"Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812": Brilliant

Foreground: Lilli Cooper & Brittain Ashford; Center: Scott Stangland in "Great Comet of 1812"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/American Repertory Theater)

Alchemy is afoot in ART's current production, the much-acclaimed “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812”. It transforms Tolstoy's iconic story of love and fate, “War and Peace”, into a living, breathing musical work. Based on Volume I, part five, fewer than seventy pages, it is reputedly word for word (with a few updated observations) from the 1922 translation by Aylmer and Louise Maude. It premiered in October 2012 at Ars Nova off-Broadway, then transferred as a pop-up in a tent called the “Kazino”, in the style of a speakeasy, in New York's theater district. It won the Obie Award for Best Musical, as well as three Lucille Lortel awards (with a record-breaking eleven nominations). At ART, gloriously transformed into a Russian style supper club (and more about this later), it continues its triumphant success. As wondrously helmed by Director Rachel Chavkin, with sublimely integrated Choreography by Sam Pinkleton, it's once again the mesmerizing tale of the Russian aristocracy, centered around Natasha's affair with Anatole, and with Pierre's ever-growing despair. One hesitates to use the “o” word lest potential patrons be scared off, but it is through-composed, thus indeed an opera, though an electropop one, with Russian folk, classical, indie rock and electronic dance music. Apart from one spoken line of dialogue near the end, all the lines are sung, many in the recitatif manner of more traditional operas. As a wondrous amalgam of musical styles, an integrated potpourri rather than a hodgepodge, this work offers something for everyone, at one and the same time creating spectacle and intimacy, opulence and poverty, reverence and irreverence, hypocrisy and innocence, the historic and the anachronistic.

There is no Comet of 1812 Overture, but a sung Prologue, which introduces the principal characters in a tongue-in-cheek homage to such cumulative songs as “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. As the play begins, Natasha (Denee Benton), engaged to Andrey (Nicholas Belton), who is away in the war, is urged by her cousin Sonya (Brittain Ashford) to visit Andrey's family, which consists of his spinster sister Mary (Gelsey Bell) and their crazy father Bolkonsky (also played by Belton). While that doesn't go well, things become more intriguing for Natasha when she's introduced, at the opera, by Helene (Lilli Cooper), who is married to Pierre (Scott Stangland), to the impossibly dashing (and, unbeknownst to her, infamous lady's man) Anatole (Lucas Steele). The first trace of electronic music begins at his entrance, electrifying the room. Complications ensue when she's seduced by Anatole. After a night of drinking with Pierre and their friend Dolokhov (Nick Choksi), culminating in a duel no less, Anatole convinces Natasha to elope in a troika driven by Balaga (Paul Pinto). This escape is thwarted by Natasha's godmother Marya D. (Grace McLean), who's aware that Anatole has secrets (namely, he's already married). Needless to say, all doesn't end well, at least on the surface. But there is Pierre's embracing of the wounded Natasha who finally smiles (hinting at their future relationship). And there's that titular comet, which transfixes Pierre in an epiphany.

Throughout the play, there is a pervading sense of love and respect for Tolstoy's novel, which he preferred to call a philosophical discourse. As Pierre wrestles with profound themes, we are reminded, as Chavkin has noted, of the partying aboard the sinking Titanic as we witness the divine decadence of it all. It has echoes of “Nicholas Nickleby” and “Hamilton” (no faint praise this), not just in its acutely accurate portrayal of society, but also in its immersive and enveloping non-stop energy and exuberance. There are occasional moments of audience involvement, never overdone, and meticulous attention to detail, such as Sonya's making of the sign of the cross in the Orthodox manner (“backwards”, as it were), Bolkonsky's constant tremor, the subtle integration of lighting and sound effects, and the distribution of authentic pelmeni (mashed-potato-filled dumplings) to the audience.

Tolstoy wrote that great events in history come as a result of many smaller events driven by thousands of individuals, not by so-called heroes. Thus it's entirely appropriate that this “Comet” is illuminated by an extraordinary ensemble. While they cheekily sing “everyone's got nine different names” and describe one character as “not too important”, the truth is that every member of the cast is integral and integrated. This is not to say that there aren't plenty of great moments created by the exquisite Benton, the passionate Stangland, the comically narcissistic Steele, the stalwart Ashford and the lascivious Cooper. Standouts are Benton's lovely “No One Else” and Cooper's lusty “Charming”, as well as Ashford's astonishingly well-acted “Sonya Alone”, and Stangland's incredibly touching “Dust and Ashes” (apparently added since the CD recording) and “The Great Comet of 1812”. There's not an instant when this cast isn't compelling. The same could be said for the creative elements, from the magnificent Music Direction by Or Matias and Music Supervision by Sonny Paladino, to the ingenious Costume Design by Paloma Young, to the intricately coordinated Lighting Design by Bradley King and Sound Design by Matt Hubbs. But, grand as all of these elements are, there are two fundamental keys to this show's success: the multifaceted contributions by Dave Malloy, who created the Music, Lyrics, and Libretto, as well as, crucially, the awe-inspiring Orchestrations; and the literally breathtaking Set Design by Mimi Lien.

Malloy is extraordinary. In his entire libretto, there is but one spoken line, in Pierre's final scene with Natasha, when he declares: “If I were not myself, but the brightest, handsomest, best man on earth, and if I were free, I would get down on my knees this minute and ask you for your hand and for your love”. Otherwise, it's a fascinatingly complex concoction of styles, including some rather arcane musical elements, such as “hocketing”, a vocal technique wherein singers “stack” their voices in patterns that evoke the pulsing of organ stops, defined as “a medieval musical composition in which two or three voice parts are given notes or short phrases in rapid alteration producing an erratic hiccuping effect”. If that sounds too lofty, not to worry. The score is so seamless you need only sit back and let it flow over you.

Reflecting her background in architecture, Lien's magic begins even before you enter the overwhelming red velvet supper club with its distressed deterioration. The audience first must pass through passageways that intentionally evoke Frank Lloyd Wright's use of small entries leading to stupendously impressive large venues. As Lien states, after walking through what's intended to evoke an abandoned 1980's concrete bunker, you enter a rapturously decorated room with hundreds of frames containing paintings, mirrors, and even a few pictures of Napoleon (reflecting the fact that he had first been an ally of Alexander I, but this is five years into the Tsar's reign, after they'd fallen out). Complete with chandeliers that are intentionally identical to those found in Lincoln Center, the set is a visual masterpiece.

Despite this embarrassment of riches, with emotions often expressed through visual and musical imagery, one leaves wishing there was more about Pierre's own passions and spiritual struggles to become a better person and his notion of the “elusive nature of earthly happiness”. Thus it comes as great news that Pierre's role had been expanded prior to the announced Broadway opening next fall (no surprise here), with Josh Groban in the role, no less. This show is, in short, a stellar spectacular, enlightening in every sense of the word. Score it as a ten out of ten for the show (but only one for the pelmeni). But don't wait for it. This is one speakeasy that won't be a secret for long, so you'd be well advised to procure tickets ASAP. Just tell them Tolstoy sent you. And he does, he does.


Bay Colony Shakepeare's "Christmas Carol" : The Solo of Wit

This is a republished review; check out www.BayColonyShakespeare.org for current dates & venues

Neil McGarry in "A Christmas Carol"

Every Christmas season, as predictable as the swallows’ spring return to Capistrano, there arrive at one’s theatrical doorstep (or one’s door knocker) an abundance of productions of Charles Dickens’ beloved “A Christmas Carol”, and this year is no exception. Among the more typical megacast and musical versions, however, there is one exception, that of the fledgling local troupe, The Bay Colony Shakespeare Company. While this critic reads the original novella every Christmas, the prospect of attending yet another staged version was daunting, and had prompted in past reviews the headline “Three Ghosts Walked into a Bar…”

Until this version. This is not your grandmother’s “Christmas Carol”, but she surely would have loved it. The striking difference that makes this production stand out from all the others is that all the roles, with one brief exception, are filled by one actor. And not just any actor, but the company’s Artistic Director Neil McGarry, so memorable in and as their recent “Hamlet”, now in another demanding, astounding, and charming performance. Under the insightful direction of the company’s Associate Director Ross MacDonald, this “Carol” is worth singing about, for it supplies a crucial voice most other versions miss, namely that of Dickens himself. From the moment McGarry arrives onstage literally carrying the baggage of Scrooge’s life, we’re struck by the incomparably wise and witty language of the author. Where other productions tend to stick to the well-known words of various characters, this one depends much more on the literate beauty and deviously comic viewpoints one appreciated only on the page, until now. Such asides as having “often heard it said that Marley had no bowels, but he had never believed it until now”, or “awaking in the middle of a prodigious tough snore” are hilarious examples. The star of this version is none other than Dickens himself, in the person of the narrator, and in that role McGarry truly shines.

McGarry is not your typical Scrooge, given his youth and good looks, but he manages to convince, with intricate gestures, fluid movement and seemingly infinite facial expressions, not only in the pivotal role of the old miser but in all the supporting roles save one, with wondrous turns as Scrooge’s nephew Fred, the long-suffering Bob Cratchit, and especially the small role of the boy sent to buy the prize turkey. Wisely, avoiding what could have been unintentionally funny, only the love of his young life, Belle, is portrayed by another actor, by the offstage voice of Erica Simpson, who also provides some music and very effective multiple sound effects. With few props (a scarf that doubles as a blindfold, a coat rack that doubles as a Christmas tree, street lamps and a trunk), and an almost bare stage, stripped to its bare essentials, the story has never been so alive and real. To see and hear McGarry exclaim “Oh, there never was such a goose!” is absolutely brilliant. He runs the gamut of emotions from Scrooge’s first horror at the vision of Marley’s face to the uniquely believable transformation at the end. Not only is this performance a triumph of memorization, it’s the most energetic effort seen on any stage thus far this season; at one point, at the Fezziwigs’ ball, one could have sworn there were ten lords a-leaping.

Mention should be made that this is a production unafraid to reference the religious meaning of the season, with Dickens’ quote “and he took a child and set him in the midst of them” and “he (Scrooge) went to church” near the end of the storytelling. As Scrooge finally puts it, “I am not the man I was”, and neither are we when reminded of the true meaning of Christmas, especially for those who believe, but even for those who do not. This is “A Christmas Carol” for the ages, and for theatergoers of all ages as well. Anyone who misses this production, to quote Dickens himself, “should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart”. If you haven’t ordered tickets yet, what the dickens are you waiting for?


Trinity Rep's "Heidi Chronicles": Guarding the Chips

Angela Brazil in "Heidi Chronicles"
(photo: Mark Turek)

The Heidi Chronicles”, a play by Wendy Wasserstein, was a watershed theatrical event when it premiered off-Broadway in November 1988, moving to Broadway a few months later. While it went on to win the Tony and Drama Desk Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and ran over six hundred performances, it was the subject matter of the work that captured universal attention. Hailed as way ahead of its time, it was an on-point but gently skewering feminist event that has outlived its author, who tragically died too young (at only 55) in 2006. While Wasserstein had other successful plays such as “the Sisters Rosensweig”, “Isn't It Romantic” and “Uncommon Women and Others”, it is Heidi with her chronic wit who has so aptly endured, as evidenced in the current production by Trinity Rep. Humor is sometimes shrewdly effective in making cracks in glass ceilings, and this production is a lovely reminder of the power of theater to inform and entertain at one and the same time. Three decades later, this work, even while showing some creaks here and there, serves to rebuke us for not yet fulfilling its message.

The story of the titular art historian Heidi Holland (an excellent Angela Brazil) covers a twenty year span, from her high school years to her highly respected career. Each of two acts begins with a didactic prologue (presumably the “Heidi Chronicles” referred to towards the end of the play) about vastly neglected female painters. Along the way she encounters several characters who will become important to her over the two decades portrayed. At a high school dance with her friend Susan Johnston (Rachel Christopher) in 1965, she meets the closeted Peter Patrone (Charlie Thurston). Two years later she meets the other man destined to be a part of her whole life, Scoop Rosenbaum (Mauro Hantman) at a presidential campaign rally for Eugene McCarthy at which he, noticing her shyness, slyly asks if she is guarding the (potato) chips. Still later, she joins an encounter group, with Susan, run by radical feminist Fran (Anna Miles). Perhaps the best, and most devastatingly true, line belongs to Fran: “Every woman...has been taught that the desires and dreams of her husband, her son or her boss are much more important than her own”. Scoop chooses to marry below his aspirations, and Heidi eventually decides she doesn't need to be married in order to become a mother, somewhat reflecting the playwright's real life; it should also be noted that there are several humorous references to Brown University.

Brazil manages to convey the complex character that is Heidi, and both Thurston and Hantman play well off her, as does Christopher, especially as Heidi blossoms (or not). Also appearing in several roles are Ashley Monique Butler, Joe Wilson, Jr. and Rebecca Gibel (especially funny in interplay with Thurston, as talk show host April, though the scene itself is incredible in the bad sense of the term). All are in fine synch thanks to Director Vivienne Benesch. The minimalist Set Design by Lee Savage, Lighting Design by Dan Scully, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz and evolving Costume Design by Tracy Christensen (with a recurring emphasis on changing shoe styles) all contribute to conveying a sense of the passages our heroine is making.

Benesch has commented that the play remains “fiercely relevant”. But while it's undeniably true that Wasserstein asks some serious questions (as we mature, how do our adult responsibilities affect our youthful ideals? Can one balance career and family? Is it OK to feel sad when our hopes are compromised?) that are still disappointingly evident in our culture today, the play itself frequently reveals how dated its writing is.. The emotionally fragile Heidi, in a famous Act Two monologue (superbly delivered by Brazil despite its excessive length), reveals in anecdotal form her feeling of being stranded, at the same time superior and yet worthless. Still, remarkably for a play dealing with such dated baby boomer issues as Vietnam, much of the playwright's targets are still fodder for discussion. There remain a few missteps, such as a talk show scene straining credulity, and some relatively lame lines (such as Scoop's “I never meant to hurt you”), but by and large the play still succeeds in moving us. As Heidi herself puts it, “all people have the right to fulfill their potential”; that is, as it might be put today, if roadblocks and glass ceilings don't prevent them. And Scoop notes near the end of the play, “America needs heroes”, and, when confronting how sad Heidi admits to being, “unhappy people who open doors usually are”. When he expresses the hope that his magazine, Boomer, will be his chronicle, he reminds her that her lectures were her way of putting women back into the narrative. Heidi ultimately finds hope for a more inclusive future in the daughter in her arms, “a heroine for the twenty-first” century.

There are others guarding those chips today, and we must let them fall where they may. Wasserstein herself may rest peacefully; contrary to her fears expressed through Heidi, her work, far removed from worthless, is funny, sad and superior.


Lyric's "Buyer and Cellar": Like Buttah

Phil Tayler in "Buyer and Cellar"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It was a summer night way back in 1964 that this critic first saw Barbra live in the musical “Funny Girl”. (If you have to ask “Barbra who?”, there's no need to proceed further). She was only 22 years old, and this was already her second Broadway musical, her first lead in a show after quite a triumph in a supporting role two seasons prior in “I Can Get It for You Wholesale”. It was also her last lead in a live theatrical production, as Hollywood beckoned, and stage fright took care of the rest. Her turn in “Funny Girl” was the stuff of legend, infecting most of us audience members with that persistent incurable condition known as diva-ticulitis. Hers was easily the greatest display of theatrical presence ever.

Until now. Or, at least, there's now a close second in Phil Tayler. In the current Lyric Stage production of “Buyer and Cellar”, a one-person play by Jonathan Tolins, this locally beloved actor gives the diva a run for her money. As Alex More, he's the sole employee in “The Mall of Malibu”, owned by that certain megastar known simply here as Barbra. Inspired by her coffee table book, “My Passions for Design”, it's a non-stop roller coaster of laughs. La Streisand set the bar high in the Broadway and film versions of “Funny Girl” with the unequivocal song “I'm the Greatest Star”. Tayler states that as a gay man (his character Alex, that is) worshiping her is, after all, “part of my birthright, my heritage” and warns us we'll have to do our parts imagining this stellar cellar designer; he suggests “you can fill in the rest”.

Not to worry, folks. His tour de farce performance goes down “like buttah” (with apologies to SNL). This shouldn't surprise. Tayler is no stranger to Lyric Stage audiences, having excelled in about a dozen or so past productions for the company, including “Follies”, “Kiss Me Kate”, “Working”, “On the Town”, “City of Angels”, “Stones in His Pockets”, “Avenue Q” and “Sweeney Todd”. This is to say that we already knew how prolific and versatile this triple threat (acting, singing, dancing) Boston Conservatory grad was, or so we thought we knew. That was before he took on, in this play, portraying Oprah, James Brolin, Beatrice Arthur and.....yes, even Barbra. (He's perhaps best as his boyfriend Barry, a much broader queen). He's got the diva nailed (right down to slightly longer-than-normal nails), as well as all the other characters, and his timing in every one of them is impeccable. It's a joy to watch his every facial expression, his fluid movements, that rather naughty glint in his eye, betraying how much fun he's having performing this role. But not as much as we are. It's extremely rare to experience a show that literally consists, as noted above, of non-stop laughs. It's Tayler's best role ever, and that's saying quite a lot. Attendance at this performance would be the greatest holiday present a theatregoer could give, either to herself or himself, or to others. It's a phenomenon, already the highpoint of this season.
Kudos to Director Courtney O'Connor, who's the co-creator of this impossibly hilarious, dead-on portrait. The creative team is in on the gags, from the wise and versatile Scenic Design by Anthony R. Phelps, to the just-right Costume Design by Rafael Jaen, and the perfectly-timed Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and Sound Design by David Remedios. (And whoever dyed Tayler's locks in Barbra's favorite color). The original off-Broadway all-white-painted version lacked definition, which tempered one's enthusiasm; here everything contributes positively to the overall effect.

By the time the whirlwind winds down, Alex has grown to realize that the circle you can make with your arms outstretched contains what's most important in our lives; all the efforts, all the things that surround us, matter so much less; what may matter most is finding someone who knows what to do with one's down time on a Sunday. With just the right partner, you can fill in the rest.


Fiddlehead's "Little Mermaid": "Squid Pro Quo"?

The Cast of "Little Mermaid"
(photo: Eric Antoniou/Fiddlehead Theatre)
Squid pro quo” is, as puns go, outrageous, one of many in the current Fiddlehead Theatre Company production of Disney's “The Little Mermaid”. Most of them went right over the heads of the sea of urchins (human, not the marine type) assembled for a recent matinee, but the adults in the audience lapped up the more painfully over-the-top lines. One's tolerance for this level of humor and the Borscht Belt delivery might be strained, but in the end a good time appeared to be had by all. It's their last stand at the Strand venue in Dorchester, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the Shubert Theatre with their mounting of “Showboat” next spring.

For the moment, thanks largely to the excellent Choreography by Kira Cowan Troilo, the inventive Costume Design by Director Stacey Stephens, the lively Music Direction by Charles Peltz, clever Scenic Design by Mac Young, and complex Lighting Design by Zach Blane, they're in a good place. There is also fine Sound Design by Brian McCoy and sometimes pesky Flying by Foy. It's in the source material where the show too often (you should excuse the expression) flounders, with hopelessly over-padded music and dialogue. The original film's Music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Howard Ashman (with some additional lyrics by Glenn Slater) included several such top-drawer songs as “Part of Your World”, “Kiss the Girl” and of course “Under the Sea”. These three numbers continue to delight, but most of the musical numbers added for the stage are instantly forgettable (with the exception of “If Only” sung by the impressive Andrew Giordano as King Triton), some even irritating, such as “Positoovity”.

The cast, every member proficient both in singing and dancing, is led by Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel, ably supported by Eric (Jared Troilo), Sebastian (Jay Kelley, especially notable for his movement in the “Under the Sea” sequence), and other characters with such names as Grimsby (Ray O'Hare), Flotsam (Chris Pittman), Jetsam (Carl-Michael Ogle), Scuttle (Eddy Cavazos), and, yes, even Flounder (Scott Caron). Standouts are the prance-on role of Chef Louis (Andy Papas) and the powerful voice of Ursula (Shana Dirik). In the acting department, most could profit from a dose of subtlety, but that might be too much to expect from a show with this target audience in its sights.

The main weakness of the show is the Book by Doug Wright, a real surprise, given his noted previous work (“I Am My Own Wife”, “Grey Gardens”). There are a few other relatively minor quibbles (the too-visible wires that make characters “fly”, the mermaids with quite discernible feet, the occasional mugging) but in the end it's the enjoyment of the children (and the childlike adults accompanying them) that truly matters. While the 1989 film remains far superior, and, though it sounds fishy, a non-animated film is in the pipeline, this version, in its across-the-nation popularity, has proven that Hans Christian Anderson's heroine still has legs.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Lulu": Iced Berg

Marlis Petersen as Berg's "Lulu"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's latest HD Live broadcast is Alban Berg's "Lulu", his sordid tale of the complicated temptress who disrupts the lives of all who surround her. Unabashedly lurid, this is a challenging piece to say the least, especially with its relatively unapproachable music. It's not a particularly popular work, though its fans are avid. However, it's undeniably unsavory, and, as opera plots go, this one is a real lulu.

In a prologue, the Animal Trainer invites us to visit his menagerie, including “the serpent Lulu”, the cold-as-ice “heroine” of this story. Lulu (Marlis Petersen) is sitting for her portrait by The Painter (Paul Groves), with her lover Schön (Johan Reuter) in attendance, when her husband The Physician rushes in, discovers her and collapses in shock, dying. Later, after Lulu and The Painter are married, they are visited by the aged Schigolch (Franz Grundheber) who is either her father or a former lover, when she hears Schön has become engaged. Schön tells her husband about her lurid past, causing him to cut his throat. Lulu is indifferent to the suicide, convinced Schön will marry her. His son Alwa (Daniel Brenna) composes a ballet for Lulu to perform but she refuses when she sees Schön in the audience with his fiancée. Lulu convinces him to break off his engagement. Later, now married to Schön, she continues to attract admirers, including Alwa and the lesbian Countess Geschwitz (Susan Graham), causing Schön to insist that Lulu shoot herself to protect his reputation. Instead, she shoots and kills him. Committed to a hospital with cholera, she plans her escape by arranging for The Countess to take her place. Alwa reaffirms his love for Lulu and agrees to take her to his Paris mansion, where they have a raucous birthday party for her, broken up by the police just as she leaves. Later, Alwa, living in a cheap London garret, confronts Lulu, now a prostitute, as she brings home her first client. The Countess enters with Lulu's portrait. Lulu brings home yet another client, who is killed by Alwa. Schigolch drags away the body and disappears. The Countess contemplates suicide when Lulu brings home another client, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Reuter again). Arguing about money, they go into her room. Her screams are heard as she is killed by Jack. Attempting to help, the Countess is also stabbed by Jack, who leaves as the Countess, dying, cries out one last time for Lulu.

The Met is fortunate that Petersen, who has made this role her international signature, has consented to perform it for one last run. Even those opera fans who detest twelve tone works will find her performance, both in acting and singing, truly magnetic. The entire cast sang the difficult score very well, and Conductor Lothar Keonigs led the orchestra superbly. The creative team was another matter, as Set Designer Sabine Theunissen and Projection Designer Catherine Meyburgh, in this production by William Kentridge, repeated their work seen in the Met's “The Nose”, but overly so, producing very drab visuals. The same could be said for Costume Designer Greta Goiris and Lighting Designer Urs Schönebaum. The expressive Live in HD Broadcast Host was Deborah Voigt.

It may never be one's favorite opera, but as it stands in this current version, it's at least never boring. But then, sin at this level rarely is either.

Encore broadcast will be shown on Wednesday December 2nd at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


Huntington's "Confederacy of Dunces": Flatulence Will Get You Everywhere

Nick Offerman & Cast of "A Confederacy of Dunces"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ignatius J. Reilly”; say it soft and it's almost like praying. Or so think some multitudes of avid readers (including this critic) of this antihero of the 1981 novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. In the forward to the book by its primary advocate, novelist Walker Percy, Ignatius is described succinctly as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas, rolled into one who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age...who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective”. The title refers to a quotation from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Percy was introduced to Toole's novel by the author's persistent mother years after her son's death by suicide at 31. Percy was blown away by it, championed it until it was finally published, and basked in reflected glory when it subsequently won the Pulitzer. It was the object of several proposals over the years for a film version, none of which ever saw the light of day, save for a reading of a Steven Soderbergh screenplay in 2003. Some began to believe the effort was jinxed, as alluded to in the non-fiction work by Cory MacLaughlin (“Butterfly in the Typewriter”) about the author's struggles with himself and the world. Now, at last, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of a fully staged version adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Fingers and sphincters crossed, Ignatius' legion of fans waited in hushed anticipation mixed with more than just a touch of anxiety and dread.

They need not have been concerned. Though the concept of bringing this 300-pound bloviating bellower of bovine banality was a daunting one in thought, it's a haunting one in execution. Ignatius has been described as “excessive in all things”, “huge,obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua”, “Falstaffian” with “echoes of Shakespeare and Wilde”, “a grand comic figure”, “a brainy, obnoxious, gassy, hefty center of gravity”, an outlandish “slovenly cynic whose snobbery is even more off-putting than his distinct lack of hygiene”, a “classic archetype”, and a “legend in his own mind”. On the page, he considers himself the center of the universe; on stage, he's all this and more. The play, as did the book, throws together the great social forces of the counterculture of 1960's America, such as race, and whether an original like Ignatius can outwit the nitwits. As Hatcher has said, “a lot of the people in this play are trapped. The way out for them may be success, it may be freedom, it may be leaving New Orleans. Ignatius is frightened of leaving New Orleans but he must. Like the rest of them, he's trapped and looking for a way out”. His is a difficult personality to embrace. Unless he's present in the person of one Nick Offerman.

Offerman is a perfect deadpan choice for our central character in a work full of characters of all sorts and sizes (fifteen or more). Though we're spared the book's describing his favorite flops of the cinema (such as two Doris Day films, “Billy Rose's Jumbo” and “That Touch of Mink”), he's still an omniscient critic of all in his wake. Offerman manages, with the raising of an eyebrow, the haughtiness of his tone, and his pontificating delivery, to embody this fantastic creature. Then there's his mother Irene (Anita Gillette, fondly remembered for delivering some of Irving Berlin's funniest lyrics ever, in the song “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous”, from Mr.President). Gillette remains a cosmic comic force to be reckoned with. The remaining cast of characters: a caustic Burma Jones (Phillip James Brannon), an overly swishy Dorian Greene and wimpy Mr. Gonzalez (Arnie Burton), a domineering Lana Lee and protofeminist Myrna (Stephanie DiMaggio), a hilariously comatose Miss Trixie (Julie Halston), as well as Officer Mancuso (Paul Melendy), Mr. Watson and Mr. Clyde (Lonnie Farmer), Darlene (Talene Monahon), Claude Robichaux (Ed Peed), Gus Levy and Sergeant (Steve Rosen), Santa Battaglia (Lusia Strus, with a voice that could shatter glass), Mrs. Levy and George (Stacey Yen), a Bartending Pianist (Wayne Barker, who also provided Music Direction), and a Trombonist (David L. Harris). It's a cast of fifteen, an anomaly in these dramatically underpopulated days. As Directed by David Esbjornson they're mostly wonderful and crucial. Equally important are the creative team contributions: inventive Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez (with countless short scenes defined with the help of sliding panels), painstaking Costume Design by Michael Krass (with Ignatius' hunter's cap, suspenders, and untied boots, he's a vision in plaid), complex Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski (which also helps to designate scene changes), and, perhaps most vital, the perfect Sound Design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes (reminisicent of movie post-production Foley sound effects work, with the cast's pantomiming replacing props, which are heard but not seen), excellent Original Music by Bennett (lending a helpful New Orleans feel) and fine but restrained Projection Design by Sven Ortel.

Thus there's a great deal of talent on display all around. The question remains whether the script itself is sufficiently insightful as to make its central character as unforgettable “live and in color” as he has been in written form. Hatcher has said that no one is indifferent to the book; people either love it or toss it across the room. A similar fate seems likely for this staged version. Audiences will love it and loathe it, depending on their tolerance for Ignatius himself. With consummate pagecraft, in written form he was weirdly lovable; with the parameters of stagecraft, Ignatius in living color is someone who, though still fascinating, wouldn't necessarily be one's first choice as a companion on a transcontinental road trip (or trans-city, for that matter). Many will welcome him; after all, nothing succeeds like excess. The play has already broken box office records, as the second highest grossing production by the company (after last season's wondrous Jungle Book).

All's well (or maybe not) that ends well as our hero presses Myrna's pigtail to his wet mustache in his poignant approach avoidance in the final scene. This adaptation is often brilliant, wildly creative and engrossing (in more ways than one). While at this point in time it needs a Weight Watchers regimen to reach its full potential, it's already a wacky wonder that captures the essence of a much beloved book as few such adaptations do. As was the novel, this play will have its advocates as well as detractors. In its present form, all signs lead one to hope for a leaner but no meaner future. Let Ignatius himself have the last word: “I refuse to 'look up'; optimism nauseates me”.


PPAC's "Book of Mormon": This Is the Place

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen & Cody Jamison Strand in "Book of Mormon"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Have faith. The “Book of Mormon”, that outrageous musical that took Broadway by storm (and continues to do so with sold-out performances), is back proselytizing the Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). Irreverent, blasphemous and bawdy, it was a huge commercial and critical hit, surprisingly so when one considers some of the words and plot points. Against all odds, this raunchily creative wonder won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical of the 2011 season. Now, four years later, it's still easy to see why it has been so successful. There are so many fine points to this show that you can easily overlook its over-the-top political incorrectness and in-your-face humor. If you haven't experienced it yet (or even if you have and need a refresher course of not-so-old-time religion), be advised that, to paraphrase Mormon founder Joseph Smith, one can safely say of the Providence Performing Arts Center that this is the place to be.

The story begins in ancient upstate New York, where the prophet Mormon gives golden plates (about the history of his people) to his son Moroni, who buries them in hopes that someone will someday dig them up. Fast forward to a few centuries later, and that's exactly what happens, as the Church of Latter Day Saints is founded when they are rediscovered by Joseph Smith (Edward Watts). The modern story concerns the assignments of a group of young Mormon missionaries (“Hello”), including Elder Price (David Larsen) who had hoped to be sent to Orlando but instead finds himself headed for Uganda, with his fellow missionary Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), ("Two by Two”). Cunningham is the less confident of the pair, though Price has enough confidence for the two of them (“You and Me, but Mostly Me”). In Uganda they encounter their guide Mafala (James Vincent Meredith) and his daughter Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), who joyously sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (and do not expect a translation here, there may be children present) as well as Elder McKinley (Daxton Bloomquist), who advises Price to go slowly (“Turn It Off”) and has yet to baptize a single convert. The local General (David Aron Damane), in fact, decrees that all of the tribal women must be circumcised. Meanwhile, although Cunningham has assured Price of his loyalty (“I Am Here for You”), the people are unimpressed (“All-American Prophet”) especially about the paradisiacal “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (yes, that's Salt Lake City). Price and Cunningham have a falling out, leaving the missionary work in Cunningham's inventive hands, as he vows to “Man Up”.

The story continues in the second act wherein, thanks to a few major embellishments in his communicating the Mormon story (“Making Things Up Again”), Elder Cunningham manages to convince ten volunteers to be baptized (“Baptize Me”), rescuing Price from his depression (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”) and restoring his faith (“I Believe”). The Mormon authorities are thrilled until they learn exactly what stories the people have been told. Elder Price, said to have been eaten by lions, suddenly reappears before the people and they proclaim their belief in this miraculously reborn messenger prophet as he proclaims his oneness with the people (“I Am Africa”). The tribe puts on a pageant (“Joseph Smith, American Moses”) which exposes the made-up message conveyed by Cunningham. The Mormon heads are horrified and leave in disgust, while the people promise their new-found Book of Arnold (Cunningham, that is) will change everyone's life, for “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day”.

The show is a love letter to Broadway, with references, some subtle and some not, to such previous works as “Bye Bye Birdie” (in its opening number, “Hello”), “The Lion King”, and “The King and I” (with its hysterical take on “Small House of Uncle Thomas”). Thanks to the efforts of its Co-Directors, Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also created the unforgettably lively choreography), as well as a swell cast led by the electric Larsen (a superb singer who moves extraordinarily well) and the powerful Quarrels, the show has been kept fresh in several senses of the word. Only the unrestrained performance of Strand detracted, though he seemed toned down in the second act, perhaps adjusting to the venue; he was hilarious, in fact, in his delivery of his mangled names for Quarrel's character, Nabulungi, from “Neosporin” to “Neutrogena”. The Set Design by Scott Pask, Costume Design by Ann Roth, Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt and Sound Design by Brian Ronan were all on a par with the New York version, and all ended well save for the Doctor (Melvin Brandon Logan) whose repeated refrain was “there are maggots in my scrotum” (and no, that's not a typo).

One could understand why the New York Times reviewer proclaimed this (a bit prematurely) “the musical of the century”. The four years since have given us such milestones as “Fun Home” and, most especially, “Hamilton”. Nonetheless, this is way up there with the finest of Broadway-birthed productions, and to all its rave notices one can only respond Amen! Let's admit it: they had us with “Hello”.


ArtsEmerson's "U Carmen": Carmen's Marimbas

Ayanda Tikolo, Luvo Rasemeni, Pauline Malefane, Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea,
Bongiwe Mapassa, Noluthando Boqwana & Zoleka Mpotsha in "U Carmen"
(photo: John Page)
ArtsEmerson's current offering is “U Carmen”, created and performed by the South African theatre company The Isango Ensemble, so memorable for their production last season of Mozart's “Magic Flute”. This time around they've adapted the popular 1875 opera by Bizet, setting it not in the bullrings of Spain but, as the program says, “a land which somehow borders France, Spain and South Africa”. (Elsewhere in the past in print it was identified as the Capetown township of Khayelitsha). At 100 minutes including a twenty minute intermission, it's a very truncated version of the original “Carmen”, which might profit from being presented as a one-acter. It must also be said that Mozart lent himself more to marimbas than does Bizet. One missed the more dramatic orchestrations that this story of passion necessitates.

This adaptation follows the narrative of the original opera reasonably closely, though some familiarity with it would be of benefit. Whether it was due to diction issues or the balance between musicians and singers, much of what remained of the libretto was incomprehensible, and might as well have been sung not in English but in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages in South Africa. (Then again, perhaps this was a blessing given some of the intelligible lyrics such as “in this neighborhood your timing wasn't good”). But the singing was on the same extraordinarily level as it was on the company's visit last year in solos, duets, trios and choral work. While all were excellent, the standouts were Pauline Malefane as Carmen, the gypsy girl, and Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea as Don José, corporal of the dragoons. Much of the singing was a cappella this time around.

Under the direction of Mark Dornford-May (who was also responsible for the adaptation from a translation by Rory Bremner), The Isango Ensemble shone once again, especially in the fabulous choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana and the lively Music Arrangement by Conductor Mandisi Dyantyis. The effective Lighting was by Chloe Kenward, with the set (unattributed) the identical one utilized last season for “The Magic Flute”.

Any visit from this talented ensemble is a welcome one, and “U Carmen” is a production that's been identified with the company from its inception. One looks forward to savoring an annual performance as the company develops and expands its repertoire. For now, one can sit back and admire the gypsy in their souls, and, since it's another unshod performance, their soles.


BLO's "In the Penal Colony": Harrowing Punishment

(From top) Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira & David McFerrin in "In the Penal Colony"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One would be hard pressed to imagine a more challenging venue for attending an opera than the Cyclorama Building in Boston's South End, but that's precisely where Boston Lyric Opera's current production, “In the Penal Colony”, is being performed. A one-act chamber opera by Phillip Glass, with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer (in English), it was first produced in 2000 in Seattle. It's about eighty minutes long; Glass termed it his “pocket opera”. Based on Kafka's 1914 dystopian short story, it features a death machine, namely a harrow, a farm implement with spike-like teeth intended to level soil, but used for medieval torture. It's at the center of this dark tale of the breakdown of civil society, about crime and unusual punishment, set in a penal colony. Written and composed to feature three performers and a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass), the work turned out to be a perfect choice for this venue (as part of the BLO's Opera Annex program), thanks to some ingenuity on the part of the creative team, especially in overcoming potential acoustical concerns.

The story begins as a Visitor (tenor Neal Ferreira) arrives at the penal colony, invited by its new commander to witness an execution, conducted by the Officer (baritone David McFerrin), of a Man (actor Yury Yanowsky). The condemned man doesn't know his fate and has had no chance to defend himself; “guilt is always beyond doubt”. The machine is constructed to emboss a description of the man's crime into his flesh during twelve hours of torture until the “transfiguring moment of redemption as the victim realizes the nature of his crime”. The Visitor is appalled but feels he has no right to intervene. When the machine malfunctions, the Officer frees the prisoner, climbs in, and discovers that “he never found what he sought and what all the others found...no sign of redemption...none at all”.

Throughout the piece, with its pulsating “ostinatos” (Glass' typical musical perseverations), ranging from forceful surges to more meditative calm, with its plaintive sections for the violins, inquiring cello, and sudden pauses, there was conveyed a feeling of dread, most especially with the abrupt silence after the climax. Thanks in large part to the superb interpretation of Conductor Ryan Turner and his quintet, and the marvelous Stage Direction by R.B. Schlather, with effective Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, clever Costume Design by Terese Wadden and wondrously original Lighting Design by JAX Messinger, this was a somewhat creepy and chilling experience, precisely as it was intended to be. McFerrin and Ferreira were both in fine voice, managing to fill the hall with their intensely dramatic singing and movement, which also involved former Boston Ballet star Yanowsky, a tremendous asset to the performance. The efforts of the entire team made for an unforgettable production. Even the surtitles (by John Conlin and Allison Voth) became an integral part of this portrayal of a disintegrating society.

Some of the audience may not have been devotees of the composer's oeuvre before this; this brief but spellbinding opera could break that Glass ceiling. It's arguably his most approachable music, and, as presented by the BLO, a true triumph in the company's history.


Curtain Call's "Next to Normal": Still Poles Away from the Norm

Sam Patch, Steve Perry & Ann McCoy in "Next to Normal"
(photo: Curtain Call Theatre)

It isn't the norm for this blog site to review community theatre productions, as they rightfully require that they be seen through a different lens from that employed in assessing more “professional” efforts. A rare exception is Curtain Call's current production (in Braintree), the musical “Next to Normal”, which merits consideration right up there with previous versions seen on Broadway and in a regional Boston company. As noted by this critic in the past, this 2009 Broadway musical is poles away from typical musical fare, especially in its subject matter, about a damaged woman suffering from what was once called manic-depressive mental illness. It defies classification just as it (almost) defies description. In its defiantly through-composed form it is undeniably operatic, but its story is intimate and immediate. Its music (deservedly honored with Tony awards for both score and orchestration) is modern but not really rock, powerful and memorable. Yet, even with some three dozen musical numbers, it yields not a single stand-alone standard. While it has moments of humor, mostly in the form of irony, it is decidedly not a musical comedy; rather, it’s the theater’s first truly bipolar musical, in more ways than two. It is also one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a feat matched only three times in the last three decades, the others being “Rent” and “Sunday in the Park with George”, and only eight times in the entire history of the Pulitzer. Nominated for eleven Tony Awards, it won only three. It was the year of “Billy Elliot” (which shared the award for orchestration with “Next to Normal”) which had fifteen Tony nominations and won ten of them.

In this production, Director Jim Sullivan has assembled an astonishing cast, led by Ann McCoy as Diana, the bipolar wife and mother. From the moment she sang the show's opening line, “They're the perfect loving family”, it was clear that one would be witnessing a stellar performance. McCoy shares the stage with an incredibly talented ensemble. In this version, we truly feel the pain shared by the whole family as they deal with her inability to cope, to think, to feel. Above all, “Next to Normal” is about being there for one another. Sam Patch, as her treasured son Gabe, whom she insists must be there for her, Meghan Ryan as Natalie, her almost invisible daughter, craving the attention that her mother completely sucks out of the atmosphere, and Bryan George Rowell as Henry, Natalie’s unflaggingly sweet boyfriend, are all unforgettable. Kevin Fortin ably fills the roles of two of Diana’s practitioners. Then there is Steve Perry as Dan, the faithful husband and father, whose survival depends on repression, what he calls a “slower suicide”; as he also sings, “who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”. He's a perfect match for Patch's astounding voice, Rowell's sincere sensitivity and Ryan's heartbreaking vulnerability. It's a dream cast in a nightmarish story. It's gratifying to see the memorable work presented in this production. The music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are perfectly served by Music Director Jose Merlo, Jr. and his musicians, terrific throughout their two-hour workout. The Lighting Design is by Mollie MacKenzie, Sound Design by Peter Kates, and Scenic Design by James Gross.

This is no romanticized view of mental illness and the stigma with which society often views it, but a balanced presentation of the complexity of treatments (including what used to be referred to as electric shock therapy) for bipolar disease. Medications are a trade-off, what with their frequent side effects, requiring intelligent choices. As Diana puts it when she is medicated to the point of not feeling anything, she misses the mountains, the magic of the manic days, as well as the pain. (Her therapist’s response to her lack of feeling: “patient stable”). She wonders “what happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?”. Toward the end of the play, Diana, still wounded but hopeful, comes to a decision that rather than have chance take her, she’ll take a chance. Earlier she had said that she had “seen this movie, and I walked out”. As she carries out her decision, she sings that “the price of love is loss, but still we pay; the darkest sky will someday see the sun”. As Natalie put it, one doesn’t “need a life that’s normal, but something next to normal would be okay”. Though some hurt never heals, and some ghosts are never gone, in the end “there will be light”. In this production, there's more than enough wattage to fill the compact black box stage. In choosing such challenging material and presenting it so successfully, Curtain Call Theatre gives new meaning (and depth) to the term “community theatre”.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Tannhauser": Marathon Man

Johan Botha & Eva-Maria Westbroek in the Metropolitan Opera's "Tannhauser"
(photo: Marty Sohl)

It's been a decade or so since the Metropolitan Opera has revived their production of Wagner's mighty “Tannhäuser”. It's a favorite of Met Music Director James Levine, so it should be no surprise that he chose himself as its Conductor. The production by Otto Schenk is an aging one (almost forty years old in fact) but the freshness of the singers' voices was what made the day. Since it's been a while since the Met has presented the opera, perhaps a brief synopsis might be helpful.

Minnesinger Tannhäuser (tenor Johan Botha), after a year in the underground realm of Venus, Goddess of Love, (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung), yearns to return to the human world, angering Venus. He enlists the aid of the Virgin Mary and is transported to a valley near Wartburg Castle (in medieval Germany). After some pilgrims on their way to Rome pass by, a hunting party of knights known to him and led by the Landgraf Herman (bass Günther Groissböck) arrives. One of them, Wolfram (baritone Peter Mattei), begs him to return with them, as Tannhäuser's singing once won him the love of Elisabeth (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek), the Landgraf's niece. When Tannhäuser hears her name, he decides to join them. Back in the Hall of Song in Wartburg Elisabeth tells Tannhäuser how she has missed him and the Landgraf declares that love will be the subject of a song contest, with the winner able to request anything from Elisabeth. While Wolfram sings of idealized love, Tannhäuser sings of more earthly pleasures, ending with a prize song to Venus, horrifying the guests, which leads to the knights drawing swords against him. Elisabeth stands between them and begs mercy. Landgraf decrees that Tannhäuser may go free but only if he joins the pilgrims headed for Rome to do penance. At that, Tannhäuser falls at her feet, then rushes out. Months later, Wolfram finds Elisabeth praying at a shrine as a band of pilgrims passes her on their way back from Rome. Since Tannhäuser isn't among them, she prays that the Virgin Mary receive her into heaven. A lone pilgrim arrives; it is Tannhäuser. Having been told by the Pope that he could no more be forgiven than the papal staff sprout green growth again, he summons Venus, though Wolfram brings him to his senses by mentioning the name of Elisabeth. At that very moment, her funeral procession is wending its way past him and Venus cries out and disappears. Begging Elisabeth to pray for him in heaven, he collapses and dies. As dawn arises, another group of pilgrims passes, spreading the news of a miracle: the Pope's staff, which they are carrying, has blossomed.

The singing was exquisite, including DeYoung and Westbroek, but it was the male singers who truly shone. Botha was magnificent, as was Mattei, and even the mezzo shepherd solo by Ying Fang was memorable. Levine's love for the piece was evident in his wonderfully nuanced conducting. The Chorus under Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo once again stole the show. The Set Design was by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, with the Costume Design by Patricia Zipprodt, the dark Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler and the Choreography by Norbert Vesak.
It was a marathon outing for both performers and musicians, not to mention the audience, a solid five hours, but worth every minute of it.


Huntington's "Choice": Wicked Good?

Johanna Day, Ken Cheeseman, Connie Ray & Munson Hicks in "Choice"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What can one say about a play with a character named Zipporah “Zippy” Zunder? Zounds! It so happens that she's the main protagonist in Huntington Theatre Company's latest offering, a new play by Winnie Holzman (who wrote the Book for Wicked for the Broadway stage and My So-Called Life for television). Not long into the play (and thus this is not a spoiler) it's revealed that a successful journalist, the aforementioned Zippy (Johanna Day) is concerned with a new polarizing social phenomenon having to do with the belief that people can be reconnected with the souls of their aborted children (through an organization named CLAF, for “Children Lost and Found”). She's supported (or not) by friends and family, namely her aging husband Clark Plumly (Munson Hicks), her daughter and recent college grad Zoe (Madeline Wise) ), her best friend Erica (Connie Ray), Erica's boyfriend Mark (Ken Cheeseman) and Zippy's new assistant Hunter Rush (Raviv Ullman). The only other characters are The Other Mark (also played by Cheeseman) and Leah or Lena (Wise again). The place is identified in the program as “Near and in New York'; the time as “Now”. Advance word was that the work was to be about a woman's right to choose.

What it turns out to be about is an unpleasantly annoying group of people you wouldn't want to get stuck with at a cocktail party and whose idea of humor is making cruel fun of elderly issues like deafness and forgetfulness, and even one character's awkward recovery from a stroke. They all have an irritating tendency to interrupt one another or finish one another's sentences. While the actors are all fine (and much better than the material warrants), and Director Sheryl Kaller tries valiantly to construct a dramatic arc that's not there, the plot is just plain bizarre. Once in a great while there's a line with some import, such as Clark's admonition that “you don't get to finish everything”. More often there are such head-scratchers as “we made something not happen” and “that's so 'Freaky Friday' of us”, betraying a knack for successful situation comedy with a paranormal bent.

Kaller has stated that what Holzman is trying to say is “we create our choices”. And as Holzman herself has put it: “Our generation of women didn't really see having choices modeled”. She quotes her character Erica: “we looked at our mothers and we thought 'I can't live that life'. But then how am I going to live?”. The playwright deals with our choice to view ourselves and our past choices in a new light, but doesn't offer much insight. The creative team includes several Boston University alumni and faculty, such as Scenic Designer James Noone, Costume Designer Mariann S. Verheyen, and Lighting Designer Rui Rita, with Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. All make positive contributions, most notably Noone, especially with his meticulously decorated, versatile kitchen about the size of the galley on a cruise ship.

Somewhere a playwright is composing a work that will tackle the problems of discrimination against women in its many guises and will actually pose questions about the ramifications of a soul surviving after an abortion (such as what sort of relationship would be appropriate, what responsibilities that might entail, and what impact that would have on both the philosophical and theological worlds). But this, disappointingly, isn't it. It was nonetheless a gutsy choice of a topic for a comedy, but not a wicked good one. Sondheim put it best (in the song “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George): “I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not...you have to move on”. Sound advice for all concerned.


Speakeasy's "Casa Valentina": Crass Dressing?

Will McGarrahan, Sean McGuirk, Robert Saoud, Thomas Derrah & Eddie Shields
 in "Casa Valentina"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

What theater does best is transport us to places we can only imagine, expose us to people we find unfamiliar and fascinating at the same time, and provoke us to new ways of thinking. As the tagline for “Casa Valentina” puts it, this play is about “gender identity, self-acceptance and the struggle to find the right pumps”, thus establishing from the very beginning that this will be tragicomedy of a world alien indeed to most of us. It's SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production, a New England premiere, of Harvey Fierstein's Tony-nominated 2014 play. Based on material from the non-fiction book “Casa Susanna” by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, it's the story of a group of men, self-described as heterosexual, who found a safe haven in a bungalow colony in the Catskills back in the early 60's for their shared unusual preference for cross-dressing, that is, dressing and acting as women. Fierstein has trod this sort of ground in previous works (such as La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots, and Torch Song Trilogy), but this tale takes us to a plane we've not been to before. And in truth, crass dressers they are not, as their accessories alone are to die for (for that period, that is); their choices in garb and in life are sensitive, by and large refined (with the exception of a schmata or two), and intelligent. It sure isn't Kansas.

The setting is the resort owned by George/Valentina (Thomas Derrah: “we are simply the outward expression of the interior female”) and his preternaturally understanding wife Rita (Kerry A. Dowling: “do you know what makes a man irresistible...thinking that you're the only woman in the world who understands him”). Huddled around and about are Bessie (Robert Saoud: “personally I think of being a boy as my day job”); the Judge/Amy (Timothy Crowe: “I stood staring at a gown open-mouthed with desire”); Jonathon/Miranda (Greg Maraio, quoting his wife: “any man who'd go to these lengths to make me laugh owns my heart forever”); Terry (Sean McGuirk: “oh, the terrible things I'd do to get punished and wear my precious gowns” when the common punishment was to demote a mischievous child back into petticoats); and Gloria (Eddie Shields: a hetero stud mesmerized by his women's “discarded clothing on the ground”). The seemingly close-knit troupe is about to be shaken and stirred by the arrival of Charlotte (Will McGarrahan: “I've gone to jail so that you don't have to...It's the curse of the Y chromosome and it's punishable by dearth..any male would have to be certifiable not to want to be female at least part time”). Charlotte has brought along his own political agenda, even though, as Bessie puts it, “politics and prosthetics don't mix”. And late in the play there's the sudden and invasive descent of the daughter of one of them, Eleanor (Deb Martin).

What develops among this group is almost subservient to the experience of sharing their alien world and how it functions (and at times dysfunctions). Strewn with hilarious one-liners and barbed banter, Fierstein's penchant for aiming for the jugular has never been as accurate and engrossing. Although the original Broadway run was a mere seventy-nine performances, it's a shame it didn't get more exposure, especially if it was enacted by a smashingly stellar stable of sequined stallions as this ensemble is. Led by Derrah in yet another deftly defiant portrayal in an incredibly prolific career, the cast effortlessly evades stereotyping even as they exemplify a rainbow of recognizable types. Dowling is the supportive partner personified, enhancing rather than enabling her spouse's dual lifestyle. Saoud spews devastatingly timed epigrammatic arrows (often thanks to a seemingly bottomless font of bons mots courtesy of Oscar Wilde) while McGuirk and Shields expertly parry them. Meanwhile, both Crowe and Maraio provide differing catalysts for what develops over what threatens to become a catastrophic weekend. Even Martin in a brief supporting role resonates. But it's McGarrahan who creates the juiciest character in perhaps his most memorable turn in an extraordinarily versatile professional history. As terrifically directed by Scott Edmiston, there's not a single false note, even when Fierstein goes quite a bit melodramatic near the close of the play. The creative team is also in synch. From the wonderfully evocative multi-level Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, to the perfectly chosen Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, to the effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, this is an eminently watchable production.

All of this would be reason enough to see this show if it were solely dependent on its humor, but even more lies in store for any theatergoer hungry for heartbreaking humanity and heart. In very subtle ways (such as presenting some characters only in their cross-dressed selves, and identifying these characters in the cast list only by their female names), Fierstein conveys that even though they have a lot they have shared among themselves, they discover that they don't know one another as well as they had assumed. Add to this the growing realization that, as accepting as they are of their own enclave, there lies beneath many of their facades an ugly undercurrent of latent homophobia. McGarrhan's character in particular prophesizes (quite inaccurately, as it happens) the future marginalization of homosexuals alongside the (even more inaccurate) eventual acceptance of the cross-dressing alternate lifestyle.

This is easily the best reason for going to regional theater this season. It's what theater is all about. You'll laugh until your corset hurts and cry until your mascara runs, but if you miss this one you have only yourself to blame. And let's not hear another word about your not having a thing to wear.


Lyric's "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning": Weak End

Jasmine Rush, Meagen Dilworth, Keith Mascoll & Cloteal L. Horne in "Sat.Night/Sun.Morning"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

The current production from Lyric Stage Company, Katori Hall's “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning”, raises pressing issues. That's “pressing” as in the historically common process of straightening the hair of African Americans. Hall has stated that she believes that because she is an actor as well as a playwright, she tends to base her characters on real people, and her play initially seems to succeed at capturing a group of believable people in a setting that is sure to prove revelatory for many audience members, namely a Memphis beauty salon in 1945. She spends the first act presenting the beauty parlor as a cultural center, where gossip and community information provide a source for both camaraderie and activism, through the interactions of seven women. As Directed by Dawn M. Simmons, the setting is conducive to the playwright's satirical intent. Beneath the superficial level of heated metal combs and harsh chemicals, there are a number of other pressing issues threatening to surface.

Miss Mary (Jasmine Rush), proprietress of Miss Mary's Press n' Curl, at one point asks “who's ready to get burnt?”, which can be taken several ways. There's the literal sense of the cruel physical procedure, as exemplified by two of her boarders, Taffy (Meagen Dilworth) and Mabel (Cloteal L. Horne), not to mention customers Dot (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and Jackie (Jackie Davis). But there's also the more metaphorical sense as in the portrayals of vulnerable fellow boarder Leanne (Jade Guerra) and new arrival Gladys (Tasia A. Jones). Their almost impenetrably female world is from time to time interrupted by the appearance of their mailman Buzz (Keith Mascoll), whose polio rendered him undraftable, and remembered images of Leanne's enlisted beau Bobby (Omar Robinson). For the most part, this is clearly not a man's world, as evidenced by some of the best lines, such as Mary's rule that “boarders shall not bitch” or her depiction of her salon as “half fixin' hair, half fixin' poor souls”, or Mabel's contention: “men always better when they away”. It's also of course not an integrated world in those times, as demonstrated by their keen awareness of “colorism”, prejudice against darker skins, with lighter skins associated with privilege and beauty.

The depiction of a world totally alien to the majority of theatergoers will be fascinating for them as it is familiar for the minority, at least for the duration of the first act, which qualifies as insightful social satire (though a good deal of dialogue is lost in the dialects, especially in the rapid fire banter at the very beginning). The problem is that, with the arrival of the second act, the playwright has seemingly transported us to a different play, more melodramatic than ironic. There's also a jarring scene of magical realism that is inconsistent with the integrity of the play as a whole. This shift of tone is also accompanied by a shift in focus as a new central character emerges, though this, and a major reveal that accompanies it, won't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention to how Hall and the actors telegraph it. Fortunately, the whole cast is so fine that it doesn't ruin the effect of the author's purposes. As Hall has also noted, it's about not trying to “live up to some other standard; the heart of this play (is to) be true to yourself in all its manifestations”. The technical crew are all in keeping with Lyric's usual level, from the wonderful Scenic Design by Mac Young, to the Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Ian W. King and Sound Design by Kelsey Jarboe.

Hall's play (as is true in her other work, “The Mountaintop”) is evidence that a major talent is developing and deserves to be heard. Though it stops, rather than ends, in a disappointingly flat manner, it will have been a worthy and welcome exposure to a hitherto unexplored segment of our country's formative years. Sometimes the devil is in the details of everyday life that mirror the revolutionary winds of social change. Pressing issues, indeed.


Goodspeed's "Wonderful Life": Only 62 Shopping Days...

The Cast of Goodspeed's "A Wonderful Life"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You'd be hard pressed to find a stage of any size anywhere in this country that could match the performing triple threat talent (actors/singers/dancers) on view in Goodspeed Musicals' “A Wonderful Life”. The tale has a fabled history, having first seen life as far back as 1943, as two hundred holiday greetings in the form of a very short story, “The Greatest Gift”, sent to friends by the author, Philip Van Doren Stern. Frank Capra took the work and made it into his 1947 film “It's a Wonderful Life”. Though its initial reception was mixed in the U.S. (it won not a single Oscar), and negative in the U.K., its annual Christmas showing on television led to its becoming one of the most beloved films of all time, as noted by Jeanine Basinger in her “The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book”. It was subsequently adapted for the stage as a musical in 1991, by the team of Joe Raposo (Music) and the prolific Sheldon Harnick (Book and Lyrics). Consisting of some thirty scenes, it was performed in numerous venues over time, and recently revised by Harnick for this production. Its simple (some might say simplistic) treatment of the way different people view the American Dream (happiness, owning a home, or material wealth) struck a chord with audiences then and now. One's enjoyment of this version will no doubt be influenced by her or his feelings about the sentiment or sentimentality in the original film, as this show is by and large quite faithful to its source.

The protagonist's sense of failure and having wasted his time, an individual's belief in himself, the social ideal of egalitarianism vs. capitalism (with its goal of material prosperity), and ultimately one's finding a place where she or he belongs, are all themes explored by this seemingly lightweight story. Often maligned in its various iterations, there is more to this story than initially meets the eye. Underlying the central narrative is the knowledge that the choices one makes in life determine more than we realize, for ourselves and also for others. This musical version has been described as a “romantic tragicomedy”. It may well be time to take a a second look at the wonder behind a life, or as Capra put it, the worth of the individual, quoting the fifteenth century writer Fra Giovanni Giocondo: “There is a radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see...and to see we have only to look”.

The story, in case you're not familiar with it, (what, you never turned on the TV at Christmas?) takes place in Bedford Falls, New York (1928-1945) where the Bailey Building and Loan Association employs family man and banker George Bailey (Duke Lafoon) who long ago longed to travel, go to college and become an architect. All of these goals went unmet thanks to his other priorities, namely the family bank and the family itself. He did manage to marry the shy but lovely Mary Hatch (Kirsten Scott) and have three children. But it was his ne'er-do-well younger brother Harry (Logan James Hall) who got to see the world, and his chum Sam Wainwright (Josh Franklin) who seems to have it all. It's no wonder that George, contemplating suicide, needs a visit from apprentice Guardian Angel Second Class Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), himself in need of earning his wings. Clarence shows George what the world would have been like if he'd never been born, and what the town would have been like if the miserly old banker Mr. Potter (Ed Dixon) had gotten his way. George also sees how he's influenced the lives of many of his neighbors, from Bert the cop (Kevin C. Loomis) to Ernie the taxi driver (Ryan G. Dunkin) to his scatterbrained Uncle Billy (Michael Medeiros) to his matriarchal mother Millie (Bethe B. Austin). By the end, it's no surprise when Clarence is awarded those wings by Executive Angel Matthew (George McDaniel, who also plays George's father Tom Bailey and bartender Mr. Martini).

While the performers are (as Mr. Potter's song puts it) “First Class All the Way”, unfortunately the Book and Score are not. Although Harnick has made a noble effort to reinvent the more maudlin aspects of the story (with some awful puns such as “Frank Lloyd Wrong”, and many predictable rhyming lyrics), the show is hampered by Raposo's largely mediocre score. Only a couple of songs (“Wings” and “In a State”) stand out in the threadbare musical numbers. Director Michael Perlman has stated that the creative team envisioned their approach to the work as that of snow globes into the lives and very souls of the townfolk (reflected, as it were, in the collage of windows in the disappointingly spare Set Design by Brian Prather). As such it became for them a timeless piece, (as Perlman puts it, “at once familiar and new”), though period elements appear in the briefly enjoyable Choreography by Parker Esse (who devised the more extensive dancing in Goodpeed's “Fiddler on the Roof” last year), and the evocative Costume Design by Jennifer Caprio (from the 20's to the 40's). The fine Orchestrations are by Dan DeLange, with the smooth Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-fourth season with the company). The Lighting Design by Scott Bolman and Sound Design by Jay Hilton (which could use some tweaking with the balance of singers and orchestra) are up to Goodspeed's usual level.

The musical's central character, George, had never grasped his influence on the lives of others, how his efforts made owning a home possible for so many of his neighbors, and how he's made use of his life to effect the greater good of his community. He's never seen personal wealth as an end in itself, or the lives of others as commodities. But he's reminded by Clarence that “no man is a failure who has friends”. This is of course followed by the sound of that tinkling bell signaling that another angel (guess who) has just received his wings. Those who love the film will be delighted with this version; those with a low treacle tolerance will not.