"Quixote Nuevo": Hombre de la Plancha, Early Stages

Emilio Delgado in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The new play with music, Quixote Nuevo, being performed as part of the Huntington Theatre Company's current season, may seem familiar, at least with respect to its main characters and general themes. After all, this tale of a somewhat loony (dare one say quixotic?) cavalier in 17th century Spain has morphed over the centuries from an iconic novel by Miguel Cervantes, to several films, an opera, a symphony, and perhaps its most successful adaptation as a piece of musical theater in Man of la Mancha. 

Emilio Delgado & Cast of "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Updated to the present and relocated to La Plancha (literally “grilled on a metal plate”), a fictional town on the Texas/Mexico border, this version centers around a former literature professor and Cervantes scholar with early stages of dementia, Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgadi, who has portrayed Luis the lovable repairman on “Sesame Street” for four decades), who sets out not against windmills but the border patrol in search of Dulcinea (Gisela Chipe), a migrant worker on his father's ranch who has returned to Mexico. As in all previous iterations of the basic story, he is accompanied by his second banana, ice cream vendor Sancho Panza/Manny Diaz (Juan Manuel Amador) who helps him evade ICE. Our intrepid duo also has to evade Death Himself (Hugo E. Carbajal), as portrayed as one of group of guitar players or Calacas. Meanwhile the hero's sister plans to put him in an assisted living facility. Full disclosure: this critic has worked as a nurse for three different companies that provide such environments, and is quite familiar with the quandary of whether and when to remind a resident of their names or join her or him in a self-created world of one's own imagination. Can one blame this Quixote for persevering in his quest? And here's the rub: should one view Alzheimer's as funny?

Hugo E. Carbajal in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The first act (beginning with this new Quixote's challenge: “I know who you are, I know what you want”) is laced with sophomoric humor akin to the sort of dialogue one might encounter in a typical Hasty Pudding Club review, with silly allusions to Iron Man, Hoover vacuums, Game of Thrones, and scatalogically puerile bits of business. The second act gets a bit more serious, spotlighting Orlando Arriaga as Padre Perez (and other roles, a bit confusing). It is during several scenes with more sober content that the story at last comes alive. Written by Octavio Solis, one of the storytellers of the Oscar-winning Disney film “Coco”, it's meant as a funny take on this perennial fantasy, and to some extent it succeeds. It ends with our knight errant exclaiming as he dies: “How it trembles like the wall of Jericho (see, there's this wall along the border and all). . Fall, you horror! Fall and make room for Quixote!” to which Sancho declares: “I'm here, say the word”. But it's all for naught, a quest doomed to failure from the onset. Along the way, there are numerous opportunities for the talented cast of nine to excel, and they do, especially with respect to Delgadi's forlorn hero, whose performance is charming. The expert creative team includes Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata, Costume Design by Rachel Anne Healy, Lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal, Sound Design by David R. Molina and Musical Composition by Molina and Eduardo Robledo.

Emilio Delgado & Cast in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

First seen at California Shakespeare, this completely revised work is now a Co-Production of Hartford Stage, Houston's Alley Theatre and our own Huntington Theatre Company. Directed by KJ Sanchez, who had urged Solis (who grew up in El Paso on the border and was a consultant on the terrific Oscar-winning “Coco” animated film) to attempt this task. Solis wisely chose to expose cultural identity and memory, even on a personal level, and how much this can change as it both “sweetens our soul and torments it at the same time”. He asks if we can mend the past and go backwards in the same manner that we go forward, and can see the past in an entirely different light, with that knowledge changing us. Though it's a difficult process, putting ourselves under a microscope of sorts, he maintains that it's well worth the healing that may ensue. The same could be said for an audience member's enjoyment, if this sort of unsubtlety is her or his bag.

Share this impossible dream at Huntington Avenue Theater till December 8th.


BSO's Greig (& Mahler): Leif Peepers

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes with the BSO
(photo: BSO)

For the first half of the unabashedly popular program presented this past week by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra, reunited with Conductor Andris Nelsons and the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, played the popular work of Edvard Grieg, arguably his most renowned longer piece, the Piano concerto in A Minor, Opus 16 (utilizing the Schumann Piano concerto as a template). Though he composed it in 1869, at the age of twenty-four, he continued to tweak the piece for the rest of his career. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening piano, built of a sequence consisting of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian musical gesture, typifying as it does the pervasiveness of folk imagery and sound. This first movement is loaded with accessible themes, some obviously derived from one another, others strongly contrasting. It creates richness that has played a significant role in maintaining the concerto’s appeal. The animato section of the first movement includes tunes similar to those used by fiddlers in the folk genre; the lyric song of the second movement is harmonized in the style of some of Grieg’s later folksong influences; and the finale contains dance rhythms reminiscent of the halling and springdans so typical of Norwegian lore. It brought back fond memories of a visit in Bergen Norway by this critic to the composer's simple but charming home in his fatherland, now a museum dedicated to its famed inhabitant. Sometimes referred to as musical comfort food, it was praised by none other than Tchaikovsky for its perfect simplicity. As performed at Symphony Hall by Andris and Andsnes, it showed how deserving a concerto can be, as judged by the audience's repeated standing ovations.

Soprano Genia Kuhmeier with the BSO
(photo: BSO)

Mahler's Fourth Symphony in G , the subject of the second half of the program, is the last of his trio of Wunderhorn symphonies, with text from the German folk poems Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Completed in 1901, it was first heard in Munich, then several other German cities, but poorly received in virtually all of them. Many felt it was too “sunlit”, transparent, and brief, thus un-Mahler-like. He dismissed critics' “banal misunderstandings”. (All ye critics take note). The composer himself felt his adagio was his best slow movement. The final movement is an expansion of an 1892 song Das himmlische leben (“Heavenly Life”) here featuring Austrian soloist soprano Genia Kuhmeier in her BSO debut. It's a work that features quirks such as no trombones or tubas, both beginning and ending with sleigh bells, demonstrating how transporting music can be. It was first performed in this country by the New York Symphony Society in 1904, while its first appearance on the schedule of the BSO was not until 1942. Suffice it to say that while it argues that no music on earth can rival that of heaven, and may lack the universal acceptance of his Second (“Resurrection”), this pointedly ends with the proclamation (amidst some strange images of heaven) “so that all may awake for joy”. And so it was, reflecting the ideal weather outside the confines of Symphony Hall.


BLO's "Fellow Travelers": Climax Change

Jesse Blumberg & Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

It's always a pleasure to discover and share a sensational new opera such as Fellow Travelers. It's one of those rare anomalies these days, a contemporary work that manages to be challenging in some of its modern music while at the same time surprisingly filled with lovely tonal composition. As one opera buff noted many years ago in reference to Wagnerian operas, just focus on the orchestral parts and the singing will come through, as in the end it always must. That's certainly true of this opera, with Score by Composer Gregory Spears and Libretto by Greg Pierce. First performed in 2016 by The Cincinnati Opera, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, now being given its New England premiere by the ever-adventurous Boston Lyric Opera (which exceeds even its recent triumphant Handmaid's Tale), it's yet another thoroughly engaging production by a company that also travels, from concert halls to skating rinks. Quality is often defined in part by the process of taking risks (and succeeding at them), and this portrayal manages to do so while reflecting the frightening parallels between the “Lavender Scare” of the Era of McCarthyism and the false promises of the Error of Trump. While there is no explicit connection between then and now in the opera, it serves as yet another reminder (as quite recently noted by this critic) that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.

Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Since this is an unfamiliar opera, it necessitates a more comprehensive synopsis than most. It begins in September 1953 in a park at Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., where aspiring reporter, naive Timothy Laughlin (Jesse Darden), eating his lunch (with milk), is approached by the suave State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Jesse Blumberg). “Hawk” flirts with Tim, later arranging for Tim to be hired as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter (James Maddalena), a friend of Senator Joe McCarthy (David McFerrin) who claims that the U.S. Government is full of “Communists, Soviet spies and homosexuals”. (Oh, my!). Tim drops off a thank-you gift for Hawk at his office, where he meets reporter Tommy McIntyre (Vincent Torregano), as well as Hawk's assistant and best friend Mary (Chelsea Basler), and his secretary Miss Lightfoot (Michelle Trainor). Tim is at home cooking soup when Hawk drops by, ultimately staying the night. The next day Tim enters St. Peter's Church, torn between his profound Catholic faith and his passion for Hawk. Miss Lightfoot overhears an intimate exchange between Tim and Hawk; Hawk is subsequently ordered to Interrogation Room M304 where an Interrogator (McFerrin again) tests his sexual orientation. Tim and Hawk discuss the interrogation, and Hawk's sexual encounters while alone in New York. The act ends rather abruptly (“what's in a name?”), leaving the audience unsure that it has indeed ended. But it's a very minor glitch among a scorefull of gems.

Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

In Act II, Potter warns McCarthy he must give up helping Roy Cohn's friend David Schine to get special treatment in the Army, and give up Cohn himself. Mary is also in the warning mode as she describes (to Tim) Hawk's fickle nature, and tells Tim she is pregnant after a one-night stand. Hawk, rejoicing he's been cleared of homosexual allegations, wants to celebrate, which shocks Tim, leading to his enlisting in the Army. Mary quits her job with Hawk over the atmosphere of panic and persecution. Two years later, Tim writes to Hawk and Mary from where he's stationed in France. Hawk has married a woman named Lucy (Brianna J. Robinson) but implies he'd like to rekindle his affair with Tim. They rent a house in D.C. for their afternoon trysts, but Hawk warns Tim he cannot be for him all that Tim wants, resolving to end the affair. Hawk admits to Mary that he has secretly acted against Tim to end their relationship. In the last scene, at the same park at Dupont Circle where it all began, it is May 1957; the lovers face their futures.

Michelle Trainor & The Cast of "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The critical roles are those of the inexperienced Darden (his Catholic guilt in “Last night how many?”), the seductive Blumberg (“Our very own home, Skippy”) along with long-suffering Basler (“I worry, that's all”). All three are exemplary. McFerrin provides a creepily menacing McCarthy with his historically accurate harangues about “sexual subversives”. Several supporting roles, such as Potter's Assistant, a Bookseller, a Priest and a Technician, are sung by Simon Dyer. There are also two impressive operatic quartets in the second act. The production was Conducted by Boston University alumna Emily Senturia (the first time a woman has conducted this company's orchestra in two decades), leading a 17-piece orchestra. As she has described the score, it includes post-minimalist passages as well as baroque music (and heavy use of trombones) as well as patter in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, making for unusually accessible music for a contemporary work; in fact, it's been stated that the predominant musical strategy used by Spears and Pierce is one of indirection. The rest of the creative team, some duplicating work they originated for the Minneapolis run, included Stage Director Peter Rothstein, Set Designer Sara Brown, Costume Designer Trevor Bowen, and Lighting Designer Mary Shabatura.

Chelsea Basler & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Author Mallon (who observed “the scene” as a student at Brown and Harvard) calls his book a “political thriller”, with “outsized emotions...everything in the book is so claustrophobic, behind closed doors with drawn shades”. More to the point, he notes that “virtually every gay man has, at one point in his life, dated a guy who is mesmerizing but not good for them, ultimately”. It's been described as “Mad Men” meets “House of Cards”. Timothy doesn't see why he can't be a conservative and Catholic and still love whom he wants to love, and thinks their relationship is a gift from God, a view obviously at odds with the justly infamous Executive Order #10450 (banning homosexuals from government service). This represents a group described as almost entirely friendless, politically, making the opera's final betrayal (no spoilers here) all the more stunning. And stunning it is, to see such obviously mismatched a couple inescapably headed for an all but inevitable climax, so to speak.

Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Lisa Voll)

Given the political climate at the time, it should not surprise that the opera's climax is a change from what one might expect today. And what more could one ask for in a contemporary opera? One needn't echo the famed line from the play Tea and Sympathy: “when you talk about this, and you will, be kind”, as, even apart from its political importance, the work stands as an engrossing story exceedingly well written and performed. BLO has outdone itself yet again with this opera for our time and for times yet to come. What an extraordinary feat.

At the close of the opera, the surtitles (appropriately written by Librettist Pierce himself) add historical heft: five thousand queers lost their jobs, only to receive an official retroactive apology decades later by former Secretary of State John Kerry on the last day President Obama was in office; that apology was quickly and quietly excised on January 20, 2017. Does this date ring any bells?

Hopefully, you made haste, fellow opera buffs, and traveled by November 17th to the Emerson Paramount Theater; but best you didn't tell them Joe (McCarthy, that is) sent you.


ArtsEmerson's "Magic Flute": Survival of the Flautist

The Cast of "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Keith Pattison)

With its familiar overture suddenly performed as though never heard before, with drums and marimbas, this version of Mozart's “Magic Flute” was not the typical form of this deservedly popular allegorical opera, here adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May for the Isango Ensemble of Cape Town. While the basic libretto and music are essentially the same, the sound is not, making for a unique reintroduction to Mozart’s magic. A production by Eric Abraham and the Young Vic (which won the 2008 Olivier Award in London as Best Musical Revival), this was a revelation. Told as a South African Tsonga folk tale (titled Impempe Yomlingo in the South African language of Xhosa), it resonates with tropes familiar to such folklore, from bird catchers to trial by fire and water.
The Queen of the Night in "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Keith Pattison)

With a cast of some two dozen dancing singers (actually quadruple threats, as actors and instrumentalists as well), it’s a revival in several senses, especially in the Musical Direction by Paulina Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis and Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana, something to hear and see. With a raked Set Design by Dornford-May and Dan Watkins, Lighting Design by Mannie Manim and Costume Design by Leigh Bishop, this morality tale was given a whole new lease on life. If you think you’ve seen the definitive “Magic Flute” sometime in the past, think again. This was the “Magic Flute” of the present and the future. It’s not unlike rediscovering the pleasures of being in the company of an old friend, with suddenly renewed vim and vigor filling the Cutler Majestic Theater as perhaps never since the company's first visit with this production five seasons ago. The ensemble is even more energetic, though some soloists in this current production seemed out of their vocal comfort zone.

The survival of this flautist continued through November 10th.


Odyssey's "Maria Regina D'Inghilterra": Tudor Compact

Amy Shoremount-Obra & Alise Jordheim in "Maria, Regina D'Inghilterra"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Odyssey Opera continued its streak of presenting seldom-heard operas recently with what is believed to be the North American premiere of Maria, Regina D'Inghilterra, by composer Giovanni Pacini with libretto by Leopold Tarantini, based on the 1833 play Marie Tudor by Victor Hugo. It was an unqualified success when first produced in Palermo in 1843, but would soon be overlooked and forgotten, until revived by Opera Rara in London in 1983, almost a century and a half later. Local audiences had two recent opportunities to experience its attributes for themselves, as local treasure Odyssey Opera presented the work on November 1st and 3rd as part of its Season of Tudors, (the second of six works this season) about an implied compact between Queen Mary and her Lord Chancellor and its dire consequences.

Cast of "Maria Regina D'Inghilterra"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The story takes place in 1553 London, three centuries earlier than its composition. Mary I, Queen of England (soprano Amy Shoremount-Obra), is infatuated with Scottish adventurer Riccardo Fenimoore (tenor Kameron Lopreore), whom she ennobled as Lord Talbot. He has been unfaithful to her with the foundling Clotilde Talbot (soprano Alisa Jordheim), the only surviving child of the late Earl of Talbot, now betrothed to (and adored by) the commoner Ernesto Malcolm (baritone Leroy Davis). Lord Chancellor Gualtiero Churchill (baritone James Demler) wishes to protect the Queen by bringing down Riccardo so he informs her of Fenimoore's duplicity, as well as Clotilde's being heir to the Talbot name. The Queen first condemns Fenimoore to death, then repents doing so, ordering Clotilde to help to get him released. To her dismay, however, Churchill has already seen to it that her earlier order to execute Fenimmore has been carried out. She collapses into the arms of her ladies-in-waiting. Also featured were Un Paggio (mezzo-soprano Katherine Maysek, very believable), Raoul (Craig Juricka) and Un Uffiziale (Gray Leiper).

Cast of "Maria, Regina D'Inghilterra"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The three act opera, presented at the Huntington Avenue Theater, with one intermission after the second act, was performed in Italian with English supertitles (often unintentionally laughable), Staged and Directed by Steve Maler, with stark Scenic Design by Jeffrey Allen Petersen, confusingly mismatched Costume Design by Brooke Stanton and effective Lighting Design by Jorge Arroyo. The production was Conducted by Gil Rose with the Odyssey Opera Orchestra, with high points being an Act II duet between Jordheim and Shoremount-Obra (whose regal acting, it must be said, seemed forced) as well as a quartet by the four leads.

Cast of "Maria, Regina D'Inghilterra"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

In the end, it was librettist Tarantini who did the composer no favors with an incredible plot (even for an opera) and incomprehensible historical inaccuracies. Never fear, however, dear opera buffs, there are four more Tudor tributes in our future, with Odyssey performing Rosner's The Chronicle of Nine in February, Rossini's take on Elisabetta, Regina D'Inghilterra in March, Britten's Gloriana in April and German's Merrie England in June. It's enough to make a royal blush.   


SpeakEasy's "Admissions": Affirmative Factions

Nathan Malin, Maureen Keiller & Michael Kaye in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

One can't help but offer an obvious tagline for the play Admissions by Joshua Harmon (Significant Other, Bad Jews): “ripped from the headlines”. Tempting as that would be, one would have to concede that Harmon goes beyond one's initial expectations, confirmed in the current production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, of what is arguably the playwright's most controversial (and best) work to date. On the surface, it's pellucidly clear that affirmative factions are at play, as are other tropes such as ultra-liberal guilt and white privilege (once again, we know who we are).

Cheryl McMahon in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The plot centers around two married staff members at a tony New Hampshire prep school, Hillcrest. The school's self-righteous Head of Admissions, Sherri Rosen-Mason (spot-on Maureen Keiller) is married to its Headmaster Bill (tightly wound Michael Kaye), and both are concerned for the future of their 17-year-old son Charlie Luther (Nathan Malin, in an exquisite turn) and his lifelong dream of attending Yale. Perry, one of Charlie's classmates, has been accepted into Yale in part based on his biracial ethnicity, compelling Charlie, who status is “deferred”, to vent about what he feels is fundamental unfairness, questioning what makes someone a person of color, what constitutes diversity, and who gets to decide. Also in the cast are Ginnie Peters (the superb Marianna Bassham), Perry's white mother (oddly, we never meet either Perry or his black father Don) and Roberta (the amusingly scatterbrained Cheryl McMahon), from the school's development staff. Eventually Charlie proposes a change he wants to see in his world, which his parents warn could sabotage his future. As noted in the program, virtually everyone in the play is a hypocrite at some point (or at least inconsistent). Moreover, no person on stage is a person of color (not unlike the conspicuous lack of Native American actors in The Thanksgiving Play now playing at Lyric Stage Company). Nonetheless, Harmon leaves one to form her or his own opinions about the concepts of equality, diversity and inclusion (or, acronymically speaking, EDI).

Michael Kaye & Nathan Malin in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

As astutely Directed by Paul Daigneault, the Producing Artistic Director for SpeakEasy, this 2018 Off-Broadway Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle awards deserving winner as best play, (one of the top ten plays produced this season throughout the country), this satire is fast-paced, running at one hour and 45 intermission-less minutes (only one of several shows now on view at local theaters that essentially make one's commute longer than the plays themselves). The creative elements include inventive Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, apt Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and fine Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Marianna Bassham & Maureen Keiller in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

The play is problematic at times, such as Charlie's terrific seventeen-minute diatribe with the clincher: “If there are going to be new voices at the table, someone has to stand up and offer someone else his seat”. Asked if he is proud, he answers in the affirmative though doesn't reveal about what or whom he is proud. As Daigneault puts it in his program notes, Harmon doesn't feel he has to answer the questions he raises: “the real question of the play is: what happens when there is a deep rift between one's public values and private actions”. While the writing is sharp and witty, it's this wonderful cast and director who illustrate how thought-provoking theater can be. Great theater doesn't get much better than this; it's essential yet enjoyable homework.

Michael Kaye, Maureen Keiller & Nathan Malin in "Admissions"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

One doesn't need to be a nuclear physicist to see the double entendre in the title or its resonance in tomorrow's headlines. Its theme of repetitious maneuverings remind one of several theatrical offerings now on local stages dealing with corrupt motives. In the end, one is tempted to add yet another tagline appropriate for Admissions from a quote variously attributed to Mary Queen of Scots (in Margaret Atwood's sequel to The Handmaid's Tale, the new novel The Testaments) as well as to Mark Twain:     
     “History doesn't repeat itself....

     ....but it rhymes”.

It is now matriculating at SpeakEasy through November 30th.


BSO's "Faure/Ammann/Messiaen/Debussy": French Dip

Composer Dieter Ammann
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra's current program, with three French pieces on offer, is strong on Gallic elegance, from Gabriel Faure's Pavane to Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension to Claude Debussey's La Mer. There was also an American premiere under Finnish Conductor Susanna Malkki, and featuring German-born Swiss Pianist Andreas Haefliger, Dieter Ammann's The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata).

Faure's Pavane, Opus 50 has been described as stately, gorgeous, and familiar, with its composer's calm, naturalness, restraint and optimism (as noted by none other than Aaron Copland). It was first written in the 1880's for solo piano, then recomposed in 1887 for a full orchestra (with possible chorus and dancers). It is a Renaissance court dance, or processional, which is delicate and seductive, with a mood like Debussy's Claire de lune, with visions of Arcadia. It begins with the most famous music with a supple flute solo by flautist Elizabeth Rowe, continues with the brass section featured, and finally its opening theme returns. It was well and subtlety performed under Malkki's caring baton.

Pianist Andreas Haefliger
(photo: BSO)

The first half of the concert ended with the American premiere of Ammann's The Piano Concerto (Gran Toccata), actually originally written for Haefliger, with both jazz and modern elements. It was an impressive performance by all, with a great deal of vitality and verve, which the audience seemed to support, though time will tell whether the work earns any future with orchestras around the world. It should be noted that Ammann titled it The piano concerto since he doesn't intend to compose another; in point of fact, he wrote as though he were composing for two orchestras (one being the piano itself) rather than the more traditional format with piano solos. Once again, Malkki was superbly in charge of what could easily be, in less capable hands, an uncontrolled train wreck. It makes all the more surprising the fact that she hasn't conducted at Symphony Hall in about a decade. Glass ceilings, anyone?

The second half of the program began with Messiaen's 1932 Alleluiah on the Trumpet, Alleluiah on the Cymbal from his L'Ascension, (its third movement), a piece with definite Debussy influences, which led naturally to the final work, which was, fittingly, Debussy's La Mer (which was given its American premiere in 1907 by the BSO), with its three movements portraying changing states of the sea over the course of a day, three “Symphonic Sketches”: From Dawn to Noon on the Sea, Play of the Waves and Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea. It was a fine antidote to the almost frenzied Ammann work, a perfect segue out into the lovely crisp autumn day.

The program is to be repeated tonight, Saturday October 26th.


Lyric's "Thanksgiving": Diatribe Skewering Turkeys

Jesse Hinson, Amanda Collins, Grace Experience & Barlow Adamson in "The Thanksgiving Play"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

The Thanksgiving Play, the current production by Lyric Stage Company, is truly a play about nothing. This is not a criticism, but a factual statement. Yet it's also about everything, at least everything that matters. (You'll have to experience it in person to understand this convoluted logic). This work, by Native American Larissa FastHorse, first performed at New York's Playwrights Horizons, is out to skewer a mostly-overlooked subspecies, the American white liberal (and we know who we are) and its penchant for condescension. This she does, with savvy and savage humor as she figuratively (or is it literally?) characterizes her complacent and compliant targets, primarily those well-meaning creatives out to be politically woke. A truly “insider” play, this will be best appreciated by theatre folks and season (and seasoned) subscriber audiences in the know. It's already noteworthy that this is the first time American Theatre Magazine has listed a work by a Native American playwright as one of the year's most frequently produced plays by regional companies.

Jesse Hinson, Grace Experience, Amanda Collins & Barlow Adamson in "The Thanksgiving Play"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

It begins with an announcement that a play will be presented about the first Thanksgiving (between the “Separatists” and the Wampanoag Nation), in part so that “the Indians can practice sharing”. Its subsequent simple plot features elementary school drama teacher Logan (Amanda Collins) who wants to honor our country's first peoples via her proposed play, not so coincidentally subsidized by her recent Native American Heritage Month Awareness Through Art grant. Her spaced-out boyfriend Jaxton (Jesse Hinson) a street performer and self-confessed yoga dude and “vegan ally”, shows where he's coming from as he gifts Logan with a mason jar made of broken glass from housing projects. The rest of the cast recruited for this school play-to-be include Caden (Barlow Adamson), a third grade teacher and frustrated playwright, and Alicia (Grace Experience), an actor from L.A, whose credits include being an understudy for Jazmine in Disneyland's “Alladin” show, giving rise to the question as to whether there were “any non-Disney references in (her) life?”. In any case, this team of teaching artists and reenactors plan to produce what the author describes as some “performative wokeness”. This all may leave you gasping for breath between funny lines, as FastHorse has a quiver or two full of them and this cast's efforts are well done.

Jesse Hinson, Barlow Adamson, Grace Experience & Amanda Collins in "The Thanksgiving Play"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

While it remains too brief a diatribe (ninety minutes, shorter than one's commute to the theater), it is decidedly on target. With fast-paced Direction by Scott Edmiston, and a superbly assembled creative team that includes Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, it's a buffet for buffs who'll pick up on its many “in” allusions, a plethora of witty asides that make for a filling, if ultimately slight, verbal banquet.

As one character in the work warns: “sound waves travel”. Ouch, do they ever. FastHorse is a member of the Sicangu Lakota Nation in South Dakota, and as such states she has much in common with the folks she met during an extended spell in Ireland, viewing her tribe and theirs as colonized peoples. She also notes that Native American actors keep their ethnicity low profile, yet “we're still here”, and that too often she receives a sort of all-or-nothing response from her “allies”. The last act of her plays, she maintains, should take place “on the drive home”, as they are intentionally open for interpretation; they ask questions, such as what a “dramaturg” (“the Holy Grail of American theatre”) is, the hilarious answer to which won't be spoiled here.

If you're in need of theater to chew on, it's on the menu through November 10th, so circle your wagons.


"The SpongeBob Musical": Squid Pro Quo

The Cast of "The SpongeBob Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

When it was first announced a few seasons ago that a stage musical was in the planning stages to be titled The SpongeBob Musical, there was consternation in the theatrical world. It didn't help that it was to be based on the Nickelodeon television cartoon series SpongeBob SquarePants, with a creative team most of whom were virtually unknown at the time. Thus it was a major surprise when it first saw the light of night in Chicago in 2016 and earned a few raves. When it moved to Broadway in 2017, it garnished no fewer than twelve Tony Award nominations (losing all but one to other shows; notably, it had the bad fortune to open in the same season as The Band's Visit). Broadway, it seemed, would perhaps never be the same again, and is about to share the moment with this production, at the Boch Center's Wang Theatre, of the National Tour of (eat your hearts out, Esther Williams fans) The SpongeBob Musical.

Cody Cooley as Squidward Q. Tentacles in "The SpongeBob Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

For those who don't have pre-teen offspring (which is unarguably its target niche audience), herewith is a brief synopsis of its fathomless (as in not very deep) storyline. It appears that SpongeBob SquarePants (an inexhaustible Lorenzo Pugliese) and other citizens and denizens of Bikini Bottom (the mind boggles) are about to meet the end of the world as they know it thanks to the nefarious terrorist Sheldon Plankton (Tristan McIntyre). The residents, including Patrick Star (Beau Bradshaw), Eugene Krabs (Zach Kononov) and Sandy Cheeks (actually a visiting land mammal, played by Daria Pilar Redus) must head this off at the pass before watery armageddon arrives, which they manage to do, thanks to their Eruptor Interrupter. (Don't ask). Of course all's well that ends well; this is cartoon land after all.

Lorenzo Pugliese in "The SpongeBob Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The show boasts its simple Book (of sorts) by Kyle Jarrow and a complex Score by the immediate world, with original Songs by a Who's Who of composers and lyricists including Yolanda Adams, Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Sara Bareilles, Jonathan Coulton, Alex Ebert of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, The Flaming Lips, Lady Antebellum, Cyndi Lauper and Rob Hyman, John Legend, Panic at the Disco, Plain White T's, They Might Be Giants, T.I., Domani and Lil'C, as well as songs by David Bowie and Brian Eno, Tom Kenny and Andy Paley, with additional lyrics by Jonathan Coulton and Music and Orchestrations by Tom Kitt (of Next to Normal). Of these musical sources, the most memorable are the cute “Poor Pirates” by Bareilles, Legend's “(I Guess I) Miss You” (with strong similarities to Jonathan Larson's “Without You” from Rent) and the hit of the evening (thanks to an indescribable costume, and clever choreography for Squidward Q. Tentacles), “I'm Not a Loser”, voiced and danced by Cody Cooley.

Daria Pilar Redus, Lorenzo Pugliese & Beau Bradshaw in "The SpongeBob Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

The creative elements include fabulous Costume Design by David Zinn, lively
Lighting Design by Kevin Adams, complex and essential Projection Design by Peter Nigrini, and Sound Design by Walter Trarbach, as well as that Choreography by Christopher Gattelli. The production was “Conceived and Directed” by Tina Landau. These craftspeople account for those Tony nominations, including Best Musical, Score, Book, Direction, Sound, Choreography, Costumes, Lighting, Orchestrations, Male Lead, Featured Male Actor and Scenic Design (the last of which, by David Zinn, it won).

The Cast of "The SpongeBob Musical"
(photo: Jeremy Daniel)

This all adds up to a production of colorful visuals, corny jokes (“we may have abject misery, but it's the best abject misery”), and broad (but well done) comedy (not unlike The Three Stooges). Children of most ages will find it entertains just swimmingly (though it's a surprisingly long show at two and a half hours). For adults, it may well join the pantheon of the likes of Big Bird and Barney as those fauna which loving parents selflessly endure. Not to worry, though; for such families, it's a stageful of talented triple threats, as everyone acts, sings and dances her or his fins off.

All Nickelodeon fans be alerted: dive in before it casts off on October 27th for Peoria (no, really), which must after all have unearthed a harbor.


New Rep's "Trayf": When Is a Trifle Kosher?

Ben Swimmer & David Picariello) in "Trayf"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

If you don't know what the word Trayf  means, or think it applies solely to whether or not a particular food preparation is kosher, then this play's not for you. A brief (less than ninety minutes) coming-of-age comedy by promising young playwright Lindsay Joelle, in its New England premiere at New Rep in Watertown, it's a very slight story about a Jewish sect (or perhaps more accurately, a cult) in the 1990's as portrayed by two close 19-year-old friends, Zalmy (Ben Swimmer) and Shmuel (David Picariello). They are on a mission via a “mitzvah tank” (a newly-acquired RV) on a sort of road trip to convince non-practicing Jews to perform acts of love (which they see not as a static concept but as actual activity, namely good works). It's sort of a Brooklyn Book of Mormon without the musical score or the outrageous wit. It deals rather superficially with large issues such as the sacred vs. the secular, what is acceptable vs. what is forgivable, and identity vs. assimilation. There are some one-liners that ring true but a lot more that simply do not, especially if one lacks the necessary religious and cultural background to grasp fully what's transpiring for this dynamic duo.

The relationship of the two “missionaries” (though of course they aren't allowed to proselytize) is tested when they encounter another young man, record producer Jonathan (Nile Scott Hawver) who has recently learned of his Jewish roots and wishes to explore them, just as Zalmy is becoming fascinated with the larger world. They also encounter Jonathan's girlfriend Leah (Kimberly Gaughan) in a very short scene that attempts to present some context for his ethnic and spiritual dilemma. All four actors deliver their lines with believable portrayals thanks to the lively direction by Celine Rosenthal, but again, unless one is sufficiently familiar with the cult and culture underlying the play, one might fail to grasp what seems to be much ado about almost nothing. Based on the true world of the Chabad Lubavitcher it's pretty much lost to the audience that might be unfamiliar with those times and in that place.

The playlet succeeds as an amusing conflation of conflicting priorities, rather like an appetizer without a main course. Its success is bolstered by the creative team which includes Scenic Design by Grace Laubacher, Costume Design by Becca Jewett, Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau and Sound Design by Aubrey Dube.

One can certainly expect to encounter more depth and breadth in this playwright's future, but in the meantime, enjoy her tantalizing promise on view through November 3rd.


Cotuit's "Sweeney Todd": Still Cutting Edge

Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd: first as one of those sensational serialized “penny dreadful” Victorian publications in Britain (entitled “The String of Pearls”), subsequently in various British film and theatre versions, notably the 1973 play by Christopher Bond which led in 1979 to the popular musical. With Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by Hugh Wheeler, it won eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. Now presented by Cotuit Center for the Arts, it’s a fine opportunity for theatergoers to revisit and renew their acquaintance with the titular demon barber who captured so many hearts (and other organs) some thirty-five years ago. The original Broadway production, directed by Hal Prince, was a triumph of stagecraft, consolidating many theatrical elements into an unforgettably cohesive whole. While some theatregoers were put off by the grisly subject matter, it was generally recognized as an ingenious metaphorical treatment of the British class system. It was a dark work but filled with exceptional gifts for the discerning audience, and Prince’s memorable production made for an incredibly juicy time.

In a similar vein, so to speak, this fine production is ably directed by Mary Arnault with a cast that includes the vengeful Sweeney Todd himself (Christopher Edwards) to his all-too-willing accomplice Mrs. Lovett (the wonderful Bonnie Fairbanks), the hero appropriately named Anthony Hope (Beau Jackett), his adored Johanna (Emma Fitzpatrick), and the loyal Tobias Ragg (Ari Lew). Also in the cast are the two “heavies”, Judge Turpin (Peter Cook) and the Beadle (Alex Valentine), as well as the scheming Pirelli (Gioia Sabatinelli, who also plays a mysterious Beggar Woman). Typically an ensemble fills the stage for this show with music and mayhem, but the “crowd” scenes are underpopulated here (singing offstage), diminishing the impact of the beehive of the British classes. The casting of the lead characters, however, succeeds (though two males are too mature for their parts), despite the daunting demands of this intricate score.


The score is Sondheim’s masterpiece, from the chilling title song (“The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”) and the Beggar Woman‘s “City on Fire”, to the wit of Mrs. Lovett‘s “The Worst Pies in London” and “By the Sea”, to the loveliness of her duet with Tobias in “Not While I’m Around” and Johanna’s “Green Finch and Linnet Bird”, as well as the Beadle’s “Ladies in Their Sensitivity”. In this version the often-dropped “Mea Culpa” by Judge Turpin is missing. and it's not a great loss. And then there’s “A Little Priest”, the jaw-droppingly hilarious first act closer with easily the funniest lyrics Sondheim ever wrote. (Spoiler alert: they include Mrs. Lovett’s description of “such a nice plump frame wot’s-his-name has…had…has”, and a reference to shepherd’s pie “peppered with actual shepherd on top”). The creative team includes Music Direction by Malcolm Granger, with Scenic Design by Andrew Arnault, Costume Design by Alan Trugman, Lighting Design by Greg Hamm, and Sound Design by Tristan DiVincenzo. Despite some shortcomings (a set that requires many awkward scene changes, having to go up in order to go down, and no menacing barber chair), it’s a virtual guarantee that, like Sweeney himself, you’ll be transported.

Widely considered not only Sondheim’s best musical composition, but among the best musicals and/or operas (take your pick, one could argue either way) ever written, it’s difficult to describe the work without divulging too much. As Sondheim wrote, “What happened then, well, that’s the play, and you wouldn’t want him to give it away, not Sweeney”. Therefore, you owe it to yourself, whether you’re very familiar with the work or a novice, as the first song in the Prologue attests, to “attend (this) tale of Sweeney Todd”. Just make sure you’re well groomed prior to a performance and don’t need a haircut or trim; otherwise, you might find yourself invited for dinner.

After all is said and undone, this production of a true gem for local theater (arguably Cotuit's best show ever) is devoutly to be cherished, now playing through October 27th; but you needn’t lose your head over it.


BSO's "Sibelius/Elgar/Nielsen": Cradle of the Vikings

Cellist Truls Mork
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony program Friday afternoon (to be repeated Saturday evening) proudly displayed its Nordic roots in two thirds of the choices. Conducted by Russian-born Dima Slobodeniouk with solo work by Cellist Truls Mork, it consisted of three works: Pohjola's Daughter Symphonic Fantasy Opus 49 by Jean Sibelius, Cello concerto in E Minor, Opus 85 by Sir Edward Elgar, and Symphony No.5, Opus 50 by Carl Nielsen. Coincidentally (or perhaps not) all three pieces were composed in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

Sibelius' tone poem debuted in St. Petersburg in 1906 under the Finnish composer's baton, and was subsequently first performed in America in 1914 in Norfolk, Connecticut; its BSO debut soon followed, in 1917. inspired by the Finnish national epic Kalevala, it is described in the BSO program as a “conflation” of folk tales from Finland, lyrics, narrative and magic changes. In the story, the hero Vainamoinen attempts to win the hand of the “maiden of the North Farm”. To do so, he must accomplish some rather strange challenges including cleaving a swan with a dull knife, knotting an egg with knots that are invisible, pulling bark from a stone, breaking poles from ice, and finally building a boat using only splinters from the maiden's spindle. As with his other works, the composer starts slowly with a variety of motifs, ultimately leading to musical climaxes that suggest the Nordic topography. The orchestra was in fine form, especially near the end with a strong string sound (basses, then cellos, finally violas), then pianissimo with muted strings. One could easily see the “cradle of the Vikings” informing it.

Cello concerto in E Minor, Opus 85 by Elgar is, on the other hand, more about creating an atmosphere rather than storytelling. Considered this British composer's masterpiece, it is regarded as one of the central works for the cello in the musical world. Completed in 1919, it was first performed, under the composer's direction, by the London Symphony. When his beloved wife died soon after, his productivity eroded and he more or less disappeared into despair and melancholy. This piece boasts four rather than the typical three movements, with an overall impression of a bare and somewhat bleak period. It was first performed in this country in 1934, though it was not presented by the BSO until 1955. Its most recent appearance on the BSO schedule was in 2016. This rendering was wondrous, with Mork's familiarity with this work a definite plus.

Symphony No.5 with just two movements, by Nielsen, Denmark's greatest symphonist, was first heard in 1922, and last played in this country in 1993. With a heavy influence by Beethoven, eschewing sentimentality, it remains one of the few examples of this composer's ouevre that is well known outside his own country. A friend of Sibelius, he never quite matched his popularity on the world concert stage. The BSO, especially in the playing of the fugue that dominates the finale, was exemplary, ensuring we probably won't have to wait too long to hear this piece again, since (though it was a relatively unknown choice on the program), it was the unexpected high point.


BMOP: Dynamic Duo

A duo of brand new CD releases (this past summer) from Boston Modern Orchestra Project, the concept envisioned by Odyssey Opera Conductor Gil Rose that is known for its exclusive devotion to new music, features Keeril Makan's Dream Lightly and George Perle's Complete Serenades.

Makan, whose parents are of Russian-Jewish and Indian-South African ethnic backgrounds, was brought up by them with intense exposure to the musical heritage of several cultures, made manifest in this recording, with its roots in Indian classical as well as western rock and blues. A professor at MIT, he presents here four of his works that portray harmony and lyricism via acoustical instrumentation, as exemplified by guitarist Seth Josel. Makan himself describes his work Dream Lightly as not really a traditional concerto, but as though the music exists “inside of the guitarist's head, helping, supporting and coloring”. While this piece is soothing and calming, the lengthy If We Knew the Sky is quite the opposite, and the most challenging of these four works. The remaining cuts, Tender Illusions and Still (with Charles Dimmick on violin and Peter Sulski on viola, are more approachable.

Perle, a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, presents the debut on CD of his complete Serenades, the first featuring solo viola and ten-piece orchestra, the second with eleven musicians but no soloists. The last utilizes solo piano and a ten-piece orchestra, and was previously recorded and nominated for a Grammy Award in 1986. They were all composed in the 1960's. The soloists are Wenting Kang on the viola and Donald Berman on the piano, lending credence to the composer's respect for traditions while setting some of his own that others have used for inspiration. As individual pieces, they are reasonably approachable, especially the (Pulitzer-winning) Serenade No.3, with its five movements including Allegro, Burlesco, Elegy (in George Balanchine's honor), Perpetuum mobile and Finale (here with Berman on piano).  The viola solo (by Kang) in Serenade No.1 with its five movements of Rondo, Ostinato, Recitative and Coda, and the eleven players in the Serenade No.2 (solely identified as I, II, III, IV and V) round out this well-balanced program of works from 1962-1983.

The BMOP label, created by Rose in 2008, rightly prides itself on encouragement of innovative musical offerings by moddern composers, and these two issues certainly carry on that tradition.