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.


PPAC's "The King and I": Something Wonderful?

Jose Llana & Laura Michelle Kelly in "The King and I"
(photo: Matthew Murphy)

It can't be possible that it has been sixty-five years since the beloved musical The King and I first saw the light of a marquee, but it's true. One of Rodgers and Hammerstein's most enduring works, it had its Broadway premiere in 1951, running for three years. Based on a 1944 novel by Margaret Landon, Anna and the King of Siam, in turn based on the true life story of Anna Leonowens (ironically in real life an Anglo-Indian) in her memoir about the clashing of cultures. That original production won the Tony Award for Best Musical and in four other categories. Its recent mounting on Broadway won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical (as did its 1996 incarnation), and it's this 2015 production that is beginning its National Tour at Providence Performing Arts Center. The film version in 1956 was nominated for nine Academy Awards and won five of them, despite having three of the actors' singing voices dubbed (most notably Marni Nixon for Deborah Kerr). Thus it's been a mainstay of musical theater for what seems forever. And it's not difficult to see why.

What can you say about a musical that has a score of hits including Whistle a Happy Tune, My Lord and Master, Hello Young Lovers, Getting to Know You, We Kiss in a Shadow, A Puzzlement, Something Wonderful, I Have Dreamed, and Shall We Dance? And that's not even including the pageant-like March of the Siamese Children and the inspired ballet Small House of Uncle Thomas. Just about all of the songs have become standards, with the exception of some numbers omitted in the film version, such as the one sung by the King's wives in Western People Funny, (a bit dated and bordering on the politically incorrect at this point) and the solo number for Anna, Shall I Tell You What I Think of You. This score all but guarantees success when performed, as it is here, with magnificent singers.

The story of the relationship between schoolmistress Anna (the marvelous Laura Michelle Kelly) and the King of Siam (the powerful Jose Llana) in the early 1860's is thus so familiar it doesn't really need a synopsis. In this production, the strong cast also includes those playing the roles of Anna's son Louis (Graham Montgomery), Lady Thiang (Joan Almedilla), Prince Chulalongkorn (Anthony Chang) and the Prime Minister Kralahome (Brian Rivera), as well as the lovers Tuptim (Manna Nichols) and Lun Tha (Kavin Panmeechao). Rodgers and Hammerstein typically used their talents to portray social causes, as they do in the subplot about the doomed couple not free to follow their own destiny rather than the whims of a dictator (however benevolent). The cast is uniformly excellent, with Kelly, Llana, and Nichols in superb form. Almedilla's Lady Thiang steals the show twice, making the haunting Something Wonderful unforgettable. The creative team has provided a lush and lavish milieu, from the Tony-winning Costumes by Catherine Zuber to the Lighting by Donald Holder and the Sound by Scott Lehrer. Only the Scenic Design by Michael Yeargan is a mixed bag, starting with the smashing first scene of the arrival of the ship, but thereafter fixated on a dull gray wall (whoever thought palaces could be so dreary?). But as capably Directed by Bartlett Sher with fine Choreography by Christopher Gattelli, utilizing original Orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett, it's still a wonder.

At the end of the play, the orchestra replays the theme Something Wonderful as the prince assumes power and promises changes. It should be a heartbreaking, bittersweet moment, and it is certainly that in this touring version. This is one near-perfect piece of musical theater with a memorable cast and production, eminently suitable for theater buffs of all ages; and, yes, something wonderful.