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.


Lyric's "Souvenir": A Legend in Her Own Mind

Leigh Barrett & Will McGarrahan in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Barrett. McGarrahan. Veloudos. That's about all you need to know about the current revival of the play all three of these artists previously presented at Lyric Stage Company about a decade ago: namely Souvenir, a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley. If you saw it then (or off-Broadway in 2004, or on Broadway in 2005, or in the movie about the same real-life person just this past year), you owe it to yourself to see how all three of these artists now recreate their hilarious depiction of one of history's most memorable performers. As helmed by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company for the last twenty years, there are brought back to life treasured memories, by the entire cast. They would be Leigh Barrett in the title role of aspiring classical concert diva and Will McGarrahan as her accompanist Cosme McMoon. And you're probably laughing already at that improbable duo. As Veloudos notes in the program, in music the term “fantasia” implies improvisation, and this play does precisely that. If you've never encountered these uniquely ungifted characters (played by uniquely gifted actors) before, one must admit to feelings of envy, as there's nothing like coming across this twosome for the first time.

Unless it's the second time. Which is inexplicably even better. Perhaps it's the shock of plain recognition that, yes, they were and are that absurdly enthralling. Maybe it's the most earth-shaking fact that actors, even if they seem perfectly cast, can on second viewing seem recast as amazingly new, fresh and improved. When we first encounter McMoon (oh, that name just makes one swoon) at a Greenwich Village supper club in 1964, we can immediately grasp the depth and density of their commitment. The crowning moment (or nadir) of the public life of this wealthy socialite who sold out Carnegie Hall is at one and the same time a howling success and a career-breaking end. It's a simple demonstrable fact, as evidenced by Jenkins' actual recording of her performance of, among other pieces, the Queen of the Night's solo aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. Friends of this critic who possessed a copy shared it (and may never be spoken to in polite circles again).

Will McGarrahan & Leigh Barrett in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

How an actor can present a fully grounded character who is totally believable yet impossibly bizarre is a wonder. Barrett has proven her comedic and singing chops before (most recently in the Lyric's version of Gypsy), but this time out she's ready to surprise us again with a drive that entertains relentlessly while subtly revealing how intricate and complex Jenkins was as a celebrity, long before social networking and the internet cloud; she reigned on a cloud of her own in which her audience, then and now, is sublimely complicit in her blissful unawareness. And let's not overlook the reactive contribution of the steadily, increasingly incomprehension on the face of McGarrahan as he accompanies both her and us on this journey (he is also the program's Music Director). They're a perfect match made in auditory heaven (or hell). Either way you see and hear it, it's cause for rejoicing. Never before has such bad been so good.

Creative accompanists include Scenic Designer Skip Curtiss (repeating his terrific work on the 2007 version), Lighting Designer Chris Hudacs and Sound Designer David Wilson, but most especially, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, whose work on this piece alone should evince belly laughs. But the utmost praise is due to that triple threat of Barrett, McGarrahan and Veloudos, responsible for an uncanny cascade of mind-boggling side-splitters, rib-ticklers and knee-slappers galore. Your attitude toward musical performance may never be quite the same after you've experienced this souvenir of a bygone era. (Or error).

It's become a cliché to praise a piece of comic theater these days as being an escape from the madness of the current White House, but it's true; you couldn't ask for a more entertaining cure (for two hours at least) of madcap mayhem, on offer until November 19th. By all means, go!