and start in show business; and Act II (February 1983) dealt with her recovering from a car crash, and reflected upon her career and “heart-breaking” romance with Spencer Tracy. It was produced by Hartford Stage, American Repertory Theatre, and the Shubert in Boston, among others, by several leading actresses and one leading actor in drag, Charles Busch (that would've been fun to see). Now Dunaway conveys the memorable lucky lady in 1983, without resorting to cheap impersonations, in what can certainly be viewed as a tour de force, a spot-on recreation of one star by another. She has received many accolades over her long career, honored with an Academy Award, three Golden Globes, BAFTA Awards and an Emmy. Her filmography alone covers a wide and deep range of roles from her breakout performance in Bonnie and Clyde to The Thomas Crown Affair, Mommie Dearest and of course Network.

As a biographer, Hepburn made an excellent actress. Her writing style, or lack thereof, is staccato and blunt, but becomes a more complex treatment in the hands of Lombardo. As cleverly Directed by John Tillinger, with simple Set Design by Scott Pask, Lighting Design by Kevin Adams, Costume Design by Jane Greenwood, and Sound Design by John Gromada, it's an engrossing and enjoyable ride. And, yes, there are even calla lilies, but that famous oft caricatured line is wisely unspoken.

Faye Dunaway in "Tea at Five"
(photo: Neil Scott Studios)

Hepburn ends her autobiography thus: “Yes, I was lucky I had people. Memories- all there- Oh, thank you. Yes, lucky!” The same could be said for another formidable talent by the name of Faye Dunaway. Earlier in her book, Hepburn also declaimed: “Courage- that's what you have to have to come out on top”. On this scale as well, Dunaway is at the top of her game and not afraid to show it. It amounts to a master class in performing.

By all means, make room in your schedule for Tea at Five, now extended though July 14th.


BMOP's "Fantastic Mr. Fox": A Cautionary Tail

The Cast of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
(photo: BMOP)

Tobias Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox is the official title of a new compact disc release of the opera by Picker, the current Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera, who pulls off the almost impossible feat of composing an opera that is aimed directly at families, not just children; that is, children of all ages. With his welcome use of melodic tonal lyricism, even though a modern piece, and the caustically witty Libretto by Donald Sturrock, this work is sure to charm listeners of any vintage. Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under the direction of Gil Rose, the recording features members of Odyssey Opera, the Boston Children's Chorus, and a host of well-known vocalists. Commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Los Angeles Opera, this recording was made during its performance period in Boston in 2014, and just released this month on CD.

Based on the revered children's novel by Roald Dahl, the fable centers on the efforts of the eponymous fox (baritone John Brancy), the antihero who's on a food-finding mission on behalf of his family, contemporaneously thwarting the aim of three mean farmers, Boggis (bass- baritone Andrew Craig Brown), Bunce (tenor Edwin Vega) and Bean (baritone Gabriel Preisser) to kill the varmint that's been eating their chickens and geese and drinking their cider. Mr. Fox enlists his forest friends, including Mr. Porcupine (tenor Theo Lebow), Miss Hedgehog (soprano Elizabeth Futral), Rita the Rat (mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis) and others. The remaining characters include Mrs. Fox (mezzo-soprano Krista River), Agnes the Digger (countertenor Andrey Nemzer), Mavis the Tractor (soprano Gail Novak Mosites), Badger the Miner (baritone John Dooley) and Burrowing Mole (tenor Jonathan Blalock). There are also four fox cubs: Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekeian, and Madeleine Kline. The story is accessible as is the music (this despite the fact that Picker was trained by a trio of Modernist composers, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen).

Picker has stated that there can be found in this work a “green message”, if one wishes to find one (with its portrayal of the barren land above ground and the warmer natural world below). There are instances of slapstick, European styles, and neoclassical Stravinsky-like sound. In several passages, including those utilizing the Children's Chorus, there is sublime music for adult and child listeners. In short, it's both relatively brief and compellingly approachable in its score with an ample supply of cleverness and wit in its libretto, with no evidence of being “dumbed down” for its target audience. What more could anyone want in an opera for the whole family?


Odyssey Opera's "Belle Helene": Near Myth

The Ensemble of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

La Belle Helene, an 1864 opera bouffe with Music by Jacques Offenbach and Libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, is a parody of the myth of the historical Helen of Troy, taking place in Sparta just before the Trojan War. With a new English translation by Richard Duployen, this last production of the estimable Odyssey Opera wizards proved to be a true farce, with all of the lack of subtlety that implies. The story, with its large cast of characters, is a complicated one with a challenging book that almost defies description with a coherent synopsis.

Adam Fisher & Ginger Costa-Jackson in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

So naturally one will try to synopsize it here. It features Paris (handsome tenor Adam Fisher), son of Priam, as he arrives with a message from Venus to the high priest Calchas (bass Ben Wager), commanding him to procure for Paris the love of Helene (beautifully-voiced mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson), promised him by Venus when he awarded the prize of beauty to her. Disguised as a shepherd, he wins three prizes at a contest of wit with the Greek kings under the direction of Agamemnon (baritone David McFerrin), then reveals his identity. Helene, convinced that circumstances have sealed her fate, crowns the Trojan prince as victor, to the disgust of Achille King of Phthia (tenor Christian Figueroa) and the two Ajaxes, the King of Salamis (tenor Steven Goldstein) and the King of Locris (tenor Gregory Zavracky). Invited to a banquet by Helene's husband, the king of Sparta Menalas (tenor Alan Schneider) bribed Calchas to prophesize that Menelas must at once proceed to Crete, to which he agrees.

Alan Schneider, Ginger Costa-Jackson & Adam Fisher in "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Witttman)

Paris, however, instead comes to Helene at night. After she stops his attempt at seducing her, he returns after she has fallen asleep. Helene believes that this is a dream, and so doesn't resist. Menelas, returning unexpectedly, finds the two in each other's arms. Helen tells him it's all his fault: A good husband knows when to arrive and when to keep away. Paris tries to keep him from being upset, but all the kings join in berating him, telling him to go back where he came from; he vows to return. Later, the kings and their followers have moved to Nauplia for the summer, with Helene still protesting her innocence. Venus has made everyone amorous, to the despair of the kings. A high priest of Venus arrives on a boat, explaining that he has to take Helene to Cythera. Menelas pleads with her to go with the priest, but she refuses, saying that it is he, and not she, who has offended the goddess. But realizing that the priest is Paris in disguise, she goes on board with him, and they sail away together.

Ben Wagner, David McFerrin, Felicia Gavilanes, Rachele Schmiege & Cast of "La Belle Helene"  
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Also in the cast are Loena (mezzo-soprano Felicia Gavilanes), Oreste (mezzo-soprano Jaime Korkos), Bacchis (soprano Mara Bonde), Parthoenis (soprano Rachele Schmiege), and Euthicles (Jesse Martin). Conducted by Gil Rose, with Stage Direction by Frank Kelley (in a fully staged production in English) and with an orchestra of thirty. The Chorus Master was Mariah Wilson, with Choreography by Marjorie Folkman, intentionally gaudy Costume Design by Brooke Stanton (notably the humorously striped women's swimwear) and Scenic Design by Janie Howland with Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (the last two happily familiar to local audiences from regional productions of plays and musicals). Clocking in at three hours, it cried out for surtitles, for, even though actually sung in English, a great deal of the spoken dialog and lyrics were unintelligible.

Christian Figueroa, Steven Goldstein, Gregory Zavrachy & Cast of "La Belle Helene"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The end of Odyssey Opera's current season was a reminder that next season will feature six operas based on the reigns of the Tudors, another embarrassment of riches from this beloved company.


Huntington's "Yerma": The Dread Barren

Ernie Pruneda, Nadine Malouf & Christian Barillas in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The title says it all; the definition of the word Yerma is “barren”. A 1934 play by poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (written two years before he would be assassinated by Spanish nationalists), this has been adapted and translated by Melinda Lopez (whose own 2004 play Sonia Flew inaugurated the same Wimberly Theatre at the Calderwood Pavillion where this play is now being produced by Huntington Theatre Company, where Lopez is Playwright-in-Residence). This simple story is that of a barren woman in her village in Southern Spain where certain crops grow and graze (apples, sheep), where everything centers around an almost surreal need for water. Lopez notes that this is Lorca's least performed play, (way less than his Blood Wedding and House of Bernada Alba), primarily due to its previous poor translations (such as the awkward version by Graham-Lujan and O'Connell). As a closeted gay man living at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Spain, he desperately wanted to have children (whom he saw as conferring immortality), and could thus easily identify with what happens to a body and a soul when they can't fulfill society's expectations and, as Lopez adds, “what they think they were born to do, being denied the opportunity to be fully oneself, and perceived as in conflict with their fate.”

Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lorca's life is the inspiration for his cante jundo or “deep song” about an awesome question that has no answer. Lopez's role is to preserve his story with its mystery expressed in the poetry of the play (that is, to translate) while approaching the work with the questions and techniques of contemporary playwrighting (that is, adaptation). In so doing, she notes that she is preserving the basic pathos of the unknowable, by looking, listening, and surrendering to this deep song full of love, passion, and infertility which Yerma (Nadine Malouf) must face, as she wants nothing more than to have a child and become a devoted mother. Her husband Juan (Christian Barillas) is conflicted. Yerma watches as the women of the village (unnamed characters in the original) start their own families, including Maria (Marianna Bassham), Incarnacion (Alma Cuervo), Marta (Evelyn Howe) and Veronica/Rosa Maria (Alexandra Illescas), as well as the mysterious Dolores (with Lopez herself substituting for Jacqui Parker). There is one other character, the only other male, Victor (Ernie Pruneda), who is also conflicted. In this production, there is effective support provided by a Guitarist (Juanito Pasqual) and a Percussionist (Fabio Pirozzolo). Yerma's desperation becomes an all-consuming passion as she realizes her seemingly uncontrollable fate. In Lorca's most prescient observation, Yerma ultimately questions her own value as a woman, and Lopez conveys not only her flaws but also her strength and determination. It's more of an academic exercise, though, than an involving piece of theater.

Marianna Bassham & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This reinvented tale is on view through June 30th. At 85 minutes with no intermission, it's a work to be reckoned with. Its success in the past has depended on the acting skills of the actress playing the title role, as Malouf proves yet again, backed up by remarkable acting all around. As beautifully Directed by Melia Bensussen, the creative team included movement and Choreography by Misha Shields, Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson (a bed among a field of flowers becoming more barren as the play progresses), Costume Design by Olivera Gajic, Lighting Design by Brian J. Lilienthal, Original Music by Mark Bennett, and Sound Design by Bennett and Brendan F. Doyle. There's a lot to admire and respect in this version, but the basic story still shows its three-quarters-of-a-century vintage, presenting tableaux that will most impress students of a particular tradition of writing and performing.

Ernie Pruneda & Nadine Malouf in "Yerma"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It should be noted that the adaptation, direction, choreography, costumes, and almost the entire cast, are women. It responds to the need for more diversity in all aspects of the theater, including the community of critics. No one could speak at this point in time with more cred than Rachel Chavkin, who just this past weekend won a Tony Award as Best Director of a Musical for the innovative Hadestown (the birthplace of which was community theater!).

Herewith is her heartfelt acceptance speech: “My folks raised me with the understanding that life is a team sport. And so is walking out of hell. That’s what is at the heart of the show: It’s about whether you can keep faith when you are made to feel alone. And it reminds us that that is how power structures try to maintain control: by making you feel like you’re walking alone in the darkness, even when your partner is right there at your back. And this is why I wish I wasn’t the only woman directing a musical on Broadway this season. There are so many women who are ready to go. There are so many artists of color who are ready to go. And we need to see that racial diversity and gender diversity reflected in our critical establishment too (italics mine). This is not a pipeline issue. It is a failure of imagination by a field whose job is to imagine the way the world could be. So let’s do it.”

Si se puede.


SpeakEasy "Fun Home": Home Run Returns June 8-30

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

What would happen if we spoke the truth?”

Caption: That is the existential question posed by Alison Bechdel in her graphic novel based on her true-life story of growing up in a funeral home, (hence the title Fun Home), upon which the musical of the same name was subsequently based. This brilliant adaption, currently being performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company, is faithful to its sources. Its Broadway production in 2015 (after its off-Broadway successful run in 2013), with Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron and Music by Jeanine Tesori, was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical, Book, and Score. It holds the distinction of being the first musical in Broadway history to feature an out lesbian protagonist. The entire story is told in non-linear flashbacks by the adult 43-year-old character of Alison Bechdel (Amy Jo Jackson) via numerous songs, some of them quite brief and more like operatic recitative. Never fear, however, for this smart and insightful creation is very approachable, often true to the “fun” in its name, and irresistibly honest. As it was performed in its original productions in New York, this version is presented in the round (or more precisely, three-quarter-round), which is often a treacherous decision in the wrong hands that cannot prevent audience members missing action when faced with an actor's back.

Merissa Simeqi, Amy Jo Jackson & Ellie van Amerongen in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

Fortunately, we're on firm ground and in great hands in this production, as it's directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault, one of Boston's always-dependable creative minds. He meets the challenge of theater in the surround by and large without compromising any seat in the house, keeping his cast consistently alert and oriented. Alison is played by three actresses who present her story at three stages of her life: 19 year old Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), 9 year old Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), and the adult Alison who provides most of the narration. The rest of the family consists of her father Bruce (Todd Yard), her mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) and her brothers Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold). Also featured are Desire Graham as Joan and Christopher M. Ramirez in several roles, as Roy, Pete, Mark, Bobby and Jeremy. In the space of just one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission, we learn an uncanny amount of insight into this intimate community. Much of the success of this work is due to the extraordinary journey taken over five years by Kron and Tesori as they honed the storytelling and developed the musical medium in which to tell it, as an impressionistic memoir by an artist who rebelled by becoming a lesbian cartoonist.

Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

The story begins with a scene of a father/daughter airplane game. In emotional rather than strict chronology, we come to learn that Bruce is obsessed with renovation of his material world while unable to reconstruct or escape his closeted self, yearning for the courage that his daughter exhibits in her independence in his song Pony Girl: “some folks get the call to go, some folks are bound to stay.”  Helen has spent their married life in virtual denial, as she cries out to her daughter in the song Days and Days: “I didn't raise you to give away your days like me” and “chaos never happens if it's never seen". Small Alison longs to express herself as she becomes aware of another female with a “Ring of Keys” that simultaneously promise and threaten to unlock her developing desires. Medium Alison begins to accept who and what she is as she sings that she is Changing (Her) Major to Joan. The time frame (the 70's and 80's) in part defines how each character comes out or remains closeted. This father and daughter epitomize two very different people, one a prisoner of his times and generation; the other enjoying her new found freedoms and visibility. There evolves yet another existential question: how many times can the members of one cast in one performance break your heart?

The Cast of "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

And this well-knit cast does exactly that, time and again, with their bravery in sharing their perception and enlightened comprehension of what lies beneath the surface of cosmic issues in microcosm. The three Alisons and her parents, and their growth or stasis, are obviously crucial to realizing what's at the core of the story. None of them disappoints, and each gets a perfect aria to reveal what is at stake; Yard, Simeqi, van Amerongen, Jackson, and Duncan each give award-worthy turns, and Graham gives fine support. And attention must be paid to the exquisitely expressive work in the Music Direction of Matthew Stern, as well as the other creative elements, from the Set Design by Cristina Todesco, to the brief Choreography by Sarah Crane, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

Tesori spoke about these characters as real people who “could not find a way to sing, and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn't have the form and structure to sing” but did have “the desire to acknowledge and accept one's truth.” And Kron described both Alison and her father as having “stood on the precipice of becoming the person they wanted to be...but in order to do that, you have to be willing to go through humiliation. If you're going to become a different person...you must become someone you cannot control, and that is humiliating...that's not bearable”. And there remains one last existential question: if one keeps noting that every SpeakEasy production is even more sublime theater than the last, will readers' eyes glaze over and eventually lose their trust, and thus if a review falls on deaf eyes, does it make a noise or any impact? Caption: it must be said that this is SpeakEasy and Daigneault at their best, making this the show you owe it to yourself to see, even as it breaks your heart too many times to count with its fierce and revelatory truth.

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

In the end, what does Fun Home have to say to us? Find out now, through June 30th. For, as Small Alison puts it best, remembering the airplane game, at the end of the show: “Caption: every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”



"View Upstairs": On a Queer Day You Can See Forever

The Cast of "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

Magical realism alert: Max Vernon, author of The View Upstairs, the current Speakeasy Stage Company production, loves it, and it permeates his work. This is the New England premiere (after mountings as widely offered as London and Australia) of the off-Broadway play based on a real incident, the 1973 suspected firebombing of the gay bar known as the Upstairs Lounge in the French Quarter of New Orleans. While no one was ever charged, arson was believed to be the cause of the tragic deaths of thirty-two people. Vernon not only wrote the Book for this work, but the Music and Lyrics as well. In so doing, he crafted a play with music that echoes his personal taste, with influences he notes as David Bowie, Lou Reed, Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder and Elton John, with a self-described emphasis on the “subversive, sexy and a little wild.” When you factor in the reality that this triple threat is only in his early thirties, it's a wonder. Vernon's expressed goal was to reach audiences who might feel distanced from what he views as traditional theater. Magical realism has never been more, well, magical.

Davron S. Monroe in "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

In this vein, Director Paul Daigneault has staged the piece in the intimate Plaza Theatre, with some audience members on stage, reflecting his view that the bar is the main character of the play. The story centers around Wes (J'royce Jata), a young fashion designer, who has just purchased an abandoned building, which he soon learns was the site of the Upstairs Lounge; he suddenly finds himself transported back in time to the Lounge before the horrific event. He discovers that the bar was a community, a place where a group was brought together, in a true mixture of interests and ages. The community included a minister, Richard (Russell Garrett), a married pianist, Buddy (Will McGarrahan), hilariously flamboyant Willie (Davron S. Monroe), manager Henri (Yewande Odetoyinbo), Patrick (the outstanding Eddie Shields), drag queen Freddie (Shawn Verrier), his supportive mother Inez (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), and hustler Dale (Jared Troilo). While all are fine, never out of character for an instant, one does end up wishing there had been more back story for players such as Buddy and Dale with their underwritten roles. There are also cops, then and now, well played by Michael Levesque.

The Cast of "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)
Daigneault has opined that Wes learns from this range of men what was lost and what was gained in the fight for equality, a cautionary tale for each successive generation to learn from one another. At just under two hours with no intermission, and what has been described as a “gritty glam rock score”, it's a spare but acute dissection of culture. As ably Directed by Daigneault, with excellent Music Direction by Adam Bokunewicz, minimal Choreography by Alessandra Valea, clever eclectic Scenic Design by Abby Shenker, amazingly varied Costume Design by Dustin Todd Rennells (including outfits just for the curtain call), Lighting Design by Abigail Wang and Sound Design by Elektra T. Newman, it's a fascinating slice of life.

Eddie Shields & J'royce Jata in "The View Upstairs"
(photo: Nile Scott Studios)

While one's exposure to this group makes for tantalizingly brief insights that cry out for more development (when's the last time you wished a play were longer?), it remains an engrossing display of imagination. Just when one thought good original theater might be on life support, along comes this fiercely in-your-face talent, which couldn't have been more timely. A short time before the real-life tragedy occurred, the patrons all sang “united we stand, divided we fall, and if our backs should ever be against the wall, we'll be together”. It was a short four years after the defiance of Stonewall, which makes this a fitting tribute to that signal event's upcoming fiftieth anniversary.

Walk right upstairs, (well, all right, downstairs), through June 22nd, at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts. You'll discover yet another reason for a community to be proud.

ADDENDUM:  Note that SpeakEasy (from June 8th to June 30th) will be presenting a repeat run of its production from last fall of "Fun Home" at the Calderwood Pavilion.  This critic's review of same will be republished here soon, ahead of the run. You absolutely owe it to yourself to see it, either for the first time, or again.


ART's "We Live in Cairo": Hopeful Arab Springs Eternal

The Cast of "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)
It was an unforgettable visual image on our television screens back in 2011 when Egyptian protesters took to the streets around Tahrir Square in Cairo in an attempt to overthrow the regime of President Hosni Mubarak. The current production at ART in Cambridge of the play We Live in Cairo seeks to convey what was happening and what it led to, as portrayed in the form of a musical with Book, Music and Lyrics by Lebanese-American brothers Daniel and Patrick Lazour. It is their sincere effort to convey the aftermath of that hope-filled Arab Spring that is at the heart of this production.

Jakeim Hart & Abubakr Ali in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

And heart, as well as hope, is what this work is all about. The winner of the 2016 prestigious Richard Rodgers Award for musical theater (previously bestowed on ART's Witness Uganda), it seeks to inform audiences that the ill-fated revolution of Cairenes against their repressive dictator “ended” with an eventual military coup and disastrous regime change. The play, billed as a musical but more correctly viewed as a piece of theater with music, wears its heart on its well-intentioned sleeve and its hope in defiance of the government that would emerge as more oppressive than the one it replaced and that the world regards as over, dead. It was a time that had its own beauty and creativity in the face of religious and militaristic powers; it was, at its fundamental existence, a celebration of “almost”, what they came close to achieving in their zeal and basic love of country.

Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

This production mirrors that celebratory “almost”, at least in its present form. There are a few moments when one can revel in the pure theatricality of its technical prowess, notably the marvelous all-enveloping Projection and Video Design by David Bengali, the orchestrations by Daniel Lazour and Broadway veteran Michael Starobin (who also serves as Musical Supervisor), as well as the intricately coordinated Lighting Design by Bradley King and Sound Design by Kai Harada. Less inspired are the Scenic and Costume Design by Tilly Grimes, which appear to be authentically drab, and the almost manic choreography by Samar Haddad King, not to mention the unfocused Direction by Taibi Magor. The pluses certainly outnumber the minuses with respect to the creative team, however.

Jakeim Hart & Parisa Shahmir in "We Live in Cairo"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

But the problem with this intensely sincere work is that it fails to engage on several crucial elements, especially the declamatory dialog, simplistic lyrics and stereotypical characters about whom we learn little. There's a brief nod to romance between songwriter Hany (Abubakr Ali) and photographer Layla (Parisa Shahmir), and even more briefly between street artists Karim (Sharif Afifi) and Hassan (Gil Perez-Abraham). The other principal roles, fellow songwriter Amir (Jakeim Hart) and activist Fadwa (Dana Saleh Omar), as well as two actors who are identified as the “Ensemble” (Waseem Alzer and Layan Elwazani), are all obviously committed and talented, even though not given much to fill in about their parts. Unfortunately they aren't sufficiently differentiated from one another (which is also true of the unidentified musical numbers) to make one's involvement as complete as it should be.

The production, to be performed through June 23rd, gives still more evidence of ART's commitment to portrayals of victims of social injustice who merit our attention. With perhaps more concentration on character development and less attempt at presenting itself as a musical polemic, this work might be on a better path. At the moment, it's promising, hopeful and honest.


Lyric's "Pacific Overtures": The Shogun Must Go On

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

They had us with the cherry blossoms. And the screens, so brilliantly lit. “They” would be the stars of the current Lyric Stage production of the musical Pacific Overtures, namely Scenic Designer Janie E. Howland and Lighting Designer Karen Perlow. This is not to say that they are the only outstanding contributors to this show, but they help to overcome some of the challenges this work presents, especially in this most intimate setting. Never has it been more accurate to state that less is more, more or less.

In 1976, Pacific Overtures, a new Sondheim musical bound for Broadway, received its world premiere in Boston. The unusual premise of the play was the Japanese viewpoint of the incursion of American warships under Commodore Perry in 1853 Japan, to initiate trade with a country that had been closed to foreigners for centuries. It offered Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a Book by John Weidman (a wise choice, given that he majored in Eastern Asian History at Harvard). The Broadway mounting lasted only six months, despite ten Tony Award nominations, and remains one of Sondheim's least performed works. Thus it was joyful news for lovers of the show to hear that Lyric would be producing it, Directed by Spiro Veloudos, the company's Producing Artistic Director. About as far from the stereotypical tired businessman's musical as one could get, it demands a great deal from its audiences as well.

Micheline Wu in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

In the preface to the published version of the play, its creators acknowledge their unusual use of Japanese kabuki theater's three conventions: all roles, male and female, played by male performers; the use of a Reciter who alternately comments on the action, joins it, or speaks in place of one of the other characters; and the presence of a hanamichi or runway, allowing performers to make entrances and exits through the house, as well as the changing of props and costumes onstage by a group of stagehands clad in black (the color of non-existence to the Japanese, literally invisible to them). They also wrote, in the spirit of Japanese haiku poetry, with its distinctive brevity, lack of explicitness, and strict form. While there are, strictly speaking, few pure examples in the text, the form is self-evident, avoiding what Sondheim notes in his monumental work, Finishing the Hat, the dual traps of banality and vagueness leading to “less is less”, keeping it simple (but dense) vs. simplistic, balancing that fine line "between economy of means and penury of ideas".

Carl Hsu & Sam Hamashima in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The current Lyric presentation preserves much of this, while not limiting the performers to men (which the original did until its contemporary finale). In so doing, something is gained and something is lost. Sondheim's “less is more” is one of his three fundamental dicta (the other two being that content dictates form, as well as style, and that God is in the details). His lyrics are lean, making the most out of the least, which he describes as an unforgiving compact form. In that sense, losing the kabuki core element of an all-male principal cast loses significant impact as a deeply imbedded cultural norm. On the other hand, mixed gender casting allows for a broader version of how all people share in the success and failure of a historically crucial encounter. It does make it difficult to tell when actress Lisa Yuen, with no costume change, is speaking as Reciter or Shogun. Lyric's vision is also less physically overwhelming than past lavish productions, gaining intimacy and approachability where others were grander and more removed. The spare but lovely Scenic Design is an example of something gained while other things are lost (not unlike the folk song by Joni Michell, “Both Sides Now”, popularized by Judy Collins), in living everyday. As with much of Japanese culture, what is omitted is as important as what is left in.

Kai Chao in "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As it might be put in Japanese poetry, with its three lines with five, seven and five syllables each:

          In style of haiku
         This multi-gender casting
         Is kabuki light

This is obvious in Act I, which consists of unadorned basic vocabulary with an archaic feel, while Act II, beginning with “Please Hello” uses longer words with Latinate roots. The story is narrated by the Reciter, who is both teacher and guide, which begins with the reactions of two men and follows for fifteen years thereafter the relationship between them: Kayama (Carl Hsu), a minor samurai who is instructed to order the ships to leave, and Manjiro (Sam Hamashima), a fisherman recently returned from the U.S. Throughout the tale, there are many basic superstitions, requiring some ingenuity on the part of the Japanese (for example, they avoid having the foreigners touching the land, as they build platforms to prevent it). Much of the story is told in its music: in one comic scene, admirals from five countries pitch their goods via differing musical styles: the U.S. (using Sousa inspired march), England (Gilbert and Sullivan patter), the Netherlands (a clog dance), Russia (a dirge) and France (a can-can). At the heart of the meeting is the song “Someone in a Tree”, wherein an Old Man (Brandon Milardo) complains that when he was a Boy (Karina Wen), he could see everything but heard nothing, while a Warrior (Gary Thomas Ng) grouses that he heard all but saw nothing, setting the stage for a Rashomon allusion.

The Cast of "Pacific Overtures"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As is typically the case in a Sondheim musical, most story lines occur in song. There is the ironic song “Bowler Hat”, the bittersweet evolution of Kayama's gradual Westernization, and the people's cry that they thought the arrival of the warships as “the end of the world”, and the Reciter's powerful answer: “And it was”. Then there is the long song “Chrysanthemum Tea” as the Empress poisons her son: “ships in bay...must be illusions”; there is the fatalistic notion that “the blossom falls on the mountain, the mountain falls on the blossom, all things fall.” The “tipping point” is the final number, “Next!”, with its apocalyptic imposition of Western culture over the haiku. Sondheim once joked that this was “historical narrative as written by a Japanese who's seen a lot of American musicals”.

This version, pared down though it is, is vocally sublime. The talented ensemble (there are eleven performers in fifty-three roles) was composed of Kai Chao, Alexander Holden, Elaine Hom, Brandon Milardo, Gary Thomas Ng, Jeff Song, Karina Wen, and Micheline Wu (who also provided the choreography). The Music Director was Jonathan Goldberg (who is rightly singled out in the program), along with Associate Music Director Matthew Stern (in his Lyric debut, but well known in several other regional companies), with Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will, Mask Design by Brynna Bloomfield and “Violence Design” by Ted Hewlett. Still, some of the choices made remain inscrutable, losing that sense of the remote and exotic, the foreign and formalized, as when at the end of Act I, with no visible sense of its being a “lion dance” fizzled, through no fault of Kai Chao who, as Perry, performed it.

Audiences should in the end be thankful to encounter this rare work, through June 16th.


"See You Yesterday": Tomorrow Is Another Day

The Cast of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

See You Yesterday , the current production under the ArtsEmerson umbrella at the Paramount Theatre's Robert J. Orchard stage, is a fascinating phenomenon, part whimsy and part horror, as it recalls the Cambodian Genocide of 1975. And it works. Since 2012, Global Arts Corps has been in partnership with the Phare Performance Social Enterprise and the Phare Ponleu Selpak Association, with their stated purpose being “to bring together people from opposite sides of violent conflict”, and to “shatter the silence of history with each breath” as a “circus community creates a theater piece”. In the course of a mere sixty-five minutes, in its U.S. Premiere, nineteen Cambodian performers, second generation survivors of the four year Khmer Rouge reign, enthrall with fragmented narratives inherited from their parents and grandparents via their interviews (including one former Khmer Rouge child soldier). With their limber physical skills (from acrobatics to other circus arts), they travel back in time to destroy that legacy of silence.

Cast Members of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

In 1975, the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK), otherwise known as the Khmer Rouge, won the Cambodian civil war, seized the capital and overthrew the government. From then until 1979 the people lived under the Dictator Pol Pot who envisioned a “master race”; in just four years, he managed to wiped out a fourth of the country's population, and rid the country of its currency and religions, even stooping to the use of child soldiers (like the one this troupe met in one interview). In all, some 1.7 to 3 million people were executed, in what would become infamous as the Cambodian Genocide. The artists here, ranging in age from eighteen to twenty-five, are obviously a tight-knit community, as they applaud even when one or two of them briefly drop the ball, or juggling pin, or a fellow gymnast. This production was Directed by Michael Lessac, Artistic Director of Global Arts Corps, with Associate Artists Arben Bajraktaraj, Robert Berky and Andrew Buckland; the Director of the Circus was Khuon Det, Artistic Director of Phare Ponleu Selpak. It was energetically Choreographed by Chumvah Sodhachivy, with authentic-sounding Original Score by Michael Jay, dramatic Production and Lighting Design by Dave Feldman, eerie Sound Design by Scott Lehrer and simple subdued Costume Design by Vong Vannack.

The Cast of "See You Yesterday"
(photo: Jacqueline Lessac)

This work was both visually stunning and emotionally cathartic. For most of the piece, time flew, and the acts spoke louder than words as they portrayed the circus of life, at times becoming part of the landscape as human bridges or flowing rivers, conveying everything from birth to deaths, from torture and separation to freedom and escapes, always aware of the danger facing them both in the past and in their physical recreations of danger. Near the end the entire company forms a human pyramid (of victims or of resisters), never failing to act as a family representing their country with pride. If ethnic exposure and a sense of history are your thing, you shouldn't miss this brief but pithy reminder of the consequences of war.

See it before tomorrow becomes yesterday, through May 19th only.


SpeakEasy's "SCHOOL GIRLS": Pales by Comparison?

Sabrina Victor, Crystin Gilmore, Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Geraldine Bogard & Tenneh Sillah in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

SpeakEasy Stage's current production actually doesn't pale by comparison to other comedies; in fact, it's incomparable, given its unique perspective from the points of view of a half dozen teenagers in Ghana, with the somewhat cumbersome title of SCHOOL GIRLS: OR, THE AFRICAN MEAN GIRLS PLAY. And, though the actual term “colorism” (discrimination based on skin tone) is never explicitly named in the play, it's clearly the unspoken basis for how outer appearance dictates one's worth, and the subsequent hierarchy in the beehive which is female adolescence. This often hilarious eighty-minute play by Ghanaian-American author Jocelyn Bioh won the 2018 Lortel Award as Best Play off- Broadway (in a tie with Martyna Majok's Cost of Living), now in its New England premiere. Bioh's aim is to tell true stories about African and African-American characters that buck expectations and defy stereotypes, and her aim is on target, as she notes she's not reinventing the wheel, but “just adding new spokes”, portraying how vicious teenage girls can be when left to their own devices. So can teenage boys, it must be said, but they're not the object of this playwright's skewering here.

Ireon Roach, Crystin Gilmore & Victoria Byrd in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The story takes place in 1986 (reflecting the playwright's self-confessed obsession with the mores and manners of the eighties) in a Ghanaian boarding school cafeteria. Paulina Sarpong (Ireon Roach) is the currently reigning “queen bee” (thus someone we all went to high school with) of her entourage of sycophants; that is, she rules until the arrival of one Ericka Boafo (Victoria Byrd), the relatively pale-skinned daughter of a local cocoa tycoon, who transfers from Ohio back home to Ghana for her senior year. She's clearly the shiny new object of attention for Paulina's classmates, or underlings, including Gifty (Geraldine Bogard), Mercy (Tenneh Sillah), Ama (Sabrina Victor), and Nana (Shanelle Chloe Villegas).

Ireon Roach & Victoria Byrd in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

Further complicating matters is the more subtle contrast and more universal contest between the traditional Headmistress Francis (Crystin Gilmore) and the more fashionable beauty pageant recruiter, and former Miss Ghana twenty years prior, Eloise Amponsah (Kris Sidberry). As the play progresses, it becomes apparent that there are more stingers present than at first glimpsed. This clever narrative deals with ambition and deceit when one's place in such a hierarchy is threatened, as well as the culture clash between political correctness and West African truth-telling, and the reality of being “othered”. They express such desires as to be popular rather than “fat”, for “once in my life, to finally be seen” on each girl's journey to owning her self.

Victoria Byrd & Ireon Roach in
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

These can be weighty subjects for a brief work such as this, but Bioh knows her territory well and is well-served by Director by Summer L. Williams, who has a knack for mixing the serious with the comic, as each member of the cast stands out as a distinct and memorable individual. One only has to hear the unenthusiastic first greeting of their communal listless “hi” to know that Bioh's writing is in good hands. From Roach's haughtiness to Bogard's movements to Villegas' shy reticence, to each actor's particular acting gifts, this is an ensemble to treasure. They're complimented by the spot-on Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, sly Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, and accomplished Lighting Design by Devorah Kengmana and Sound Design by Allyssa Jones.

Bioh herself has stated that “comedy is just a funny way of being serious”, and proves exactly that in this wise, witty and wicked trifecta: female author, director, cast (and most of the crew).
This comic tragedy of pageantry should win your heart and your funny bone, through May 25th.