Lyric Stage's "Camelot": Royalty Revitalized

Maritza Bostic, Jared Troilo , Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Lyric Stage's current production of the musical Camelot is a reminder of what a fascinating history the original Broadway production had. Anticipation had been high among critics and the general public back in 1960 for Camelot, the next musical to be presented by the creative team behind My Fair Lady. Once again, the book and lyrics were to be by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by Frederick Loewe, to be directed by Moss Hart. It was to be based on the story of King Arthur and his Round Table in three of the four books in The Once and Future King series by T.H. White (the rights to the first having been obtained by Walt Disney for his animated Sword and the Stone about Arthur’s youth with Merlin). After almost two years of writing and rewriting and painfully troubled pre-Broadway tryouts in Toronto and here in Boston, with Loewe recuperating from a massive coronary and Hart also ailing, Lerner took over as director. The advance word wasn’t good, and the show finally opened in New York to a fairly tepid reception among critics and the public. The cast album had been rushed to record stores before the New York opening, in hopes of increasing demand for tickets (famously having musical numbers recorded out of their final order). Just as things were looking dim, Lerner and Loewe were offered a tribute on Ed Sullivan’s televised variety show, so they chose twenty minutes of songs from Camelot, which enraptured the public at last. In its fourth month, the show increased sales, ultimately lasting two years on Broadway.

The show survived, despite the qualms Loewe expressed about the subject of cuckoldry and the troublesome denouement (the “Guinevere” song), which described all the action taking place off-stage, a curious choice. The second act continued to strike audiences as by far the weaker act, until history intervened. After President Kennedy was killed, his widow Jacqueline revealed that he had frequently listened to the cast album; she likened his loss to the feelings Arthur expressed at the dissolution of his round table and the ideal of Camelot. Suddenly the ending of the show had unexpected resonance for the audiences of the day. Those of a certain vintage will always make the internal connection, but it isn‘t necessary to feel the myth and its message. The book of this current production was adapted by David Lee, with new orchestrations by Steve Orich, in a fairly successful attempt to solve the second act's problems, primarily with the use of the stage technique used years ago by Paul Sills in his
Story Theater, with the story told by cast members, lending the show more coherence, necessary for true appreciation of the work.

Ed Hoopman & the Cast of "Camelot"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

What is also necessary is a trio of singing actors that can truly deliver on its magically wondrous score. This production surely will do that, despite some apparent press opening nerves that will no doubt dissipate with future performances, given the cast's past individual triumphs. Under the direction of Spiro Veloudos, whose clever touches are everywhere, King Arthur (Ed Hoopman), for example, must be a bit out of touch with his times (an idealist in a bellicose era), and gentle as well (“the way to handle a woman is to love her, simply love her, merely love her, love her, love her”). Hoopman delivers as usual, with a hitherto little-known singing voice. Guinevere (Maritza Bostic) must be full of youthful spirits (“shan’t I be young before I’m old? Shall kith not kill their kin for me?”) and eventual remorse (“now there’s twice as much grief, twice the strain for us, twice the despair, twice the pain for us, as we had known before”). She too delivers, particularly poignant in a difficult role; she and Hoopman are charming together in their duet, “What Do the Simple Folk Do?”. The knight in shining armor, Lancelot (Jared Troilo), requires a commanding actor with a large baritone voice, so winning that he can get away with lyrics such as “had I been made the partner of Eve, I’d be in Eden still”, (with such self-flaunted traits as virtue, nobility, iron will, godliness, purity, boldness, self-restraint, but seemingly not modesty) and finally steadfastness. Troilo was especially memorable delivering the lines that clarified his character's narcissism . Mordred (by Rory Boyd), Sir Lionel (Davron S. Monroe), Sir Dinadan (Brad Foster Reinking), Sir Sagramore (Jeff Marcus) and Dap (Garrett Inman) were all truly outstanding in a small cast that included three Ladies (Jordan Clark, Margarita Damaris Martinez and Kira Troilo).

The technical team was outstanding, from the Music Direction by Catherine Stornetta, to the spirited Choreography by Rachel Bertone, atmospheric Scenic Design by Shelley Barish (with a set that would be at home in Into the Woods), appealing Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, and well coordinated Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

What this production becomes in these capable hands is a Camelot that deserves to be seen by any serious musical theater buff. Though it doesn't completely overcome those second act flaws, it's a huge improvement on the original play, and should satisfy lovers of that score.  The essence of the Arthurian myth is idealism. When a small boy, Tom of Warwick (Inman again) appears in the final scene wishing to become a knight of the Round Table, Arthur realizes this means his vision still lives and he hasn’t failed; “men die, but an idea doesn’t”. The topicality of wishing in 2017 for a purer administration should be clear without belaboring the obvious. And thus naturally come the last words of the show: “Don’t let it be forgot that once there was a spot for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot”.


PPAC's "Matilda": The Children Are Revolting

The Company of "Matilda the Musical"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Matilda the Musical, now being presented at PPAC, is a show based on the original children's novel by Roald Dahl, with Music and Lyrics by Tim Minchin and Book by Dennis Kelly. It first won seven Olivier Awards in London, transferring to Broadway in 2013 where it lost the Tony Award for Best Musical (to Kinky Boots). While renowned for creativity on many levels, the show lacked the heart audiences sought. Still, it managed to last over 1550 performances in the New York run, and remains a popular favorite on the road, with its audience-pleasing aspects of anarchy, brutal honesty and dark humor, sometimes wasted on unsophisticated adults who don't always “get” the central five-year-old telekinetic character.

Attempting a synopsis of Matilda is like putting a genie back in the bottle, but let's give it a go. Children ponder life as adults, while meanwhile their parents declare they're all a Miracle. As Mr. Wormwood (Matt Harrington) warns that they are preaching a dangerous moral, namely that books are superior to shows on the telly, the students at Crunchem Hall posit that sometimes one has to be a little bit Naughty, and Lavender (Gabby Beredo) shares that she's going to put a newt in headmistress Miss Trunchbull's (Dan Chameroy's) water bottle. Matilda Wormwood also announces that no one but she is going to change her story, and she will fight injustice. The student body sings of never escaping tragedy in the School Song: just wait for Phys Ed!  Meanwhile one atypically nice teacher, Miss Honey (Jennifer Bowles) describes herself as Pathetic when she can't even knock on the door of Miss Trunchbull's office, containing her trophies from The Hammer-throwing days of conquests and advice that you “stay within the lines”. Then Mrs. Wormwood (Darcy Stewart) chimes in with her own advice about being Loud, namely that what you know matters less than the volume with which what you don't know, is expressed. Miss Honey sings that another door closes and she,This Little Girl, is left outside. Another student known for his eating prowess, Bruce (Soren Thayne Miller) proves you can have your cake and eat it too. And there's that chilling admission that all one knows comes from watching Telly- that you can tell how clever one is from the size of one's telly. Mr.Wormwood expresses pleasure at duping wealthy Russians into buying his worn-out old autos. And that's just the first act.

The second act begins with the students' rebellious anthem, When I Grow Up, wherein they sing “just because you find that life's not fair, it doesn't mean you just have to grin and bear it”. One character declares I'm Here for the little girl as the Smell of Rebellion pervades. Now the virtues of Quiet are proposed (“this noise becomes anger and the anger is light and this beast inside me would usually fade but isn't today”) and Miss Honey extols the virtues of My House. The students plot their revenge in Revolting Children (“if enough of us are wrong, then wrong is right”). Just how this happens, (that is, how Matilda learns about Miss Honey's past and her future prospects), well, you wouldn't want a spoiler to ruin all the malicious fun, now would you?

The cast at the press opening performance included Jenna Weir as Matilda. (Three actresses alternate in the role; at other performances, Gabby Gutierrez and Jaime MacLean take turns playing the title role). The creative team included Musical Direction by Bill Congdon, Lighting Design by Hugh Vanstone, Set and Costume Design by Rob Howell and Sound Design by Simon Baker. The Director was Matthew Warchus and the Choreographer was Peter Darling. One problem persisted in this huge hall; even with reasonable familiarity with the lyrics, most of the cast might as well have been singing in Swahili. But, heart or no heart, it was surely an energetic show embraced by most of the audience (except some who were inappropriately way too young for live theater).

If these days call for demonstrating one's resistance (and they do, they do), one couldn't hope for a more perfect role model than that Dahl-ing Little Girl, Matilda.


ART's "Arrabal": "El Contacto"?

The Cast of ART's "Arrabal"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

Back in 1999, a theatrical concept was developed that was described as a “dance play”, in essence three separate one-act playlets with little or no dialogue, with a “Book” by playwright John Weidman, entitled Contact. While some (including this critic) viewed it as theatrical only in the broadest sense of the term, it went on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical. Fast forward two decades later; Weidman is now credited with the “Book” for a new tango-infused “dance theater piece” at ART, Arrabal, centered around the horrific era in Argentina when the government ruled by the right-wing military junta seized power (in 1976) and for the next eight years “disappeared” some thirty thousand resisters. The story of Arrabal is that of an eighteen-year-old woman searching for the truth of her own father's disappearance when she was an infant, as she navigates the underground world of Buenos Aires tango clubs.

Arrabal, (which literally means “neighborhood”), played by Micaela Spina, receives a letter from her father's best friend, El Puma (Carlos Rivarola) requesting that she come to B.A., where he runs a tango bar. Her father was one of the desaparecidos who disappeared during the period of the 1970's. She interacts with characters like Berta (Valeria Celurso), El Diende (Mario Rizzo), Nicole (Soledad Buss) and Juan (Juan Cupini), but mostly with her Abuela (“Grandmother”) played by Marianella Massarotti, who joins with the other families questioning what truly happened to their (literally) lost ones. When she finally learns the truth, it comes as no surprise if you have been following what little story there is. In fact, there is really nothing that isn't telegraphed, no subtlety or nuance. There is of course the dancing to be admired, but largely non-contextual, disjointed and uninvolving, unless dance shows are your thing. Comic relief is provided by the rubber-jointed Rizzo, reminiscent of the character Evil-Eye Fleegle in the Al Capp newspaper cartoon strip Li'l Abner.

Arrabal can be seen as a Latin American Contact, story told through dance, with Music by Gustavo Santaolalla and Bajofondo, Choreography by Julio Zurita (who also plays the rolf of the “disappeared” father, Rudolfo), Directed and Co-choreographed by Sergi Trujillo, with an on-stage band, Orquesta Bajofonderos. Previously presented in Toronto in 2014 and Bogota in 2016, this is its first United States production, at ninety intermissionless minutes. The technical credits are impressive, with effective Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez, unabashedly sexy Costume Design by Clint Ramos, dramatic Lighting Design by Vincent Colbert, Sound Design by Peter McBoyle and Projection Design by Peter Nigrini.

But it is of course the dancing that matters most, and this is accomplished by a troupe that clearly knows what it is about. If this is the kind of experience you've enjoyed in previous dance pieces, you won't be disappointed. It should be noted that, before performances, there are tango lessons offered, and afterwards, a chance to join in on the dancing, literally in the aisles. One can only guess at what the future will hold as we attend Trump the Musical. And will there be dancing then, perhaps in the streets?


Met Opera's "Rosenkavalier", Richard & Renee

Renee Fleming (seated) & Elina Garanca in Met's "Rosenkavalier"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Der Rosenkavalier is often, as it should be, all about Richard (Strauss, that is) and his composing and orchestrating; but this production by the Metropolitan Opera, is all about Renee (Fleming, that is) in her final performance at the Met in this role that has become so identified with her acting and vocalizing. There was a moment at the end of Act I when Fleming as the Marschallin wistfully took one last long look at her surroundings that cannot have failed to echo her audience's feelings. Though she has essayed some twenty-two roles in her Met career, this was in many ways her signature. With its nuances of the bittersweet passage of time, her bemused smiling through tears, and her attentive detailed knowledge of her character (just watch her contemplate the veins in her hands), this was a moment to cherish.

The story is updated to Vienna 1911, which carries with it a good deal of meaning not envisioned or intended by librettist Hugo Von Hofmannsthal, or Strauss himself for that matter, with the presence of military characters in pre-World War I garb. The “aging” (32!) Marschallin having an affair with the young count Octavian (Elina Garanca), is visited by her country cousin Baron Ochs (Gunther Groissbock) who is engaged to marry the youthful Sophie (Erin Morley). Octavian has assumed the dress of a peasant “maid” to protect the Marschallin's reputation, leading Ochs to flirt with “her”. Many visitors come and go, including an Italian singer (Matthew Polenzani). The Marschallin, seeing the inevitable handwriting on the wall, arranges for Octavian and Sophie to meet by having Octavian go to the home of Sophie's father Faninal (Marcus Bruck) to present Sophie with a silver engagement rose; and as she had hoped, the two fall instantly in love. Sophie is appalled at Ochs' rudeness and an argument ensues in which Ochs is slightly wounded (at least in his pride). To teach Ochs a lesson, Octavian arranges for Ochs to receive a letter suggesting a rendezvous with the Marschallin's “maid”. All hell breaks loose at the rendezvous site (in the original text an inn), until the Marschallin arrives to inform Ochs it was all a “farce”. Admitting defeat, he leaves and Octavian and Sophie are united, leaving the Marschallin to wonder how she lost her lover so suddenly.

Sensitively conducted by Sebastian Weigle, with a mixed bag of Stage Direction by Robert Carsen and Set Design by Paul Steinberg (where with WWII encroaching, numerous military characters, and a palace for Faninal that resembled munitions storage, were a bit too creepy for comfort). The use of enhanced perspective with three sets of doors in Act I was, however, lovely; not so, the bordello scene (!) in Act III. The Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel was outstanding and the Lighting by Robert Carsen and Peter Van Praet was expertly executed. But it is of course the singing in a Strauss opera that best serves the composer, and this cast was superlative, from the glorious singing of Garanca (also an excellent farceuse) and Morley to the atypically virile Groissbock and the hysterically funny Polenzani (Carlo Bergonzi, may you rest in peace). Fleming was transcendent, nowhere as much as in the final glorious trio by the three principals.

This was a performance to rank amongst the most memorable by the Met, in this or any other season.
The Fathom Events Met Opera rebroadcast will be shown on Weds. May 17 at a theater near you.


Goodspeed's "Modern Millie": Dapper Flapper

Taylor Quick & The Cast of "Thoroughly Modern Millie"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Thoroughly Modern Millie, currently being given new life at Goodspeed Musicals, was first a 1967 romantic musical film comedy, with a score that was a mixture of old and new songs, winning seven Oscars and five Golden Globes. But prior to that, the story was the basis for a 1956 British musical, Chrysanthemum. It finally arrived on the Broadway stage as Thoroughly Modern Millie in 2000, with additional music by Jeanine Tesori and lyrics by Dick Scanlan, and a Book by Scanlan and Richard Morris (who had written the screenplay for the film version). This Broadway version won seven Tonys including Best Musical. It remains a very enjoyable if slight story about....well, you've probably heard variations of this one before.

Millie Dumont (Taylor Quick), a small-town young woman from Kansas, arrives in New York with the intention of marrying for money, not for love. She finds a fast friend flapper in Miss Dorothy Brown (Samantha Sturm), an aspiring actress from California, when checking into a hotel run by the mysterious Mrs. Meers (Loretta Ables Sayre). She also meets paper clip salesman Jimmy Smith (Dan Deluca) and the head of the Sincere Trust Company, Trevor Graydon (Edward Watts). The hotel (which turns out to be more than it seems) has two oriental employees (more about this later), Ching Ho (James Seol) and Bun Foo (Christopher Shin) and another roomie, Miss Peg Flannery (Lucia Spina). Also in the ensemble are the stepmother of Jimmy and Miss Dorothy, Muzzy van Horsemere (Ramona Keller) and the head steno at Sincere Trust. Anyway, when Peg abruptly goes missing, Millie and Miss Dorothy smell a rat, and a bit of a convoluted mystery plays out. What then transpires (and perspires) is a healthy dose of great, truly irresistible choreography, (by Director Denis Jones) predominantly of the toe-tapping sort, which while accurately described as flapper dancing, the 'funky chicken” it's not. Once again the small stage at Goodspeed defies gravity and all spatial relationships. (Just check out Goodspeed's video on their website featuring the score's most infectious number, “Forget about the Boy”).

What also transports are great renderings of some snappy music. The title song, as well as “Not For the Life of Me”, “Jimmy”, “The Speed Test” and the snappiest of the lot, “Forget About the Boy”. Ironically, the score isn't the strongest element of the show, with is frankly a hodge-podge of different musical sources, but they serve their purpose, which is to support all that imaginative dancing. The other technical contributions excel, from the Scenic Design by Paul Tate dePoo III, (winner for his sets for “Showboat” at a recent IRNE Award ceremony by the Independent Reviewers of New England), to the Costume Design by Gregory Gale, Lighting Design by Rob Denton and Sound Design by Jay Hilton. Which is to say that this bright, bubbly and buoyant bit of fluff is in great hands, and wondrous terpsichorean feet.

And in great voice, one might add. Leading the festivities is a real find in Quick, chosen after a countrywide search, who's the perfect dapper flapper, followed by the ingratiating Dan DeLuca (recently in the HD broadcast of “Newsies”) and the dewy-eyed Sturm. It's a terrific cast that plays the plot fairly straight and respects the source material. Now about that “hotel” run by Mrs. Meers and her two Chinese henchmen. In case you've not seen a previous iteration or have forgotten a major plot point about their operation, let's just say it borders precariously on the stereotypical and politically incorrect. (And that goes for the original Broadway version as well). But at least none of it is malicious or dangerous to one's health, which is more than one can say about politics these days. This is a perfect choice for starting off this season at Goodspeed.


SpeakEasy's "Bridges": Even Double Crossed, Love Is Always Better

Jennifer Ellis & Christiaan Smith in "Bridges of Madison County"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
There is striking visual imagery in the set (designed by Cameron Anderson) for SpeakEasy Stage's Bridges of Madison County; everywhere one looks there are double-crossed patterns suggesting the wooden beams in the bridges, as well as the slice of life the play depicts, with its divergent paths (with some not taken). This musicalized story was of course first a popular novel (by Robert James Waller), arguably describable, if perhaps in politically incorrect terms, as “chick lit”, (though it sold sixty million copies), then a film, and finally this stage musical, first at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2013, then on Broadway in 2014. The Music and Lyrics were by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Songs for a New World, and especially Parade). Inexplicably, given Brown's wonderful work, it lasted only 137 performances. His complex score, incorporating styles ranging from folk to blues to rock to almost operatic lushness, was the best element of the show. The musical's Book, by Marsha Norman (of 'night Mother fame), was a vast improvement on both the novel and the film, managing to flesh out some minor characters and delving more into the demons of the principal players. Brown's lyrics move the slight story forward from a young foreign housewife's arrival in America to the ultimate fork in the road that presents itself to her. Near the beginning of the play, the heroine proclaims “I already have everything I need”, as the plaintive strokes of a solo cello accompaniment suggest otherwise.

Set in Iowa in 1965, the story centers on farm wife Francesca Johnson (Jennifer Ellis), an Italian war bride who is proud that she came to her new land, singing of her hopes To Build a Home. Her husband Bud (Christopher Chew) and their two children, Michael (Nick Siccone) and Carolyn (Katie Elinoff) leave her at home while they travel to an Indianapolis 4-H fair for three days. Enter free-lance photographer Robert (Christiaan Smith) who inquires about the seventh covered bridge he wants to add to his portfolio of six bridges in Madison County. He's “been lookin' for something at ev'ry bridge (he) crossed...the way to find the key is to be Temporarily Lost.” Francesca takes him to the bridge, and very slowly a relationship grows between them, partly observed by the neighbors Marge (Kerry A. Dowling) and Charlie (Will McGarrahan), as it's a small town where not much goes unnoticed. Robert tells Francesca of his former wife Marian (Alesandra Valea), “someone long ago”, in Another Life. Francesca gets a call from Bud, telling here they will be a day longer at the fair, while a romance brews between Robert and her, leading to an affair, as she asks him Look at Me and “he looked at (her) like he could really see... and all the things that I've hidden away one glance reveals”. When Robert asks her to leave with him, stating “that what she has been waiting for is not the World Inside a Frame, but just outside the frame”, and that he knew where he was, “but not where (he) was going” as she agrees in the song Falling Into You. She decides to leave with him; but upon the return of her family, she realizes when reality sets in that she may have no other choice but to continue in her roles as wife and mother. The musical shows the dilemma of paths between which she must choose, divided into life Before and After You. She does make that choice; years later, when a letter arrives, she thinks back on what might have been: “what I did is that I loved, and love is Always Better”, even when doubly star-crossed.

It should be noted that there are some distinct differences in the various forms that this simple story has taken. The original novel source (along with its sequel A Thousand Country Roads) and the subsequent film depict Francesca's grown children posthumously discovering her journal and thus discovering previously unknown facts about her private life. In the musical's more linear format, the music serves to underscore the tale. Under the superb Direction by M. Bevin O'Gara, with fine Choreography by Misha Shields, perfect Costume Design by Mark Nagle, Sound Design by David Reiffel and Music Direction by Matthew Stern, the magic of musical theater with a strong score makes this a more fully-developed world. Special mention should be made about the extraordinary Lighting Design by Annie Weigand, as well as the Projection Design by Garrett Herzig, which work visual magic for changes of scene and mood. And oh, that score, that glorious score, one virtually guaranteed to transport you. To paraphrase Brown's lyrics, it is hard, it is insane, to place one score above another, but “what a choice, what a gift and what a blessing” is Brown's singular work. It starts with that solo song to a solo cello, and the musical complexity develops as the characters do. As Stern has said, “Robert's musical journey (is) from dissonance to operatic...Francesca's from classical to more soaring...(in) rhythmically active style using guitar rather than more typically piano...for jazzy riffs...in 7/8 time signature”. It sounds overly pedantic, but is in fact utterly romantic.

The Cast of "Bridges of Madison County"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)
SpeakEasy in this production mirrors the film work of Douglas Sirk (All That Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession), here aided and abetted by the cast led by Ellis, who has never been more radiant, and Smith, who is a matinee idol to the teeth. (As Norman puts it in her written stage directions: “it's clear enough that these are two great-looking people on either side of the bridge, and this bridge will be crossed”). They're superbly matched, as are Dowling and McGarrahan, who have their characters down pat. Chew, Siccone and Elinoff are wonderful as well. Even a minor role such as a State Fair Singer (Rachel Belleman) is a showstopping turn. Three other ensemble performers (Peter S. Adams, Ellen Peterson, and Edward Simon), in various roles, are also terrific.

In this production, the camera is metaphor, the world in a box, and the fundamental question is, what would you do if you had the choice to change your life? Some of the lyrics point the way such as those sung by Smith that “there's nothing in this world today but who we are and who we're meant to be”, “we have just one second and a million miles to go” and “there are places that I've traveled and so many things I've seen, but it all fades away but you”, and even in the lyrics for the two husbands, Chew and McGarrahan: “when I'm gone this love will be all that's left of me”. Brown states that Francesca and Robert are “broken characters who each see a piece of themselves inside the other”. Norman says she typically writes “for the trapped girl”, notably in this spare and thoughtful piece that asks the question, what decisions do you make about whom to love and when? As Weller says about his novelization, “people in Madison County didn't talk this way about these things. The talk was about weather and farm prices and new babies and funerals and government programs and athletic teams. Not about art and dreams. Not about realities that kept the music silent, the dreams in a box”. Francesca and Robert's pent-up feelings and dreams are suddenly communicated where they never were vocalized before.

It's threatening to become a cliché to attest that SpeakEasy keeps outdoing itself. Known more for their “dark and edgy” work (as described in the program by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault), here we find them delving into the realm of the romantic, with their usual near-perfection. Thanks to its visual technical elements and the ravishing leads (did one mention they're both gorgeous?), this production is cause for joy. It's hard to imagine a more moving, enjoyable and involving show performed with such artistry, with every one of the cast having her or his moment to excel. The story serves as a reminder that things once seemed simpler (on the surface at least), but even as long ago as four decades, much was suppressed and much sublimated. Need we also be reminded that these days we should be focusing on bridges and not walls?


Spring Opening Nights: Preview

Bridges of Madison County
SpeakEasy Stage (Calderwood Pavilion)
Tony Award winner for Best Score & Orchestrations

Thoroughly Modern Millie
Goodspeed Musicals (East Haddam, CT)
6 Tony Awards including Best Musical

ART (Loeb Theater, Cambridge, MA)
Dance Musical from Argentina

Mamma Mia!
Ogunquit Playhouse (Maine)
The ABBA musical

Lyric Stage (Boston, MA)
Lerner & Loewe's 4 Tony Award winner

Huntington Theater (Calderwood Pavilion)
Acclaimed comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire

Patience, or Bunthorne's Bride
Odyssey Opera (BU Theater)
Gilbert & Sullivan's operetta


New Rep's "Gift Horse": Life's a Bowl of Cello

Alejandro Simoes, Zachary Rice, Obehi Janice & Maurice Emmanuel Parent in "Gift Horse"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The Gift Horse, a work which premiered almost twenty years ago (an eternity in the theater) by Lydia R. Diamond of Stick Fly and Smart People fame, is finally getting its Boston regional premiere at New Rep Theater in Watertown. For starters, let's establish that just as it's unfair to compare one playwright to another, that should also apply to judging the same playwright at hugely different stages of artistic development. One is tempted to go for the most obvious, easiest and cheapest shot and describe the work as a Diamond “in the rough”, especially given its unrefined unevenness and the evolving style of a relative novice in her early playwriting. If it were merely an object of interest on the progressive maturation of a major writer's talent that would be reason enough to hear and see this piece, but it's so much more than that in such loving hands as this cast and team provide.

The play initiates with the mimed playing of a cello by a character named Jordan (Cloteal L. Horne). The storytelling then focuses on Ruth (Obehi Janice), an artist and teacher with some unresolved issues from her past, moving back and forth in time. Her relationships with her gay Latino buddy Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes) and his new lover Bill (Lewis D. Wheeler), and her therapist Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent), as well as Ernesto's subsequent boyfriend Noah (Zachary Rice), form the context of the play. The first act displays some novitiate flaws. It's too talky, with way too much fourth-wall-breaking, amounting to too many mini monologues as opposed to interaction between the characters, like verbal ping pong. It's in the second act that Diamond begins to gleam, showing the promise of what level of playwrighting was to come. It's also when Janice gets to display her acting chops to the fullest. The production, which would be considered lengthy by today's standards (when the commute to the theater can be longer than the play itself), is very well directed by New Rep Artistic Director Jim Petosa, with Scenic Design (in white, black and fifty shades of grey) by Jon Savage, Costume Design by Penney Pinette, Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra, and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

Alejandro Simoes & Lewis D. Wheeler in "Gift Horse"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

While one might have assumed that the play's title referred to the famous Trojan horse, (and one of the characters assumes that), it's apparently not that ancient; per the dictionary, the adage means: “don't be ungrateful when you receive a gift or imply you wished for more by assessing its value”, a phrase that would appear to have been first seen in print in Auld English in the 1500's as “don't look a geuen (given) horse in the mouth”. Whatever the origin, you should take its advice and seize the opportunity to see the youthful output of an eventual giant in the theater world today. And any chance you can catch Janice and Parent on the same stage, with a bonus like Simoes or Wheeler, by all means do it. They are the future of our regional theater scene, and are carving out the sort of careers way beyond their youth. It's for more than merely historical curiosity that you are urged to support their work in this era of government by non-artistic philistines. If these artists are the future, then the future is here, and attention must be paid.