SpeakEasy's "Curious Incident": It All Adds Up

Craig Mathers & Eliott Purcell in "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

As its title suggests, the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time promises to be an unusual experience. What piques our curiosity is not just the strangeness of the title but the equally strange journey it suggests. Based on the popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, adapted by Simon Stephens, the play's West End premiere took place in 2012. Subsequently brought to Broadway in 2014, it became the longest running Broadway play in the past decade, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play. It was no wonder that sound, lighting and set design all won 2013 Olivier Awards in London, and lighting and scenic design for the 2015 Tony Awards. These technical aspects are crucial to the mathematically intricate light and sound cues of the play. In the present production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, the Scenic Design is by Christopher and Justin Swader, and the Lighting Design is by Jeff Adelberg, with Sound Design by David Remedios and Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Each deserves special up-front mention given the sheer complexity of light and sound cues, and visuals. But technical achievements aside, what most distinguishes this theatrical treat is its amazingly involving storytelling, translated and transformed from page to stage by Stephens. But, as they say about restaurants with dazzling design, you can't eat the décor.

What you can take in and digest is the convoluted yet totally absorbing tale of a fifteen year old (presumably with autism) who discovers the titular canine done in by a pitchfork and proceeds on a quest to solve the murder in true Holmes-ian fashion, appropriate since the title of the book and play reference a quote by the great fictional detective himself from Conan Doyle's short story Silver Blaze. But this is not a mystery in the deductive sense. What matters in the end is not the solution but the process of reasoning, primarily by Christopher John Francis Boone (Eliott Purcell), and those with whom he intersects along the way, from his teacher Siobhan (Jackie Davis) to his father Ed (Craig Mathers) to a crucial discovery at the termination of his quest, involving his mother Judy (Laura Latreille). The play also conveys a sense of humor, as when Christopher remarks that “the word 'metaphor' is a metaphor”, “acting is like lying”, or when the obvious is stated by his father: “we're not exactly low maintenance, are we?”. The amazing reality for anyone familiar with the novel is how Stephens managed to adapt the source given its multi-level form. It stands as a major theatrical accomplishment.

Laura Latreille & Eliott Purcell in "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

It should come as no surprise that Purcell (from the SpeakEasy mounting of Hand to God) is excellent in the central and crucial lead. He's fascinating to watch in a very challenging role, always completely in character. It's a star-making performance, and he nails it. The rest of the cast are all superbly chosen, from Mather to Latreille to Davis, well-supported by the small ensemble each enacting multiple roles: Christine Power, Tim Hackney, Cheryl McMahon, Damon Singletary, Alejandro Simoes and Gigi Watson. Under the precise direction by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with essential Movement Direction by Yo-El Cassell, this production may well be the best this company has ever presented, and that's saying quite a bit. By the end of the play you really believe you can answer Christopher when he asks: "Does that mean I can do anything?".   And attention must be paid to the critical work by Dialect Coach Amelia Broome.

There is little one can describe that wouldn't negatively affect the unanticipated but real joy of discovery of the play's revelations, even for those familiar with the source novel. Nothing one has heard about its visual and auditory splendors could possibly prepare a theatergoer for the overall impact of this work. It's most appreciated at a venue this size (the National Tour was seen at a nearby theater with some three thousand seats, a travesty). It cries out for a more intimate experience such as this one. If you think you've already seen this piece, think again. You owe it to yourself to see this up-close-and-personal version. Ultimately this is a mathematically ingenious piece that succeeds in presenting a multi-faceted, time-warping, mind-boggling, ultimately satisfying resolution. You simply can't quantify the value of leaving the theater with a huge smile on your face, especially in these worrisome times for our country. The level of astonishment is, well, immeasurable.

All for a piece that features the versatility of math. Go figure. As Christopher himself would no doubt put it: Q.E.D.


Odyssey Opera's "Siege of Calais": Well-Done Burghers

The Cast of "Siege of Calais"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The opera Siege of Calais or L'assedio di Calais, by Donizetti, premiered in Naples in 1836, and word has it that the composer didn't care much for his own work, never arranging for revivals. Despite the popularity of his other bel canto operas, this one is still very rarely heard (though the Glimmerglass Festival featured it this past summer in its U.S. premiere). We have Gil Rose and his Odyssey Opera to thank for enabling Boston audiences to appreciate a long-neglected work. With a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano (performed here in Italian with English titles), based on the play of the same name by Luigi Marchionni, this is a fully-staged production at Huntington Theatre. It serves as a welcome element in the current five-opera season of operas dealing with Joan of Arc (though technically, this opera is a wee bit of a stretch, as it doesn't feature the French saint but does concern Edward III's year-long siege of Calais during the Hundred Years' War). It also partially answers the question as to why this particular Donizetti work has been by and large ignored. Both musically and dramatically, it's an undeniably inert piece, notable mostly for its unfamiliarity. For most of the opera there's not much to appreciate, though in the hands of superb choral singing (as is the case here) it makes the case for presenting this minor work by a major composer more frequently than once or twice every millennium.

The Cast of "Siege of Calais"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The year is 1346 and the forces under Edoardo III, King of England (John Allen Nelson) and his general Edmundo (Sumner Thompson) are laying siege to the city of Calais The heroic central figure Aurelio (Magda Gartner, in a trouser role, unusual for Donizetti, who typically limited such pants roles to supporting ones such as Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia or Smeton in Anna Bolena), is the son of the mayor, Eustachio (James Westman). His family starving, Aurelio attempts to breach the siege to steal supplies, but is seen, though he eludes capture. Eustachio and Aurelio's wife Eleanora (Lucia Cesaroni) assume he has died, but the burgher Giovanni d'Aire (Neal Ferreira) brings news of Aurelio's safety. When Aurelio returns, he asks his father if there is any hope, and gets a silent response. A group of citizens led by a stranger (Luke Scott) arrives to demand Eustachio's death and surrender to the enemy, but Eustachio unmasks him as an English spy, rallying the people to face death with courage and honor. Later, as Aurelio sleeps, Eleanora prays for the salvation of the city. Aurelio awakes from a nightmare in which he was about to be killed as he watched the murder of his infant son. Suddenly Giovanni brings news that terms of peace have arrived from the enemy namely that a pardon will be issued for the citizens if six prominent members volunteer to be executed. At first all are horrified, but Eustachio proclaims he will sign first. Aurelio offers to go in his stead, but is refused. The four burghers Giovanni, Giacomo de Wisants (Alan Schneider), Pietro de Wisants (James Demler) and Armando (Christopher Carbin) all sign. Aurelio again volunteers and this time he is accepted into the group of martyrs who lead a hymn to the country, joined by the citizens for whom they prepare to die. But all ends happily thanks to the intervention of Isabella, Queen Of England (Deborah Selig). Fans of Deus ex machina will be pleased.

This performance, Conducted by Gil Rose, with Stage Direction by Joshua Major, was often wonderful to hear. The singing by Cesaroni, Gartner and Westman was superlative. The creative team included Chorusmaster Mariah Wilson, Scenic Designer Dan Daly, and Lighting Designer Dennis Parichy. All had a hand in reviving this brief (just over two hours) work.

Don't let another few centuries fly by; if you missed this performance, October 28th at 7:30pm is your second and final chance to catch all these well-done burghers.


Goodspeed's "Rags": Making American Immigrants Great Again

Samantha Massell & Christian Matthew Camporin in "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The first thing that hits you as the revival of the 1986 musical Rags begins on the Goodspeed Musicals stage is how timely and eerily appropriate it is. In 1910, a hopeful group of immigrants looks for their future in this promising new world, as David Thompson who wrote the new Book for the show notes, and each must decide “what's to be gained and what's to be lost” in this world. Those who are courageous enough to face cultural assimilation head on, and who possess such qualities as “cheek”, are most likely to succeed, but nothing is guaranteed given the name-calling of the sort of Greek chorus (the “quintet”), labeling the new arrivals as “greenhorns”, and much worse. This is what might have happened to Tevye and his five daughters after the curtain fell on Fiddler on the Roof. Who would have anticipated that the trials and tribulations that are echoed today (and yesterday and tomorrow) for immigrants would be even more insidious and relentlessly fascistic than ever before? This revival has heart and sentiment but is rooted in harsh reality.

Looking back at a 1986 program from the pre-Broadway Boston tryout of the musical Rags, one is struck by an odd fact, namely that no one is given credit as the show's director; as it happens, there was a series of directorial changes over the run of the tryout. In his memoir Put on a Happy Face, Charles Strouse, who wrote the score for the show (with Lyricist Stephen Schwartz) describes a rather unique creative process that included his being punched by its star, opera diva Teresa Stratas who allegedly also threw a chair at him. She missed many performances during the Boston tryout, including a thrice-postponed opening night “related to bronchitis”. At the New York premiere it lasted only four performances, yet got five Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Having seen the show and its star during the Boston run, and one revival (in 2003 at Boston Conservatory Theater) this critic can also say it surely deserved better. The story is of the early 1900's Eastern European immigrants to America, fleeing prejudice, fear and cynicism, only to be met by the same in their new country; as Strouse asks, “remind you of today?”. He goes on in the memoir to enumerate the show's many musical influences: “music was bubbling in the streets, in brothels, in barrooms and at Bar Mitzvahs; Irish clog dancing met black rhythms and suddenly tap dancing was there.” While it centers on the tale of an immigrant woman's “loves, traditions and indestructibility”, for him, the story is its music. One might infer from the fact that the current production boasts an update of the original, and disappointing, Book by Joseph Stein (who was much more successful with his work in Fiddler on the Roof), here, as revised by Thompson, the libretto has finally had the attention it needed.

At the beginning of the show, a group of people arrive in America on the same boat: Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widow escaping from a village pogrom with her son David (Christian Michael Camporin), and Avram Cohen (Adam Heller) who temporarily houses them, Bella his teenage daughter (Sara Kapner) and Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), a real find, a youth in love with Bella. All find jobs: Rebecca as a dressmaker for the rich Max Bronfman (David Harris); Bella with piecework at home; Ben in a factory; and Avram and David peddling from a pushcart. Rebecca meets Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin),a labor organizer trying to unionize, and starts to fall for him. Meanwhile widow Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner) grows to love Avram. Tragedy leads to the radicalization of Rebecca. A strike leaves Rebecca, David, Avram and Ben to make new lives for themselves as another shipload of immigrants arrives. As they say, assimilation is everyone who moves in after you do.

The Cast of "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Quintet (J. D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams) noted above provides a threatening view of society's underbelly, and each sings superbly the score, with some new numbers (about the same number of songs as those that were written out of the show). Strouse and Schwartz (also responsible for Wicked and a little show called Annie that had its world premiere at Goodspeed) are still at the top of their game, with their score that includes memorable songs such as Children of the Wind, Blame It on the Summer Night, Brand New World, and the first act closer, Rags.

This production was Directed by Rob Ruggiero, with Choreography by Parker Esse, Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt, Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by John Lasiter, Projection Design by Luke Cantarella, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, and Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty. It's a bit of a Fiddler on the Roof Goodspeed reunion, with the same director, choreographer, scenic and lighting designers, and both former leads, Tevye (Heller) and Golde (Wilner). One could also include the same musical director, but that would be cheating, as O'Flaherty has served in that role here at Goodspeed for twenty-six seasons.

Rags is in terrific shape, having trimmed the number of players and focused on the humanity presented by this amazing cast. Massell is a wondrous find both as singer and actor, MacLaughlin is a suitably hunky lead, Camporin is a delight, and even the heavy, Harris, has a fabulous tenor voice. All are firmly and solidly directed by Ruggiero, and perhaps just need to lessen the few overly sentimental moments especially in the second act. As it stands, this new and improved version, with even stronger and more profoundly Jewish storytelling, is a winner.

See it again for the first time, through December 10th.


Huntington's "A Guide for the Homesick": What Happened?

Samuel H. Levine & McKinley Belcher III in "Guide for the Homesick"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It was a dark and stormy night. So begins A Guide for the Homesick, the current Huntington Theatre Company production, a new play by Huntington Playwrighting Fellow Ken Urban, a fast-paced (and frequently too much so) 75 minute intermission-less two-hander. It was commissioned by New York's Epic Theater Ensemble (which advocates for social justice) as a play about international aid workers.  Urban, via interviews with Doctors Without Borders, discovered what problems they encountered upon coming home and facing the reality of life's readjustments. In January 2011, a young aid worker, returning from a six-month stint in Uganda, visits a shabby hotel room in Amsterdam rented by a fellow American.  The two strangers seek redemption from their pasts and confess to one another their (shared) fear that they may have betrayed the very people who had needed them most, and how each is haunted by the people they met.  Their initially passionate encounter becomes an opportunity to deal with the truth for both Teddy (McKinley Belcher III, seen at Huntington in Smart People and Invisible Man) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine, in his Huntington debut). In the case of Teddy, he has a tendency to fall in love with the wrong person. In the case of Jeremy, he questions: "How did I get here?".  And both could rightly ask: "What Happened?".
So could the audience. While providing some of his familiar effective devices such as very natural overlapping of dialogue (an approach put to better use in the playwright's earlier work A Future Perfect  three years ago at SpeakEasy Stage Company), in this outing Urban seems to have overlooked the need for a blueprint of sorts for those encountering this play for the first time. We do learn that Teddy, from Roxbury, is visiting Amsterdam with his best friend Ed, about to be married, while Jeremy's recent personal history echoes the real-life hysteria that surrounded Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the long tradition of US medical intervention. We at first wonder “what happened” to Jeremy's friend Nicholas (also played by Belcher) and where Ed (also portrayed by Levine) is. In the play's non-linear form, we gradually begin to see what each man Teddy and Jeremy are running from. The room becomes a haven for each from his past; as the program notes explain, a “small sanctuary of a hotel room (and what is more haunted than that)...escape from chaos (that) offers the possibility of a different future.” They grapple with ethical issues, one's responsibilities, and the meaning of friendship; they aren't heroes or philanthropists, but basically selfish, or at least self-centered. The play here at least hints at the seeming dichotomy that people can do good while fulfilling their own need to be needed. There are some truths unearthed, such as when Teddy states that it's always “easier to believe that things will get better”, or the ranting of Ed about a “whale's frequency so high that no other whales can hear” (recognizing that no one understands his cry for help). Toward the end of the play, Teddy tells Jeremy: “it's not too late. To change. To face the truth.”

It's also not too late to rescue this work from its present hyperventilated state. As it winds up, with dizzying speed, it becomes more difficult to follow who's who in the present or past (despite the helpful but increasingly frenetic use of lighting by Russell H. Champa to delineate where we are and when). A major part of the problem was the fateful (and, alas, fatal) choice to have the two actors each play the roles of the other's antagonist, a decision that doesn't make it any easier for an audience to follow time and location changes at warp speed. Perhaps the author wanted to convey the similarities that could be found in each of these characters, but it makes for a confusing ride during which we don't learn enough about any of them while at the same time attempting to follow what actually does happen. The acting helps, as both players are intense and obviously committed to the piece, though the characters of Teddy and Nicholas are fleshed out more than that of Jeremy and Ed, giving Belcher more room to expand his roles than Levine's less defined ones.

Both Teddy and Jeremy are from from Boston, and this is no coincidental choice by the playwright, given the contradictory facts of the role of our Commonwealth in LGBT rights, and the interference in the politics of Uganda by certain far right religious Massachusetts bigots. The stark reality of anti-homosexual fervor has been portrayed in recent works as disparate as Witness Uganda and even The Book of Mormon. The creative team, as always with Huntington, is expertly involved, from the (appropriately tacky) Scenic Design by William Boles to the realistic Costume Design by Kara Harmon and ominous Sound Design and Original Music by Lindsay Jones, to the rapid-fire Direction by Colman Domingo.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida is quoted in the program notes: “To have a friend is to know that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. (This is) the mourning that we expect from the very beginning.” The playwright has hit upon a universal theme that surely merits attention, but here requires more clarification; as it stands it's a work in progress rather than fully satisfying theater.

This latest effort by Urban, testament to his developing career, is on view until November 4th at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. As a presentation of homophobic hysteria, in its current unfocused form, the play is a noble but only partially realized effort.


New Rep's "Oleanna": Rashomon Test

Obehi Janice &  Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

David Mamet's plays can be very frustrating when he continually fails to finish his-
It can be exhausting having to fill in the-
It's sort of like seeing a Pinter play without the British-
And the staccato delivery his prose requires can be monotonous when-
So one has to keep up with the sporadic dialog that-

Oleanna by David Mamet was both product and precursor of its time, and probably should be seen and heard in that context. Yet the issues the play raised then remain unresolved today and continue to effect the way we employ survival techniques in our current society. Both Hollywood and Washington provide modern templates for a contemporary revisit to the work's gender and power battlegrounds. At New Rep in Watertown, Director Elaine Vaan Hogue attempts to do just that. A clue to what's going to transpire is in Mamet's choice of title, from a satirical song made popular by Pete Seeger, based on the failed concept of a utopian society (Oleanna being one of four proposed towns) in Pennsylvania envisioned by a Norwegian violinist.

Any appearance by Obehi Janice, or Johnny Lee Davenport, automatically qualifies as worthy theater; an appearance by these two fine actors on the same stage makes for must-see theater, no matter the play. The fact that the play is one by Mamet written around the time of actual events such as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas two-hander provides still more reason to attend this tale, given the current political state of affairs. While the play itself was written twenty-five years ago, sexual politics are unfortunately still alive and unwell in our society, so a revisit to this work should prove enlightening at the very least.

Obehi Janice & Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The underbelly of the play, as is typically true with Mamet, is power. It may seem to be about the politically correct and the perception of reality from differing points of view, but make no mistake about it, the professor John (Davenport) and his student Carol (Janice) experience more than a mere misunderstanding or polarized inherent views of misogyny or feminism. With the incisiveness that one also has come to expect from Mamet, this time comes a reversal of those pivotal viewpoints, in one act heavy-loaded in one direction, in another the stark opposite, reminiscent of the film Rashomon or the song Someone in a Tree from Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures. Is this bias or selective memory?

Mamet as usual provides little or no exposition; he has gone on record as concerned with the question of “What does the protagonist want...that's what drama is...what gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how at the end of the play do we see that event culminated. Do we see the protagonist's wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That's the structure of drama”. There are other playwrights who share these concepts, but most of them provide a blueprint. Mamet, here and elsewhere, offers an opportunity for actors to shine, and both these actors do. Under Vaan Hogue's keen direction, Davenport excels in the less showy role, while Janice once again proves her astonishing range and depth. Aiding them are the Scenic Design by James F. Rotondo III (clever in its suggestion of a boxing ring), while the Costume Design by AJ Jones mirrors the actors' changing roles, and the precise Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are equally contributive.
You may share their verbal bouts through November 5th, but one might do well to move with haste, as before one knows it, the run of the show will be-


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Magic Flute": Who But Masons?

The Metropolitan Opera's "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Met Opera)

The Magic Flute by Mozart is known for its use of imagery and symbolism from Masonry, which influenced the visual approach taken by the masterful Julie Taymor, who not only created the Production but was also responsible for the Costume Design and (with Michael Curry) Puppet Design. Taymor's work is already a beloved staple at the Met that grounds the opera in the mysticism of its Masonic sources and clarifies an otherwise potentially confusing plot.

In a mythical land Prince Tamino (Charles Castronovo) and bird catcher Papageno (Marcus Werba) are sent by the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) to rescue her daughter Pamina (Golda Schultz) who is being held captive by Sarastro (Rene Pape) and his brotherhood of priests. Tamino falls in love with Pamina's picture and plans to win her. At the Temple of Sarastro they learn that it's actually the Queen who is evil, and Sarastro, realizing Tamino and Pamina are meant for each other, promises Pamina eventual freedom. Tamino first undergoes the trials of initiation into the brotherhood. Pamina is horrified when the Queen asks her to kill Sarastro, who tells her he doesn't seek vengeace. Meanwhile, Tamino and Papageno are forbidden to speak, which makes Pamina heartbroken when she thinks Tamino doesn't care. Papageno meets an old lady who flirts with him, and he considers suicide when he can't find a (young) girl for himself. Tamino and Pamina are reunited after many trials, and Papageno discovers the old lady is really a young girl named Papagena (Ashley Emerson) with whom he falls in love (they'll save a fortune on the monogrammed towels). Finally the Queen and her entourage storm the temple but are driven away. All hail the triumph of courage, virtue and wisdom.

Marcus Werba as Papageno in "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Met Opera)

As beautifully Conducted by James Levine, with simple Choreography by Mark Dendy, stunningly magical Set Design by George Tsypin, and brilliant Lighting Design by Donald Holder, it remains a visual treat, enhanced by the HD Direction by Gary Halvorson and the presence of HD Host Nadine Sierra. But it was the singing that truly immersed viewers, from Castronova and Schultz as the young lovers, Werba and Emerson as the comic duo, and the seasoned work of Pape and Lewek. It was a joy to listen to Lewek's aria especially, known as a challenging audience pleaser.

Thankfully this is not the highly truncated kiddies' version in awful English translation that the Met offers for holiday audiences, but a full (almost four hour) and fully satisfying journey.
Encore performance will be HD broadcast on Wednesday Oct. 18th at a theater near you.


BLO's "Tosca": Dying for Art and Love

Elena Stikhina & Daniel Sutin in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

Tosca, the beloved opera created in 1900, composed by Giacomo Puccini with scenario by Luigi Illica and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa (the same trio that created La Boheme and later Madama Butterfly) is the season opener by Boston Lyric Opera (in a co-production with Opera Omaha). Based on an 1889 play of the same name by Sardou, set against the historical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, it's a true potboiler in the best possible meaning of the term.

What can one say about the plot of such a familiar work? Would it be a spoiler to allude to the fact that the date of this performance was Friday the thirteenth, and that bad luck awaited all three of the principals? Most opera devotees will already know that the story takes place in three real Roman settings, in each of its three acts. In the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, sensitive painter Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Jonathan Burton) is interrupted as he paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene, first by a Sacristan (baritone James Maddalena), then by his friend the political prison escapee Cesare Angelotti (baritone David Cushing, whose sister posed for the painting), whom Cavaradossi helps to hide. Then arrives the painter's lover, famed opera singer Floria Tosca (soprano Elena Stikhina), who is aware of his political beliefs but is herself apolitical. Finally appears the Chief of Police Baron Scarpia (baritone Daniel Sutin) who is hunting Angelotti. Subsequently, in his suite in the Farnese Palace, Scarpia summons Tosca to interrogate her while he has Cavaradossi tortured within earshot, finally getting her to agree to his lusty demands if he will set up a mock execution of her lover. Scarpia arranges with his assistants Spoletta (tenor Jon Jurgens) and Sciarrone (baritone Vincent Turregano) to pretend to carry out a mock firing squad, while actually using real bullets. Tosca then stabs Scarpia to death. Finally, atop the Castel Sant'Angelo, as a Shepherdess (soprano Sara Womble) sings, Tosca witnesses what she believes is a fake execution, but turns out to be real (not fake news?). She then makes her final statement of resistance.

Elena Stikhina & Jonathan Burton in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

From the first familiar chords, this was a production to cherish. Burton immediately impresses with his soaring presence, from his first entrance to his last act aria E lucevan le stelle, about how the stars shimmer but his life has come to nothing. Sutin also excels, notably in Scarpia's Hapiu forte sapore, as he foresees Tosca bending to his will. But it is the Russian soprano Stikhina, in her U.S. debut in the role, who makes this production a true gem, creating the title character with her magnificent vocalizing and acting chops, especially in the most famous aria, Vissi d'arte , about how she has lived for art (and love). She's a true find, a singing actress who even looks the part of a young opera star, rare indeed in a role that requires that a soprano deliver a polished sound and fury. She was the greatest source of pleasure even for opera buffs very familiar with the work, but by no means the only such reason to celebrate.

In a brilliant stroke of genius, the orchestra of fifty-eight players, under Conductor David Stern, was placed ten feet above the stage to compensate for the relatively small pit in the Cutler Majestic. It made Stern's conducting and his orchestra's playing more integral to the opera and enhanced the overall experience, as did the chorus under Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander. The more-or-less unit set by Julia Noulin-Merat worked very well without overwhelming the singers as some past productions of this work have been known to do. The strikingly apt Costume Design by Deborah Newhall and effective Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller and Sound Design by Joel T. Morain also contributed to the performance. And above all, the Stage Direction by Crystal Manich was solid and sometimes surprising (no spoilers will be revealed here), which may dismay some purists but for the most part served the opera quite well indeed. It's a wonderful treat to re-encounter an operatic war horse that displays such an original yet respectful approach.

Given the outcomes for the three headliners, this is opera's ultimate triple header for pessimists and lovers of tragedy, as well as, not coincidentally, those members of an audience who live for art and love, and great music.


Ogunquit's "From Here to Eternity": Life Is Still a Beach

The Cast of "From Here to Eternity"
(photo: Gary Ng)

The journey From Here to Eternity has been a lenghty one, but the 2013 London musical has finally arrived on our shores (well, the shores of Ogunquit Playhouse, anyway). This eagerly anticipated national rollout of the adaptation by Bill Oakes and Daniel Rice from the 1951 novel by James Jones (which won the National Book award for Fiction and was adapted as a film in 1953, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture), was not a success in London. Even with Lyrics by Tim Rice (who was also the Producer, with Lee Menzies) and Music by Stuart Brayson (of the band Pop), it lasted just over six months, and failed to garner any Olivier Award nominations. When it opened there, the most cynical critics referred to it as “From Here to November”. (The title derives from a work of Kipling: “Damned from here to eternity”). It was controversial, as it was actually based on the revised unexpurgated version of the novel released in 2011, which restored the author’s references to gay sex and prostitution. The stage show’s natural use of profanity and nudity may also have contributed to its early demise. Now that we’re able to judge the work for ourselves, even before its proposed transition to New York, one would have to say it surely deserved a better reception. It’s not without its flaws, but these might be overcome with some more careful editing. What has been changed thus far however causes one to question how promising its future is. The work as it stands seems to have lost its focus. It has the distinct feeling that it's the result of a cut and paste job, and there's a more pronounced emphasis on politically incorrect terms (by today's standards, that is) such as “queers”, “Jew boy”, “Krauts” and so on, all too common then, and presented here without much context. As a result, it has become a strange amalgam of unexplored themes out of context, bearing scant little resemblance to the London version.

The time is 1941, at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the solid tradition of wartime-based musicals of the past, such as “South Pacific” and “Miss Saigon”, the story concentrates on love affairs involving military men, in this case members of G Company: First Sergeant Milt Warden (Kevin Aichele), enters into an affair with Karen Holmes (Robyn Hurder), the wife of his superior, Capt. Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Bradley Dean); Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Derek Carley), a career military man, falls in love with Lorene (Jenna Nicole Schoen), one of the New Congress Club girls (a dance hall hostess in the film, but clearly a prostitute in this version), working for Mrs. Kipfer (Jodi Kimura); and Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Michael Tacconi), has love for sale, as a sort of gay hustler. The relationship between Milt and Karen is a dangerous one, but no less than Prewitt’s naïve obsession with Lorene, or the plight of Maggio and his night job. Added to the tension is the “treatment”, or bullying, which Prewitt receives from his company when he refuses to box for “Dynamite” Holmes, based on some bad personal history. Private Isaac Bloom (Jason Micheal Evans) has his own demons.

The musical numbers, played by a terrific band and sung by a superb cast, are still many and varied, ranging from ballads to blues to jazz, and big band to swing and even to somewhat anachronistic rock and roll (and sometimes with more brass than even the Army can handle). There are several standouts, such as “Thirty Year Man” (delivered by the hunky yet vulnerable Carley, who immediately captures and continually focuses our attention on his character), “At Ease” (a solo by Aichele, a tall, dark and handsome Warden with a magnificent voice), “Fight the Fight” (an anthem by Carley, and a real showstopper), “Run Along, Joe” (a beautifully sad lament by Schoen), “Love Me Forever Today” (a tender duet for Carley and Schoen), “Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues” (early rock and roll as sung by Carley and Aichele), the intricate quintet “Something in Return” (by the four principals and Tacconi), and the poignant “Boys of ‘41” (sung by the Women). When originally viewed as an HD broadcast last season from London, there were fouteen numbers in the first act and thirteen numbers in the second (here trimmed to a total of nineteen, including five reprises); some fine songs unfortunately had to be dropped (and one, not listed in the program, a solo for the character of Karen, “Another Language” has become a duet), but this slimmer version is aimed at a more theatrical experience. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen.

The Cast of "From Here to Eternity"
(photo: Gary Ng)

The huge cast of over two dozen singing and dancing actors include the men of Company G and the girls of the Congress Club. The technical credits included the terrific Set Design by Stanley A. Meyer and Costume Design by Dustin Cross (at least for the ladies, as the men’s outfits are uniformly alike), striking Lighting Design by Richard Latta, effective Sound Design by Kevin Heard, moving Projection Design by Chrsitopher Ash, and fine Musical Direction by Vadim Feichtner; the Direction and Choreography are by Brett Smock, who is also the Creative Producer. The overall direction is fine, but the choreography is mostly robotic except when the women are involved.

This is still a good show with great moments, superb singing and a lot of heart. It can be visually stunning (the attack on Pearl Harbor is amazingly portrayed). As often happens when a lengthy novel is adapted to the musical stage, it’s definitely plot and subplot heavy, especially in the expository scenes of the first act. The show as it now stands needs to clarify its presentation of a homosexual subculture on its way to becoming what it could be. You may see and hear for yourself through October 29
th. As it stands, it’s chock full of energy and vitality, with enough stirring numbers to rock a house from here to.....Broadway.


H & H's "Symphony No.9": Owed to Joyous Music

Conductor Masaaki Suzuki & Principals in "Symphony No.9"
(photo: Handel & Haydn Society)
It no doubt came as a surprise to Handel & Haydn Society audiences this past weekend to read that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony didn't even exist when H&H was founded; when the composer did write what would be his final symphonic work, H&H had already been around for almost a decade. Though it's been about fifteen seasons since it last appeared on their schedule, its return was eagerly awaited, especially given the orchestra's goal to recreate the piece as close to its original form and instrumentation as possible. This meant, among other things, that their performance of the work would entail no fewer than four French horns, and a contrabassoon of impressive proportions, portending a significant program.

First on the docket was a delightful curtain raiser, the relatively brief Symphony No.104 in D Major, better known as the “London Symphony”, written by Joseph Haydn in 1795, the year that Beethoven made his first public appearance in Vienna. A good companion piece for the Beethoven in its structure and feeling, it incorporates folk-inspired melodies, with its four movements developing from a fanfare to a shifting between major and minor (a technique for which Haydn would become famous), to a celebratory minuet passage invoking country dance to a final movement with the feel of a faster dance. Under the direction of Conductor Masaaki Suzuki, it clearly accomplished the composer's intent, as the program notes, to seize upon an idea and then developing and sustaining it so that it stays in the mind of an audience.

The same could be said for the main event of the concert, a perfect way to describe the Beethoven. Fascinated by the Friedrich Schiller poem An die Freude (“Joy”), Beethoven was driven to express in musical terms the emotions expressed in the source material. From the first of its four movements one is drawn into his music with its open intervals, followed by what can only be called tempestuous passion, then by the slower meditative section and ultimately the “Ode to Joy”, which of course included the remarkable H&H Chorus and four stellar turns by the principals, soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, tenor Tom Randle and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Harvey's contribution especially stood out, given her last-minute substitution. But all were well up to the demands of the music, eliciting a thunderous justly-earned standing ovation the likes of which has rarely so rocked Symphony Hall. Suzuki was about as dynamic and expressive as one could imagine, and Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, with her typical ferocious attack, merely added to her already well-established reputation as H&H's not-so-secret weapon, perhaps the company's greatest gift to Boston.
Though of course neither was aware of the irony, these two works would prove to be the last symphonies each one was to compose; much would prove to be owed to this joyous music.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Norma": Moonlight Becomes Her

The Metropolitan Opera's "Norma"
(photo: Met Opera)

Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, the first HD Broadcast of the current season by the Metropolitan Opera, with Libretto by Felice Romani, may require a brief synopsis of its somewhat convoluted plot, especially if this “moonlit” production obscures a few plot points here or there.

The story takes place in Gaul, in 50 BCE, during the Roman occupation. In a forest at night, the priest Oroveso (bass Matthew Rose) leads the Druids in prayer against the Romans. The Roman proconsul Pollione (tenor Joseph Calleja) admits to his friend Flavio (tenor Adam Diegel) that he no longer loves the high priestess Norma (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), Oroveso’s daughter, with whom he has two children. He has fallen in love with a young novice priestess, Adalgisa (mezzo Joyce DiDonato). Flavio warns him against Norma’s anger. The Druids assemble and Norma prays to the moon goddess for peace. She tells her people she will lead their revolt, though she could never harm Pollione. Adalgisa asks for strength to resist Pollione, who urges her to flee with him to Rome. She agrees to renounce her vows. Norma tells her confidante Clotilde (soprano Michelle Bradley) that Pollione has been recalled to Rome. Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she has a lover. Norma, about to release Adalgisa from her vows, asks for the name of her lover. As Pollione appears, Adalgisa answers truthfully. Norma, her kindness turning to fury, tells Adalgisa about her own betrayal by the Roman soldier. Pollione confesses his love for Adalgisa and asks her again to come away with him, but she refuses and vows she would rather die than steal him from Norma.

The Metropolitan Opera's "Norma"
(photo: Met Opera)

Norma, dagger in hand, tries to bring herself to murder her children in their sleep to protect them from living disgracefully without a father. She changes her mind and summons Adalgisa, advising her to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses: she will go to Pollione, but only to persuade him to return to Norma. Overcome by emotion, Norma embraces her, and the women reaffirm their friendship. The Druids assemble at their altar to hear Oroveso’s announcement that a new commander will replace Pollione. Oroveso rages against the Roman oppression, but tells the Druids that they must be patient to ensure the success of the eventual revolt. Norma, stunned to hear from Clotilde that Adalgisa’s pleas have not persuaded Pollione, in a rage urges her people to attack the conquerors. Oroveso demands a sacrificial victim, and just then Pollione is brought in. Norma promises him his freedom if he will leave Adalgisa and return to her. When he refuses, Norma threatens to kill him and their children, and to punish Adalgisa. She calls in the Druids and tells them that a guilty priestess must die, then confesses that she is referring to herself. Moved by her nobility, Pollione asks to share her fate. She begs Oroveso to watch over her children and leads her lover to the pyre.

Bellini's composition, Conducted by Carlo Rizzi, includes such arias as Sola, furtiva, al tempio (Norma and Adalgisa), Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima (a trio by Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione), and of course the justly famous Casta diva solo by Norma, all superbly sung (and acted) by the principals, especially Radvanovsky and DiDonato. It was quite an audible treat, if not a visual one; the Production by Sir David McVicar, Set Design by Robert Jones, Costume Design by Moritz Junge, and Lighting Design by Paule Constable, all managed to create a dark and ugly experience lit, as the libretto details, for most of the opera, solely by moonlight (which actually becomes no one). Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (mostly male, with a few females to ensure there'd be future druids) led by Donald Palumbo, saved the day, as did the Live in HD Director Gary Halvorson and charming HD Host Susanna Phillips.

It was a wondrously memorable performance for the ears, if not always for the eyes.


Gold Dust Returns: "5 to 9" by Popular Demand

After a successful P'town run this past summer, and a brief run in Boston last month, Gold Dust Orphans brings back its popular "5 to 9" show to Boston for two performances only, on Saturday Nov.4 at 8pm and Sunday Nov.5 at 5pm. The show will be presented in Machine, 1254 Boylston St., at the Ramrod Center for the Performing Arts.  It's the story of three White House secretaries (Ryan Landry, Varla Jean Merman and Kiki Samko) and how they get even.  Also featured are Larry Coen as TRUMP and Penny Champayne as Kelly Anne Conway.  (Tickets: 5to9.brownpapertickets.com).  Prior scheduling commitments prevent the show's being attended and reviewed here, but if you're a Gold Dust Orphan fan or novice, do save one of these dates with one of your dates.


"Faceless" Final Five

This is the last week for performances of "Faceless" presented by Zeitgeist Stage Company!

Herewith the review:
Faceless by Selina Fillinger could not be more timely. As the playwright states, her play is first and foremost about two adversaries, both of them young women attempting “to face their fears, find their voices, and leave their marks”. 18-year-old Susie Glenn (Ashley Risteen), a recent convert to ISIS, finds herself on trial on a charge of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism. A recent graduate from Harvard Law and practicing Muslim, Claire Fahti (Aina Adler), has been engaged as the prosecution. Each is fighting a battle “to defend their morals, motives and religious freedoms”. Thus the work becomes a treatment of identity politics, and questions of faith in a face-off between two seemingly diametrically-opposed people. The resonance and relevance of the topic is somewhat in your face, but Fillinger knows how to grab an audience's attention with her compelling (if still developing) writing style. In this play her work already shows terrific promise, though it also shows some rough edges, especially in her too frequent blackouts that result in some superficial character descriptions.

Fortunately for this production, Director David Miller has a firm hand on the timing of these vignettes, and a very capable cast and crew to pull it off. His Scenic Design is simple and effective, consisting of white pillars and black furniture that create a focused playing space, and the Lighting Design by Michael Clark Wonson is precise, as is the Sound Design by Jay Mobley (including a pre-performance recording from the opera Hansel and Gretel). The Costume Design by Elizabeth Cole Sheehan is spot-on as well.

For the rapid fire dialogue needed for the play, Risteen (in her best role of many for this company) and Adler (a perfect foil) are great in their “faceless” encounter. (Allusion is made to how Adler's Claire doesn't want to be the Muslim “face” in the courtroom). This voyage of self-discovery also features Susie's father Alan Glenn (David Anderson, who delivers in a rather melodramatic scene), her attorney Mark Arenberg (Robert Orzalli), who she naively doesn't grasp is Jewish despite his surname, and sixteen-year veteran prosecutor Scott Bader (Victor Shopov, in yet another gorgeously tuned performance).

There is some humor (for example, Susie is referred to as “Muslim Barbie”), but mostly it's a harrowing ride with some arch text (“the only difference between a strong and a weak person is faith”, or “God can forgive me but Americans never will”). There is an overly heavy emphasis on social networking, tweeting and emoticons, too, but the playwright makes some compelling points about there being “thousands” of Susie Glenns “out there” (vulnerable to being radicalized) and one's followers being one's “family”. Despite these relatively minor flaws, Fillinger has produced a remarkable work for a writer who just graduated from her university (and was commissioned to create the play while still a student).

You have until October 7 (at the Plaza Black Box Theater at Boston Center for the Arts) to do yourself a favor and savor the writing of an excitingly fresh voice in the theater. The two protagonists of initially opposite feminist views find unexpected depths and nuances in their ultimate face-off.