ART's "Sense & Sensibility": Austen-tatious Gossip

The Cast of "Sense & Sensibility"
(photo: Ashley Garrett)
Whenever the work of the theatrical troupe known as Bedlam emerges, one can rest assured that there will be plenty of “kinetic storytelling” afoot. This is certainly true of their current production being presented at ART, Sense & Sensibility, adapted for the stage by Kate Hamill from the beloved novel by Jane Austen, and directed by Eric Tucker, who helmed this show for a lengthy run last season at Gym @ Judson in New York. All of Bedlam's works portend an incredibly fast and high energy level, which one might not necessarily expect from a play based on Austen, who tended to write at a quite leisurely pace about society's values and human frailties. This is fundamentally about gossip, overt and conspicuous, which is seen to be the tangible and dynamic shaper of both society's and individual's destinies; it's no wonder that in this adaptation, there is continuously someone eavesdropping, despite Austen's very benevolent depiction: “for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”. This is Austen, in an age before ritalin, with all the emergent stops out, resulting in...well, bedlam. And it's a tossup as to who seems to be having the most fun, cast members or the audience. It's a far cry from the more serious scorched earth productions by Bedlam seen in the past; this is a non-stop source of joy.

As the Bedlam company enters in contemporary dress, they gradually put on period attire that transforms them, as Austen's world begins to take shape before our very eyes, morphing into the world of late eighteenth century England. The story takes place over a five year period, from 1792 to 1797, in southwest England, London and Sussex, beginning with the death of old John Dashwood (Benjamin Russell), leaving his widow Mrs. Dashwood (Lisa Birnbaum) and their three daughters: their eldest daughter, most sensible, Elinor (Maggie Adams McDowell); their middle daughter, romantic Marianne (Jessica Frey); and their youngest daughter, impressionable Margaret (Violeta Picayo). Their relationships with their suitors, unassuming Edward & Robert Ferrars (both played by Jamie Smithson), the unscrupulous John Willoughby (Russell again), and the loyal Colonel Brandon (James Patrick Nelson), ensure that before the story is over, there will be pledges of love as well as broken hearts. As the title indicates, there are significant approaches to life identifiable as “sense” (referring to prudence and good judgment, as in the case of Elinor), or “sensibility” (meaning emotionality and sensitivity, demonstrated by Marianne). Also involved are Mrs. Jennings (Nigel Gore), John Middleton (Ryan Quinn), Fanny/Lucy Steel (Katie Hartke) and Anne Steele/Mrs. Ferrars (Birnbaum again). The basic story (or, rather, stories) are well enough known from the novel as well as the numerous television and film adaptations, but this version by Bedlam (as is their wont) is a real trip like no other. And every single member of this tenfold ensemble is brilliant. As just one example, in the blink of an eye Birnbaum flashes from motherly concern as Mrs. Dashwood to airhead Anne Steele to ancient Mrs. Ferrars with lightning speed in a bravura display.

The Cast of "Sense & Sensibility"
(photo: Ashley Garrett) 

Along the way, there are more than a few Austenian wry nuggets. The novelist rather benignly wound down in a similar manner in which she had begun, with the statement that “though sisters, and living almost within sight of each other, they could live without disagreement between themselves, or producing coolness between their husbands”. Yet in its truthful depiction of the fate of single or widowed women with no means or station, there is a somber undertow to the play, but if one can accept that the siblings end up with men not of their dreams, it's an undeniably merry romp. Thanks in large part to the precision provided by the creative team, led by Tucker with his inexhaustible bag of tricks, all's well that ends well, though not, as noted, as its lead characters would have planned it. The (literally) fluid Scenic Design on wheels by John McDermott, complex Lighting Design by Les Dickert, witty Costume Design by Angela Huff and effective Sound Design by Alex Neumann all contribute to this polished and professional frolic. It's absolutely breathtaking.

This production will be presented through January 14th, and Bedlam will be returning to Boston in March to ArtsEmerson to display their more serious side with their double bill of Hamlet and St. Joan (the latter fondly remembered from its production at Central Square Theatre a few seasons ago). Meanwhile, one may revel in the superficial silliness at hand. At the same time a member of an audience entertained by this show will be all the better for experiencing those broken hearts and troth pledgings, for, as Marianne challenges Elinor (and Austen challenges her readers): “do not ask me not to feel”.


"Christmas Carol" Encore: The Solo of Wit

Encore!: Neil McGarry's as Charles Dickens in "A Christmas Carol"

The following is a republishing of a previous review of this show, with encore performances Dec.19-21 at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, with the entire original cast intact.....

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

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

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

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


New Rep's "La Mancha": To Reach the Impossible Note

The Cast of "Man of La Mancha"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures

As is the case with theatergoers who were fortunate enough to attend productions of the 1959 “musical play” that was Man of La Mancha on Broadway, or one or more of its four New York revivals in 1972, 1977, 1992, or 2002, this show remains a beloved memory. Based on the 1965 novel Don Quixote (written between 1605 and 1615) as well as other works by Miguel de Cervantes, it was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning five (including Best Musical). It had first seen the light of day as a non-musical teleplay by Dale Wasserman in 1959, later adapted by him for the musical stage (at Goodspeed Opera House, also the original home of Annie in 1976), with Music by Mitch Leigh and Lyrics by Joe Darion. It was Wasserman's ingenious move to portray the eccentric title character in a play-within-a-play, a tribute to the historical reality that Cervantes himself, a contemporary of Shakespeare, was not primarily a poet but first and foremost a playwright and actor on the road with his own little troupe. This “musical play” reflected the idealistic hopes of the time, becoming known primarily for its best song, The Quest , also known as The Impossible Dream (especially among Red Sox fans in 1967). It was also acknowledged as providing one of the rare Broadway musical male lead roles, along with the likes of Tevye and Harold Hill. It survived its being made into an almost completely forgettable film in 1972 starring Peter O'Toole and Sophia Loren, neither of whom could carry a tune in the proverbial bucket (though only O'Toole was dubbed). The question for modern audiences is this: does it still speak to them as it celebrates idealism and hope, in a more cynical age?

Alas, the question remains unanswered, at least with this production. For reasons known only to Director Antonio Ocampo-Guzman, the setting has been arbitrarily altered to Spain in the era of Franco (the 1960's) while still featuring a trial by the Spanish Inquisition (1478, last time one checked). One who had never seen a production of this show could be forgiven for not grasping the logic of that wrong-headed decision, one that mirrors the auteur approach all too common these days among operatic directors who thoroughly ignore a librettist's original intent. Unfortunately there were some other crucial missteps as well, from the distracting and ugly steampunk-like set, to the haphazard lighting that left one searching for which actor was speaking or singing countless times, to the equally unfocused movement direction, the weirdly unsettling sound and musical effects, the drab (even for prisoners) costumes and bizarre use of non-period instruments like an accordian and ukulele. Its most egregious mistaken choice was casting otherwise excellent actors in singing roles that were out of their comfort zones. It also ignored the explicit instructions by the librettist that Cervantes appear to grow old and gaunt (applying makeup and beard as he assumes the title role), and that his comic sidekick be “chubby” (not due to a prosthetic appliance). And then there is Wasserman's note that “the play is performed without intermission”, which was also ignored, leading to the breaking of tension as the play progressed. So many wrong-headed decisions were indicative that the creative team failed to grasp and/or convey the fundamental message of the piece.

One exception was the choice of Austrian opera diva Ute Gfrerer as Aldonza, the whore who evolves into Dulcenea, the “noble lady” chosen by the knight-errant Don Quixote, who is his sole convert in the end. Gfrerer was solidly at home in her acting and singing of the role (though she looked far too well-coiffed for the character), whose famous background in interpreting Kurt Weill really showed, a reminder of the power the play should possess.

Sadly, if one is looking for meaning in life and the courage to persevere with resilience against a tyrannical administration, one won't find either here in this missed opportunity.


Lyric's "Hold These Truths": It Can't Happen Here

Michael Hisamoto with Gary Thomas Ng & Samantha Richert
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Hold These Truths by Jeanne Sekata is a historical play about the internment of U.S. Citizens of Japanese descent in their own country during World War II; obviously, this was a national disgrace which could never again happen here.

As the current production by Lyric Stage Company, this work stars Michael Hisamoto (a Japanese-born and Singapore-raised actor) as Gordon Hirabayashi (of Japanese ancestry and Quaker upbringing). It's the story of his defiance and patriotism in resisting internment in camps. It also features three kurogos (essentiallty stage hands, sometimes “invisible” manipulators and dancers) in the kabuki and noh theatrical traditions, played by Khloe Alice lin, Gary Thomas Ng and Samantha Richert. Told by means of flashbacks, the story utilizes Hisamoto in numerous roles, from his parents and college friends to military leaders, Supreme Court justices, lawyers, prison bosses, and even Hopi native Americans. As a Quaker, he believed that “God is in each heart, not in a church”. His fifty years of effort resulted in the exposure of the supposed need to detain “non-alien U.S. citizens of Japanese ancestry” for reasons of “national security”, to be ultimately the aftermath of hysteria and racism. This was in part due to the unearthing of letters, memos and military documents by legal historian Peter Irons. In this spare and stark one-hundred-minute intermissionless work, a powerful lesson ought to be apparent. Director Benny Sato Ambush likens this work to a one-person show “with a cast of thousands”, since the character of Hirabayashi is clearly representative of the huge number of people affected by their unconscionable mistreatment. He further notes that nativism and xenophobia (and consequent immigration laws) rear their ugly heads cyclically. And as the playwright herself puts it, “rather than be defeated by the America that was, (Hirabayashi) felt that he had to say a passionate “yes” to the America that was still to come”. As the powers that be finally had to admit, “ancestry is not a crime”.

Michael Hisamoto with Samantha Richert, Khloe Alice Lin & Gary Thomas Ng
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

As Hirabayashi quotes his father: “the nail that's sticking out is the one that gets hit”. Toward the end of the play, Hirabayashi's earlier quote is expanded upon: “the nail that's sticking out is the one that gets hit.....unless the hammer is smaller than the nail”. Surprisingly funny at times, nearly always profound and of course resonant, the play has great power. Its force is dependent on the skill of Hisamoto, and he commands the stage, first with his wide-eyed innocence, then with growing disenchantment, finally with righteous anger. The production is choreographed by Jubilith Moore, with Scenic Design (effectively using typical Japanese screens) by Shelley Barish, simple Costume Design by Tobi Renaldi, critical Lighting Design by Karen Perlow, and fine Sound Design and Music Composition by Arshan Gailus and Projection Design by Johnathan Carr.

As Hirabayashi noted, “we are here farther still from where we ought to be”. Appropriately, President Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, unfortunately, a posthumous recognition, given as it was just months after his death. And, of course, as noted above, in our more enlightened times, it can't happen again here. Oh, wait.....

You would do well to revisit this ever more timely era, to be presented through December 31st.

"The Color Purple": Pushing da Button

Adrianna Hicks, N'Jameh Camara & Cast in "The Color Purple"
(photo: National Tour)

The Color Purple is a guaranteed audience pleaser. The original Broadway version earned eleven Tony Award nominations, (though ultimately winning only one, for its lead performer, LaChanze), running over nine hundred performances, in large part due to the famously generous publicity it received from one of its producers, Oprah Winfrey, on her television talk show. Based on the popular 1982 Pulitzer-winning epistolary novel by Alice Walker, it was first adapted as a film in 1985, which was in turn nominated for eleven Academy Awards (including one for Ms. Winfrey in the supporting actress category), but won none. These statistics may not be indicative of theatrical or cinematic politics as much as they are of the pitfalls involved in adapting such a sweeping literary work to another medium, especially when that source material is as plot heavy and full of characters as Ms. Walker’s is. Thus the first Broadway musical version suffered from a bloated book by Marsha Norman. With some two dozen songs with Music and Lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, it was a challenge even for those familiar with the novel and/or its film adaptation. For those who may be unfamiliar with either, following the story was daunting to say the least. Enter British wunderkind John Doyle, who as Director, Set Designer and Musical Stager, made this touring trimmed-down version, happily, a vast improvement. Totally reconceived, it's tighter, tauter and terrific. And a lot raunchier; Doyle, in the words of one of the songs from the score, really knows how to “push da button”. He has also made its feminist message stronger now.

Adrianna Hicks & Cast of "Color Purple"
(photo: National Tour)

As anyone who is familiar with the original saga knows, the plot covers the years 1909 to 1949, centering on the evolution of Celie (Adrianna Hicks), who is fourteen and pregnant for the second time by her father. In the course of the story, both of her children are taken away from her, as is her beloved sister Nettie (N'Jameh Camara), with whom she loses contact for some four decades. Why she loses this contact, and how she progresses from a quietly passive teenager to an assertive and successful entrepreneur, the audience will discover, as she encounters numerous characters along the way, from her “husband” Mister (a menacing Gavin Gregory) and his son Harpo (ladies' man J. Daughtry) to Harpo’s wife Sofia (the wonderful Carrie Compere). Well, that’s just a few of them. All of them, to varying degrees, become a part of Celie’s story, not least the sultry singer Shug Avery (marvelous Carla R. Stewart), Mister’s long-time lover, with whom Celie falls in love, and nurses back to health. The men are pretty much reduced to sexual predators, and the women often to mere sexual objects, a timely topic indeed. Never has the phrase “less is more” been truer than it surely is here, where more had been less. With so many fates to follow and musical numbers to digest in the original Broadway version, it’s no wonder that this slimmer production is now as moving as it is, by comparison.

This is primarily due to Doyle’s direction and casting acumen. As noted, it’s a huge cast, with so many great performances that one hardly knows where to begin. Surely, though, it should begin with the serendipitous choice of Hicks, whose acting and singing skills are lovely indeed. Add to her pivotal role the compelling work by the sympathetic Camara, the intimidating Gregory, the sexy and knowing Stewart...well, the whole lot of them, in fact. With expert Musical Direction by Darryl Archibald, the stage is alive with fabulous life. The Scenic Design by Doyle and Lighting Design by Jane Cox enhance differing moods, and the Costume Design by Ann Hould-Ward and the Sound Design by Dan Moses Schreier add crucial elements. The craft on stage and behind it is strikingly impressive. (Though they tended to use the many chairs a few times too often in the staging).

Lest one’s praise, and prose, be too purple, there are some problems that remain, despite the efforts of all involved in this version. There is the score, which, with some exceptions that are showstoppers, (the title song, Shug’s down and dirty “Push Da Button”, Celie’s anthem “I’m Here” and a ballad or two) is unmemorable, though the songs do serve the plot. There is also the libretto, which still suffers from some sudden inexplicable transformations, not the least being the “redemption” of Mister at the finale. There are the issues of rape, incest, misogyny, servitude, wife-beating, and lesbianism (in a time when it was unspoken and unsung), that are not the typical expectations for musical theatergoers. The fact that this production is so involving, inspiring and magical is testimony to all of the professionals involved. Hicks is a revelation in the central role, and the rest of the cast is outstanding. Of note is the fact that this reviewer unintentionally neglected to mention that this is a love story about African Americans, probably because of its universal application to the oppression of all women.
If you missed it in Boston, it's coming December 5th to 10th to the Bushnell Theater in Hartford. As Shug Avery suggests, the Lord becomes angry when one walks by the color purple in a field without even noticing it. To avoid incurring the wrath of the theatre gods, by all means don’t overlook this one.


Gold Dust Orphans' "Whatever...": Marvel-ous

Ryan Landry & Larry Coen in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?"
(photo: Michael von Redlich)

This is the very best Gold Dust Orphans show this critic has ever seen!

Of course, it's the only one, which must mean that one simply has to get out more often, or at least admit the truth up front, that one is a virgin, at least as far as the wacky company known as the Gold Dust Orphans is concerned (and they've been around since 1995, so how else can that be explained?). Given the company's popularity, expectations were high, and they were not disappointed. Somewhere between a romp and a hoot, this production actually exceeds mere success; it's an enlightening delight.

It goes by the name of Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?, A Christmas Mystery, an obvious play on the title of a certain film (and a certain Marvel-ous Event). As always, it stems from the mind and groin of Ryan Landry, who takes on the role of Blanche Hudson, sister to Formerly Famous Child Star Baby Jane (Larry Coen, who also directs the show). Each of these world-wise actors set a high standard for the rest of the cast, as well as the creative team behind the scenes. That would include Joe Parks (Michael Underhill) and Mary Marvel (Taryn Lane); that would be (wink, nod) Joseph and Mary, but that's about as mildly blasphemous as the production ever gets. It's much more interested in skewering the news of the day, from political targets to the latest scandals, all, as the saying goes, fang firmly in cheek. There are more plot threads than a colonial quilt, brewing over from the manic mind of playwright Landry, but that's just fine, as the medium here is the true message, which is to say the well-rehearsed ensemble that includes characters like Abigail Marvel (Vanessa Calantropo), Yurick van der Beek (Jack Ferdman), Dr. Bubbles Goldberg (Kiki Samko) and Bea Smirch (the beloved trouper Penny Champayne), as well as Orville Smirch (the remarkably buttocked Sam Thornhill Geoghegan). There's not a clinker in this cast, which would apply to the rest of the characters, from Elvira/Pansy (Qya Cristal), to the Preacher/Butterfly (Matt Kyle) and the Preacher's Wife/Vera (Meghan Edge), to Marge (Sarah Jones), Phil (Tim Lawton) and Professor Davis (William York).

The Ensemble in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jesus?'
(photo: Michael von Redlich)

The cumulative effect of all this performing talent results in a lot of surprisingly professional singing and dancing, with choreography by Kyle, Edge and Cristal. Attention must be paid to the complicated Music Direction by Lawton, hilariously creative and stunning Costumes by House of Martino, intricate Lighting by Michael Clark Wonson and Video by Ari Herzig, with what seemed like hundreds of clever Scenics by Matthew Lazure, as well as Sound by Landry himself. This did feel like a take-off on another popular film, Summer Stock (based on the still-producing Priscilla Beach Theatre in nearby Plymouth).

This show, as has been stated elsewhere, will keep you on your toes, at the edge of your seat, and on the cusp of a cliché! But never fear, Landry obviously has everything well in hand. It's the perfect antidote to the nightly national news, and a lot more entertaining.

The company's venue is downstairs at Machine at 1254 Boylston Street, to December 23rd. But seriously, folks, we could all use a show's-worth of sight gags and sound bites, some even painful (“like Yankee Magazine, she has a lot of issues”), and not a few a tad racy for this review, but it's all in good pun.


Odyssey's "Trial at Rouen": Keeping Up with the Joans

Heather Buck in "The Trial at Rouen"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

More than a half century ago, the televised series known as NBC Opera Theatre, (which, in its heyday, produced such works as Amahl and the Night Visitors) presented in 1956 a new opera,Trial at Rouen, composed by Pulitzer Prize winning Norman Dello Joio, to his own libretto. As part of their continuing discovery of lost or little-known music, Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project, both under the direction of Gil Rose, recently performed this piece at Jordan Hall; it had never before been performed on stage before a live audience, and was thus a world premiere of sorts. It was part of an evening that included the composer's 1951 The Triumph of St. Joan Symphony. These were in turn a part of the company's presentation of five musical depictions of the life and times of Joan of Arc. As the composer put it, his efforts portrayed the “ageless conflict between the individual of excessive imagination and those who hold to the status quo”. So far we've had the opportunity to appreciate several variations on the life and death of Joan of Arc, now two of them in one night.

The symphonic work is in three movements, The Maid, The Warrior and The Saint, with music that illustrates Joan's growth from simple maiden (including a lovely duet featuring flute and oboe), to soldier (denoting assembling of forces, charging into battle and victorious joy), to saint (invoking Gregorian chant). First there was a very bucolic and pastoral depiction of the virginal maid, then a sudden unabashedly bellicose motif with an orchestral attack that the warrior saint would have loved, and finally an ethereal mood piece. It was an enjoyable “curtain raiser” for the evening, strikingly reminiscent of movie music along the lines of the great Hungarian film composer Miklos Rozsa (the 1959 Ben Hur, and close to a hundred other motion picture scores), that is to say, good listenable movie music.

The same, alas, could not be said for Dello Joio's operatic take on the tale. While it often made for enjoyable listening, at least on first hearing, it too frequently bordered on schlock; there are perhaps good reasons why musical works fade into obscurity. That said, it's hard to imagine a better performance of the work, from all the artists on stage, though it must be said that the composer's biggest error was to be his own librettist. The opera, written (and sung here) in English, is in two acts, together encompassing just an hour and a quarter, concerns the last days of Joan. In the Prelude, a Soldier (tenor Jeremy Ayres Fisher) encounters Father Julien (baritone Luke Scott), who is the confessor to the accused Joan (soprano Heather Buck), and they discuss her case. Later, in the ruined Rouen fortress, a group of Inquisitors chant (offstage) as Pierre Cauchon (baritone Stephen Powell), the English-leaning Bishop of Beauvais, speaks with Julien about the woman's dress which Joan declines to wear, a symbol of her defiance to the Inquisitors' demands that include renouncing her claim of hearing heavenly voices, their differing perspectives echoed in the music. There follows a lengthy scene in Joan's cell after her abusive Jailer (bass Ryan Stoll) leaves her with Julien, who urges her to don the dress and realize her sin is that of pride. But their mutual sympathy is short-lived with the return of the Jailer. When, at Julien's request, she is left alone, she speaks to the dress and renews her conviction not to wear it, as well as admitting her fear of the flames and wondering about her possible future, if any. At the trial itself, Cauchon warns “she is a greater menace than she knows”, followed by reactions from the people, then the inquisitors, and finally solos from Cauchon, Joan herself, and Julien. While she refuses to swear the truth on a copy of the Bible, the people beg her to submit, and the Inquisitors proclaim she is a heretic. Joan tells them to light the fire, and is ultimately led to the stake, singing of peace, which she seems to have found at last.

Both the symphony and opera were superbly conducted by Rose, with Chorus Master Mariah Wilson leading a group of two dozen plus a quintet of inquisitors. The opera was of interest, through composed and fluid, with prosody, matching of sung rhythms to the words, but in the end didn't sustain that initial interest, especially it what seemed an endless death scene (not an operatic novelty, to be sure), though movingly sung and acted by Buck at her best. All of the individual singers, as well as the chorus, were flawless; it was a pity that the text was often so pretentious (“I shall hold true to my beliefs though they tear me limb from limb”, or “Oh God, why have you abandoned me?”).

The cycle of five operas based on St. Joan and her times will continue on February 17th with a performance of Honegger's Jeanne D'Arc au Bucher at Sanders Theater in Cambridge, with a spring offering of the final work in the series, Verdi's Giovanna D'Arco. It will have been an estimable effort on the part of Odyssey Opera to demonstrate the diverse spectrum of music devoted over the years to this enigmatic figure, facilitating one's keeping up with the Joans.


Greater Boston Stage's "She Loves Me": Do Call Again

Jennifer Ellis in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

As has been noted here before, as 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, and as the line in a reprised song says, “do call again”. In any heated discussion of what comprises the best musical ever created, Gypsy and Sweeney Todd each has its 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 the Company Formerly Known as Stoneham Theater, now Greater Boston Stage Company, provides ample evidence for its deserved place in musical theater history. Its Book is by Joe Masteroff, based on the Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklos Laszlo, 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, as it is the favorite of this production's Director and Choreograper and Associate Artistic Director, Ilyse Robbins. Rivaling her work in last season's Scottsboro Boys, her magic here is seamless, boasting more excellent choreography than most productions of this musical offer, danced and sung by a mostly impeccable cast (one actor, playing the part of a cad, needs to lessen the scenery-chewing a bit). It's a perfect piece in that it does what most musical theater works don't manage, which is to provide each with her or his solo number. Robbins must know this play well, with never a false move. And it should be noted, given its “12 Days to Christmas” number cleverly interspersed by Robbins with the more familiar “On the First Day of Christmas” et al, that this is the pluperfect holiday show.

Sam Simahk & Jennifer Ellis in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)
The story revolves around a parfumerie in1930's Budapest owned by Mr. Maraczek (Tom Gleadow), and his employees, the handsome but unmarried head clerk Georg Nowack (Sam Simahk), the ladies' man Steven Kodaly (Jared Troilo), the luminous Ilona (Aimee Doherty), the timid Sipos (Robert Saoud), and the youthful errand boy Arpad (Brendan Callahan). Into this melange arrives one Amalia Balash (Jennifer Ellis), desperate for a job. She is hired by Maraczek, but for her and Georg, 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) Headwaiter (Nick Sulfaro), 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. If this is any indication of what other possibilities lie in our future, theatergoers should expect true wonders from Greater Boston Stage Company. This production, with Matthew Stern on the keyboard and as Music Director, shows off the creative talents of Scenic Designer Brynna Bloomfield, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Designer Jeff Adelberg and Sound Designer John Stone. One negative aspect was the muffled overture due to the placement of the orchestra behind the set. It was also surprising, given Simahk's great voice, that one song was spoken rather than sung (perhaps due to the macarbre lyric “her left foot floating in an open brook”).

Tom Gleadow, Sam Simahk, Brendan Callahan, Aimee Doherty, Jennifer Ellis & Robert Saoud
in "She Loves Me"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

Who could resist such a charming and heartwarming story, lushly romantic while not too heavy on the schlag? Ellis, following in the footsteps of the original Amalia (a then-little-known Barbara Cook) makes the role her own, and Simahk is her perfect match (he's been away too long from Boston stages, having been in the National Tour of The King and I). Add to this the wacky turns by Doherty (perhaps her best role yet), Gleadow and Saoud, and even Callahan in an often-underwhelming role, and you have a really embarrassing cornucopia of riches. How delicious to hear the letter-writing Amalia speak of how the views of Georg and her “so correspond”, Ilona of her book-loving suitor's “novel approach”, learning 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.

This relatively unknown musical is no secret anymore. Until December 23rd , we can all scream we love She Loves Me. So bring on the vanilla ice cream, and “do call again, won't you”?


Moonbox's "39 Steps": Fool-Proof Spoof

The Entire Cast of "39 Steps"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)

In 1915 British novelist John Buchan wrote a melodramatic spy story which he enigmatically entitled The 39 Steps, which proved so popular that it was made into a fine film by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935 (and several subsequent remakes). That incarnation proved so successful that a staged version, written by playwright Evan George Patrick Barlow as a comedy (in the style of Monty Python), was produced in 1995 in the town of Leeds, ultimately transferring to London's West End, where it won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy. It ran for nine years, becoming London's fifth longest running play in history. A Broadway version opened in 2008 and was nominated for six Tony Awards (winning two of them for lighting and sound), but its U.S. Premiere actually occurred right here in Boston at Huntington Theatre Company about a decade ago. It is currently being performed by Moonbox Productions (which soared last season with their production of Barnum) at the Plaza Theater in the Boston Center for the Arts. This hilarious Hitchcockian (oxymoronically speaking) play is now in the able hands of Director Allison Olivia Choat and her cast of 150, count them, 150 characters (played by just four actors). But who's counting?

Kevin Cirone, Matthew Zahnzinger & Sarah Gazdowicz in "39 Steps"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)

The central character is Richard Hannay (Kevin Cirone, the only actor to play just one role), an “ordinary man living a quiet life”, who meets a beautiful and mysterious woman, Annabella Schmidt (Sarah Gazdowicz, who also plays Pamela and Margaret) who will change his life as he copes with tragedy and determines to find a killer to exonerate himself from a murder charge. Man #1 (Matthew Zahnzinger) and Man #2 (Bob Mussett) are involved in this quest, in countless guises. And that is literally all one can reveal without ruining the whole thing.
Matthew Zahnzinger, Kevin Cirone & Bob Mussett in "39 Steps"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)
Except to say that this small but huge cast is exemplary, in what seems like fluff but in point of fact is an extraordinarily challenging show to take on, especially with fang firmly in cheek.  There are allusions, verbal and musical, to much of the Hitchcock oeuvre, including Strangers on a Train, Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest. The more one is a fan of film, the more likely one is to get these allusions and run with them, along with an abundance of outrageous puns, sight gags and the like. In a whirlwind two hours, this ensemble manages to skewer the form and the content of the hoary old genre. Choat's direction is impeccable, with remarkable pacing. Cirone is hysterically perfect with his deer-in-the-headlights expression, while Gazdowicz, Mussett and Zahnzinger could hardly be better. Zahnzinger is a a humdinger in every scene, especially with a collapsing podium. The creative team is particularly indispensable for a work like this, from the ever-evolving Set Design by John Paul Devlin to the intricate Lighting Design by Jeffrey E. Salzberg to the hilarious Costume Design by Erica DeSautels and the complicated Sound Design by Dan Costello. Mention should also be made of the innumerable props designed by Emily Rosser.
The Entire Cast of "39 Steps"
(photo: Sharman Altshuler)
At one point our hero suggests he relax with“something mindless and pointless...like a visit to the theater”. Never fear, this production may be intellectually undemanding, but it's insidiously clever, funny and literate, if painfully pun-ey. In short, this 39 Steps is a fool-proof spoof. Hunt this down by all means, before its untimely end, on December 9th.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Exerminating Angel": Surreal Killer

The Cast of "Exterminating Angel"
(photo: Ken Howard)

Before the Metropolitan Opera performance of Exterminating Angel began, the audience was greeted with a bucolic scene featuring three (live in HD) sheep. It was no harbinger of things to come, however, as this opera is far from pastoral. The opera was composed (and here conducted) by Thomas Ades (whose previous work includes the brief Powder Her Face and the Met's version of Shakespeare's The Tempest) with a libretto by Tom Cairns (also in charge of this Production). Ades' latest work is being given its American premiere by the Met (in a co-production with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Royal Danish Theatre, and the Salzburg Festival). Based on the classic 1962 surrealist film by Luis Bunuel, (who wrote the screenplay with Luis Alcoriza), this version of the story is, like its source, an unusual challenge to understand and accept. For opera audiences, it's also unusual in that it demands singers for no fewer than fifteen principal roles; as operas go, it's a surreal killer, a macabre comedy wherein people enter a mansion where they then find that they are incapable of leaving, with no explicable reason for their stasis. This, as the late film critic Roger Ebert noted, is the film's “punch line”. As Bunuel famously stated, the best explanation of the work is that, “from the standpoint of pure reason, there is no explanation”.

The setting is the deluxe mansion of Edmundo and Lucia de Nobile (Joseph Kaiser and Amanda Echalaz), following their return from a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor. Though a dinner party is about to begin, some servants inexplicably leave. As the dozen guests, including Francisco and Silvia de Avila (Iestyn Davies and Sally Matthews), Alberto Roc (Rod Gilfrey), Colonel Alvaro Gomez (David Adam Moore), Blanca Delgado (Christine Rice) and Leonora Palma (Alice Coote) enjoy their meal, the rest of the servants leave, except for the butler Julio (Christian Van Horn). As the time to depart approaches, no one is motivated to leave and instead make themselves comfortable for the night. Dr. Carlos Conde (Sir John Tomlinson) examines one guest, Senor Russell (Kevin Burdette), who is dying, but still no one can leave the room. When breakfast is brought by the butler, the opera diva Leticia Maynar (Audrey Luna) urges him not to enter the drawing room, but he does and is then also trapped. The guests start to panic, and Russell dies during the night. Meanwhile a crowd of people have gathered outside the house, unable to enter. The butler and Raul Yebenes (Frederic Antoun) burst a pipe to obtain water. The guests become increasingly irrational, and Eduardo (David Portillo) and Beatriz (Sophie Bevan) commit suicide. The guests begin to believe that a sacrifice is needed to secure their escape. Leticia suddenly realizes that everyone is in the same position that each was in when their captivity began, and suggests a plan of escape, not to be divulged here.

Since plot development is minimal, vocalizing and movement are more crucial than ever. There are welcome turns by such familiar singers as Gilfrey and Coote. Luna (last heard in the Met's 2012 production of Ades' The Tempest) gets to deliver a noteworthy A above high C, a note that only sheep can hear (and which Luna referred to as a “vocal glass ceiling”). The score is as dense as other works by Ades but more lush. His music has been described as possessing a sense of narrative, as he knows how to produce drama in his scores; in this work, this ability is manifested in conveying the absurdity of the situation. It is of interest that Bunuel chose not to have a single note of music in his film (save for some bells), despite the fact that several guests are musicians. Ades in his choice of music magnifies the bombast of the first act and stresses melancholy and reflection in the second briefer act. Visually, the production mirrors the sound of his score, with the stark Set and Costume Design by Hildegard Bechtler, sharp Lighting Design by Jon Clark, vivid Projection Design by Tal Yarden and minimal Choreography by Amir Hosseinpour. The HD broadcast was directed by Gary Halvorson. The HD Host was Susan Graham, who described this opera as “the dinner party from hell”.

Coincidentally, Stephen Sondheim is currently working (with playwright David Ives) on a musical duo of two Bunuel films, Exterminating Angel, with guests at a dinner party unable to leave, and Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about guests forever sitting down to a feast but repeatedly being frustrated in their desire to eat. Announced three years ago, the former should make for an interesting comparison with its operatic treatment. Meanwhile, one can easily find a contemporary parallel to the stagnant Spanish elites in their complacent attitude toward the rise of Franco. Our own top one percent today seem complicit and inert, seen through the prism of their powerlessness to confront present-day presidential pomposity. In real life as on the operatic stage, there may not be happy endings, especially for sheep.

The opera has a decidedly cumulative and hypnotic effect, at first not as accessible as the composer's previous works, but the power of his musicality wins one over. As Ades noted during his intermission interview, he considers his score to be the “exterminating angel”. He uses not only the eerie horror-film-like instrument the ondes martenot but also tiny (1/32 the normal size) violins, producing scary effects. It may not become your favorite operatic work, but it will enrich and expand your world once you've experienced the entire score and this weird story centered on abulia (the inability to make decisions). Don't let your own abulia keep you from attending this unique work.

For the record, the three sheep, Lucy, Rosie and Mary, all were making their Met Opera debuts.

Encore HD Broadcasts will be offered on Weds. Nov.29th at 1pm and 6:30pm at a theater near you.


National Theater Live "Follies": But Wait, There's More

The Cast of "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)
It was a typical winter evening in Boston when the Colonial Theater opened its run of a new Broadway-bound musical on February 1971, in what was then the common practice of trying out a new work in a theater-loving city (like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington or Toronto). It was to be the first time the public would be able to see Producer Hal Prince's Follies, with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by the late James Goldman. Since it was to be a lengthy tinkering and tweaking period of a month, many theater buffs did the typical routine of seeing a show in its first week of performances, and (if it had promise) in the final week of the show before its move to the Great White Way. Many a straight play or musical would, in its last week or so, prove to be unrecognizable from the production first seen right after opening. It could be a thrilling and indescribably communal experience not unlike giving birth (or so they say who have done so). In the case of Follies, (first called The Girls Upstairs, but changed by Prince who preferred the wordplay suggested by the title referencing not only the former Zeigfeld-like “Weissman Girls” but also the follies of several of its characters), it was to be a watershed in musical theater history. In his seminal book about the evolution of Follies written by the show's gofer, Ted Chapin (now President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization), Everything Was Possible (a title taken from the lines “everything was possible and nothing made sense”) outlines how the late inclusion of the entire sequence of “Loveland” songs, to be described below, dramatically changed the show (and perhaps musical theater in general) forever. Though it was a financial flop (Such costumes! Such a set! So many performers!) it was beloved by true aficionados of the form. Years later, there would be more tinkering and tweaking, leading to ever greater successes, culminating in the National Theatre Live HD broadcast of its current version, which defies description; so let's describe it.

"Beautiful Girls" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The year is 1971; the place: the venerable (but now vulnerable) Weissman Theater, about to be torn down to make way for an office building. Dimitri Weissman (an elegantly suave Gary Raymond) has invited all the living “girls” from his annual “Follies” to share and to celebrate those bygone productions. Those women include Sally Durant (a luminous Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis Rogers (a brilliantly brittle Janie Dee) and their respective husbands, traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (a captivating Peter Forbes) and successful ex-politician Benjamin Stone (a heartbreaking Philip Quast), each shadowed eerily by their former ghosts, which becomes evident in the first song, Beautiful Girls, as the ladies descend the no-longer grand staircase, beautifully sung by Roscoe (Bruce Graham) then and now. Before the night is over, each of the “girls” will get a follow spot solo or two. And each one will assure you it's your favorite turn, that is, until the next one. In this virtually plotless work, there are so many stellar solos you'd think you were in Sondheim heaven. Right after Staunton tears us apart with the bleakness of In Buddy's Eyes, you're hit by the trio of Rain on the Roof (the novelty number by the dancing duo the "Whitmans", Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah), Ah, Paris! by the fading chanteuse Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the show-stopping Broadway Baby by Hattie (the mesmerizing Di Botcher). Then there's Quast's painfully bare The Road You Didn't Take (“the Ben you'll never be, who remembers him?”), followed by the courageous mirror number, Who's That Woman? defiantly delivered by Stella (Dawn Hope) and the “Follies girls”, and the incredibly powerful I'm Still Here dished out by Carlotta (Tracie Bennett) with all the withering world-weariness you could imagine. And let's not forget the harrowing and plaintive duo Too Many Mornings by Quast and Staunton, nor the regretful The Right Girl by Forbes, not to mention the hauntingly lovely duet One Last Kiss by Josephine Barstow as Heidi and Alison Langer as her younger self (“all things beautiful must die”), and the pitch-perfect chill of Dee's Could I Leave You? (“Guess!”).

Imelda Staunton in "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

But wait; there's more. Just as old wounds are revealed and painful regrets are laid bare, the surreal “Loveland” sequence (introduced at the end of the original Boston try-out) delves deeper into the remains of the psyches of the four principals in the form of their earlier selves, Young Sally (Alex Young), Young Phyllis (Zizi Strallen), Young Ben (Adam Rhys-Charles) and Young Buddy (Fred Haig), each spot-on, in the contrapuntal You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through, followed by the the true follies of Buddy (The God-Why-Don't-You-Love Me Blues, never better performed), Sally (with her chillingly desperate Losing My Mind), Phyllis (with her self-deprecating The Story of Lucy and Jessie), and, ultimately, Ben (with his achingly real breakdown, Live, Laugh, Love). Has there ever been a more glorious score, full of pastiches as homages to, among other composers, the work of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Romberg and Friml, Noel Coward, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins?

And has this ravishing score ever been better heard and felt? Rarely has perfect casting been so crucially evident, from the vocal power to the amazing American dialect (overseen by Dialect Coach Penny Dyer) evidenced by this pluperfect cast (including an Australian, Forbes). And it's gorgeous to see as well, from the magnificent costumes (overseen by Irene Bohan) to the extraordinary revolving set by Designer Vicki Mortimer to the brilliant Lighting Design by Paule Constable to the exquisite Sound Design by Paul Groothuis. All, of course, was in the precise hands of Director Dominic Cooke and Choreographer Bill Deamer. Even the orchestrations, by Jonathan Tunick with Josh Clayton (including the use of a honky-tonk piano playing some numbers cut early in the show in Boston, such as Carlotta's Can That Boy Foxtrot) are cleverly effective. Last, but certainly not least, there is the wondrous rendition of that score by Music Director Nigel Lilley and his orchestra of twenty-one musicians. (That number, coupled with the reality of a cast of thirty-seven, tells you why this show doesn't get produced more often).

"Who's That Woman" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The only complaint one might register with this whole production is that it's perhaps too perfect and might deter other talents from future versions and visions of their own. One could pick a nit here or there (sometimes the lighting was too dim or the revolving stage used too often?) but in the end this was close to definitive, the ultimate definition of the word “class”. A show like Follies demands reinvention by its very complexities, and defies its own lyric: no, not all beautiful things must die.


Huntington's "Tartuffe": May the Farce Be with You

The Cast of "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cunning old scoundrel, deplorable cad, one sees him pious though most see him bad;
Today he'd be viewed as a jester or goof; for more than three centuries, known as Tartuffe. (Craib)

Huntington Theatre Company takes on the challenge of Moliere's seventeenth century farce, generally considered one of the world's best plays. Since its satirical targets are feigned religious piety and hypocrisy, (perhaps as a result of the playwright's early Jesuit schooling), it's had, and continues to boast, quite a long shelf life. First presented in a briefer version in 1664, originally in rhyming alexandrine verse (twelve syllables per line), it was subsequently suppressed by Louis XIV for a period of five years. Huntington's current version is translated by Ranjit Bolt, in octameter verse (eight syllables per line), here directed by the company's Artistic Director Peter DuBois. While Bolt is no Hammerstein or Sondheim, his text manages by and large to succeed, with a few missteps that don't really rhyme (“been”/”mean”) and a lot that are way too predictable. Still it's a gutsy challenge he undertakes, and most of the cast carry it off, though it can be taxing to comprehend (think two hours of listening to the cadence of Frost's “whose woods these are I think I know”, and you'll get the idea). Opening night jitters seemed to cause several members of the cast (some with estimable past acting credits) to deliver their lines much too rapidly, or swallow their punch lines, but this should work itself out as they grow more familiar with the demands of the play. That said, anyone expecting subtlety from French farce may miss the point; what one may rightly expect is that doors (and rather massive ones in this case) will be slammed, and scenery will be chewed (intentionally). When directed and played as broadly as in this production, one's reaction will depend greatly on personal taste for that sort of approach. For centuries, this work has survived and flourished.
Tartuffe (Brett Gelman) is a faux zealot and religious hypocrite, a fact that is obvious to virtually everyone except a gentleman named Orgon (Frank Wood), his sole credulous follower in the play. Tartuffe oozes his way into Orgon's household intending to marry his daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), seduce his second wife, Elmire (Melissa Miller) and run off with the family fortune. Recognizing his true colors are Orgon's son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider), his Maid Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), his brother-in-law Cleante (Matthew J. Harris), his mother Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), his mother's maid Flipote (Katie Elinoff) and Valere (Gabriel Brown), who is engaged to Mariane. The other characters are Tartuffe's acolyte Laurent (Steven Barkhimer), Monsieur Loyal, a bailiff (Barkhimer again) and an official of the Court (Omar Robinson).

Frank Wood & Brett Gelman in "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In the wrong hands, farce can overplay the aspects of slapstick inherent in this type of work and forget that its purposes are “to correct the faults of men” (Moliere) and “escape through anarchy into a surreal world; joy in verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what's being described” (Bolt). It's a dual challenge when one factors in speaking in rhyming couplets. Let it be said that the miracle of this production is that it spans and even connects the dots of a few centuries of satire. Though the play reeks with timeless (and timely) references, it's fundamentally its immediacy that transports (and transforms). Save for the obligatory homage to the use of meter, this could have been written yesterday (or tomorrow). This is in large part due to the content supplied by Bolt and the form as helmed by DuBois, not to mention the assembled cast of caricatures, especially Gelman in the title role, looking and acting like a cross between Rasputin and Tevye. Since this is live (and lively) ensemble theater, the contributions of the creative team are more crucial than ever, from the clever Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge to the varied Costume Design by Anita Yavich to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind and Sound Design by Ben Emerson. Add in the (unexpected) Choreography by Daniel Pelzig and Original Music by Peter Golub and you have quite a pre-holiday package of delights for lovers of the visual and the verbal even when they are totally lacking in nuance.

At a running time of two hours with one intermission, this remains a roller coaster of a trip. And one might ask the obvious question: are there echoes of Tartuffe today? (When was the last time we heard disingenuous reference to “our thoughts and prayers” as a piteously pseudo-pious official response to the latest tragedy, and how easily such insincerity comes tripping off administrative tongues?). Make no mistake about it, if you like this style of comedy, this is as good as it gets.

May the farce be with you, through December 10th.


BLO's "Burke & Hare": Incisive

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Hear ye! Attend the tale of Burke and Hare. That is,The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare, a marquee buster if there ever was one. It's a dark and stormy opera (in its world premiere) about cadaver supply and demand; think Sweeney Todd but with an added level of import given its underbelly of the treatment of immigrants, relegated to 1828's Edinburgh in its grim Old Town of poverty, while the rich folks enjoyed New Town's elegance. With Music by Julian Grant and Libretto by Mark Campbell, this work was Commissioned by the Music-Theatre Group with the support of Boston Lyric Opera as part of its New Works Initiative, grown out of BLO's Opera Annex. One knows, when Boston Lyric Opera schedules a production in a venue such as the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts (with Set Designer Caleb Wertenbaker strongly suggesting a pure white operatory), you're in for an unusual operatic and theatrical experience. Yet this one is closely based on a darkly true story, with occasional dark humor, as told through the experience of the victims.

Edinburgh's schools of surgery at that time were suffering from a shortage of cadavers for use in dissection lessons, since there were few legal ways to obtain them. Coincidentally, two men, William Hare (bass-baritone Craig Colclough) and William Burke (baritone Jesse Blumberg), find the dead body of Donald (baritone David Cushing), a lodger in the boarding house they help manage. Deciding to sell the corpus delecti to the surgical school run by Dr. Robert Knox (tenor William Burden), they deliver same to Knox's assistant, Dr. Ferguson (baritone David McFerrin). At a local pub, Burke and Hare celebrate their good fortune with their significant others, Helen McDougal (soprano Michelle Trainor) and Margaret Hare (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher). They decide to take their efforts to a new level, murdering one of the local pub drunks, Abigail Simpson (soprano Marie McLaughlin). Meanwhile, elsewhere in the pub, Dr. Ferguson engages with a young prostitute he's been courting, Mary Paterson (mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson). Burke and Hare ply Abigail with whiskey, as she is choked to death and her corpse sold to Knox's school. Local killings escalate, profiting all the main characters. Then the dead body of James “Daft Jamie” Wilson (tenor Michael Slattery) is delivered to Knox's school, making Ferguson voice his suspicions to Knox, who dismisses them. Later when the corpse of his beloved Mary arrives at the school, Ferguson denounces Burke and Hare, but Knox coerces him into complicity. Burke and Hare murder their final victim, Madge Docherty (soprano Antonia Tamer), and are seen by prospective lodgers. They (and Helen and Margaret) are arrested. Knox and Ferguson deny any knowledge of the crime. Only Burke is found guilty and subsequently publicly executed.

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Ironically, in real life, Burke was hanged and his body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh; his skeleton has been on display to this day. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the children of London did about the real-life progenitor of Sweeney Todd, children of this city learned a ghoulish nursery rhyme (quoted in the opera program by Lacey Upton):

Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

One need not worry about “where's the beef?” in this production. As ably Conducted by David Angus, with excellent Stage Direction by David Schweizer, eerie Costume Design by Nancy Leary, complicated Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, and terrific Movement Direction by Melinda Sullivan, this clocks in at a speedy ninety-five minutes. The music is mostly quite accessible, with notations peculiar to specific actors ( music hall tunes for the two malevolent wives, hurdy-gurdy viola for “Daft Jamie”, a nod to Irish folk music, and so on); even the choice to eliminate the violin and stress the piccolo, for example, underscores the composer's intent. It's obvious how interrelated the work of the creative team of composer Grant, librettist Campbell and finally director Schweizer was in the evolution of this piece.

As for the performances, they are truly impressive. The level of singing, as well as acting and movement are of the highest order. While there's not a clinker in the bunch, as they say, there are some standouts, especially in the case of Burden's Dr. Knox and two memorable victims, Slattery's “Daft Jamie” and Tamer's Docherty. There does appear to be a need for clarification in the beginning of the work, as it's difficult to discern who is who among the quartet of perpetrators (though delineating the victims is handled much more clearly), and the device of having the victims, even before their respective demises, dressed in ghoulish attire makes for a few odd moments (such as when Dr. Ferguson dances with the lower-class ghostly Mary, in a part of town you wouldn't expect such a dignitary to frequent, much less to romance a shrouded partner).

The tag line for the opera declares that the people of Edinburgh are not dying....quickly enough. Burke twice echoes Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett (“what an awful waste” in the prelude to the grimly funny song Have a Little Priest) when he declares “I got a thought”. Wisely, the dispatching of victims consistently occurs off-stage, as “Daft Jamie” sings about turning a blind eye to society's inequality. This taut musical thriller will likely find its proper place on the agendas of many an opera company looking for a challenging yet satisfying example of enjoyable contemporary opera.

Catch it Thursday Nov. 9th at 7:30pm, Friday Nov. 10th at 7pm and on Sunday Nov. 12th at 12 noon and 4:00pm. Before supply is outstripped by demand.