Huntington's "Rapture, Blister, Burn": It's Appealing

Fresh off the announcement that it will be awarded a well-deserved Regional Theater Tony at the annual awards ceremony next week, Huntington Theater Company is currently presenting “Rapture, Blister, Burn” by Gina Gionfriddo, a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Drama (as was her “Becky Shaw” back in 2009, also performed at Huntington). As directed by Huntington’s Artistic Director Peter DuBois, who has collaborated with Gionfriddo in the past, it’s an intelligent and funny take on women’s having it all, or not. The title comes from a song by the rock band Hole and Courtney Love, described as a “wound-licking anthem”, “Use Once and Destroy”, which says “I went down for the remains/sort through all your blues and stains/take your rapture blister burns/stand in line, it’s not your turn…I went down to rescue you/it’s the emptiness that’s all you have left”. This refers to the stories of two women who made radically different choices in their earlier lives. Catherine Croll (Kate Shindle) chose a high-powered career; Gwen Harper (Annie McNamara) chose marriage and family. They meet up twelve years after those choices were made.

At happy hour, these two women and two others, Catherine’s mother Alice (Nancy E. Carroll) and Gwen’s babysitter Avery Willard (Shannon Esper) discuss how women’s roles have changed in the last few decades (and not). If the debate sounds a bit familiar, Gionfriddo herself admits to an (unintended) homage to Wendy Wassermann’s 1988 work, “The Heidi Chronicles”. In Catherine’s assessment, “in a relationship between two people, you can’t both go first”, which may explain her previous career track and her feelings that she’s going to miss having a family once her mother is gone; as her mother puts it, “life begins when your mother dies”. In Gwen’s view, “choices have consequences” about the life not lived. As the young Avery sees it, either choice has its pitfalls: “you either have a career and end up lonely and sad, or you have a family and end up lonely and sad?” The sole male character in the play is Gwen’s husband Don (Timothy John Smith), who happens to have been Catherine’s boyfriend back in grad school. It’s a rather contrived setup, but if you forgive Gionfriddo her convenient structure, you’ll find it’s well worth the journey. Along the way, there are hilarious putdowns of the likes of Rousseau and Dr. Phil, as well as Phyllis Schlafly, though she gets a surprisingly balanced treatment by the end of the evening, despite the central thrust of the play. Before this quartet of women are finished dissecting the feminist mystique, they’ve argued about integrity vs. manipulation, personal mythologies without any basis in fact, and the wisdom of embracing mediocrity. If this sounds too academic, have no fear. Whenever the work threatens to get too heavy, there’s a devastating one-liner at the ready.

Happily, this cast is also readily adept at hurling those zingers, from the concept of outsourcing the sentimental side of relationships to the influence of porn. Carroll’s non-verbal reaction to the porn discussion alone is worth the price of admission, but her delivery of many of the play’s best lines is priceless. Shindle, McNamara, Esper, and even Smith each get her or his chance to shine as well, with painstaking attention to detail (such as McNamara’s note-taking with a pencil vs. Esper’s use of her iPad). The technical crew also share that eye for detail, from the brilliant weathered cedar-shingled Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge (a Tony nominee for the Huntington-originated “Present Laughter”), to the Costume Design by Mimi O’Donnell, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter (a Tony winner himself for last season’s “Peter and the Starcatcher” on Broadway), and Sound Design by M.L. Dogg .

Huntington Theater Company has chosen a worthy closer to a very distinguished year. “Rapture, Blister, Burn” is cause for rejoicing, with its rapturous wordplay, blistering humor and burning ideals. It’s easily the most enjoyable seminar on living and loving that you’ll experience anywhere this season.


Lyric Stage's "On the Town": Carried Away

It was 1944, and the country was understandably focused on the ongoing war overseas. It was no wonder that a new musical that told the tale of three sailors on leave for just twenty-four hours in New York City, just before they were to ship out for the battlegrounds, was seen as an unusual, even odd, idea for an evening’s entertainment. It was the first Broadway venture by three of its creators, with the book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. Only its choreographer, Jerome Robbins, had been tested on the Great White Way before. With only ten days for an out-of-town tryout, it opened in New York to mixed reviews. It suffered a bit from its threadbare plot but the original concept and execution were transformative for its time; in fact, although the show was truly ahead of its time, it ran just over a year (almost 500 performances) in its first production, with disappointingly brief runs in two subsequent major revivals on Broadway. It was hailed as primarily a dance show, and rightly so, since it was not only based on an original ballet and concept by Robbins (“Fancy Free”) but contained more dance numbers than the more typical Broadway musicals. (Bernstein recycled some of the music for his later work for the “Conga” number in the much more successful “Wonderful Town”). Typically for Hollywood, the film version in 1949 used only five of original creators’ almost two dozen numbers, adding six others not written by them. Thus, if you’ve never seen a live performance, you’ve never really seen “On the Town”, and do you ever have a treat in store for you.

Beg, borrow, go AWOL if necessary, to get tickets to this, Lyric Stage Company’s triumphant finale to its season, for it’s the “On the Town” you should’ve seen. This production is superbly directed by Lyric’s Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, with wonderful, amazing choreography and musical staging by Ilyse Robbins (the latter fully living up to that famous last name, though no relation), who has even choreographed the set changes. From the moment that those three sailors, Chip (Phil Tayler), Ozzie (Zachary Eisenstat) and Gabey (John Ambrosino) spring onto the stage, it’s becomes clear that this is the definitive version. It’s not long before each meets his ideal mate, respectively taxi driver Hildy (Michele A. DeLuca), anthropologist Claire de Loon (Aimee Doherty), and Ivy (Lauren Gemelli). All are individually and collectively superb. Also in the cast are Madame Dilly (Sarah deLima), Judge Pitkin (J. T. Turner) and Lucy (Ilyse Robbins) heading up a terrific ensemble including Lenni Kmiec, Rishi Basu, Kayla Bryan, Lisa Dempsey, Jeremy Towle, Daniel Forest Sullivan, Ceit M. Zweil, Maurice Emmanuel Parent, Christina English, Caleb Dane Horst, Pim van Amerongen and Cameron Benda. The Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland is just right, as is the Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, the extremely clever Projection Design by Seaghan McKay, and carefully chosen Costume Design by Kathleen Doyle. The Musical Direction by Jonathan Goldberg hits all the right notes and, miraculously, the nine piece orchestra never drowns out the glorious singing, especially by Ambrosino, and perfectly accompanies the astoundingly athletic dancing by Eisenstat. Mention should also be made of the hilarious work of DeLuca and Tayler, and the screwball comedy of Doherty, whose versatility apparently knows no bounds. They manage to stand out in an impressive troupe of twenty-one, sometimes seeming like the proverbial cast of thousands.

“On the Town” never had enough time to fix some of the problems with its second act, where Comden and Green run out of steam and start repeating themselves. Still, with a great but mostly unfamiliar score including funny numbers such as “I Can Cook Too”, “Carried Away”, and “Subway Ride”, plaintive ones such as “Lonely Town”and uplifting ones such as“Lucky to Be Me”, and of course the iconic “New York, New York”, Veloudos’ endless array of hilarious touches and tweaking, and choreography that’s irresistible, this is truly a worthy humdinger of an ending to Lyric Stage’s season. It wouldn’t be much of a spoiler, given the story’s time frame of a single day, to state that the ending is one of the most poignant ever conceived. The three male leads, having had such a brief spell of exuberance and joy, face an uncertain fate. In a final quartet, we hear the lament of time’s passing and hopes for the future, in the hauntingly beautiful, heartbreakingly bittersweet ballad, “Some Other Time”. Consider the lyrics: “When you’re in love, time is precious stuff; even a lifetime isn’t enough…but let’s be glad for what we’ve had and what’s to come”. What’s to come for these three, we’ll never know; neither will the final twist be revealed here, as life evolves (and revolves) in a cycle. You won’t be able to resist being carried away.


SpeakEasy's "In the Heights": You Want Salsa with That?

Note: The following should not be read as an actual review of this production, as a random mechanical error involving the dimmer rack caused the lighting board to shut down twice. Thus theatergoers familiar with SpeakEasy's history of musicals ("Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson" this season, and "Xanadu", "The Adding Machine", and countless others) would be wise to purchase tickets based on those experiences.

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s final production for the season is “In the Heights”, the 2008 Tony Award winner for Best Musical (as well as Best Score, Orchestrations and Choreography, after a total of thirteen nominations). It was also a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and won a Grammy Award to boot. With music, lyrics and original conception by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also starred in the New York version) and book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, it was a revelation: a hit musical (running almost three years on Broadway after five months off-Broadway) composed of hip hop, rap and salsa. “West Side Story” it’s not, and yet that’s the musical that this one most closely resembles both in soaring spirits and even higher kicks. From the first few notes delivered by the play’s hero, Usnavi (Diego Klock-Perez), it’s clear we’re not in Kansas anymore. But fear not. Even if rap isn’t your bag, you’ll be won over by the music, the lyrics and especially the dancing.

It’s July 3rd and there’s a record heat wave in the hood, New York City’s Washington Heights, a close-knit Latino community. There are four businesses on view. The bodega owned by Usnavi is opening for the day, as he dreams of returning someday to his home in the Dominican Republic with his adopted Abuela (Grandmother) Claudia (Carolyn Saxon) who has raised him. His cousin Sonny (Jorge Barranco) helps with the store and his friend Benny (Jared Dixon) drops by. Usnavi’s girlfriend Vanessa (Alessandra Valea) works along with Carla (Jasmine Knight) in the nearby beauty salon owned by Daniela (Merissa Haddad). Another storefront is a taxi business owned by Kevin (Tony Castellanos) and Camila (Nicole Paloma Sarro), whose daughter Nina (Santina Umbach) has just arrived from her first year in college.The fourth business is a cart driven by “Piragua (shaved ice) Guy” (Anthony Alfaro). As the heat wears on, we discover all’s not well in the Heights. Not only does Usnavi long for his ancestral island, but Vanessa wants to move to the West Village; Nina almost flunked out of college, and her parents Kevin and Camila need a quick loan; Daniela’s rent increases so high she has to move the salon to the Bronx, and Benny needs a job and a girl. Has there ever been a musical in such communal need of a true bochinche (ruckus) to shake things up?

There won’t be a quiz, and suffice it to say that things will get worse before they get better, but since this is a musical comedy, things will and do. In this incarnation, helmed by Director Paul Daigneault and Choreographer Larry Sousa, there’s never any doubt. And the cast has managed to balance the various dilemmas with an infectious energy. There are a couple of dozen numbers in the show, which doesn’t begin to tell the backstory: Miranda wrote some sixty songs for the work that never saw the light of Broadway. Amazingly, even the minor character Piragua Guy gets a solo (and a reprise to boot) for as Miranda put it, he deserves one, as he too has his story to tell. Once the initial shock of the opening rap number subsides, it comes as a relief that the rest of the score is more lyrical than one dared hope, full of wisdom and whimsy, continually advancing the central sweet story of a family of neighbors in various crises. It’s a somewhat (you should perdone the expression) white-washed tale told more in song than in grit by the principals and the entire ensemble. In addition to the featured players named above, the cast consists of Christian Denzel Bufford, Sarah Crane, Lauren Csete, Sean Jones, Melanie Porras, Chris Ramirez, and Adrian Ruz.

When singing, dancing, direction, and choreography come together seamlessly, it’s maravilloso, as was the case with the Broadway original, with the added fascination of seeing composer/lyricist  Miranda perform his own material from his own life. Anticipation was high for experiencing a local troupe’s take on the story. Unfortunately, technical glitches during the opening performance prevented an accurate assessment. The sound balance between the eight piece band and the singers (even though the latter were amplified) was distorted to the extent that one who was unfamiliar with the score could easily have missed some truly essential plot points. Some of the costuming was unflattering to say the least, and annoyingly distracting. Worse, the lighting system broke down, producing some weird out of body experiences, several times bringing up the house lights.The cast is to be commended for soldiering on. Given the technical disaster, it’s impossible, and even unfair, to comment on any of the performances.

Sometimes the magic of live theater succumbs to the pitfalls of live theater. Still, given the excellent track record of SpeakEasy’s Daigneault in staging musicals, theatergoers who haven’t seen this work should feel confident in deciding to attend; surely there’s gold in them there heights.


URT's "Distracted": Attention Must Be Paid

Underground Railway Theater’s current offering of Lisa Loomer’s 2007 comedy “Distracted” is a virtually flawless production of a far from flawless uni-polar (that is, manic) play. Central to the story is the journey of one mother (Stacy Fischer) from denial to despair, with several disturbing detours, as she grapples with a common problem faced by contemporary parents. Her nine year old son Jesse (Brandon Barbosa, at the opening night performance) may have ADD, Attention Deficit Disorder, or as it is more widely known, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder; the operative word here is “Hyperactivity”, a state shared by young Jesse and by the play itself.

We don’t get to see Jesse for most of the play, for, as Mama puts it in the first of many fourth-wall-breaking addresses to the audience, “I don’t think the stage is a particularly healthy place for a child; besides, people only want to see a child on stage if he’s singing show tunes”. We do, however, hear a great deal from him, as his frequent tirades threaten to destroy any hope of peace and quiet for his family, his school and his neighborhood. Before the evening is over, we’ll also hear from a number of mostly well-meaning friends and professionals, every last one of them burdened with her or his own personal baggage and consequent “solutions”. But just as there is no objective way of arriving at a diagnosis (rather, a subjective analysis of a checklist of indicators), there is no real cure, merely various treatments, ranging from the benign to the bizarre, from behavior modification to medication, that only address the symptoms.

Along the way, there is, incidentally, no pretense at maintaining that fourth wall; there’s really no wall at all. This theatrical device is nothing new, as demonstrated elsewhere this season in such works as “The Skin of Our Teeth” and “M”, but Loomer carries it to its illogical extreme. At one point, one doctor hopes Jesse “someday might be able to get a PhD and help others, or play a person with a PhD who helps others”; the same actor laments that without his own Ritalin he wouldn’t be able to memorize his lines. At another point, Dad (Nael Nacer) asks if anyone is listening, to which Mama responds, indicating the audience, “They are”, but Dad insists we’re all absorbed with our own problems. Meanwhile he asks “can’t a boy be a boy anymore?”, while Mama’s question is “would Ritalin get him a friend to sit with at lunch?…would Ritalin be a better mother than I am?”

In the end, Loomer has written a wildly hysterical (in both senses of the term) skewering of the medical world’s panoply of so-called experts, while providing some memorable opportunities for actors to engage us, and, under Wesley Savick‘s fine direction, this cast really delivers. Fischer has by far the meatiest role, and she’s great in it, as is Nacer (markedly different from his roles this season in “Kite Runner” and “Lungs”, a truly versatile performer). The supporting cast, every one of them side-splittingly funny, includes neighbors like Sherry (Kerry A. Dowling), her daughter Natalie (Katie Elinoff), and Vera (April Pressel), and various clinicians including Dr. Zavala (Debra Wise),
Drs. Broder, Jinx, and Karnes (Steven Barkhimer), and Dr. Waller and others (Michelle Dowd). The technical credits are outstanding, from the Scenic Design by Sara Brown to the Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley to the Sound Design by David Remedios. Special note should be made of the Lighting Design and Projections by Bozkurt Karasu, which are often, uh, distracting. (But, as Jesse might put it, doh, isn’t that the point?). The sole negative element in this production is the performing space, between two opposite seating areas, with the same problems theater-in-the-round has, here exacerbated since there is considerable direct engagement with the audience.

When all is said and done, we the audience, even with our limited attention spans, are treated to a blisteringly comical ride full of wit and insight. Less of a coherent play than a series of vignettes that are, in both the theatrical and medical senses, at best anecdotal, this work is nonetheless a wise and wacky mirror of our overly medicated age. If there’s closure in this work, it’s probably the awareness that what kids (and, by extension, all of us) need is attention.


New Rep's "Amadeus": For the Love of God

On the day after the horrific events surrounding this year‘s Boston Marathon finally found some closure, two local college productions resumed their schedules for the musical version of “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and the Mozart opera “La Clemenza di Tito” (both memorable, as is often the case in our culturally blessed city). Attendance at both necessitated a walk past one crime scene, Boylston Street, and its memorial to those killed and injured. Nearby, two women and a little girl held signs reading “Free Hugs”, a simple but moving response to the tragedy. Not to sound too maudlin, but one was reminded of how therapeutic theatre can be. Yet another reminder, blocks from a related crime scene in Watertown, occurred at the opening of New Rep’s production of Peter Shaffer’s 1979 play “Amadeus”, (Mozart’s middle name “Theophilus” translated into the Latin form he preferred, meaning “God’s love”), a work that celebrates the human and the divine in the process of creation. The final work of this stellar season, it became part of a larger transition to normalcy and much needed healing.

The original New York production, substantially rewritten after its London premiere, was the winner of no fewer than seven Tony Awards including Best Play. The 1984 film version won eight Academy Awards as well as a place in the American Film Institute’s list of the best hundred films ever made. With such a pedigree, the story of the renowned composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (here well played by Tim Spears as a boorish prodigy) and his nemesis Antonio Salieri (masterfully played by Benjamin Evett), an inferior composer, was a brilliant choice for the company and its Artistic Director Jim Petosa, who directs this version impeccably. This work by Shaffer (also known for “Equus” and “Royal Hunt of the Sun”) is a highly literate, witty and amusing near masterpiece. Its final version made Salieri less of an observer and more at the center of his rival’s ruin. As those who have seen the play or film will recall, the action takes place in Vienna in 1823, with flashbacks to the decade 1781-1791. It concerns the efforts of a hapless Mozart to obtain more gainful employment in a number of official openings, most of which are sabotaged behind his back by the jealous Salieri. The intrigues perpetrated by Salieri grow more and more vicious and dangerous. Even the debuts of some of Mozart’s greatest works (“The Abduction from the Seraglio”, “The Marriage of Figaro”, “Don Giovanni” and most of all “The Magic Flute”) weren’t enough to gain him his elusive fortune, given Salieri’s tactics, part of his “war with God and His preferred Creature, Mozart…in the waging of which, of course, the Creature had to be destroyed”. Shaffer shows how Mozart’s view of his father Leopold evolved from the accusing figure of the Commendatore in “Don Giovanni” to the more loving, embracing Sarastro of “Magic Flute”, all the while ignorant of the assassin in his midst. Salieri’s final blow is convincing Mozart to betray the Masonic Order’s most secret rituals. While this is Shaffer’s fictionalized version, it provides great opportunities for displaying acting chops.

Salieri’s machinations involve Mozart’s wife Constanze Weber (McCaela Donovan, delectably complex), Count von Strack, Groom of the Imperial Chamber (Paul D. Farwell), the Kapellmesiter Bonno (Mark Soucy), Emperor Joseph II (Russell Garrett), Baron van Swieten, Prefect of the Imperial Library (Evan Sanderson), Count Orsini-Rosenberg, Director of the Imperial Opera (Jeffries Thaiss), Teresa Salieri (Emily Culver), Katherina (Esme Allen), the Cook (John Geoffrion), Salieri’s Valet (Nathaniel Gundy), the “Venticelli”, a gossipy Greek chorus (Michael Kaye and Paula Langton), and Gabriel Rodriguez (Ensemble). This large cast of fifteen is uniformly wonderful, especially Evett as the scheming anti-hero, in a performance that would exhaust a thesaurus of positive adjectives; it’s the role of a lifetime, and he is amazingly, breathtakingly flawless. The technical credits are up to New Rep’s estimable standards, from the strikingly beautiful Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, to the beautiful Costume Design by Frances Nelson McSherry, to the intricate Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins and the impressive Sound Design by David Remedios. It’s a triumphal voyage with Petosa at the helm.

Salieri, at first seemingly triumphant in achieving his immediate goals, realizes his own fame is an embalmment for work he himself considers absolutely worthless, his sentence being “thirty years of being called ‘distinguished’ by people incapable of distinguishing”. While he stated early in life that it was “only through hearing music that I know God exists; only through writing music that I could worship”, his envy drove him to destroy a far superior creation. Yet even he sees the tragic in his triumph, realizing it is short-lived, that “Mozart’s music sounds louder and louder through the world, and mine faded completely, till no one played it at all”, moaning that he “must survive to see myself become extinct”. His unforgiving rage is directed against the God who, in total unfairness, created him mediocre. In the end, he confronts the audience: “Mediocrities everywhere now and to come: I absolve you all! Amen”. Whether or not you require absolution, you should make a pilgrimage to this wonderful resurrection of a marvelous play, if only for its power to transport theatergoers to a higher plane. In a year that began with the terrific “Kite Runner”, this is the perfect bookend to a very satisfying season. This production is so divine, it borders on the infallible.