Cirque du Soleil's "Amaluna": A Tempest-uous Spectacular

The Cast of Cirque du Soleil's "Amaluna"
(photo: Christine Redmond Photography)

Cirque du Soleil’s productions tend to go in the direction of the visual spectacle, such as the long-running “Mystère” in Las Vegas, or the more plot-based creation, such as “The Beatles LOVE”, also in Las Vegas. They are at their best when both aspects are presented, such as in “Iris” in Los Angeles or here in Boston in “Amaluna”, now being presented at Marine Terminal. Loosely (very loosely) based on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, this is a successful amalgam of plot structure and spectacular, both athletic and acrobatic . Directed by Diane Paulus, whose home base at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, where she is Artistic Director, just produced its own well-received “Tempest”, this is Cirque du Soleil at its theatrical best. It has all the features one has come to expect from the company, emerging as one of their better efforts.

It’s also one of their most unusual, in that the cast is predominantly female, and the story is strongly feminist. The tale of “Amaluna” (the title connoting “mother” and “moon”), centers around the shaman Queen Prospera (a gender-bender from the original text of the Bard) played by Julie McInnes, who rules a mysterious island guided by goddesses and the cycles of the moon, and her daughter Miranda, played by Iuliia Mykhailova. The goddesses are led by a Moon Goddess (Andréanne Nadeau), featuring a Peacock Goddess and a Balance Goddess, as well as Valkyries and Amazons. Shipwrecked by a storm caused by Prospera, a group of young men comes ashore, headed by Prince Romeo (Evgeny Kurkin) who encounters Miranda; it’s mutual love at first sight. However, the half human/half lizard Caliban-like Cali (Victor Kee) loves Miranda (though she considers him only her pet), and determines to keep Romeo from winning her. Meanwhile, Romeo’s manservant Jeeves (Nathalie Claude) meets Miranda’s former nurse Deeda (Sheeren Hickman) and it’s instant mutual love for these two clowns as well. (Maybe it’s something in the water). While these clowns begin a family, the heroine Miranda and her hero Romeo must face many obstacles along the way to true love’s mutual trust . First there is Miranda’s coming of age ceremony, a rite giving homage to femininity as well as rebirth and renewal, and the balance that helps pass on one generation’s values and knowledge to the next.

Along the way there are countless Cirque du Soleil signature elements. including “Icarian” games, an aerial pas de deux by the God and Goddess of the Wind, a peacock dance, the aforementioned Moon Goddess riding a cerceau (a hoop), those Amazons on uneven bars, and, in a water bowl, Miranda’s depth-defying aquabatics. Then there is a male quintet on a teeterboard (awe-inspiring, even when one tettered when he should have tottered), a balancing routine by a Balance Goddess played by Lili Chao (and what she did was heavenly), Chinese pole artistry (by Romeo) wickedly defying gravity, amazing juggling (by Cali), and a final aerial straps ballet (with those Valkyries). As expected, they’re all impossibly gorgeous (the concession stand should be selling gym memberships) and miraculously talented. The all female band of musicians and singers is terrific as well.

As is also usual for this company, the graceful choreography is exquisite, this time by Karole Armitage. The set and props designed by Scott Pask, as well as the costumes designed by Mérédith Caron, are extraordinarily lovely. The music, composed and arranged by Guy Dubuc and Marc Lessard (aka “Bob and Bill”), is atmospheric and moving, aided by the complex sound designed by Jacques Boucher and brilliant (literally) lighting designed by Matthieu Larrivée. All of these technical elements enhance the work of Paulson at her finest, even more remarkable than her Tony-winning direction of “Pippin” just last season.

Since its original conception in 1984, the mission of Cirque du Soleil has been “to invoke the imagination, provoke the senses and evoke the emotions of people around the world”. This production, begun in April 2012 and having toured the country since then, exemplifies that mission; its cast of forty-six artists and total crew of one hundred and fourteen hail from seventeen countries. When presented with the craft and creativity of a performance like this, one can only marvel at how ingenious “Amaluna” is in concept and in execution, so packed with delights. Who wouldn’t love a full moon like this? It’s only in town for a few weeks; one would be wise to get tickets soon, as this brings to mind the old saying, “Tempest” fugit.


National Theatre "Curious Incident": Tale Wags the Dog

        National Theatre Live HD broadcast at Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline (and other venues)

Luke Treadaway in "The Curious Tale of the Dog in the Night-Time"
(photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg)
London’s National Theatre’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, adapted by playwright Simon Stephens from the deservedly popular novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, was nominated for eight 2013 Olivier Awards and won seven of them, including Best New Play. It’s headed this fall to Broadway, but one can avoid the high New York ticket price by catching a screening at local theaters that offer the “National Theatre Live” series. This adaptation is faithful to Haddon’s book in its story about a fifteen-year-old, Christopher John Francis Boone (Luke Treadaway), who is autistic, and gifted with respect to what Brits call “maths”, yet fearful of interacting with people. Living in the small town of Swindon, not far from London, he finds maths to be dependable, good, safe, constant. He’s capable of literal thinking only, with no nuance or subtlety, taking everything at face value. He finds solace in “prime numbers…what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life…very logical, but you could never work out the rules."

Christopher also has a love of the night sky and Sherlock Holmes. Having discovered his neighbor’s poodle Wellington impaled on a pitch fork, and being unfairly accused of the crime, he decides to investigate the murder based on this love of Holmes’ deductive logic. His parents (Paul Ritter and Nicola Walker) have reacted in quite different ways to having a “special needs” child whom they cannot hug but merely touch, only hand to hand, to show their love. His teacher Siobhan (Niamh Cusack) encourages him to write a book, then a play, about his experiences. All four actors are brilliant, as are the other six cast members in multiple roles. There is a good deal of tension between the inventiveness of fiction and his obsession with facts, forensics and systemized data. He sees a novel or play as a metaphor. As he puts it, “the word ‘metaphor’ is a metaphor and should be called a lie.”

As noted above, this production was honored with a host of Olivier Awards, in addition to Best Play, notably Best Actor to Treadaway and Best Supporting Actress to Walker. The other Olivier Awards were given for Direction by Marianne Elliott, the wonderfully complex Set Design by Bunny Christie (as well as Projections by Finn Ross), effective Lighting Design by Paule Constable, and Sound Design by Ian Dickinson and Music by Adrian Sutton. This sad yet funny work is a stunner. In Christopher’s words, “I know I can do this; I solved The Mystery of Who Killed Wellington…and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.” It’s a production not to be missed.


SFO Opera's "Lucrezia Borgia": Name Your Poison

Opera at the Cinema: "Lucrezia Borgia"
at Coolidge Corner Theater, Brookline

Michael Fabiano as Gennaro in "Lucrezia Borgia"
(photo: San Francisco Opera)

Coolidge Corner Theater's Opera at the Cinema series has as its current offering a rarely produced bel canto opera by Donizetti, “Lucrezia Borgia”, one of history’s more infamous pharmacists. Less popular than the composer’s “Elisir d’Amore” or “Lucia di Lammermoor”, this is nonetheless filled with fine music. This performance, from San Francisco Opera, featured Renée Fleming in the title role, heading a cast of male singers (and one female in a “pants” role). Since the opera isn’t that familiar to most opera lovers, and given the libretto’s typical bel canto absurdities, a brief synopsis may be in order.

The story begins in Venice with a discussion among Gennaro (Michael Fabiano) and his friends, including his dearest friend, Maffio Orsini (Elizabeth Deshong), about their plans to travel to Ferrara to the home of the Duke Alfonso D’Este (Vitalij Kowaljow) and his wife Lucrezia Borgia (René e Fleming). Gennaro then wanders off and falls asleep, as his friends depart. A mysterious masked woman arrives, awakening him with a kiss. Gennaro instantly declares his love for her, as well as the mother he never knew. (Little does he know that Lucrezia herself is his long-lost mother). His friends return, recognize Lucrezia, and denounce her crimes, to his horror. Later, in Ferrara, Duke Alfonso, believing Gennaro to be his wife’s lover, plots his murder with his servant Rustighello (Daniel Montenegro). When Gennaro defaces the family crest, the Duke orders him put to death, and gives him poisoned wine. Lucrezia arrives with an antidote to save him. Still later, Gennaro and his friends are at a palace party where Gennaro pledges his love for Orsini. Lucrezia gives them all poison for insulting their crest, unaware that Gennaro is one of them. As the others fall dead, Gennaro approaches her with a dagger, but she stops him when she reveals he is not only a Borgia, but her son. She again offers him an antidote, but he refuses now, wishing to join his friends in death, which he does. Lucrezia, mourning her son’s death, falls dead herself (in this version, by stabbing herself).

While bel canto singing isn’t Fleming’s forte, as she herself admits, (and may explain why one of Lucrezia’s more challenging arias, “Tranquillo ei posa…Com’è bello!”, was cut) she does a very creditable job, managing to portray some real emotion. Fabiano matches her with a lovely tenor voice, and is more than sufficiently photogenic for these days of televised opera. Deshong, though diminutive in stature, has a firm and effective mezzo of her own, especially in Orsini’s last act “drinking song.” Montenegro cut another dashing figure and sang quite solidly. Good as these all were, however, the vocal hit of the production was Kowaljow, with a superb sound and commanding presence. The rest of the characters included Jeppo Liverotto (Christopher Jackson), Oloferno Vitellozzo (Brian Jagde), Apostolo Gazello (Austin Kness), Astolfo (Ryan Kuster), Ascanio Petrucci (Ao Li) and Gubetta (Igor Vieira). The performance was very well conducted by Riccardo Frizza, with fine direction and production design by John Pascoe (though dimly lit); his costume design was especially intricate and impressive. The direction of the chorus (mostly male) by Ian Robertson was precise throughout the performance.

This was a great opportunity to see such an infrequently attempted composition. It was screened at the magnificently restored Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline, an art deco gem itself worth the visit. Check theater listings (and this venue) for announcements of future screenings of “Opera at the Cinema".


ART's "Tempest": Such Stuff As Hits Are Made On

Jonathan M. Kim, Manelich Minniefee/Zachary Eisenstat, & Eric Hissom
(photo: The Smith Center/Geri Kodey)
On the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, it’s surely fitting that the current ART season ends with the playwright’s last work, “The Tempest”. A co-production with the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, this version is part Dust Bowl traveling tent show, part shipwrecked magic show. Unique and enthralling, this is the most unusual theatrical presentation in memory. It’s obviously a labor of love on the part of the dreamers who thought up the original concept, Teller (of Penn and Teller) and Aaron Posner. As another recent ART production put it, “There is magic to do”.

The production begins with a mimed bit of card play by Ariel (Nate Dendy), the spirit servant of Prospero (Tom Nelis), who had been betrayed by his brother Antonio (Louis Butelli) and sent to die at sea with his daughter Miranda (Charlotte Graham). Instead, Prospero lands on a magical island, becoming a sorcerer and ruling over the populace, including the monster Caliban (the amazingly conjoined Manelich Minniefee and Zachary Eisenstat who speak and move as one). It is twelve years after his banishment, and Prospero has created a storm to drive Antonio and his shipmates King Alonso of Naples (Christopher Donahue), his son Ferdinand (Joby Earle), the King’s brother Sebastian (Edmund Lewis), and the noblewoman Gonzala (Dawn Didawick) to the island. Also shipwrecked are two court musicians, Stephano (Eric Hissom), and Trinculo (Jonathan M. Kim). In no time, Miranda and Ferdinand are rapturously in love, complicating a plot by the shipwrecked villains to kill Prospero. In the end, they are forgiven by Prospero who, to return to civilization, does what Teller says is the hardest thing of all for a magician to do: give up magic.

As Teller has said elsewhere, “both magic and live theater are about reinvention…the play is about using your ability to create illusions as a weapon…Prospero fights (people)…by creating illusions that act on them psychologically”. And so they do. It’s likely that there were some magic tricks even in Shakespeare’s production, since surviving stage directions speak of such things as a feast that vanishes by a “quaint device”. While there are countless amazing feats of prestidigitation, the true magic of this production lies in how the various creative artists coordinated their expertise to produce a wondrous show. From the adaptation and direction of Teller and Aaron Posner to the movement by Matt Kent of the dance troupe Pilobolus to the magic design by Johnny Thompson, it’s visually and orally spectacular. It’s enhanced by the music by husband-and-wife team Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, as played by Rough Magic, a four piece band including vocalists Shaina Taub (who triples as music director and arranger) and Miche Braden, as well as Michael Brun and Nate Tucker. The amusing costumes by Paloma Young are, well, seamless. The lighting designed by Christopher Akerlind and the sound effects designed by Darron L. West contribute their own illusions, as of course do Johnny Thompson (designer of the magic) and Thom Rubino (responsible for magic engineering and construction). The set by Daniel Conway is stunning, glorious and functional all at the same time, a three-tiered wonder with a Coney Island carnival feel, featuring a spiral staircase, a crow’s nest, a carousel horse, a half-chewed seashell, and twinkling lights that draw us in immediately to a world of many wonders.

Shakespeare’s tale of a father and daughter, the spirit servant Ariel and the monstrous Caliban (almost an anagram for “cannibal”) is one of a small dysfunctional family, and requires acting complexity of a very high order. This cast delivers, from Nelis’ commanding presence to the slightly zany, perfectly matched, intoxicated Graham and Earle, to the astoundingly athletic Minniefee and Eisenstat (the latter fondly recalled from his former performance as part of a less conjoined trio in Lyric Stage’s “On the Town”), to the (intentionally) hammy Hissom and Kim (diminutive but with a large presence). This is one talented troupe. Special mention must be made of Dendy’s dandy sprite; thrice declared by his master to be “delicate”, he’s anything but. His fluid agility and grace, his sincerity in character, and his mastery of legerdemain add up to a performance that’s unmatched, unforgettable, and unmissable.

Unless thou art a purist (and there are major cuts to the text), you’ll find yourself mesmerized (literally) and transported (figuratively) to that most magical of islands, the legitimate stage. This is no “Tempest” in a teapot; it’s hugely entertaining. One would be wise to secure a ticket with much haste, or you’ll be in need of a conjuror of your own.


SpeakEasy's "Carrie": Whether to Be Wary

Elizabeth Erardi as "Carrie"
(photo: Craig Bailey/Prospective Photo)

“Carrie, the Musical”, the last production of Speakeasy Stage Company’s season, is legendary for all the wrong reasons. Its past is checkered even by Broadway standards. Based on the 1974 novel by Stephen King, its first adaptation was as a film in 1976 with a screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen. Cohen subsequently wrote the book for a 1988 live musical version done by The Royal Shakespeare Company, no less. His two collaborators were Michael Gore for the musical score (who won an Oscar for the title song for “Fame”) and Dean Pitchford for the lyrics (who had been Gore’s collaborator on “Fame”). It was poorly received in Britain, and is most infamous for then-leading-lady Barbara Cook’s almost being decapitated by some recalcitrant scenery. Ms. Cook (wisely?) declined to follow the production to its Broadway incarnation, where it lasted five performances after opening. The myth has it that it closed due to awful reviews; in fact, they were actually mixed, but the investors abruptly disappeared. The back story myth was solidified in Ken Mandelbaum’s 1991 history “Not Since Carrie: Forty Years of Musical Flops”. It became, along with “Moose Murders”, the short-lived failure that thousands dubiously claimed to have seen. And so it stayed in memory (despite a 1999 film sequel and a 2002 made-for-television film, as well as a 2013 film remake), until in 2012 its original creative threesome approached King with the idea of presenting a limited-run new version. (King reportedly responded that he’d be “thrilled out of my undershorts”). It lasted a month, and didn‘t transfer to Broadway. Thus SpeakEasy’s announcement that it would be presenting this scaled-down musical was a very intriguing one to say the least. Surely if any company could resuscitate “Carrie”, this troupe could.

Not surprisingly, this reincarnation (or resurrection, if you will) of the work is a worthwhile one. It may not be the creepfest it was in other forms, but, as ably directed by Paul Melone, the storytelling is in good hands, with most of the cast creating characters far more believable than the caricatures that too much camp might have produced. What we have here is a hugely talented cast fulfilling the roles of Carrie White (Elizabeth Erardi), her mother Margaret White (Kerry A. Dowling), Sue Snell (Sarah Drake), Chris Hargensen (Paige Berkovitz), Tommy Ross (Joe Longthorne), Billy Nolan (Phil Tayler), Miss Gardner (Shonna Cirone), Mr. Stephens/Reverend Bliss (John Costa), George (Daniel Scott Walton), Norma (Amanda Lopez), Freddy (Stephen Markarian), Stokes (Jorge Barranco), Helen (Alexa Lebersfeld), and Frieda (Adena Walker). There is a lot of fresh young talent on view, anchored by a powerhouse performance by Dowling, who’s matched by the complex portrayal of the central role by newcomer Erardi, initially a victim who gets her ultimate revenge.

With a strong story (which most know well, so won’t be belabored here), even more potent in this age of awareness of high school bullying, the success of a musical like this also would hinge on the strength of its score. The songs include in act one: “In”, “Carrie”, “Open Your Heart”, “And Eve Was Weak”, “The World According to Chris”, “Evening Prayers”, “Dreamer in Disguise”, “Once You See”, “Unsuspecting Hearts”, “Do Me a Favor”, and “I Remember How Those Boys Could Dance”. In act two: “A Night We’ll Never Forget”, “You Shine”, “Why Not Me?”, “Stay Here Instead”, “When There’s No One”, “Alma Mater”, and “The Destruction”. It’s a varied, enjoyable score well played by Musical Director Nicholas James Connell and his quintet of musicians. The introspective numbers “Dreamer in Disguise” (by Longthorne), “Once You See” (by Drake) and especially “When There’s No One” (heartbreakingly poignant as sung by Dowling) stand out. On several occasions, the chorus gets to sing extraordinarily well together.

The technical crew have conspired to make this scaled-down version work on Speakeasy’s modest stage. The Scenic Design (a high school gym and locker room, the Whites’ chapel-like living room) by Eric Levenson is realistic and fluid, thanks to some well-coordinated set changing. The imaginative Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, eerily effective Sound Design by David Reiffel and terrific Projection Design by Seághan McKay, as well as the credible Costume Design by Emily Woods Hogue, all contribute to the naturalistic feel of the production. The energetic choreography by Larry Sousa also helps establish the realsitic high school milieu. And what of the telekinetic pyrotechnics? They’re wisely restrained, cleverly just supernatural enough to support the growing realization of Carrie’s evolution. The eagerly-anticipated bloodbath is well executed (you should excuse the expression).

In the end, we have a feeling that we’ve all been here, though we’ve lived to tell about it. As Sue sings on two occasions during the play, “Once you see, you can’t unsee.” While this revision may not be what some wanted it to be, it should be accepted on its own merits, not on whether it meets one’s expectations of revisiting its earlier versions. It’s certainly no longer worthy of the characterization as a flop, nor is it the Great American Musical. Taken on its own terms, it’s a fun ride. One can’t resist. It has to be said: It’s bloody entertaining!


Lyric Stage's "Into the Woods": There's a Giant a-Foot

The Cast of "Into the Woods"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
Once upon a time, it was announced that there was to be a Broadway musical based on the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm (and others, such as Charles Perrault), making most theater buffs skeptical. When word leaked that this new work, to be entitled “Into the Woods”, would have original music and lyrics by none other than Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine, however, those first qualms gave way to great expectations. When the show opened in New York in 1987, it was enthusiastically embraced, running for two years. Revived in 2002, it ran another nine months, and has remained a regional staple since, as one of Sondheim’s most successful shows, coming to a theater near you as a major Hollywood film next Christmas. You won’t have to wait that long to savor the pleasures of this musical, however, since it’s the final presentation of the current season of Lyric Stage Company in a truly beautiful production, the better to see you with.

As most theatergoers probably know by now, the play centers around the story of a baker and his wife, original characters in Lapine’s book not based on any fairy tale, who desperately (too much so, as it turns out) wish to have a child, ultimately making an ill-advised pact with the local witch to reverse a curse and ensure a birth. When the witch returns to claim her part of the deal, complications ensue. Along the way, the stories of some other characters are intertwined, primarily those of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The first act is a mostly benevolent, straightforward narrative of familiar tales, slated to be lived happily ever after. Ah, but it’s that ever after bit that bites. In the second act, (“once upon a time …later”) reality intrudes on fantasy; we’re in more familiar Sondheim satirical and cynical territory; while this may be fatal for some, it’s sure a lot more fun for anyone who’s a child at heart. The work is a major challenge for a regional company, as it demands a relatively huge pool of talent (even with some doubling of roles): seventeen singing actors, several cows, a hen, and a giant or two. Though it has some star turns, it’s a communal work; no one is alone.

It’s thus a joy to report that Lyric’s production is simply magnificent. As directed by Spiro Veloudos, the company’s Producing Artistic Director, that pool is filled with a tremendous amount of talent, starting with the music direction by Catherine Stornetta. The cast is chock-a-block with faces both new and familiar, reading like a who’s-who of local luminaries. It includes the roles of the Witch (a hilarious Aimee Doherty), the Baker (gorgeously-voiced John Ambrosino), his Wife (a luminous Lisa Yuen), and Cinderella (the incredibly versatile Erica Spyres). Then there’s the rest of this terrific cast, including the Narrator/Mysterious Man (Will McGarrahan), Jack (Gregory Balla), Jack’s Mother (Beth Gotha), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Maureen Keiller), her stepsisters Florinda (Christina English) and Lucinda (Elise Arsenault), their Father (Arthur Waldstein), the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), Granny/Cinderella’s Mother (Teresa Winner Blume), Rapunzel (Amanda Spinella), Rapunzel’s Prince (Sam Simahk), the Steward (Jeff Mahoney) and Little Red Ridinghood (Maritza Bostic, an exciting new star just out of Salem State).

As Veloudos has stated elsewhere, his approach to “Into the Woods” is to play it straight, without added ironic touches, to trust the material. Amen to that. The technical crew’s contributions include the lovely Scenic Design by David Towlun, the magical Sound Design by Andrew Will, the wonderful Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, the clever and witty Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, and effective Projection Design by Johnathan Carr. What the magicians in front of and behind the stage do with the relatively small playing area has to be seen to be believed and heard. Thanks to Veloudos’ perfect direction and the ensemble’s precise diction, Sondheim’s wit and whimsy are wondrous (such as the prince’s line about being at Snow White’s side, “as you cry on their biers”, or the Baker’s wife’s “the end justifies the beans”, or the Witch’s “rooting through my rutabagas, raiding my arugula and ripping up the rampion, my champion”). If children of all ages will only listen.

The fabulous (in both senses of the term) Sondheimian score includes, in the first act: “Prologue: Into the Woods”, “Hello, Little Girl”, "I Guess This Is Goodbye”, “Maybe They’re Magic”, “I Know Things Now”, “A Very Nice Prince”, “Giants in the Sky”, “Agony”, “It Takes Two”, “Stay with Me”, “On the Steps of the Palace” and “Ever After”. Then, in the second act: “Witch’s Lament”, “Any Moment”, “Moments in the Woods”, “Your Fault”, “Last Midnight”, and “No More”. And Sondheim saves the best for last, as the final two numbers are the exquisite “No One Is Alone” and the incredibly moving finale, “Children Will Listen”. You’ll have to hunt a long while to find a score so rich and so satisfying, so well sung and so marvelously performed. So what are you waiting for; let down your hair.

Toward the end of the play, the Witch warns: “Careful the tale you tell, that is the spell.” This applies to storytelling, most especially theatre. Happily (ever after?), unforgettable stagings of Sondheim classics are becoming a habit with Lyric Stage Company; it’s a habit one fondly wishes will stay unbroken. Already the company has announced a production of “Sweeney Todd” to open next season (as well as a celebration of Sondheim the season after that). One can’t wait to attend that tale.


Fathom Events: Met's "La Cenerentola" A Trilling Performance

The Metropolitan Opera's "La Cenerentola"
The Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts, from Fathom Events to a local theater near you, are winding down for the current season (with some encore presentations over the summer). Whether you’re a Bostonian or a Plymouthian, this is an offer you couldn’t refuse; for less than the cost of an entrée at your favorite restaurant (and equally nutritious, at least for the soul), at a fraction of the cost of the Lincoln Center venue, you have virtually front row seats to one of the world’s most respected opera companies. The HD season ends with Rossini’s “La Cenerentola”, which is much more widely known as Cinderella, but this isn’t the usual Grimm version (or, more precisely, the fairy tale by Charles Perrault that it’s based upon). Since first performed in Rome in 1817, it has been a special favorite of bel canto opera fans. It's arrived with every thrilling trill intact.

Those unfamiliar with the story of Rossini’s heroine may need a brief synopsis to distinguish this version from the more familiar fairy tale. Firstly, our heroine’s real name is Angelina (mezzo Joyce DiDonato), though she’s called Cenerentola by her stepsisters Clorinda (soprano Rachelle Durkin, a riot upon encountering a recalcitrant sofa) and Tisbe (mezzo Patricia Risley). Angelina lives with them in the castle of their father Don Magnifico (baritone Alessandro Corbelli). The tutor of the kingdom’s Prince, the philosopher Alidoro (bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni) arrives, disguised as a beggar, and only Cenerentola gives him food and drink. A bit later, the prince himself, Don Ramiro (tenor Juan Diego Florez), arrives dressed as a servant, to check out prospective brides. His valet, Dandini (baritone Pietro Spagnoli), follows also in disguise (as the prince), whom the rest of the family fawn over. (If you’re keeping score, that’s three characters in varying disguises). The family is all invited to supper at the palace, even Cenerentola, with whom the real prince is smitten. She leaves the palace telling the prince that if he wants her he must find her. Later, during a storm, the prince’s carriage breaks down outside Don Magnifico’s castle, and Cenerentola and the prince reaffirm their love for one another. They are married at the palace, and Cenerentola asks to be acknowledged by Don Magnifico as his daughter. She invites her family to join them in living in the palace, swearing off those days of weeping and sweeping by the fireplace.

There are no mice, no transformed pumpkins, no fairy godmothers, and no glass slippers. (Though there are an angelic tutor, a couple of bracelets, and a levitating elevator). All of the magical elements of the fairy tale are gone, but this surreal, effective production pays homage to Magritte. What magic there is, however, is a great deal of very beautiful (and challenging) music, as sung here by a stellar cast. DiDonato’s Angelina is a special treat from her opening aria (“una volta c’era un rè), to her duet with Diego Florez’s prince (“un soave non so che”). Diego Florez, having missed several previous performances due to illness, is in fine form once again, and deserved the lengthy ovation he received mid-act. The ensemble shone in the sextet, “Siete voi?”, as well as in the final chorus “tutto cangia a poco a poco” about the fact that everything in life changes and that it’s fortune’s little joke to change sadness into joy. Throughout, the Metropolitan’s Orchestra played well under the controlled and balanced direction of Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. The Production by Cesare Lievi, Set and Costume Design by Maurizio Balò , Stage Direction Eric Einhorn, and Choreography by Daniela Schiavone were all up to the Met’s usual standard, as was the Metropolitan Opera (male) Chorus under their chorus master Donald Palumbo. The production moved briskly, without undue speed, with DiDonato (earlier described by her stepfather as “Venus of the ash can”) summing it up in glorious voice as the triumph of goodness and forgiveness.

The story, despite Rossini’s disdain for the more supernatural aspects of the source material, remains faithful to the legend’s basic charm, with a healthy dose of humor. This production of “La Cenerentola” is a visual delight, ending with the happy couple showered with rice, united atop a huge wedding cake. This was quite appropriate, as there was so much that was worth celebrating.


New Rep's "On the Verge": Can We Trek?

Paula Langton, Christine Hamel, Adrianne Krstansky & Benjamin Evett
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)
New Rep’s current production, “On the Verge”, may be the perfect presentation of the word “romp”. In this 1985 work by Eric Overmyer (better known as a television writer), the focus is on language as opposed to development of characters or plot. It’s the story of three female explorers (or “sister sojourners”, as they call themselves) in the late nineteenth century from “somewhere east of Australia and west of Peru” who set out in search of Terra Incognita in the Pacific, somehow becoming warped into 1955 and American pop culture. Previously escorted over glaciers and mountains, and through jungles, by men, now they are on their own, without any guides: no sherpas, no porters. With the momentous exhortation, “Let us trek”, they’re off and running, “whacking the bush” and observing numerous novelties such as “suburban charred meat festivals” and “moose mousse”, encountering countless alliterative anecdotal anachronisms, like incorrigible dirigibles and imaginative native images. Their wise and witty banter borders on the Stoppardian. They are fascinated by the mysterious interior (of the world both without and within). What they are about is wondrous wordplay. And as one of them says, “I have seen the future, and it is slang”.

This trio of divas includes Mary Baltimore (Paula Langton), Fanny Cranberry (Adrianne Krstansky ) and Alexandra Cafuffle (Christine Hamel). Mary is the oldest, a spinster who is preoccupied with mating rituals, “anthropological smut”. Fanny, the only one who is married, as well as conservative, disapproves of many “immoral” things, such as women wearing trousers. Alexandra (whose last name means a commotion), the youngest, tends to malapropisms and loves novelty, especially new words. Each engages in “osmosing”, that is, gathering information from the future. Along the way they meet seven characters ranging from Alphonse (with a German accent, and not what he at first seems), to a Yeti (in a brief mute walk-on with much growling and roaring), a Gorge Troll (a Brando-like beatnik who writes poetry), Mr. Coffee (the angel of death), Gus (a teenage ball player in a place called Peligrosa who directs ladies to Nicky’s Bar & Grill) and finally Nicky Paradise (a lounge lizard who owns a resort for swingers). Fanny also dreams of Grover (her shy banking husband). All three actresses are mesmerizing, as are all seven actors (that is, all played by the incomparably versatile Benjamin Evett).

One will find no dramatic resolution of conflict here, but mere frivolity and fantasy. If you love this sort of wordplay, you’ll be delighted despite the monochromatic optimism. What evil there is in the world, in the end, is there “to thicken the plot”. Like three Alices in Wonderland, they take us on an imaginative journey accompanied by manners and machetes, always with a pleasantly pithy point. As Mary says, “We’re not short on pith”. It doesn’t have much in the way of earthshaking messages, except some gleefully subversive feminism. Coherent drama it’s not; it‘s less a play than it is a play on words, and it could use some trimming, especially in the second act. One cut is already evident in the absence of the character of Madame Nhu (a purveyor of fortune cookie wisdom, most likely cut since it was criticized in earlier productions for its politically incorrectness for Asian Americans). Still, the work is truly funny, as ably directed by the company’s Artistic Director Jim Petosa. The technical crew are all firmly on board, from the wonderfully wacky Scenic Design by Christina Todesco (mismatched chairs and lots of industrial strength bubble wrap), to the amusing Costume Design by Nancy Leary, to the complicated Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, and subtle Sound Design by David Remedios.

To love this play you have to appreciate the ladies’ “nostalgia for the future”, and marvel along with them at the “residue from the future”, such as Cool Whip. The last scene of the play is titled “The Geography of Yearning”, as Mary warns that “theatre threatens to disintegrate into anthropological kinship studies”. As the playwright states elsewhere, paraphrasing the French surrealistic author André Breton, “perhaps the imagination is on the verge of recovering its rights.” Go along for the ride and you’ll be transported. Bring too much baggage to this play (“you must carry what you collect”) and you may not enjoy it at all. For those theatregoers with a love of language, as the ladies would have put it, “Via con Dios“; you’ll have a fabulous time in both senses of the term. In the final words of these intrepid pioneers, “that’s not annoying at all."


Zeitgeist's "Good Television": It's Unreal

Jenny Reagan (Brittany) & Christine Power (Connie)
(photo: Joel W. Benjamin)
Zeitgeist Stage Company’s current production of “Good Television”, the New England premiere of a play by first-time author Rod McLachlan, might seem to be an oxymoron at first, but the title refers not to the quality of a television series but the good intentions (or lack thereof) of the people creating it. McLachlan writes of what he knows, as his wife was a field producer for the highly successful Arts and Entertainment Network reality show “Intervention”, which ran for thirteen seasons. With expert Direction and Set Design by the company’s Producing Artistic Director David Miller, this is an impressive first work by a very promising new playwright (and actor). Like most if not all so-called reality television, the programs are as un-scripted and spontaneous as WWE (that’s World Wrestling Entertainment, to the uninitiated). Such broadcasts are easy targets given their blatant lack of authenticity, but the unreality of such fare isn’t McLachlan’s focus. What he’s presenting is the complicated dilemma of a well-meaning producer whose stated idealistic intentions for successful rehab come under scrutiny when the goals of the network are far from any idealism. “Rehabilition”, the series in question, has three million viewers a week, and is coming under pressure to provide twenty-two episodes in the same time frame and with the same resources as prior seasons of fourteen. Added to this is the fact that the network powers-that-be aren’t as interested in treatment as they are in what makes for good television, as in ratings.

Ratings, like elections, have consequences. No one knows this better than producer Connie (Christine Power) who knows the territory from personal experience. She’s arranged with South Carolina housewife Brittany (Jenny Reagan) to record the story of her brother Clemson, “ev’rybody calls me Clemmie” (Benjamin Lewin), and his five-year meth addiction. Her motivation, she claims, is a positive outcome from rehab, but this is challenged by newly-hired Tara (Tasia Jones). Connie’s boss Bernice (Shelley Brown) supports her, but is about to jump ship for a job offer with Fox. Her replacement Ethan (William Bowry) has no illusions about outcomes other than maintaining the popularity of the series; according to him, “carnage and wreckage make great T.V.” He even offers to come along to the shoot before he’s on payroll (one of the more implausible plot points) and ends up assaulting Clemmie’s litigious older brother Mackson (Olev Aleksander) in easily the least credible moment of the play. Meanwhile, the unexpected arrival of Clemmie’s father MacAddy (Bill Salem) further complicates matters, until the “big reveal” (not to be disclosed here) which is partially predictable. We are left with unresolved issues for several characters, not the least being Connie herself. Is it possible to change people’s lives through television by “showing the truth”, as Ethan puts it? Are the participants “selling their life rights for detox” as Mackson sees it? Is the “trade-out” of providing rehab rigged if the chosen addicts are qualified as “already destined for recovery”, as Tara charges?

These are but a few of the questions, both explicit and implicit, that the playwright raises. The cast of seven by and large meets the many demands of this ethical quandary. Power herself noted elsewhere that “You’re still controlling the story, even if you’re letting things evolve as they would naturally evolve…after the TV show is gone, how do they deal with it all after?” She’s very believable as the complicated center of the play, as are her cohorts Brown (providing some comic relief) and Jones (earnest and honest if naïve) and Bowry as the clueless new boss. Reagan makes the most of her character who could have been a stereotype. The same could be said for Lewin, moving and vulnerable, and the menacing Aleksander (perhaps too attractive for a stereotypical redneck). Salem’s character arrives too late and hastily to make enough impact, but he does what he can with an undeveloped role. Miller’s sets are clever and natural, as are the Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, the Costume Design by Jez Insalaco and the Sound Design by David Wilson. They all enhance the fascinating insights into one art form by another.

Whatever the future of this play and its playwright, which if there is any justice in this world should be successful, “reality” television will undoubtedly survive, given its enduring bottom-line results and its relatively inexpensive (well, all right, cheap) requirements. As Ethan correctly proclaims, “Television is always in charge”.


BLO's "I Puritani": Bellini with a Dollop of Caviar

Elvira (Sarah Coburn) & Arturo (John Tessier)
(photo: Eric Antoniou)

Without being too puritanical about it, to say that the libretto for Vincenzo Bellini‘s opera “I Puritani” strains credulity would be quite an understatement. The composer himself instructed his librettist Carlo Pepoli that this shouldn’t be a concern, as he was more interested in making beautiful music. And so he did, as evidenced by Boston Lyric Opera’s new production of Bellini‘s bel canto masterpiece. Conducted by the company’s music director David Angus, with Stage Direction by Crystal Manich, this is a thoroughly enjoyable and immersive piece despite the incongruities of its plotting. While it’s often performed in three acts with two intermissions, this version is presented with its three acts done in two parts with only one intermission, a sensible decision given the length of the first act and the relative brevity of the other two acts. Not only does this make for a shorter evening, it also makes dramatic sense of what survives the nonsensical dramaturgy. It does present a challenge for the singers in an already daunting score both in its length and its vocal demands. It’s one of the reasons this opera is not done more often. Suffice it to say that, in the right hands, Bellini’s tenth (and final) opera is as much a delight to hear today as it must have been in 1835 at its Parisian premiere. Happily, opera lovers are truly blessed with this particular cast, but more about that later.

First, for those needing a refresher, here is a brief synopsis. Based on Ancelot and Saintine’s “Les Têtes Rondes et les Cavaliers”, the story takes place in the mid-1600’s in Plymouth (England, that is) after the execution of King Charles I, with the loyalists (Cavaliers) still fighting the Puritans (Roundheads). The opera centers around Elvira (soprano Sarah Coburn) and her impending wedding. She had been initially promised to Riccardo (baritone Troy Cook), but subsequently given a dispensation to marry Arturo (tenor John Tessier) by her father Gualtiero (bass Liam Moran), despite her Puritan background and Arturo’s status as a Cavalier. Riccardo, quite understandably overwhelmed with grief, is consoled by his friend, the Puritan soldier Bruno (tenor Omar Najmi). Elvira’s father reports that he will be unable to attend the ceremony since he will be accompanying the late king’s wife Enrichetta (soprano Chelsea Basler) to prison and probable death. On learning this, Arturo sneaks Enrichetta out of the castle disguised as his bride. When he disappears, Elvira misunderstands and goes mad. (This is Bellini, after all, and a Victorian opera). Her Uncle Giorgio (bass-baritone Paul Whelan) tries to support her, convincing Riccardo to overcome his desire for revenge. When Arturo returns, though accused of treachery, Elvira begins to understand and pardons him, having received news of the defeat of her enemies via a sort of “deus ex littera”, seemingly paving the way for their wedding. (This production ends uniquely, which may be a shock for those familiar with the piece). Never mind the absurdity of an impediment to marriage having been inexplicably removed, or a subsequent (and equally inexplicable) pardon. As Bellini himself attested, he was more interested in the lyricism of the music than the coherence of the plot.

Now about the cast: That dollop of caviar refers to the rare talents of these singers who are wonderfully capable of delivering such delicious coloratura. The reunion of Coburn and Tessier (lauded for their part in BLO‘s “Barber of Seville” two seasons ago) was a stroke of genius, as they have obvious chemistry together and again prove their virtuosity, especially in Arturo’s paean to his prospective bride, “a te, o cara, amor talora”, as well as his troubadour song, “corre a valle, corre a morte”, and in Elvira’s mad scene aria, “qui la voce sua soave”. The entire opera can be a breathtaking (almost literally) endurance contest for the singers, especially the lead soprano (so much so that by all rights many feel the opera should have been entitled “Elvira”). While they may not sustain the highest notes as long as some singers in beloved studio recordings, they impress with their passion in character. Not only is their sound lovely, but their diction is estimable; one needn’t be multilingual to appreciate the beauty of the Italian language. Whelan’s Georgio is a commanding presence, and both Moran and Cook provide strong support. Najmi and Basler, both part of the Emerging Artists program with the company, are fine in supporting roles. (Basler will be featured next season in the Boston premiere of Frank Martin’s “The Love Potion”). The chorus, except for a rough entrance at one point, did great work, though the women in the ensemble were at times involved in some rather odd movement. The Set Design by John Conklin, composed of stylized fragments and moving panels, was serviceable, aided immensely by the effective Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller. Angus conducted with a firm understanding of the text and the orchestra responded in kind.

This was, in the end, a throughly enjoyable presentation, musically and emotionally (given the libretto’s shortcomings) of this rarely performed Bellini gem. It’s a production no serious opera lover should miss.


Goodspeed's "Damn Yankees": You Gotta Have Art

The Red Sox in "Damn Yankees"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Be careful what you wish for. We‘re all familiar with the phrase, yet we constantly discover examples of hastily-made wishes with unintended consequences. So it was for Faust in the legendary fifteenth century German tale when he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for limitless knowledge and pleasure; so it is also for the hero of the Tony-winning musical “Damn Yankees”, wherein one very average Joe (claiming to be from Hannibal, Mo.) trades up (then down) for a limited-time-only run as a baseball hero. This musical version of the legend bowed in 1955, with Music and Lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross (who died just six months after the opening), and Book by George Abbott and Douglas Wallop (with an un-credited assist from Richard Bissell, who just the season before had co-written “Pajama Game” with Abbott), based on Wallop’s novel “The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant”. Conceived largely as a dance show, and presenting Gwen Verdon in her first starring role, the original ran over a thousand performances, winning a total of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. A 1958 film (wisely) kept most of the original cast intact although it (unwisely) miscast a non-singer, Tab Hunter, as the hero, with decidedly mixed results. A revival in 1994 with Bebe Neuwirth and Victor Garber (with Jerry Lewis for part of the run) was more successful. At its heart are two warm and bittersweet love stories, for a spouse and for The Game.

The current production at Goodspeed Opera House has been updated and adapted (subtitled “The Red Sox version”) by Joe DiPietro (known for his libretti at Goodspeed for “They All Laughed” and “All Shook Up”). It was a brilliant choice, making the plot topical and the newly minted jokes hilariously hip. As directed here by Daniel Goldstein and choreographed by Kelli Barclay, its locale is 1955 Boston; thus this must be the first musical in history with scenes at Fenway Park. (The show begins with a scrim with a stylized view of what suspiciously resembles a certain Green Monstah). The Boyds, Joe (James Judy) and Meg (Ann Arvia) are watching a Red Sox/Yankees game on television. Suddenly, Joe is visited by one fiery character, Applegate (David Beach), who makes him an offer he can’t refuse. He transforms Joe into the considerably younger Joe Hardy (Stephen Mark Lukas) who will save the Sox if he sells his soul. With Applegate‘s henchwoman Lola (Angela Reda) he clearly intends to prolong the terms of the contract. Also in the cast are (the voice of) veteran Sox Announcer Joe Castiglione, Coach Van Buren (Ron Wisniski), sports reporter Gloria (Lora Lee Gayer), Sister (Kristine Zbornik), and Doris (Allyce Beasley). The Ensemble, who deserve special mention for their dancing skills, consists of Timothy Hughes, Danny Lindgren, Michael Mendez, Victor J. Wisehart, Sean Ewing, Joven Calloway, Ryan Cavanaugh, Steve Geary and Alfie Parker, Jr. They’re quite a team.

The cast is all terrific, but special mention should be made of the charismatic Lukas and the lusciously sexy Reda, with abs and curves to spare, respectively. And speaking of abs, there’s a wonderfully funny, even inspired, shower scene that won’t be spoiled here. It’s also worth noting that Beach ignites the stage in his “eleven o’clock” number. The supporting players Beasley and Zbornik continually bring the house down, even at intermission (again, no spoilers here). It never ceases to amaze what wonders can be created on such a relatively small stage; surely the Red Sox have never danced this well.

Truth be told, the score is not the most memorable ever composed, although it does boast a few standouts, such as the seductive “Whatever Lola Wants”, the rousing “Those Were the Good Old Days”, and the barbershop quartet “(You Gotta Have) Heart”. Other tunes serve as accompaniment to dance numbers, such as “A Little Brains, A Little Talent” and “Shoeless Joe from Hannibal Mo.” (The somewhat dated number, “Who’s Got the Pain?”, was dropped). The remaining songs are pleasant, such as “Six Months Out of Every Year”, “Goodbye Old Girl”, “A Man Doesn’t Know”, “The Game”, “Near to You”, and “Two Lost Souls”. What makes this show is the dancing, as well as the production values; to overcome its relatively weak score, it needs a lot of theatrical art to succeed . With expert Music Direction by Michael O’Flaherty, in his twenty-third season at Goodspeed, and the truly fine Orchestrations by Dan Delange, as well as the ingenious Scenic Design by Adrian W. Jones, the clever Costume Design by David C. Woolard, the complex Lighting Design by Brian Tovar, and the effective Sound Design by Jay Hilton, this “Damn Yankees” is a well balanced success.The Boston accents may be (intentionally) a bit thick, but it works, even if you have to keep an ear sharpened for such lines as “I find your question (where on earth did you find him?) mundane”. Ouch.

If you’re not familiar with Goodspeed, where such shows as “Annie”, “Man of LaMancha” and “Shenandoah” were given birth, you ought to be. This is the forty-sixth (and last) year in the producing career of the legendary Michael Price. The venue is near enough to Boston to attend a matinee, or better yet to make it an overnight getaway. In this localized “Damn Yankees”, the devil is a Yankees fan (but then we knew that), which, as Sister might put it, is a wicked good idea, or as Applegate himself might say, it’s a helluva show.