Broadway in Boston's "If/Then": Door #1/Door #2

Anthony Rapp & Jackie Burns in "If/Then"
(photo: Joan Marcus)
The most charged words in the English language might well be, “what if?”, as in, what if we had made other choices than the ones we made. How different might our lives have been? The 2014 Broadway musical If/Then answered that question with several possible answers. With Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey and Music by Tom Kitt (the duo responsible for the Pulitzer-winning Next to Normal), it was a star vehicle for Idina Menzel. It garnered two Tony Award nominations (for Best Musical and Best Lead Actress for Menzel) and had a respectable run of over four hundred performances. It's now on a national tour, arriving at Boston's Opera House for a run from July 5 to 17, with Jackie Burns in the lead role of Elizabeth. It's to her credit that the score seems to have been written specifically for her, and no coincidence that she was nominated for an IRNE Award for portraying Elphaba in Wicked, another Menzel role. But as much of a star turn that Burns' performance was, it's only one memorable part of a fine production, which comes along just when we needed it most. Given the recent tragic event in Orlando, it's a timely reminder that, to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda at this season's Tony Awards, “love is love is love is love is love.....and love cannot be killed or swept aside”. The love enacted in this play includes two gay couples whose lives are affected by the choices made by their mutual friend Elizabeth, an example of how uplifting theater can be, and how life-affirming.

Make that lives affirming, as it centers around the two very different lives Elizabeth could have had, based on a simple choice. This may be the most existential musical in recent history, a story about what happens, or not, based on such choices, as well as by chance. Elizabeth , a recently divorced urban planner nearing her fortieth birthday, moves back to New York City to make a fresh start. She runs into old schoolmate Lucas (Anthony Rapp), a community organizer, and Kate (Tamyra Gray), a kindergarten teacher. Lucas urges her to change her name to Beth; Kate suggests she adopt the name Liz. At this point in the play, “Beth” leaves with Lucas and “Liz” stays with Kate. Thus begin the two tracks that play out, each dependent on which choice Elizabeth finally makes. Without revealing too many spoilers, here is a synopsis of the parallel plots.

As Liz, she's pursued by Josh (Matthew Hydzik),             As Beth, she accompanies Lucas to a protest
a member of the army reserves, whom she meets             over a development project, which she is asked
when she decides to remain in the park with Kate            to oversee at the moment she answers that
and Kate's girlfriend Anne (Janine Divita). Liz                 phone call.  She also has a one-night stand with
doesn't answer a call she gets on her cell phone.               Lucas and becomes pregnant but doesn't tell
An old friend Stephen (Jacques C. Smith) gets                him.  He exits her life for two years.  Meanwhile
her a teaching position. He introduces Lucas to               she earns multiple awards for her work and
his best friend David (Marc Delacruz) and they              Lucas becomes a noted activist.  Beth takes on a
become a couple, even adopting a son. Things               protégé Elena (Kyra Faith), who finally
also get serious for Liz and Josh, leading to                   disappoints her when she leaves the job to have  
pregnancy, marriage and a family. Kate and                  have a family.  After a near catastrophe, Beth is
Anne also marry. After a catastrophe, Liz                      compelled to reestablish contact with Lucas.
leaves her teaching work, despondent. Asked                Stephen offers her a position working with him,
to join Stephen in a project, she accepts and                  but she turns him down, planning to run for city 
looks forward to a promising career.                              council.
Elizabeth meets Kate and Lucas in the park for coffee, where Josh, returning home from his third tour of duty overseas, offers to buy her coffee and she accepts. Both of the stories take Elizabeth, as Liz and as Beth, along somewhat similar yet strikingly different paths, and the exposition of both lives is frequently fascinating (though it must be said that city planner and community organizer are not sexy jobs, and theatrically rather dull). It's best that one not examine too closely the specifics of the results of the two potential choices, as it should be obvious that Elizabeth's personal dilemmas wouldn't really affect the lives of others to the extent that they do in the script. Just go with the flow, and you'll find this a very thought-provoking and ingenious examination of the consequences of the choices we all must make and the role of chance in our lives. The success of the storytelling is largely dependent on the expertise of the cast, and here the ensemble doesn't disappoint. As brilliantly directed by Michael Greif, with outstanding Choreography by Larry Keigwin, this is a winning effort all around, from the Set Design by Mark Wendland to the Costume Design by Emily Rebholz to the Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner and the Sound Design by Brian Ronan. The projections are terrific; New York City has never looked so good. The score, while it may not be quite on a par with that of Next to Normal, is a keeper, an almost through composed (thus virtually operatic) piece. As noted, Burns is up to the huge demands the role makes, as is Rapp (of Rent fame), a member of the original cast who has grown in his role. Gray and Hydzik offer great support, as do the remaining members of this cast.

This is a prime example of the level of professionalism of many national touring productions these days. It's as far from cookie-cutter shows as it gets. Instead, it's a very clever, original piece, beautifully performed. Catch it while you can; the choice is yours.


Odyssey Opera's "Lucio Silla": Political Convention

Joanna Mongiardo & Katy Lindhart in "Lucio Silla"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

As its companion piece to last week's production of Gluck's Ezio, in its “When In Rome” mini-festival, Odyssey Opera presented the equally rarely-heard opera Lucio Silla by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, with a libretto by Giovanni de Gamerra. The influence of Gluck and the prevailing opera seria of the time, with stock characters and their predictable situations, can easily be seen in this work by Mozart and de Gamerra.  The work is amazing given its composition by a sixteen-year-old. It wasn't even the boy's first opera (that would be his equally obscure Mitridate, re di Ponto), nor of course would it be his last. Its place in the context of opera seria is not merely historical, however, as it has many touches that hold the promise that the prodigious musical genius was ultimately to fulfill. The youthful composer respected the rules of the form, with its many conventions, political and otherwise, but even at his extraordinarily young age, there were glimpses of what was to come, submerged under a plot-heavy story that almost defies synopsis; the synopsis in the program for this production is over two pages long, but herewith is an attempt to synopsize that synopsis.

The setting is Rome, in 79 BC. Cecilio (countertenor Michael Maniaci), a senator returning from banishment by the dictator Lucio Silla (tenor Yeghishe Manucharyan), meets a patrician, Cinna (soprano Joanna Mongiardo) and asks him about his wife Giunia (soprano Katy Lindhart) only to hear she is being held prisoner by Silla. Meanwhile Silla tells his sister Celia (soprano Sara Heaton) and a tribune Aufidio (tenor Omar Najmi) of his love for Giunia, who refuses to reciprocate the dictator's love even when told Cecilio has died. Later, in a cemetery, she encounters Cecilio very much alive. Silla is urged by Aufidio to force her to marry him, to which he agrees. Cecilio, upon hearing this, urges Giunia to marry the dictator and murder him on their wedding night, but she refuses and urges Cecilio to surrender his sword and to trust in the gods. The two of them are led away to prison, where Giunia continues to spurn the dictator even if it means she will die at Cecilio's side. In the final scene in the great hall, Silla has a change of heart, renounces any claim to Giunia and swears to marry her to Cecilio, as well as marrying Cinna to Celia. He then removes his crown, abdicates and declares that Rome is to be free.

As was the Gluck opera, this was eloquently conducted by Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director of the company, leading the Odyssey Opera Orchestra of thirty. Additionally, this work included the Odyssey Opera Chorus of sixteen, led by Chorus Master Krishan Oberoi. As Directed by Isabel Milenski, it was dramatically rather static, with some strange choices (not once, not twice, but thrice characters upended chairs to show their anger), and the comically abrupt change of heart at the end brought hearty laughter from the audience. But in the end it was all about the music, which was extraordinarily demanding and gloriously sung. All of the cast were superb, especially Lindhart, with her lengthy solos presaging the composer's later work (in particular, the Queen of the Night's role in The Magic Flute).  The Scenic Design by Jian Jung was similar to his work on the Gluck opera (even repurposing some elements), and the simple Costume Design by Seth Bodie and clever Lighting Design by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew added some context.

Given the presentation of these two operas in the mini-festival of opera seria, there is a decided temptation, even an expectation, to compare and contrast them, but the fact remains that Gluck was composing at the height of his career and Mozart had only just begun. Each work had its memorable moments and extraordinary highlights, making for the festival a cornucopia of operatic riches.


MSMT's "Ghost": Medium Rare

E. Faye Butler, Liz Shivener & Gregg Goodbrod in "Ghost the Musical"
(photo: Roger S. Duncan)

Geography matters. Had the new and improved version of “Ghost the Musical” opened first on Broadway, there'd be a virtual lock on at least one of the Tony Awards being presented at this season's ceremony. But its opening was at Maine State Music Theatre (in a co-production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA), in its East Coast Regional Premiere, a real coup for the company for the start of its 58th season. The longer and larger version had debuted in Manchester, England in 2011, soon after transferring to London's West End, ultimately opening on Broadway in 2012 (where it lasted a mere 136 performances). This streamlined work was seen recently at the Fulton Theatre, with that company's Artistic Director Marc Robin as Director and Choreographer. He repeats in both roles for this production, which also boasts the same cast and creative crew. As was the case with the original, the Book and Lyrics are by Bruce Joel Rubin (who won a best screenplay Oscar for the 1990 film on which this version is closely based) and Music and Lyrics are by Dave Stewart and Glen Ballard. This chamber musical form, with acoustic renditions of the score, is in fact more of a play with music rather than a traditional musical. With ten singing actors and six pit musicians, it's an approach undertaken by Director John Doyle that has worked well for several Sondheim shows as well as the current Broadway iteration of “The Color Purple”. Whether it works for this production is an open question, as it simultaneously highlights the emotional love story at its core while revealing some of its fundamental flaws (inherent in the film as well, despite the fact that it was the highest grossing movie of the year).

The central story is still that of Sam Wheat (Gregg Goodbrod), successful Wall Streeter, and ceramicist Molly Jensen (Liz Shivener) who have just moved to Brooklyn (an update from the TriBeca move in the movie). Sam gets murdered in an apparent mugging event (this is no real spoiler as it happens soon into Act I) and suddenly his money-laundering best friend and colleague Carl (Mike Backes) is all too available to console Molly. Enter the formerly phoney medium Oda Mae Brown (E. Faye Butler) who seems to have found her niche in the spiritual world as she can hear Sam whereas no one else at that point can. It's easy too see why this was an Oscar winning role for Whoopi Goldberg in the film, but Butler isn't mimicking or even channeling that performance, but makes the role her own. And it's about that Tony; this is an award-winning supporting performance if there ever was one. A seasoned performer, Butler has that rare gift of being fully capable of bringing down the house while eschewing chewing the scenery. How she saves the day and everyone gets her or his due is best left unspoken here. There is great support all around, not with dazzling high tech but with earnest and energetic work from the cast and creative crew. The rest of the cast includes the hood Willie Lopez (Caesar F. Barajas), a Subway Ghost (Kyle E. Baird), a Hospital Ghost (Billy Clark Taylor) and mulitiple roles for Jessica Lorion, Janelle McDermoth, and Linnaia McKenzie. The Scenic design by Robert Andrew Kovach is clever, as are the Costume Design by Beth Dunkelberger, complex Lighting Design by Paul Black and important Sound Design by Jacob Mishler.

The major problem here, as in previous incarnations, is that there's little time to establish a true connection among Sam, Molly and Carl (though they're all superb), especially in the case of the two lovers, as Sam comes across as commitment-phobic, never being able to say those three little words (that would be “I love you”) to Molly, instead voicing a non-committal “ditto”, which could be interpreted as his being less than enchanted. Another significant problem is the score, which isn't memorable except for the borrowed “Unchained Melody” (sung thrice, with those unfortunate lyrics, “time goes by so slowly”). While the program lists some thirty “musical numbers”, most are brief snippets that underscore rather than carry the plot along. And the lyrics are often memorable in the wrong sense, such as the verse, “I picked up your shirts” or the spoken line “eternity can wait”. All of the principals have been directed to belt without ceasing, making for a score that's often shouted rather than sung; some variation with the sound balance might be of help. One exception is the rousing “I'm Outta Here”, sung by Butler in the closest thing that the show has to an “eleven o'clock number”.

That said, it comes across as a perfect show for a romantic date. The opening night audience responded enthusiastically, even hissing as the two bad guys in the plot went (literally) to hell.  If this audience's involvement is any indication, the producers will have a huge hit on their hands, as this sampling of theatergoers seemed to love it. As for this critic, the appropriate response would be: “Ditto”.


Huntington's "Most Alive": Drama with a Capital D

The Cast of "I Was Most Alive with You"
(photo:  T. Charles Erickson)

Choices in life are at the center of the remarkable new play by Craig Lucas, I Was Most Alive with You, currently being given its world premiere by the Huntington Theatre Company. In this unforgettable work, the audience must also make choices, but more about this later. Lucas, renowned for past theatrical works such as Prelude to a Kiss, Reckless, Light in the Piazza and American in Paris, the screenplay for Longtime Companion, and the libretto for the opera Two Boys, is a graduate of Boston University with a BA in theater and creative writing. His careers include that of an actor, playwright, screenplay writer and, with this production, director. His varied background informs and transforms this latest effort which both lives up to one's expectations and exceeds them, creating what can truly be described as unique. “Unique” is an often misused term, frequently expressed as one of degree, as in “more unique” or “most unique”. Here one may accurately ascribe this adjective to this play, as it is unquestionably and undeniably “one of a kind”. For starters, the entire work is performed by an exquisite company of seven actors, while simultaneously being signed (in American Sign Language, or ASL) by an equally fine troupe of avatars who are also performing, acting, rather than only signing. What results is an immersive experience unlike any other you've ever seen. Or heard.

As many plays have in the history of theater, this one begins with memories of a family gathering for a holiday celebration, namely Thanksgiving dinner. Knox (Russell Harvard) states that he is grateful for three things he formerly thought were curses: being deaf, being gay and being an alcoholic. While society as a whole might view them as disabling, he sees them as gifts. The enduring analogy for his apparent trials and tribulations is one of the oldest examples of storytelling, the suffering visited upon Job (which Lucas pointedly notes is part of Jewish, Muslim and Christian heritage, all conveniently represented on stage). The reaction of the righteous to the woes inflicted upon them may be wisdom or may be despair. In the case of a person who is hearing-impaired, she or he might use the lowercase 'd' to refer to being deaf as the audiological fact of not hearing sounds, whereas others who share this challenge choose to self-describe with an uppercase 'D', refering to Deaf people who share the same language (ASL) and culture. This was the choice dealt with in the 2010 play by Nina Raine, Tribes , which, not coincidentally, was seen by Lucas, who decided to write his play specifically for its amazing actor, the aforementioned Harvard. In Lucas' play, there's drama and there's Drama, just as there are deaf people and a Deaf community. And, as is the case often with syntax, there's much more to it than whether it's expressed in lower or upper case.

The characters alludes to this as another choice, but more obliquely than in the decidedly more political realm of Tribes. Knox brings home a guy who has been living with him, Farhad (Tad Cooley), a heavy drug user who was recently homeless. Assembled for the traditional holiday dinner are Knox's father, Ash (Steven Goldstein), Ash's wife Pleasant (Dee Nelson), Knox's grandmother Carla (Nancy E. Carroll), Ash's best friend and co-writer Astrid (Marianna Bassham), and Carla's companion Mariama (Gameela Wright). The rest of the cast includes four wondrous “shadow interpreters”, Joey Caverly, Amelia Hensley, Monique Holt and Christopher Robinson.

But Lucas isn't basically writing about deafness, but about what it means to believe in other people and the choice for life even in one's darkest moments. The playwright has stated that he intended this work to be a comedy, a drama, and a tragedy, in the sense of “ bad things happening to people”; if “at enough distance, it's comical..closer to the characters, it's drama...insert yourself wholly into...the characters' flaws, it becomes tragedy”. As the program quotes Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr): “humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. To meet the disappointments and frustrations of life, the irrationalities and contingencies, with laughter, is a high form of wisdom”. At one point in the play, Goldstein's character refers to faith as what bridges the gap between what you know and what you feel. As one final tragedy befalls, the question arises as to what is left to know or to feel when one is deprived of a hitherto vital form of human communication and connection.

The cast, all eleven of them, are flawless, as are the technical contributions. The intentionally monochromatic Set and appropriate Costume Design by Dane Laffrey provide the perfect focus needed, as do the Lighting Design by Mark Barton, Composition and Sound Design by Daniel Kluger, and Projection Design by Lucy MacKinnon. If one were to single out especially memorable elements, they would have to include the ingenious set that complements but never distracts, the way that Carroll has with tossing off a barbed one-liner, and of course the phenomenal Harvard at the core of the play. Theatergoers are continually confronted in this work with choices: whom to watch, whom to listen to, when blessed with a cornucopia of duplicate performances. (The analogy limps, of course, as these are people not puppets, but one is reminded of Avenue Q, in which, after a very brief period, one forgets where the actors end and their alter egos begin). Close attention must be paid, especially at the close of Act One, when a deluge of plot points cascades, more Noah-like than Job-like.

The expressed intent of the production is to ignite a conversation about the play, which is, after all, what theater is all about. By and large, Lucas is hugely successful. This may develop into his finest play; it's certainly his most religious. One could hope for more back stories for some of the characters (when did we last ask a play to be longer?). But this first exposure to a live audience will no doubt help shape its future form, and it will certainly have a future in the theater. As was the case with that trilogy of intention (comedy, drama and tragedy in one), this play is by turns promising, engrossing, fabulous, frustrating and disturbing, at one and the same time a desperate and life-affirming, truly enthralling achievement. Without divulging any spoilers, suffice it to say that there are echoes of the short story The Lady, or the Tiger?, in that each audience member is called upon to provide some resolution, taking on a much more active role than one is used to in live theater. And that's also when theater is most alive with us.

Craig Lucas, we hear you.


Odyssey Opera's "Ezio": What Fortunate Disloyalty!

Erica Petrocelli, Brenda Patterson & Jennifer Holloway in "Ezio"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Odyssey Opera of Boston continues with its mission of exposing audiences to rarely heard music, most recently with its production of Ezio, an opera seria composed in 1750 by Gluck (then thirty-six years old). It was about a decade before his famed transformational reforms of opera with his more familiar Orfeo ed Euridice and Iphigenie en Tauride. As the company's Artistic and General Director Gil Rose puts it in his program notes, this is good old-fashioned seria with “power plays, anguish and true love” at its core, demonstrating that Gluck was in fact a “master of the rules before he broke them”. Thus one encounters, as expected, staid conventions such as convenient entrances and exits, static proclamations, lengthy recitatifs and, ultimately, loose ends of plot rather abruptly resolved.

The libretto by Pietro Metastasio conforms to expectations with its stereotypical roles. It takes place in Rome in 453 AD and Roman General Ezio (mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson) has just defeated Attila the Hun. He swears absolute loyalty to the Emperor Valentiniano (countertenor Randall Scotting) until the latter threatens to marry Ezio's beloved Fulvia (soprano Jennifer Holloway). Her father, the patrician Iago-like Massimo (tenor William Hite), plots revenge. Also in the cast are Ezio's prefect and confidant Varo (tenor Jesse Darden) and the emperor's sister Onoria (soprano Erica Petrocelli), who is in love with Ezio. Ezio must choose between loyalty and love. Saving the emperor from Massimo's plotting, he is rewarded by the grateful Valentiniano by being allowed to marry Fulvia (and Massimo is also freed). There are other minor permutations and combinations, subplots and not so hidden agendas, but this is the basic framework that supports some of Gluck's finest and most impressive music. The drama may be relatively static, especially when compared to the composer's later works, but the vocal demands made upon the entire ensemble become powerfully theatrical in themselves.

It was on this level, that of pure professional expertise, that this production excelled. Rose had obviously rehearsed the piece to a literally pitch perfect extent with both his orchestra and the entire cast. With countless examples of musical and vocal artistry over the course of three hours, each of the six principals was given a chance to soar, both individually and collectively, as in the third act trio sung by Holloway, Hite and Scotting. Holloway in particular was a real stand-out in perhaps the meatiest role, and Scotting was visually commanding (surely he never let his gym membership lapse) and audibly amazing (such a sweet high countertenor voice), winning the audience over even as he executed dastardly deeds. There wasn't a false note among the entire group.

On every level, this was a triumphant event, partly due to the Stage Director Joshua Major (who kept things fluid and lucid, despite those obligatory and unavoidably awkward comings and goings). The Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt, Lighting Design by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew and Scenic Design by Jian Jung (with a subtle evocation of the gradual rise and fall of the empire) all supported the minimalist take on the work, as did the spare surtitles by Dan McGaha, which were occasionally whimsical, as when one character proclaimed, tongue firmly in cheek: “What Fortunate Disloyalty!”

One might easily be forgiven for not engaging in the disdain often heaped upon such opera seria with the inherent artifice, conceits and conventions of the form, when presented with such terrific talent, without surrendering one's strong preferences for opera as it has since evolved.  What fortunate disloyalty indeed.


Scott Wheeler's "Portraits & Tributes": Friends and Family

In the recent Bridge Records CD release Portraits & Tributes: Works for Piano (1977-2014), local composer Scott Wheeler presents more than two dozen brief musical pieces written by him over almost four decades, all impeccably performed by pianist Donald Berman. They include, as the title indicates, some fifteen tributes and a dozen portraits, all referencing Wheeler's friends, family and fellow artists. Inspired by the works of his teacher and mentor Virgil Thompson, the “portraits” vary from his peaceful Pastorale of arts patroness Sara Davis to the lively Cookie Waltz and Gallop centered around a seven-year-old girl. The “tributes” range from a work dedicated to Stephen Sondheim quoting By the Sea from his musical Sweeney Todd , to a birthday remembrance for New York Times classical music critic Anthony Tommasini, to two pieces honoring pianist Berman himself.

Mostly atonal (though there are moments that segue to the more melodic and traditional), this varied collection reflects the local reputation of the composer as an esteemed artist. Known for his work with the Boston Lyric Opera (as well as the Metropolitan and Washington Operas) and numerous other companies, Wheeler is also a Professor at Emerson College. Thus it should come as no surprise that so many subjects of his pieces are also locally renowned, from Gunther Schuller to organist James Woodman to theater critic Marianne Evett. Berman is also widely heralded in the area as an accomplished proponent of the works of Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles.

The overall effect of these works gives rise to an appreciation of just how eclectic the choices made by the composer truly are. Though the first track, a decidedly atonal piece, Alphabet Dance, sets the tone for most of this recording, there is more than enough for even the most conservative taste to enjoy. There are not only echoes and homages to Sondheim, but also to Scott Joplin, and even the Beatles. Liner notes by Wheeler himself provide an intimate detailed and insightful view of a man, his friends, and professional family. This is a compelling and comprehensive compilation of a lifetime of artistry from a man considered a local and international musical treasure.