SpeakEasy's "Scottsboro Boys": Retaking the Cake through Jan.22nd

The Cast of "Scottsboro Boys" returns through January 22nd
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have provided a considerable number of musical theater productions that have often involved a good deal of risk. The musical Scottsboro Boys was controversial even in its title, echoing how a group of African American youth aged thirteen to nineteen were referenced as “boys”. Based on the true story of how these young men were unjustly jailed and (mis)treated, Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway in 2010 and lasted just 49 performances, despite the reputation of Kander and Ebb (Music and Lyrics, their last collaboration), and David Thompson (Book), and despite being nominated for twelve Tony Awards including Best Musical (unfortunately for this show, in the same season as “Book of Mormon”). Its genius was to tell the story via a minstrel show, but this may also have led to its undoing. Intended as satire with minstrelsy songs, jokes, and dancing, and, yes, even blackface, it was picketed by people who never actually saw the show, and thus missed the point, namely the exposing of the evils of the system. Kander and Ebb once again revisited the Great Depression and the racial unrest of the thirties (as they had in “Steel Pier”, and, much before that, “Flora the Red Menace”), all held together in this show by an interlocutor as the host speaking directly to the audience. What resulted is a piece of musical theater like no other, in a class by itself, arguably Kander's and Ebbs' most inventive and unforgettable work.

Though the story is on record as part of this nation's checkered history, its anonymity requires a bit of a synopsis. (Fair warning: there are a few almost-spoilers). The lights come up on a lady (Shalaye Cavillo) carrying a cake box and waiting for a bus, which is late. She smells the cake, bringing back memories. The scene changes to a minstrel show in 1931, arranged by the Interlocutor (Russell Garrett), who introduces the nine youths, including Haywood Patterson (De'Lon Grant), who hop a freight train through Alabama. Just outside of Scottsboro, the men are pulled off the train, along with two white girls Victoria (Darrell Morris, Jr.) and Ruby (Isaiah Reynolds). Afraid they'll be arrested for prostitution, the girls accuse the men of rape, who are then brought to trial. Found guilty, they are condemned to death. The youngest, Eugene (Wakeem Jones) has nightmares about the electric chair. Just before the scheduled executions, word comes that the Supreme Court has overturned the verdicts and they are given a chance for another trial. One of the accused, young Roy (Sheldon Henry), teaches Haywood to write. And write he does, about their plight, making many in the North outraged. The Communist Party takes up their defense by hiring famous lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (Brandon G. Green) to take their case, raising some anti-Semitic issues. In her testimony, Ruby admits the men are innocent, but they are found guilty and sent back to prison. Haywood attempts unsuccessfully to escape to see his dying mother. After several additional trials, all with guilty verdicts, and after even Victoria recants, a deal is made to release four of the youngest boys, leaving the remaining five in custody. As one character blurts out, “you are guilty because of the way you look”. Haywood is promised parole if he admits guilt. He refuses and is sent back to jail where he dies twenty-one years later, having written their story. The Interlocutor announces the finale of the show but this time the Scottsboro Boys refuse to do the cakewalk, wondering if it has all been worth it and if people will remember.

Haywood was urged to “write it all down, the truth” even as he was asked “who's gonna learn from it?” . The lights come up on the lady who has been waiting, who then demonstrates the impact of their story on her and on history. The tagline for this production describes it as “a true story that changed history”. Rounding out the team are the characters of Ozie (Reynolds again), Andy (Darren Bunch), Willie (Taavon Gamble), Olen (Steven Martin) and Clarence Norris/Preacher (Aron Michael Ray). And then there are Mr. Bones (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Mr. Tambo (Green again), about whom more later.

What initially grabs one is the quality and variety of the score, encompassing fast ragtime to slow rag to folk song and of course cakewalk. There are echoes of Mr. Cellophane (from Chicago) in the plaintive Nothin' and Ruby's song Never too Late (to atone) as well as You Can't Do Me and Southern Days, their a cappela revision of a long-revered plantation song. Some of the subjects in the show's numbers, like parts of the book, are discomforting and macabre (“Daddy hangin' from a tree”, the electric chair or burning crosses), intentionally so. Yet there are also hearfelt songs like the bittersweet Go Back Home, the best number in the show, and one of the finest in the Kander and Ebbs pantheon. The score and book are deceptively upbeat in the initial minstrel show set-up, but they soon turn darker and more daring. The structure subliminally follows that of traditional minstrelsy: an introductory song-and-dance routine, then what was called the “olio” (a series of entertaining bits) and the “afterpiece” in the form of an extended skit or burlesque. But, as with their other serious works, especially Cabaret and Chicago, the message is as vital as the medium.

This is a brilliant piece of theater both in conception and (excuse the expression) execution. Wonderfully directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with fine
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, and rousing Choreography by Ilyse Robbins, with very effective Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Donald Remedios, it's a creative marvel. But its true glory is in the performances. Parent and Green, in historically stereotypical roles as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, excel in other multiple roles, as does Reynolds as Ozie and especially as Ruby. Grant is mesmerizing as the central figure of the case (though artistic license is at work here, as the real Haywood was focused on because he was the “ugliest” of the group, certainly not an adjective anyone would ever apply to Grant). But then, every member of the cast is a stunner, each with great vocal and acting chops and (you should also excuse this expression) rhythm.

SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Daigneault in particular, have always been known for their expert hand with musical theater. This may not be the best-known work by Kander and Ebb, but it deserves to be seen by any serious theater buff. With its sardonic black comedy (one final expression you should excuse), awe-inspiring dancing and all-around transcendence, it's the finest work thus far this season. “The truth: who's gonna learn from it?” Guess.


Fathom Events' "Nutcracker": Life Is but a Dream

The Bolshoi's "Nutcracker"
(photo: Bolshoi Ballet)

One of the highlights of any holiday season is the beloved ballet The Nutcracker, featuring the music of Pyotr Tchaikovsky. It was premiered in 1892 in St. Petersburg on this date, December 18, and never more exquisitely performed than by Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet (which was founded in 1776). Their 2014 production of the work was HD broadcast in a movie theater near you this past weekend. Featuring Choreography by Yuri Grigorovich, as Directed by Vincent Bataillon with Music Direction by Pavel Klonichev leading the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, the broadcast was hosted by the company's spokeswoman Katya Novikova who interviewed one of the principals, Denis Rodkin, between acts.

As most ballet buffs will already know, the story, based on E.T.A. Hoffman's tale, begins in Act I on Christmas Eve, as young Maria (Anna Nikulina) is given a present by her godfather Drosselmeyer (Andrei Merkuriev) in the form of a nutcracker. At midnight, after all of the celebrations have ended, all the toys come to life, including the Nutcracker, now a handsome young Prince (Rodkin). He and his corps of tin soldiers come to the rescue of Maria, who is threatened by the Army of the Mouse King (Vitaly Biktimirov).

Act II continues after the defeat of the Mouse King. The Nutcracker turned Prince whisks Maria away in a magic boat to the Land of Sweets. Maria and her Prince are overwhelmed with sheer happiness, having reached the kingdom of their dreams. Joyous celebrations thus may now begin, but it begins to become clear that this kingdom of their dreams is literally that, all a mere dream. (One could be forgiven for an occasional thoughtful Disney-induced digression in the direction of ostriches and hippopotami).

This production, hailed as a “bonbon” for the holiday season, was full of superior dancing by the principals as well as the entire Bolshoi Corps de Ballet, and a visual treat thanks to the imagination behind the creative elements (notably the clever and colorful sets and costumes) and the faultless performances. It's no wonder that this has become a staple for holiday viewing, well worth experiencing for the first time or on a return visit.

Presented Sunday Dec.18th at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA and a theater near you.


ART's "Fingersmith": To the Victorians Go the Spoilers

Tracee Chimo & Company in "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Fingersmith, based on the ingenious novel by Sarah Waters, has seen the light of day not just in print but on television (a three-hour BBC miniseries with Imelda Staunton) and film (the recent Japanese/Korean movie entitled “The Handmaiden”). Now it arrives at ART in Cambridge as a live theatrical thriller, from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (premiering there in 2015), here directed by that same company's Artistic Director Bill Rauch (of All the Way fame). It's a mystery within a mystery within a mystery, rather like one of those nestled Russian matryoshka dolls. And it is quite impossible to describe much of these Victorian hijinks without letting drop some unpardonable spoilers. Having read the book and seen the BBC teleplay (though not the film), one was all too eager to see this staged version as written by Alexa Junge. Such eagerness, alas, can't be shared, as it would have to consist of plot points best discovered on one's own. Suffice it to say that Junge's tale is as though Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins had had a love child (though of course impossible then as now) and had given birth to a convoluted thriller in which nothing is as it seems at first, or even second, thought.

In Victorian London, pickpocket Sue Trinder (a superb Tracee Chimo) lives with a rough and rowdy bunch of fellow outcasts, from John Vroom (Luke Marinkovich) to Mr. Ibbs (Patrick Kerr) to Dainty Warren (Jo Mei), led by the Fagan-like Mrs. Sucksby (the marvelous Kristine Nielsen). Into this far-from-idyllic den of thieves arrives Richard “Gentleman” Rivers (Josiah Bania), with nefarious plans of his own involving a future heiress by the name of Maud Lilly (Christina Bennett Lind). Other characters include Spiller (Lauren Modica), Charles (Zachary Infante), Mrs. Styles (Kate Levy), Dr. Christopher (Kingsley Leggs), and Marianne (Lenne Klingaman). How all these characters, and more (since several actors play multiple roles), interact will be left undisclosed here. Most of them are complex, with the struggles for power intense; only a few of the characters are simple. The
plot(s) are complex, too, and are a lot of fun as each one is revealed.

The Cast of "Fingersmith"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

The impressive and versatile ensemble is a wonder and nearly impeccable (Bania needs to slow down his delivery so as to be more intelligible). Especially brilliant are the two female leads, Chimo and Lind. The creative team has conjured up fantastic Scenic Design by Christopher Acebo, impressive Costume Design by Deborah Dryden (with Lind's costumes by Carmel Dundon), crucial Lighting Design by Jen Schriever, eerily appropriate Sound Design and cello composition by Andre Pluess, and restrained but imaginative Video Design by Shawn Sagady. Acebo's revolving sets are especially awe-inspiring, from rowboats to carriages to instantaneous dissolves, but there is absolutely seamless work all around.

And that's about all one can say except to urge you to see this fascinating and surprising play while you can, as it's a masterful achievement on every level. Time and again you may find yourself comparing this work to that of Dickens. Where it diverges from the Dickensian model is in identifying anyone to root for, at least at first, even if you favor strong feminine characters and gender politics in general. In the printed version of her work, the playwright aptly quotes the late theologian/philosopher Teilhard de Chardin: “Someday after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of love, and then for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire”. Or, as Chardin also said, and will only be alluded to cryptically here: “Everything that rises must converge”.


Fathom Events' "Allegiance": It Can't Happen Here

Fathom Events' "Allegiance"
(photo: Matthew Murphy) 

At the heart of Allegiance, the 2015 Broadway musical, is the oriental concept of gaman, or “endurance with dignity and fortitude”. The show, an obvious labor of love on the part of all concerned, ran for about a hundred performances, and was recently given an HD broadcast in movie theaters across the nation. It received mixed notices for its Book (surprisingly well-constructed given that it was written by three people, Jay Kuo, Marc Acito and Lorenzo Theone) and Score (with Lyrics and Music by Kuo), but was nonetheless recognized for its originality. The musical was created by, directed by, starred and was presented from the point of view of predominantly Asian-Americans, a first for Broadway. Though the story it tells focuses on a fictional family, the Kimuras, it's a composite based on true-life experiences by Japanese-Americans just after the attack on Pearl Harbor, including the family of George Takei (of “Star Trek” fame). Director Stafford Arima was also praised for his portrayal of a family's varied but dignified endurance to a reprehensible period in our nation's history.

The story begins with a flashback as the Kimuras, headed by patriarch Ogii-san (a wonderful Takei), are forced to move from their home in Salinas, California to an internment camp near Heart Mountain in Wyoming. The family consists of his son Tatsuro (the beautifully-voiced Christopheren Nomuka), his granddaughter Kei (an incandescent Lea Salonga), in love with Frankie Suzuki (the talented Michael K. Lee), and young grandson Sammy (exciting new discovery Telly Leung), who falls for military nurse Hannah Campbell (an appealing Kate Rose Clarke). Also featured is the real-life character of Mike Masaoka (a conflicted Greg Watanabe). As were some 120,000 other Americans of Japanese descent, they are presented with a “loyalty questionnaire” which some refuse to sign on principle. Some, like Frankie, are so enraged by this pledge that they organize a camp revolt. And therein lie a few plot points best not divulged here. On Broadway, about 120,000 people saw the musical, the same number of those interned. Hopefully many more will have opportunities to experience the work in the future, perhaps on PBS, a logical home.

Critical reaction to the show seems in retrospect to have been unduly harsh. There is in the development of the story line a repeated tendency to inject a happy number right after a real downer, so it might have been more successful as a straight play without music, since there are some major issues addressed. Its somewhat melodramatic book and sometimes derivative score didn't help, though the performances carry the day. The creative elements include Choreography by Andrew Palermo, Scenic Design by Donyale Werle, Costume Design by Alejo Vietti, Sound Design by Kai Harada, and Projection Design by Darrel Maloney. All deserve to have their contributions more widely seen, especially for a work with so much heart (admittedly too often on its sleeve). It's a triumph for Takei especially, but Solonga shares in the glory, as does Leung with his matinee idol looks (now on display in a just-opened musical, In Transit, Broadway's first a cappella musical).

Of course, it couldn't happen here anymore. We as a country have grown, to a place in which no group would ever be denied entrance, registered, rounded up or restricted based on their beliefs, appearance or ethnicity. Oh, wait.....

Perhaps the French saying is correct: plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose; that is, the more things change, the more they remain the same?


Met Opera's "L'Amour de Loin": Far Out

Susanna Phillips in "L'Amour de Loin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

L'amour de Loin, the new Metropolitan Opera co-production with L'Opera de Quebec, in collaboration with Ex Machina, is newsworthy on several counts. The Music is by female Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, the Libretto by Amin Maalouf, and it is performed under maestra Susanna Malkki in her Met Opera conducting debut. It was first produced at the Salzburg Festival in 2000, and is now being given its American premiere. A short opera (just over two hours), it consists of five brief acts alternating between Blaye in Aquitaine and Tripoli (modern Lebanon). It's a typically startling Production by controversial designer Robert Lepage, with some spectacular (and some not) lighting effects.

The love story, literally about “love from afar” in the mid-twelfth century, is that of Jaufre Rudel (bass-baritone Eric Owens), Prince of Blaye, who yearns for a distant love though resigned to the unlikely reality that he will ever find it. A chorus of his companions (under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo) mocks him about this as he informs them that his true love doesn't exist. However, a Pilgrim (mezzo Tamara Mumford) who has arrived from overseas claims she does exist and that he has met her. Jaufre then can't get her out of his mind. When the Pilgrim returns to the East he tells the Countess of Tripoli, Clemence (soprano Susanna Phillips), that she is celebrated in song by a troubadour prince who calls her his “distant love”. She is at first offended, then warms to the idea, but doubts she is worthy. The Pilgrim returns to Blaye and tells Jaufre that Clemence now knows of his singing, so he decides to visit her in person. Both have a sort of approach-avoidance going on, his being so intense that he falls ill on the ship he takes to meet her. He arrives in Tripoli dying. The Pilgrim precedes him in order to inform Clemence that Jaufre has arrived but that he is at death's door, on a stretcher. Their mutual attraction revives him as they promise to love one another forever. But forever is often not a long time in opera, and Jaufre expires in her arms. Raging against heaven, and blaming herself for his tragic end, she resolves to enter a convent. The final scene finds her at prayer, ambiguously directing her words either to her distant God or perhaps her far-out lover.

Despite its brevity, this work is a demanding challenge for all three soloists, since they share together the bulk of the singing (other than the choral work). Owens, who has impressed in recent Wagner roles, makes a commanding presence, Mumford is suitably intense, and Phillips has some lovely music to perform. Much of it was repetitive however and not very memorable. The HD Host was the ever-dependable Deborah Voigt, and the opera was Directed for HD Broadcast by Gary Halvorson. The Set and Costume Design were by Michael Curry, with Sound Design by Mark Grey, Lighting Design by Kevin Adams and Lightscape Image Design by Lionel Arnould. Much of the LED lighting was, after a while, a bit like contemplating one of Boston's landmarks, the Citgo sign.

This was an unusual outing for the Met, but one that will undoubtedly find an audience, given its theme, its rarity, and above all the often approachable musical composition. Perhaps a concert version without so many visual distractions might help. It's a bit too premature, given one hearing, to say with certainty, but it may deserve to find a place in the company's repertoire. And maybe not.

L'Amour de Loin” will be rebroadcast Weds. Dec. 21 at a theater near you.


PPAC's "Gentleman's Guide": And Then There Were None

Kristen Beth Williams, Kevin Massey & Kristen Hahn in
"A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

The story behind the story of the musical comedy A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, now being presented at Providence Performing Arts Center, is a lengthy one. Based on a popular 1949 British film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, with Alec Guiness playing eight parts, it was adapted for the stage over six decades later, in 2012, premiering at Hartford Stage Company, then at San Diego's Old Globe Theatre in 2013, and subsequently moving to Broadway where it won four 2013 Tony Awards including Best Musical. With a witty Book by Robert L. Freedman and sprightly Music by Steven Lutvak, and incredibly clever Lyrics by both Freedman and Lutvak, it was an unusually literate work by typical Broadway musical standards. It's an amazing amalgam of music hall, vaudeville and operetta forms. Though the film and stage versions are sixty years apart, they share an indisputable commonality, namely an ingenious mixture of high and low comedy, in what amounts to a hilarious murder mystery spoof.

It's also nearly impossible to describe or synopsize without revealing spoilers. Suffice it to say that the basic plot remains the same, with some name changes and alterations that help move the story along, requiring that members of the very upper class D'Ysquith clan be eliminated in order for the anti-hero Monty Navarro (Kevin Massey) to inherit the family fame and fortune, with each new character's disposal funnier than the last. There are various means and methods of dispatch, some romantic entanglements, and an awful lot of farcical expertise. What matters most is that the performances be firmly tongue in cheek without going too far over the top, which is here dependent on the skill of Director Darko Tresnjak (reprising his Tony Award winning effort) and the comic timing of his cast.

That cast of characters include virtually the entire D'Ysquith Family, (all played by the versatile John Rapson). That would be Asquith Jr., Adalbert, Ezekial, Asquith Sr., Hyacinth, Bartholomew, Salome and Henry. That would leave only Pheobe D'Ysquith (Kristen Hahn) unscathed by the unexpected D'Ysquith, Monty, who aspires to the family status and wealth, as well as the hand of the lovely Sibella Hallward (Kristen Beth Williams). Rounding out the cast are Miss Shingle (Jennifer Smith), Lady Eugenia (Kristen Mengelkoch), Tom Copley (Matt Leisy), a Magistrate (Christopher Behmke), Chief Inspector Pinckney (Ben Roseberry), Miss Barley (Catherine Walker), and a Tour Guide (Megan Loomis). All are very properly unproper as the plot requires. And who could resist a show with a character whose very name evokes guffaws: Asquith D'Ysquith (and try saying that one fast thrice).

The creative team includes fine Choreography by Peggy Hickey, Orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, ingenious Costume Design by Linda Cho, marvelous set-within-a-set-within-a-set Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge, Lighting Design by Phillip S. Rosenberg, glorious Projection Design by Aaron Rhyne, and Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier.

In the end (and most of the cast meet theirs), the show is a series of murderous escapades that certainly deserved the awards it garnered, and this production is well worth a visit for a hysterically funny time, brilliantly harmless; that is, unless you're another D'Ysquith yourself.


New Rep's "Fiddler": Another One in a Minyan

The Cast of New Rep's "Fiddler on the Roof"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

To choose to present Fiddler on the Roof , arguably the most universally beloved piece of musical theater, is certainly resonant in our current political and cultural revolutionary time. But there are mighty intellects afoot in this New Rep production nonetheless, beginning with the theatrical magician known as Director Austin Pendleton. Renowned for his enormous body of work, from Off-Broadway's The Last Sweet Days of Isaac in 1970, to originating the role of Motel in Broadway's Fiddler in 1964, to his voice-over role as Gurgle in 2003's animated film, Finding Nemo and in 2016's Finding Dory, his touch is everywhere in this production, most of the time successfully. Fifty years after its Broadway debut, this company is presenting a moving revival of this work based on “Tevye and His Daughters” by Ukranian Sholem Aleichem. A musical set in a Jewish shtetl, about a poor milkman with five dowerless daughters amidst pogroms in czarist Russia? Crazy, no? Yet it ran almost eight years on Broadway, having received ten Tony nominations, winning nine (including Best Musical). The 1971 film version earned eight Oscar nominations and won three of them. It has been revived on Broadway several times since, including one version this season. Clearly this work is, as Tevye himself might say, one in a minyan, in its tenacity about the traditions that keep their community alive and together.

A large part of its popularity is the depth of the book by Joseph Stein, a well-constructed, age-old tale about love, of a father for his children (and their love for him in return) and his love for his religious faith, and what happens when these come into conflict with one another. The scene is set by arguably the most brilliant opening number ever conceived for any musical, “Tradition”. The show barely begins before the audience knows how essential traditions (especially religious tenets, including taboos) were to Tevye the Milkman (here memorably played by Jeremiah Kissel). Yet he is surrounded in his own home by creeping modernism. While his wife of twenty-five years, Golde (the amazing Amelia Broome) is old-fashioned and superstitious, this is not true of his daughters. The eldest Tzeitel (an expressive Abby Goldfarb) seeks to marry Motel (the wonderful Patrick Varner), not the intended Butcher Lazar Wolf (David Wohl), without the services of the local matchmaker Yente (a hilarious Bobbie Steinbach). The next in line, Hodel (Sarah Oakes Muirhead) plans to marry the revolutionary Perchik (Ryan Mardesich) without her father’s permission, only his blessing. Then, the ultimate crisis, the next daughter Chava (Victoria Britt) wants to marry outside the faith, and to one of their oppressors at that, the Russian Gentile, Fyedka (Dan Prior). Tevye struggles to hold onto his culture and beliefs, as his small world changes around him at a rapid pace with conflicting crises around love and family, as well as pride and, yes, tradition. How much can Tevye bend until he finally breaks? Teyve proclaims, at the close of that opening number, “without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as-- as a fiddler on the roof!”

One might criticize such devotion to traditions (especially those that morph all too frequently into laws), as expressed in the song “Sabbath Prayer” (“strengthen them, O Lord, and keep them from the stranger’s ways”), but it’s still a significant story, with a phenomenally multi-leveled score. Jerry Bock (Music) and Sheldon Harnick (Lyrics) were never better. Who can ever forget “If I Were a Rich Man”, “Miracle of Miracles” (never performed with such chemistry as by Varner and Goldfarb), and to “To Life”, or the poignant “Do You Love Me?”, “Far From the Home I Love”, and the finale, “Anatevka”? And then there’s “Sunrise, Sunset”, in a class by itself, with its exquisitely moving wedding scene. It was an evening of great moments, from the trio of “Matchmaker” (never as enjoyably staged as here), with Choreography by Kelli Edwards, who provides a marvelous bottle dance that has never been done better, and is even more difficult to stage than it might seem.

The score is given full force by the performances of the entire cast. Under the sensitive and detailed direction of Pendleton (who shows his intimate appreciation of the show at every turn), the huge cast of over two dozen is fabulous both individually and as a unit. There is also the on-stage presence of a miming fiddler (Dashiell Evett, fondly remembered from the company's recent Camelot), invoking the 1908 Chagall painting of “The Dead Man”, a fiddler on a rooftop, which initially inspired Stein’s book. In one directorial misstep, however, the director has him remain on stage for most of the show, thus often interacting with a metaphor instead of God or the audience; he makes the same questionable choice in several scenes where characters (Tzeitel, Chava, Fyedka) are part of scenes they weren't written to be present in, in a heavy dose of magic realism that works against the story. The technical credits are by and large extraordinary, from the perfect Costume Design from Kathleen Doyle to the complex Lighting Design by Keith Parham and the meticulous Music Direction by F. Wade Russo (who has done this for Connecticut's Goodspeed Musicals for a quarter century, including “Fiddler” two seasons ago). The only mistep is the lovely Scenic Design by Stephen Dobay, which would be more appropriate for a Disney-staged version of “Frozen”; a shtetl like Anatevka needn't be ugly but it should at least appear authentically rustic.

Overall, one might well sing “wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles” indeed. This production provides a “Fiddler” of basic simplicity and great heart, one for all ages. As Tevye himself might put it, it’s a blessing. And as Alisa Solomon puts it in her published history of the show, “(Tevye) wonders if (the townsfolk) might some day meet on a train, or in Odessa, or in Warsaw, or maybe even in America. In all those places, and far beyond, the world has met-and embraced-him. He belongs nowhere. Which is to say, everywhere."


Fathom Events' "She Loves Me": We All Scream....

Gavin Creel & Jane Krakowski in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus)

Joyous as it is to fall in love, it's infinitely more wondrous to fall in love again, with the same musical theater piece, some fifty years later. In any heated discussion of what comprises the best musical ever created, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd each have their champions, but She Loves Me will always be regarded as a sentimental favorite of true theater buffs. It premiered on Broadway in 1963, and has been revived several times since. This latest version, from New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, provides ample evidence for its place in musical theater history. Its Book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszio, with a plot which will be familiar to film fans: 1940's The Shop around the Corner , 1949's Judy Garland flick In the Good Old Summertime , and 1998's You've Got Mail. With Music by Jerry Bock and Lyrics by Sheldon Harnick (who would later collaborate on Fiddler on the Roof), it was this critic's second Broadway musical ever, and remains his personal favorite of all time. In this production, the direction and choreography are seamless, and it boasts an impeccable cast, each with her or his solo number.

The story revolves (often literally) around a parfumerie in 1930's Budapest owned by Mr. Maraczek (Byron Jennings), and his employees, the handsome but single head clerk Georg Novack (Zachary Levi), the dashing ladies' man Steven Kodaly (Gavin Creel), the lovely Ilona (Jane Krakowski), the timid Sipos (Micheal McGrath), and the youthful errand boy Arpad (Nicholas Barasch). Into this melange arrives one Amalia Balash (Laura Benanti), desperate for a job. She is hired by Mr. Maraczek, but for her and Mr. Novack it's loathe at first sight. Unbeknownst to either of them, they are secret pen pals in a lonely hearts club. They arrange by mail to meet in a discreet cafe led by a hysterical (in several senses, and a bit over-the-top) Headwaiter (Peter Bartlett), but the plans go astray, as these things often do in the first act of musicals. After some complications along the way, they finally realize their ongoing connection. It's a very sweet tale involving music boxes, chocolates, and above all vanilla ice cream, which literally breaks the ice between our predestined lovers.

In a promising move to make such theatrical goodies more available to the general public, Fathom Events has just broadcast its first HD capturing of this original cast in performance, and, if this is any indication of what other possibilities lie in our future, theatergoers should expect true wonders. This production, under Director Scott Ellis, is a winner. With Warren Carlyle as Choreographer and Paul Gemignani as Conductor, along with the creative talents of Costume Designer Jeff Mahshie, Lighting Designer Donald Holder and Sound Designer Jon Weston, it's a joy to behold as well as to hear. Special mention should be made of the exquisite revolving Scenic Design by David Rockwell, which garnered every award in sight, including the Tony Award.

Jane Krakowski, Michael McGrath, Zachart Levi, Gavin Creel & Nicholas Barasch
and the Tony-winning Set Design for "She Loves Me"
(photo: Jane Marcus) 
Who could resist such a charming and heartwarming story, lushly romantic while not too heavy on the schlag? Benanti, following in the footsteps of the original Amalia (a then-little-known Barbara Cook) makes the role her own, and Levi is her perfect match, the most moving rendition (in all senses of the term) ever. Add to this the wacky turns by Krakowski, McGrath and Barasch, and even Byron Jennings in an often-underwhelming role, and you have a really embarrassing cornucopia of riches. How delicious to hear Benanti speak of how the views of George and herself “so correspond”, Krakowsi of her book-loving suitor's “novel approach”, and learning that Arpad's last name is Laszlo (a tribute to the original playwright), and the heroine's paean to the ice cream the hero brought her. The little-known musical is no secret anymore. We all scream we love She Loves Me. So bring on the vanilla ice cream already.


BMOP's New Releases: Rose by any other Name

David Rakowski's "Stolen Moments" & "Piano Concerto No.2"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)

Continuing its impressive scheduled releases of new music as well as of overlooked twentieth century works, Gil Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project has recently completed two new recordings, David Rakowski's Stolen Moments and Piano Concerto No.2 and Virgil Thomson's Four Saints in Three Acts and Capital Capitals. Under its eight-year-old “BMOP/sound” independent record label, these two CDs are more evidence of the significant role of Rose in providing access to important contemporary compositions as well as classics of the previous century.

David Rakowski's Stolen Moments is a listenable and approachable example of his witty take on emotion which challenges one's cerebral involvement with his music. With a healthy emphasis on jazz elements (as well as the blues and even the tango), the four movements are assisted by the pianist Sarah Bob in a bravura display of technique and stamina. The same could be said for the incredibly complex and demanding playing of Rakowski's frequent collaborator, the amazing pianist Amy Briggs and what she brings to the Piano Concerto No.2, demonstrating just how incredibly versatile and competent she is as a performer. What she does with the three movements in the concerto is absolutely amazing. Few pianists would even attempt to play the demanding piece, and one wonders how someone survives beyond such taxing and seemingly exhausting demands. While it would be wonderful, if a bit daunting, to see her do such a marvelous interpretation of Rakowski's composing, it's still a wonder to listen to.

Virgil Thomson's "4 Saints in 3 Acts" & "Capital Capitals"
(photo: Boston Modern Orchestra Project)
Virgil Thomson's work on the other of the two new CDs may be considerably older than that of Rakowski's, but it doesn't sound like it. The first of two operas which he set to text by Gertrude Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts could indeed be mistaken by listeners unfamiliar with the piece as certainly contemporary, even though in reality it's almost a century old. In its time (1934) it was considered a theatrical and musical landmark. Thomson looked to his upbringing in the American Midwest for traditional forms such as folk dances, religious hymns, marches, tangos and even waltzes. Rose notes how “first time listeners will be taken aback by its outlandishness”. They would surely be puzzled even more so by the second piece on the album, the aptly named Capital Capitals, which goes on a bit self-indulgently and archly for some twenty minutes of verbal horseplay, but it is no less witty in its repeated allusions to four cities in Southern France. It's also a pleasure to hear some of Boston's favorite artists who have graced the operatic stage in Rose's Odyssey Opera, such as baritone Andrew Garland and soprano Deborah Selig, as well as the chorus performing under Chorus Master Beth Willer. It may be a bit of a challenge to listen to, but many will find meeting that challenge rewarding, as with virtually any of BMOP's undertakings.


Central Square's "Journey": Gong with the Wind

Cast Members in "Journey to the West"
(photo: A. R. Sinclair)

That gong you hear (as well as countless other percussive sounds) throughout Journey to the West is the outstanding highlight of this latest offering at Central Square Theater, a collaboration of Underground Railway Theater and Nora Theatre Company (quite a challenge to acknowledge, especially with their differing spellings for “Theater” vs. “Theater”). Also known as The Legend of the Monkey King, in a translation by Anthony C. Yu, adapted by Mary Zimmerman, this sixteenth century Chinese comic novel follows a seventh century monk as he travels to India from his native China, while searching for personal spiritual enlightenment and Buddhist scriptures in what has been refered to as a celebration of the vitality of human perseverance. Based on the real-life monk Xuan Zang, called Tripitaka (Jesse Garlick) in this version, and his first disciple, Sun Wu Kong, here referred to as the Monkey King (Lynn R. Guerra), this show focuses on their many adventures on their pilgrimage to the West. The original novel's author, Wu Cheng En, actually wrote it in order to criticize the Ming Dynasty's political system and society. It featured gods, demons, immortals, and much action and magic.

The characters in this production include the Jade Emperor (Thomas Derrah), the Sha Monk (Harsh J. Gagoomal), Pig (Shanae Burch), Guanyin (Jordan Clark), Moksa (Arianna Reith), the Dragon King (Will Madden), Princess Sravasti (Lisa Joyce), a King (Trevor Liu), Peach Girl (Lisa Nguyen) and Buddha (Sophori Ngin). Most of this talented ensemble play several other parts as well. As great as all these performers are (with Guerra a simian standout and Gagoomal a scene-stealing wonder in perpetual motion), it's that pervasive percussion that wins the day for this production, thanks to the precise perfection of Ryan Meyer, whose vital contribution creates non-stop musical immersion. As painstakingly Directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner, with fabulous Choreography by Judith Chaffee, colorful Scenic Design by David Fichter, wondrous Costume Design by Leslie Held and apt Lighting Design by John R. Malinowski, it's a worthy successor to the five-year reign of the previous holiday staple, Arabian Nights, though it seems a bit too long and cerebral for potential young audience members.

The show takes to heart one of its aphorisms: “If you hurry, you will never arrive”. A bit of trimming here and there would help, while not affecting the already episodic nature of the journey of some hundred and eight thousand miles, sixteen years, eighty-one ordeals, and almost three hours in performance. It's an embarrassment of riches, filled with scenes that serve as reminders of other great heroic journeymen (and women) from Odysseus to Beowulf to Siddhartha. In the end, our intrepid twosome's response to their final ordeal is laughter. You could do worse than spending an afternoon or evening with the monkey and the monk, especially if superior acting and movement are your cup of oolang.


Lyric Stage Company's "Murder by Two": Professor Plum in the Conservatory with a Candlestick....

Kirsten Salpini & Jared Troilo in "Murder by Two"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
As anyone who recalls playing the popular board game Clue can attest, murder can be fun. The perpetrators of the musical comedy Murder for Two now playing at Lyric Stage Company were no doubt aware of this, and attempted to provide a murder mystery with innumerable possible suspects. With an unfunny Book written by Joe Kinosian (who also composed the undistinguished music) and Kellen Blair (who also wrote the predictable lyrics) they created a whirlwind of largely unmemorable cliches of the genre in a rapid-fire ninety minutes or more. First developed as far back as 2011, their musical made it to New York in 2013, where it somehow garnered nominations for Drama Desk and Critics' Circle Awards, and ran for six months. Go figure. A simple murder mystery, it is chock full of hoary cliches of the genre, undoubtedly meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but barely at a high school sophomoric level. There were about a half dozen laugh-centric moments; the rest were laughable, that is, not in a good way. One character references “the slow and painful deterioration of the American theater”, with no real sense of self-reflective irony.
It seems that the murder of novelist Arthur Whitney, at his surprise birthday party in an isolated mansion in present-day New England, has no end of suspects. It falls to Officer Marcus Moscowitz (Jared Troilo), aspiring to detectivedom, to solve the case and winnow out the guilty party from the many Usual Suspects (all played by Kirsten Salpini). Could it have been Whitney's widow Dahlia, the ballerina Barrette Lewis, the married couple Barb and Murray, the psychiatrist Dr. Griff, Whitney's niece grad student Steph or the trio (Timmy, Yonkers and Skid, not a law firm) of members of a boys' choir? Or the latecomer Henry Vivaldi? At the end of the show, it's not so much about who's exposed as it is about who isn't. But by then, who cares?

As Directed by A. Nora Long, there is a huge amount of energy both in front of and behind the curtain. Troilo has an established resume locally, but relative newcomer Salpini may be miscast in roles (usually, but not always, played by a male) requiring more variance in pitch for presenting such an array of distinctive characters. For the record, the Music Direction is by Bethany Aiken, with minimal Choreography by David Connolly, clever Scenic Design by Shelley Barish, quite apt Costume Design by Tobi Rinaldi, effective Lighting Design by Heather M. Crocker, and terrific surround-Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

One is typically urged at Lyric performances, tongue in cheek, that if one doesn't like the production, please don't say anything. So be it.


Handel & Haydn's "Messiah": Amen to That

The Handel & Haydn Society's "Messiah"
(photo: Chris Lee)

In Symphony Hall, the trumpets shall sound. The Handel and Haydn Society has been performing Handel's 1741 oratorio, the Messiah, since 1818, so you'd be on fairly safe ground to expect that they'd have it all down by now, and indeed they do. Handel may have written his great work over a period of less than a month, and this group has been delivering the goods for the past two centuries, but it never grows old or tired, not when it's in these hands. For unto us a child is born is a message convincingly conveyed by the company's Artistic Director, Conductor Harry Christophers, brilliantly leading an orchestra of some twenty-eight pieces and a chorus of thirty. Add to this such sublime soloists as soprano Joelle Harvey, countertenor Robin Blaze (singing the parts usually assigned to a contralto, with some slight difficulty in the lowest register), tenor Colin Balzer, and baritone Sumner Thompson, and you have a performance to treasure. In a review published as far back as 1911, this company's rendition was even then regarded as a holiday institution, their first full performance having been in 1818, which was also its American premiere.

It has remained popular ever since, largely as a result of the sum of its parts, as Teresa Neff, a down-to-earth expert musicologist with the somewhat cumbersome title of the Christopher Hogwood Historically Informed Performance Fellow, notes in the program. Handel uses bold yet subtle text painting, creating an obvious relationship between words and music, both for soloists and chorus. The libretto by Charles Jennens (actually more of a compendium of biblical quotes from both the Old and New Testaments) would have been familiar to audiences at its inception, beginning with the prophecy and birth of Christ, then his death and resurrection, ending with redemption and the believer's response, as the crooked (are made) straight and the rough places plain. There are more than a few passages that are still applicable to our own era, such as All we like sheep have gone astray with its reflection on current political events.

Most folks are very familiar with the ubiquitous Hallelujah chorus, for which about half the audience stood, an established if outdated and meaningless custom. True music lovers of the piece most look forward to its Amen chorus, which is truly what it's all about. It's what sends one out into the cold of reality inspired by its warmth and excitement, and every valley shall be exalted. And what more could one ask in these otherwise troubling times? For, at least while listening to this work, His yoke is easy (ironically, anyone who has sung the piece will attest that this part is hardly easy). The Handel and Haydn Society's Orchestra and Chorus proved once again why theirs is the renowned Messiah in our area. Though there are more than a dozen other companies giving fine voice to this classic piece, for musical and philosophical re-energizing, get thee to Symphony Hall this weekend, where honor, glory and power be unto Him. The remaining Handel & Haydn Society concerts for the current season, in addition to the remaining Messiah performances on November 26 and 27, are as follows:
Bach Christmas
-Dec.15 & 18 at Jordan Hall

Mozart & Haydn
January 27 & 29 at Symphony Hall

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall


Odyssey Opera's "Dorian Gray": Fifty Shades

Jon Jurgens in "The Picture of Dorian Gray"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The Picture of Dorian Gray, Opus 45, was the semi-staged opera recently presented at Jordan Hall by Odyssey Opera (in collaboration with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) under the company's Artistic Director, Conductor Gil Rose. A two-act work in twelve scenes, it was composed in 1995 by Lowell Lieberman, utilizing his own libretto, based on the novel by Oscar Wilde. A relatively unknown work, it proved to be an unexpected pleasure, with music that was approachable yet unusual, especially in its use of instruments such as the celesta, which added an air of mystery to the orchestration. The libretto, on the other hand, quite faithfully followed the story arc of the original source material, to the extent that almost all of the sung and spoken dialogue was taken straight from Wilde's only novel. It's a variation on the timeless and familiar Faustian tale of a bargain made with the devil, though strictly speaking the devil never actually appears.

In 1890's London, acclaimed painter Basil Hallward (bass Matthew Curran) is finishing a portrait of the handsome Dorian Gray (tenor Jon Jurgens), while chatting with aristocrat Lord Henry Wotton (baritone Thomas Meglioranza), who remarks he must meet the subject of the painting. Dorian himself then arrives, commenting that the painting will endure unchanged while he will only age. He wishes it were the other way round, even if it would mean giving up his soul to make that happen. He stops Basil from destroying it, saying that would be murder. Lord Henry invites them to the opera. A month later, Dorian tells Lord Henry he's fallen in love with a young actress, Sybil Vane (soprano Deborah Selig). He meets with her backstage. Dorian and Sybil sing of their mutual love. After Dorian departs, Sybil's brother James (baritone David Kravitz), declares that if Dorian ever hurts her, he will kill him. After a disastrous performance on stage by Sybil, Dorian and Lord Henry enter her dressing room to a chorus of boos from the theater. Dorian and Sybil argue, and he leaves as she contemplates suicide. Subsequently Dorian learns of her death and notes that the expression on his portrait has changed to one of cruelty. He orders the picture removed to his attic for storage, vowing to live a life of passion and pleasure, unmoved by Sybil's suicide. Eighteen years later, Dorian looks the same as ever, while Basil, visably aged, is disturbed by rumors of Dorian's depravity. Dorian takes him to the attic and reveals the now-bloodied and distorted portrait, then in a sudden fury stabs Basil to death. Later that night Dorian frequents a notorious bar where a whore (soprano Claudia Waite) calls after him by his old nickname, Romeo. This is overheard by a sailor who turns out to be James, who bribes the prostitute to tell him how to find Dorian. On the estate of Dorian's friend Lord Geoffrey, during a hunt, Dorian shoots at a hare, which turns out to be James whom he has killed in error. Dorian, denying he knows the murdered James, promises he will reform, and Lord Henry muses on what a wonderful life Dorian appears to lead. In the final scene in his attic, Dorian sees that the painting has again changed, showing a portrait of hypocrisy and cunning. He stabs the picture, screams, and falls dead, a knife in his own heart, as the portrait now looks as it did when first painted.

Liebermann was on hand in person to give a pre-performance lecture at Jordan Hall. In his talk as well as in the program, he referenced a number of characteristics of the novel, such as its “fragrance of decadence”, describing it as “most moral of books”, as a “horror story...tragic romance, Victorian morality tale...and philosophical examination of the amorality of art and the question of appearances vs. reality” or form vs. content. He further noted its “eclectic blend of romanticism, aestheticism and classicism”. Alluding to the role of Basil as Dorian's alter ego, he accused both of them of acts of blasphemy that, in Wilde's view, must be punished. Each man, in fact, kills the things he loves. Lieberman further stated that Henry's aphorisms are meaningless, but cleverly and seductively expressed in two acts that are fully sung in an unbroken symphonic span. The entire opera is “based on a twelve-note row used in a tonal context...first heard at the beginning in pizzicato cellos and basses, harmonized as Dorian's theme, then the painting's theme”. As the painting disintegrates and becomes corrupted so does its theme. Liebermann sums up his entire work as one grand passacaglia, with ”tonal structure generated by a non-tonal device...further metaphor for the form/content divide in the novel”. As he has stated, the only major character alive at the end is Lord Henry (Wilde's persona in the book), “perhaps dismissing all with one final world-weary and cynical aphorism”. It was a unique opportunity to hear a composer's own voice.
The cast was also in great voice, especially Jurgens in a very lengthy and challenging role. The two female roles, filled exquisitely by Selig and Waite, were astonishingly impressive, and the same could be said for the sinister Meglioranza, the mysterious Kravitz and the conflicted Curran. Even the relatively minor roles, Lord Geoffrey (Frank Kelley) and the Gamekeeper (Jeremy Ayres Fisher) were superbly delivered, and, though brief, challenging in their own right. They were expertly led by Rose with his typically commanding conducting, with the orchestra of almost fifty players somewhat tightly squeezed together in order to provide two playing areas for the semi-staged work. The use of overhead projections to visualize the picture's deterioration was extraordinarily well done. At times one longed for surtitles as well.

Oscar Wilde himself should have the last word here: “Sin is a thing that writes itself across a man's face. It cannot be concealed”. This was at the core of both the novel and its operatic adaptation, with application to our own time. Once again, Rose has proven to be a master of rediscovery of undeservedly overlooked music. It's a role that we should never take for granted.


Huntington's "Bedroom Farce": Unfurnished Finiture

Malcolm Ingram, Patricia Hodges, Richard Hollis, Emma Kaye & Nael Nacer in
 "Bedroom Farce" 
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At dead center stage for much of Alan Ayckbourn's comedy Bedroom Farce, there stands a rather haphazardly constructed dressing table teetering precariously on the verge of complete collapse. It's a fairly potent physical metaphor for the play itself, which depends on several precise theatrical elements: perfect settings, intricate lighting cues, and above all, split-second timing to hold up. Fortunately for the success of this production by Huntington Theatre Company, it has all of that and more. This work, strictly speaking and despite the title, isn't truly a farce (with its typical very broad humor). His nineteenth play out of about eighty or so, it debuted in 1975 in Scarborough, England, moving in 1977 to London, and finding a home in 1979 on Broadway. This, the first Ayckbourn work mounted by Huntington Theatre in its thirty-five seasons, is the tale of a highly strung couple over one Saturday evening in three bedrooms occupied by three other couples. Ayckbourn slyly references characters from his other plays (e.g. Absurd Person Singular , where “Dick” and “Lottie” are never seen), but his emphasis is on a small circle of folks and how their lives interact on that fateful night.

Those three bedrooms belong to: the somewhat stodgily conservative Ernest (Malcolm Ingram) and Delia (Patricia Hodges) who have an anniversary dinner planned but are concerned about their son Trevor (Karl Miller) and his wife Susannah (Katie Paxton); Jan (Mahira Kakkar) and her husband Nick (Nael Nacer), who's incapacitated and left in bed while she attends a housewarming party; and Malcolm (Richard Hollis) and Kate (Emma Kaye), who are giving the party. At this party, Trevor arrives alone, while Susannah comes later, but in time to see old flames Trevor and Jan in a kiss. Jan goes home to discover Nick has fallen out of bed, followed by Trevor who confesses to Nick about the kiss. Meanwhile Malcolm and Kate discuss their relationship while he assembles that infamous table. Susannah, having discovered Trevor has slept at Jan's, flees to Ernest and Delia to tell all. Trevor has also been to see Malcolm and Katy and ended up accidentally destroying the table. All seems to end well, but much of their respective traumas remain essentially unresolved.

And that's just about all one can say about this work without destroying its comic plot points, which depend on the playwright's expertise with set-ups and surprises. There are also quite a few visual gags and here and there a dollop of slapstick, but the underlying theme of marital discord makes for a more involving theatrical immersion. Much of this production is virtually indescribable, such as the monumentally funny depiction of a bed-ridden Nacer, who shows a knack for comic brilliance hitherto under-appreciated by those of us so familiar with his countless serious roles in our area. To hear him whine “Why me?” is an unexpected pleasure, but then all of the cast are impeccably directed by Maria Aitken (of 39 Steps fame), crucially matched by the creative team, seldom as fine and on target as this production boasts. The Costume Design by Robert Morgan perfectly captures the various personalities of all eight players in a period notorious for its outre fashion sense, and the seamless Lighting Design by Matthew Richards provides an almost cinematic cascading flow, with an assist from the Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada. But it's the Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge that proves most essential to the antics at hand; the three widely-differing bedrooms reflect the lives of their inhabitants, from the old-fashioned meticulously faded glory of that of Ernest and Delia, to the work-in-progress chaos of that of Malcolm and Kate, to the upwardly mobile au courant pretentions of that of Nick and Jan (complete with a conspicuous Albers hanging on their wall). Huntington is deservedly renowned for its spectacular sets, and the work on display here by Dodge rivals the best of them, including his own prior work for the company for such productions as Present Laughter and The Miracle of Naples.

Ayckbourn once spoke of the “power of three” as the basic source of much good comedy, namely “do it once, they'll look up; do it twice, you'll have their attention; do it a third time and they're ready to laugh”. He viewed this play as having some farcical elements, but more of a “slow, quiet farce” as opposed to the “louder, faster, broader” method so often employed when mounting a true farce. What's missing in this work is the rapier wit he would bring to later plays which skewer the British class system. Bedroom Farce, generally regarded as his “sunniest play”, might disappoint some who are more familiar with his body of work written later in his prolific career, when he developed a more vitriolic style. When one is gifted with a wonderful cast and creative team such as this production offers, it's cause for rejoicing even in the midst of our current national sense of loss. And it's easy to see why the playwright was justly awarded a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award (in 2010) for his incredible output. Farce or not, and while not the playwright's best work, this is a quiet gem, but a gem nonetheless.


BLO's "Greek": Eddy's Complex

Christopher Burchett, Caroline Worra, Marcus Farnsworth & Amanda Crider in "Greek"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Boston Lyric Opera, in a change of pace and venue, is presenting a twentieth century operatic work at the Emerson Paramount Center, the controversial Greek by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The composer's first opera, written when he was only 28 years old, it premiered in 1988 in Munich (after he was at first a composition fellow at Tanglewood under Hans Werner Henze, who arranged a commission for him back in Germany). This BLO mounting is its first major U.S. production. With Music by Turnage and Libretto by Turnage and Jonathan Moore, adapted from the verse play of the same name by Steven Berkoff (a prolific film actor, known for such roles as the James Bond villain in Octopussy), the opera is based on the Sophocles story of Oedipus, who unwittingly fulfills the prophecy of an oracle that he will marry his mother and kill his father and, when he learns the truth, puts out his eyes in despair. This protagonist, Eddy (baritone Marcus Farnsworth), rather than feeling any shame, revels in his passion, acting out of craftiness and ambition. As the program notes describes it, the libretto shows his ambivalence between duty and love, jealousy and passion, paternalism and eroticism. It takes place in 1980's London at the height of the Margaret Thatcher era, with its own plagues of unemployment, riots and political unrest. The arts especially suffered under her, pushed to be profitable and self-sufficient, relying more on corporate sponsorship, with an emphasis on greed, bourgeois reactionary tastes and values, worship of capitalism, narrow-mindedness and unyielding conservatism. As the program also notes, all of this upheaval was certainly operatic. Needless to say, it resonates even more profoundly in light of our recent national election.

In this work, four singers and four actors perform all the roles (Farnsworth plays only the role of Eddy) in a series of short scenes, not unlike a movie (aided by scenery that cleverly produces cinematic effects such as quick dissolves). Those other singers are soprano Caroline Worra, mezzo-soprano Amanda Crider and baritone Christopher Burchett. One first hears the rhythm of chant heard at every soccer game, a kind of motif in the whole opera. Subsequently the music alternates from short and brutal segments to other longer, poetic, even lyrical passages from the 18-member orchestra (with no violins but cellos, bass, woodwinds and soprano saxophone). One hears homages to Stravinsky and Kurt Weill, echoes of jazz and 70's rock, with harsh sounds alternating with lyrical music (such as the haunting Act Two duet between Farnsworth and Crider about the passing of time), and using unusual percussive instruments including trash cans, police whistles, riot shields and brake drums. The effect may have been jarring for audiences when it was newly performed, but sounds far less controversial in our own time. Even the libretto, considered scandalous in its day, seems relatively tame by today's standards.

For a taste of the libretto, consider these examples. Eddy exclaims: So I run back, I run and run and pulse hard and feet pound, it's love I feel, it's love, what matter what form it takes, it's love! And: I want to climb back inside my Mum. What's wrong with that? It's better than shoving a stick of dynamite up someone's arse and getting a medal for it. And this exchange between father and son: Dad:You don't fancy your Mum, do you son? You don't want to kill me, do you boy? Eddy: Fancy my Mum? I'd rather go down on Hitler. Well, you get the picture.

This performance of the piece moved swiftly, in no small part due to the outstanding work by all four singers with such challenging demands. The same could be said for the orchestra, deftly led by Conductor Andrew Bisantz. And Farnsworth and his costars even manage the cockney accents with ease and frequent humor, under Stage Director Sam Helfrich. John Conklin's Set Design was crucial, aided by the Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs, and the Costume Design by Nancy Leary perfectly captured the look of the era.

This may not ever be considered among one's favorite operatic works, but it remains a very engaging and rewarding work that deserves to be seen by any serious opera buff. It's a compelling portrait of Eddy's hedonistic complex as part of a larger global miasma of social change. As Sophocles himself wrote: Live, Oedipus, as if there is no tomorrow. Amen.


Natasha, Pierre and the Great Groban of 2016: More Brilliant than Ever

Josh Groban & Denee Benton in "Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812"
(photo: Chad Batka)

Alchemy is afoot again in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. As it did last season in the American Repertory Theatre production in Cambridge, Massachusetts, 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 Arts 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. There it won the Obie Award for Best Musical, as well as three Lucille Lortel awards (with a record-breaking eleven nominations). Now at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway, it is gloriously transformed into a Russian style supper club (and more about this later), continuing 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. The cast is virtually intact, save for a very few changes, the major one being that of Josh Groban as Pierre. Some viewed this as celebrity stunt casting, and it surely will help the box office, but this is no stunt (and more about this later as well). 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; numbers are even named as arias, duets, trios, and so on. 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 (Amber Gray), who is married to Pierre (Josh Groban), 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 (for example, 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, and the subtle integration of lighting and sound effects.
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 Groban, the comically narcissistic Steele, the stalwart Ashford and the lascivious Gray. Standouts are Benton's lovely No One Else and Grey's lusty Charming as well as Ashford's astonishingly well-acted Sonya Alone, even more gripping than before, and Groban's incredibly touching Dust and Ashes (added since the original CD recording) and The Great Comet of 1812. There's not an instant when this cast isn't compelling. Groban proves his acting chops to match his singing, though some fans may bemoan the fat suit he wears; his second act performance especially makes him an overnight theatrical sensation. Equally memorable are 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 Nicholas Pope. 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's work 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 what's intended to evoke an abandoned bunker, before 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 an intentional homage to those found in a certain Lincoln Center venue, 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 in the libretto about Pierre's passions and spiritual struggles to become a better person and his notion of the “elusive nature of earthly happiness”. Thanks to Groban's inhabiting the role, though, this show is a stellar spectacular, enlightening in every sense of the word. Score it as a ten out of ten for the show. But don't delay, as 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.