"Cinderella": If the Show Fits

Kaitlyn Mayse, Sarah Smith, Natalie Girard & Joanna Johnson in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

Way back in the Neanderthal era (that would be 1957), an established theatrical duo by the names of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II decided to go where others feared to tread, by writing a completely original new musical directly for television. With music by Rodgers and Book and Lyrics by Hammerstein, it was an immediate and unqualified success, though it remains their sole attempt at composing and writing for the medium. It had proven to be a popular story since the written French fairy tale by Perrault and the beloved animated Disney film, so it shouldn't have been a huge surprise (“You Can Do It, Cinderelly”). The 1957 televised version starred Julie Andrews; the 1965 iteration, Lesley Ann Warren; the 1997 production, Brandy Norwood; and the 2013 Broadway presentation, Laura Osnes. The only Broadway version (now at Boston's Colonial Theatre) ran for 770 performances, with nine Tony nominations, winning one for costumes (by William Ivey Long).

Lukas James Miller in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

This updated take on the traditional story, with Cinderella urging social reforms for the poor, is at its strongest when its visual elements take center stage, especially Long's creative half dozen or so miraculous costume transformations literally right before your eyes. It's at its weakest when the new book by Douglas Carter Beane (with Additional Lyrics by Beane and David Chase) reveals a sting of anachronistic lame jokes. Enough of the original story is intact, as Ella (Kaitlyn Mayse, in a winning turn with just the right touches), called “Cinderella” by her stepmother Madame (Sarah Smith) and stepsisters Gabrielle (Natalie Girard) and Charlotte (Joanna Johnson), longs for a better life. Prince Topher (Lukas James Miller) has lost both of his parents (and thus also their musical numbers) and is advised by Lord Chancellor Sebastian (Christopher Swan). Topher meets Ella on his way to the palace and she gives him water. She speaks with her friends the revolutionary Jean-Michel (Nic Casaula) and Marie (Zina Ellis, the best singer in the show), a poor woman who lives on scraps who turns out to be a fairy godmother; who knew? Meanwhile, Sebastian and his henchman Lord Pinkleton (Carlos Morales) convince Topher to host a royal ball for him to choose a wife. The balance of the plot will be familiar, except for Ella's opening Topher's eyes to all the injustices in his kingdom, just before she flees the ball. There is a subplot involving a romance between Charlotte and Jean-Michel, and a subsequent banquet that Ella again flees before midnight (but this time pointedly leaving her shoe behind intentionally). You pretty much know the rest. Along the way, there are four added songs from the R & H trunk (two, “Now Is the Time” and “Loneliness of Evening” were dropped from South Pacific; one, “Me, Who Am I?”, dropped from Me and Juliet; and one, “There's Music In You” is heard briefly in the film Main Street to Broadway). From the original, the standouts continue to be “Impossible”/Possible”, “In My Own Little Corner”, “Ten Minutes Ago”, and perhaps especially “Do I Love You Because You're Beautiful?”.

Lukas James Miller, Kaitlyn Mayse & Cast in "Cinderella"
(photo: Carol Rosegg)

This national tour was Directed by Gina Rattan, with Choreography by Lee Wilkins, Lighting Design by Kenneth Posner, and those (deservedly) Tony-winning Costumes by Long. Despite misgivings about the new-and-not-improved book, this is a stunningly beautiful production. After all, impossible things are happening every day.... until December 30th, that is.

"Barber Shop Chronicles": Who No Know Go Know

The Cast of "Barber Shop Chronicles"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva) 

Barber Shop Chronicles, the current production being presented by Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre, is another performance by this company that seeks to tell a community's story given by these people themselves. It's consistent with ART's ongoing endeavors to encourage such storytelling by the people who are the possessors of their own chronicles.
Written by Inua Ellams, a poet in his own right, the play consists of created tales that portray the universal truths discovered in a half dozen disparate black communities throughout the world and the commonality that is found in black barber shops, which serve as safe spaces for a country's black population. These stories take place in fourteen brief scenes in several locales, in conversations presented from London to South Africa to Zimbabwe, to Uganda to Nigeria to Ghana. Their topics include choosing a white woman over a black woman, the treatment of gays in Uganda, the deterioration of Pidgin English (and the cultural erosion produced), the hostile response to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and above all else the failed leadership that is mirrored in the futile attempts at father-son relations. They share a concern for the preservation of true masculinity, male sexual health, careers and finances, with the ancient admonition to be silent and to listen to one's elders.

The Cast (& Audience Members) of "Barber Shop Chonicles"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Presented in the course of one intermissionless two hour act, it's a challenge to perform as well as to attend. This exuberant production was Directed by Bijan Sheibani, with Design by Rae Smith, Lighting Design by Jack Knowles, Movement Direction by Aline David, Sound Design by Gareth Fry, Music Direction by Michael Henry and even a Barber Consultant in the person of Peter Atakpo. There are some truly serious acting chops on display as the dozen actors give countless portrayals, though much is at times lost in unintelligible accents and diction issues. On the whole, it comes off as an honest attempt to communicate a world different from our own but contemporaneously familiar in fundamental ways.

With men talking about what it means to be a man, the playwright has remarked about how global and similar we are. There is a Nigerian saying quoted in the work, “who no know go know”, which refers to the lack of knowledge before being exposed to realities that one will then take with him on his journey.

This barbershop will be cutting such a journey and open for business until January 5th.



BSO's "Christmas Oratorio": Bach Humbug?

Andris Nelsons with Carolyn Sampson, Christine Rice, Sebastian Kohlhepp & Andre Schuen
(photo: Winslow Townson)

If you're feeling satiated and saturated by the familiar plethora of seasonal offerings, from A Christmas Carol to The Nutcracker to The Messiah and beyond, beloved as they all are, there's an alternative choice that awaits you in the form of a performance of Bach's Christmas Oratorio by the Boston Symphony Orchestra in which to revel. While Scrooge and sugar plum fairies (and even The Messiah, albeit with no truly specific relevance to the festivities, frankly more accurately considered an Easter piece) have their valid and treasured plateaus in the hierarchy of holiday celebrations, one may justly hope for a wee bit of variety on one's plate, and Symphony Hall might now be the very place; was it a good seasonal choice, or a piece of Bach humbug? Happily, the work is perfect Christmas fare, and there is just one word for the Friday afternoon BSO performance of the Christmas Oratorio: sublime.

Interestingly, the BSO's Andris Nelsons had never before conducted the Bach, but it is now part of the orchestra's second annual Leipzig Week in Boston. The BSO itself hasn't played the piece in about six decades (last in 1960) and even that wasn't a complete version. Due to the size of the Symphony Hall stage (and the size of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus), the orchestra was scaled up in size, with Nelsons described as choosing to emphasize the music itself rather than a rigid adherence to how the work has traditionally been performed.

Bach wrote his 1734 oratorio in six cantatas to be performed beginning Christmas Day for six consecutive days, utilizing some of his previous compositions (thus qualifying for their description as parody music, appropriating already existing themes or lyrics). The actual librettist is not known with certainty. The orchestra is configured slightly differently for each of the six cantatas, over a period of about three hours. The cantatas employ accepted continuity: the birth of Christ, the annunciation of the birth to the shepherds, the adoration by the shepherds, the circumcision, the journey of the Magi, and the adoration by the Magi. (An earlier version depicting the flight into Egypt was deemed of inappropriate context by Bach, and altered).

The concert featured Soprano Carolyn Sampson, mezzo-soprano Christine Rice, tenor Sebastian Kohlhepp and baritone Andre Schuen. All four were terrific, Kohlhepp providing the bulk of the singing as the Narrator (the Evangelist St. Luke). The stars of the production, however, were the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus under the direction of James Burton. They were as rapturously fine as could be hoped for, and Nelsons has never been better, drawing out every possible nuance from his superb orchestra. Also on hand was a small off-stage children's “echo” chorus. The three hour concert just flew by.

Word has it that one cannot walk more than a block or two in Germany during this season without encountering countless performances of this piece. It's the equivalent of our ubiquitous Messiah. Here's one vote for making this an annual musical celebration. Handel's work may be more familiar and beloved for the moment, but, needless to say, the Christmas Oratorio may be said to have found a welcome home here in Boston's Symphony Hall, now and in future Christmases.

The program will be repeated once more on Saturday evening December 1st.


Huntington's "Man in the Ring": TKO

Kyle Vincent Terry in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

All right, one might as well utter the obvious about the Huntington Theatre Company's current production about a famed prizefighter: It's a TKO. Actually, it's more than a technical knock-out, it's a creative one as well, now in its world premiere. The play, based on an all too true story, is Man in the Ring, formerly an opera, now in the form of a play written by Tony and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer and Directed, in his debut with the company, by four-time Tony nominee (for Rent, Grey Gardens, Next to Normal and Dear Evan Hansen), the phenomenal Michael Greif. Even if one is familiar with the events portrayed, there is much to be revealed, not the least of which is the true meaning of the title which doesn't pertain to professional boxing at all. In fact, even those of us who reject prizefighting as sport will find this the highlight of the theatrical season thus far.

Kyle Vincent Terry & John Douglas Thompson in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

As the play Man in the Ring begins, we're first presented with an elderly black man sitting alone on stage singing a Caribbean children's circle song to himself: “Brown boy in the ring, tra la la la la”. The man is Emile Griffith (John Douglas Thompson), now 70, living with the after effects of years of prizefighting, knockouts and hits having affected his brain. This has resulted in his need for assistance from his caregiver Luis (Victor Almanzar) for even the simplest tasks such as putting on his shoes. Griffith was diagnosed with dementia pugilistica, related to CTE or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, its symptoms mirroring those of other dementias such as Alzheimer's.

The story flashes back fifty years to the era of the much younger Emile (Kyle Vincent Terry) who, having first run away from his aunt's house to a home for wayward and orphaned boys on St. Thomas, is sent for by his mother Emelda (Starla Benford) in New York. Emile wanted to design hats, his mother wanted him to be a singer, and the owner of a hat company, Howie Albert (Gordon Clapp), took one look at his physique and told Emile he would help him train as a boxer. Years later (in 1962), as a six-time world champion boxer, he is playfully teased by his opponent and arch rival Paret (Sean Boyce Johnson), calling him “maricon” (a homophobic Spanish slur referencing the fairly public knowledge of Griffith's bisexuality) at their weigh-in for their match at Madison Square Garden, which ends tragically. The remainder of the story deals with the aftermath of that fateful fight.

Victor Almanzar & Kyle Vincent Terry in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The play, part magical realism and part memory play, is an astonishingly gripping one, though its first act is a mite slow in getting underway. There is also one scene about mixing up a job application for styling women's hats with an audition for prizefighting that is confusing if you're not acquainted with the particulars of Griffith's life. The story of his rise and fall, his hasty brief marriage, and the consequences of a lifetime gone awry, builds in intensity in the second act, partly due to Cristofer's incisive writing and partly to Greif's fascinating direction. The use of some matching, overlapping and contrapuntal dialog is especially captivating (and difficult to describe), well delivered by Terry and Thompson (the latter giving a performance for the ages). The rest of the cast, from Almanzar to Benford to Clapp and Johnson, are all superb. On the creative level, Huntington as usual has a coterie of theatrical champs, from Music Director Michael McElroy to Set Designer David Zinn to Costume Designer Emilio Sosa to Projection Designers Peter Nigrini and Dan Scully and Fight Directors Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet. Special notice should be paid to the electrifying Lighting Designer Ben Stanton and dynamic Sound Designer Matt Tierney for their pluperfect contributions.

Kyle Vincent Terry & John Douglas Thompson in "Man in the Ring"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What transpired in life and on stage was a man's search for redemption after a truly tragic confrontation. As Emile succinctly summed up his sexual life: “I will dance with anybody”, and, equally telling, stated that it was “strange...I kill a man and most people understand and forgive me... (but) I love a man and to so many people, this is an unforgivable sin; this makes me an evil person. So even though I never went to jail, I have been in prison almost all my life.” It's a telling expose of the underside of life back in the day (and still today) with its bigotry and callousness. In the end, it was Griffith who was “in the ring”, at the center of the circle song who at last reached out to the one he truly loved. This true-to-life tale ends with a powerful punch that makes the work unforgettably moving and emotionally devastating.

The fight continues at the Calderwood Pavillion venue in the South End until December 22nd.


BLO's "Schoenberg in Hollywood": Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom?

Sarah Womble, Jesse Darden & Omar Ebrahim in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography)

While enjoying the World Premiere (commissioned by Boston Lyric Opera) of composer Tod Machover's Schoenberg in Hollywood, one couldn't help but be reminded of the ingenious 1953 Disney short, Toot, Whistle, Plunk, Boom, which treated the traditional origins of Western (tonal) music in its basic four elements of brass, woodwinds, strings and percussion. This production, recently performed at Emerson's Paramount Theatre, was nothing if not challenging to such tonality, with its deconstructed approach to composition. It even included a tribute to the Hollywood world of animation (though Warner Brothers' Looney Tunes rather than Disney) and brief but amusing musical references to movie music (“As Time Goes By” from Casablanca or the title song from Singin' in the Rain) and early television (the “Happy Trails to You” of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans). With a sparse, sometimes looney, sometimes devastating, Libretto by Simon Robson (based on a Scenario by the late Braham Murray), it's about as enthralling as a twelve-tone scale might ever be, in this one-act ninety minute piece.

Omar Ebrahim in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography)

The place was indeed Hollywood, or some fantasy version thereof, and the time was 1935, as the real-life composer Schoenberg contemplated what writing movie music entailed. In the libretto, there are numerous pithy quotations and musical markers along the way. There were only three singers, Omar Ebrahim as Schoenberg, and, in numerous roles, Sara Womble and Jesse Darden. All three were outstanding, aided immensely by arguably the finest creative team ever assembled on a Boston stage. The performance, precisely Conducted by David Angus with a chamber ensemble from the BLO, was supported by excellent Stage Direction by Karole Armitage, terrific Sound Design by Ben Bloomberg, versatile Set Design by Simon Higlett and Costume Design by Nancy Leary, and exquisite Lighting Design by Pablo Santiago, with perhaps the most creative element being the Media and Projection Design by Peter Torpey.

Sarah Womble, Omar Ebrahim & Jesse Darden in "Schoenberg in Hollywood"
(photo: Liza Voll/Liza Voll Photography) 

It helped if you were familiar with Yiddish and/or German words, as too often side titles didn't translate them; for example, “manchmal”, “weiss ich nicht”, or “verklarte nacht” (though this last one belatedly was translated, as “transfigured night”). But there's no missing the intent of some of the better allusions, such as “silence is a curious accompaniment, isn't it?”, and “can a man know the truth and tell it to the greatest number and not be (mis) understood?”, or “theory must never precede creation”, “if you doubt me, recreate me”, and discussions of “unity”. With respect to the musical foundations, there were such apologias as “dissonance makes the world go 'round”, “tonality went the way of fidelity”, “I'm killin' tonal music” (sung to “Singin' in the Rain”) and “at least I treated all the notes equally”. More profoundly, there were observations about coming “so far, to find we are only what we are” and his defensive “I will guess the future, I will forget the past”.

There was much hope conveyed, despite the visual and auditory atrocities of Nazi Germany, such as the possibility of “music saving mankind”. This serious note was counterbalanced by the quip that Schoenberg (and Machover) share a tendency to present “a chord you just ain't expectin'.”

To quote the libretto, which in turn referenced Looney Tunes: “that's all, volks!”

(Note: Actually, that's not really all, since BLO will continue this adventurous 2019-2019 season with performances March11-17 of Britten's “The Rape of Lucretia” and May 5-12 of Ruders' “The Handmaid's Tale”).


ART's "ExtraOrdinary": Who Gets to Tell Your Story?

Guest Artist Patina Miller in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

With apologies to Lin Manuel Miranda and Hamilton, the current production at ART, titled ExtraOrdinary, might well have utilized the tag line, “Who Gets to Tell Your Story?”, as the compilation of numbers from the last ten years of the company's offerings promises. If there is a common thread throughout this latest effort, it would be the undeniably strong emphasis that ART has always placed on the necessity of theater to enable the telling of the story of a person or group themselves as opposed to someone else telling it for them. Thus the long-overlooked and forgotten, the oppressed and the downtrodden, the characters so often marginalized in other media have found a home and a voice in the welcoming genius that is Artistic Director Diane Paulus. On the surface, this was a celebration of her enduring spirit, unabashedly consistent and sincere liberalism, and uncanny skill in knowing what works in the theater of today. At its base, though, this was a much broader manifesto about the power of music and drama, especially when commingled, to offer resistance to the darker powers in the world outside the confines of a performance venue. As Paulus quotes none other than Brecht in the program: “In the dark times, will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing, about the dark times”.

Matthew James Thomas in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

The festivities got off to a rollicking start with a clever update of the song from Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (arguably the greatest production in the history of the company) that introduced all of the major characters in that show (“Prologue”). It was a superb way to re-introduce the ART audience to some of the performers associated with a baker's dozen of the “over thirty musicals, operas, music theater pieces, and plays with music”. These included three actors from the company's successful revival of Pippin, guest performer (and Tony winner for her “Leading Player”) Patina Miller, Terrence Mann and Matthew James Thomas in the title role, as well as local favorite MJ Rodriguez (who prefers not be pigeonholed as a trans actor, and justly so in this era of self-affirmation, and given such extra-ordinary talent) from Burn All Night, Melody A. Betts (Witness Uganda), and Bryonha Marie Parham (Porgy and Bess). Also in the company were two recent performers, Kathryn Gallagher (Jagged Little Pill) and Brandon Michael Nase (The Black Clown). The tight-knit troupe of eight were uniformly excellent in their portrayals, (though one of them jarringly hammed it up and needs to be restrained a mite), a further testament to Paulus and her team and their pluperfect casting abilities.

The Cast of "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

With all this talent on stage, it made for a sometimes dazzling cabaret experience. Whether or not one is blown away by their numerous star turns depends on one's preference for cabaret, which this decidedly was. Any such effort faces two possible challenges, one being the very subjective choice of numbers to be presented and the impact (or lack thereof) of songs that are delivered out of any theatrical context. Adding to these potential pitfalls was the frequent lack of information (neither in the program nor its inserts nor any supertitles) as to what show a song was from or even what the name of the song was. Thus the more familiar numbers, such as Parham's superlative “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess (in tandem with great trumpet virtuosity by Riley Mulherkar) stood out while excerpts from less popular works (Prometheus Bound and The Blue Flower) went unidentified. There were several choices from Pippin (but markedly not the best showstopper in the revival, “No Time at All”) perhaps recognizing the presence in the audience of its Composer/Lyricist Stephen Schwartz. And shows that went on to Broadway distinction such as Waitress or Finding Neverland were underrepresented (as noted above, however, a subjective reaction). On the creative side, the Choreography by Abbey O'Brien (supplemented by Chet Walker) was amazing, complemented by the Scenic Design by Jason Sherwood, Costume Design by Emilio Sosa, Lighting and Projection Design by Jeannette Oi-Suk Yew, and perhaps most especially the Sound Design by Jonathan Deans. The small but effective band quintet led by Lance Horne was an invaluable asset as well.

Bryonha Marie Parham, MJ Rodriguez, Melody A. Betts & Kathryn Gallagher in "Extraordinary"
(photo: Gretjen Helene Photography)

If cabaret style evenings like this are your cup of tea, (here only until November 30th), you'll love this trip down memory lane, which will feature guest performers during the run such as Norm Lewis or Alicia Hall Moran (both from ART's revival of Porgy and Bess), Rachel Bay Jones (Pippin), and Lea DeLaria (Prometheus Bound). And there's no reason not to expect ten years hence another evening of Paulus' greatest hits to be enjoyed for the next decade; she is not one for looking backward or resting on her estimable laurels. One has the distinct feeling that this giant in the theatre has only just begun. 


Odyssey's "Le Medecin Malgre Lui": Mock Doc

The Cast of "Le Medecin Malgre Lui"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Charles Gounod, recognized as the creator of lyric opera (with his Faust and Romeo et Juliette), is less known for his opera comique, the rarely produced 1858 work Le Medecin Malgre Lui, based on Moliere's The Doctor in Spite of Himself. The opera in fact was given its Boston premiere by Odyssey Opera this past weekend at the Huntington Avenue Theatre, fully staged, in French with English supertitles. Now in its sixth season, Odyssey Opera presented the piece, with Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carre, in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Gounod's birth. The version they presented included sung recitatives commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev from Erik Satie (added in 1924) replacing Moliere's spoken dialog.

Piotr Buszewski in "Le Medecin Malgre Lui"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The work takes place in 17th century rural France, in three acts in ninety minutes without intermission, in a forest, a room in the house of the bourgeois Geronte (baritone James Demler), and a courtyard in the same house. Sganarelle (baritone Stephen Salters), a woodcutter with a taste for alcohol, treats his wife Martine (mezzo soprano Whitney Robinson) poorly. Seeking revenge, she tells Lucas (tenor Stefan Barner) and Valere (baritone Ryne Cherry), Geronte's servants, that her husband is concealing the fact that he is a learned doctor but won't admit it unless flogged first. The servants have been searching for a doctor to attend to Geronte's daughter Lucinde (soprano Kristen Watson), who seems to have been struck speechless. After being beaten, Sganarelle does impersonate a doctor, but Lucinde is in fact feigning illness to avoid being wed to some rich man instead of her poor lover Leandre (tenor Piotr Buszewski). While her father is distracted by the mock doctor with his concocted nonsense words and phony treatments, they make plans to elope. Further distracting is the flirting between the “doctor” and Lucas' wife Jacqueline (mezzo soprano Tascha Anderson). All ends well when Leandre suddenly inherits a fortune and is no longer objectionable to Geronte, and all forgive one another.

The Cast of "Le Medecin Malgre Lui"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The singing for the most part was fine, with an occasional glitch (a high C that missed, for example), though neither memorable nor demanding), but the acting never rose above the level of unrestrained mugging (a fault often displayed when taking on the challenge of a play by Moliere). The production also included a nine member chorus (woodcutters, musicians, peasants), who failed to keep in sync with the orchestra. Gil Rose was the Conductor and Daniel Pelzig the Director. The Costume Design was by Brooke Stanton, with Scenic Design by Dan Daly, and Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom.

After a long series of successes, this opera, part of the company's “GounOdyssey” mini-season, was not one of Odyssey's typically impressive unearthed gems; it would best be left interred. The balance of the current schedule may prove of more interest, with Gluck's Paride ed Elena, Strauss' Die Agyptische Helena and Offenbach's La Belle Helene promising a Helen-of-Troy-centric remaining season.


"Everybody's Talking about Jamie": Not a Drag

The Cast of "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"
Once upon a time there was a 16-year-old boy who had a secret he wanted to tell”, who “approached a documentary filmmaker, as you do, and asked if they would help them tell it.” With that terse statement begins the new (2017) British musical Everybody's Talking about Jamie, inspired by a 2011 BBC Firecracker Documentary, “Jamie: Drag Queen at 16”. It has just arrived on these shores at local theaters in an HD broadcast, with two more showings scheduled, so don't miss this incredibly brilliant piece of theater. It starts a bit confusingly with a scene full of strong accents (hard to follow), but never fear, it's bound to win you over, as a brief synopsis should reveal.

John McCrea & Lucie Shorthouse in "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"

Year Eleven (equivalent to our tenth grade) Careers teacher Miss Hedge (Michele Visage) asks students what they want to become. Jamie New (John McCrea) gets teased about his homosexuality, telling the audience he wants to be a drag queen performer (“But You Don't Even Know It”). Meanwhile his mother Margaret (Rebecca McKinnis) and family friend Ray (Shobna Gulati) make plans for his sixteenth birthday. Mother gives Jamie a card ostensibly from his absent father (Ken Christiansen), and a pair of red high heels from her, which Jamie is reluctant to wear (“The Wall in My Head”). He shows them to his friend Pritti Pasha (Lucie Shorthouse), and both of them are taunted by bully Dean Paxton (Luke Baker), she for being a Muslim and Jamie for being gay (“Spotlight”/”Star of the Show”). Jamie meets Hugo (Lee Ross) the owner of a local drag costume store, Victor's Secret, who was once a drag queen himself (“Legend of Loco Chanelle”), and shows Jamie a beautiful dress (“The Blood Red Dress”). Meanwhile Margaret meets secretly with Jamie's father who wants nothing to do with him (“If I Met Myself Again”). Jamie finds the blood red dress with a note (again ostensibly from his father) and thus is emboldened to perform in a drag show, while Miss Hedge calls his attire “A Work of Art”. He begins to lose his nerve, but three helpful drag performers, Lieka Virgin (Alex Anstey), Tray Sophisticay (James Gillian) and Sandra Bullock (Daniel Jacob) push him on stage (“Over the Top”).The next day at school, the show's title proves true (“Everybody's Talking about Jamie”) but Miss Hedge tells him to “get real” and refuses to let him wear a dress to the prom (“Limited Edition Prom Night Special”), and Pritti tells him “It Means Beautiful”, though Jamie sings of being “Ugly in the Ugly World”. His Mother expresses her feelings in an exquisite solo (“He's My Boy”) Eventually, everybody comes around, in ways not to be revealed here (“Out of the Darkness/A Place Where We Belong”). It's a joyful ending, maybe a bit too universally accepting for reality, but it sure makes for a reassuring view of our world. McCrea is stunning, McKinnis breaks one's heart, Gulati is a gem and Shorthouse is mesmerizing. The quality of the cast is nearly unmatchable.

John McCrea in "Everybody's Talking About Jamie"
Others in the cast include Fatima (Courtney Bowen), Sayid (Jordan Cunningham), Levi (Daniel Davids), Mickey (Ryan Hughes), Bex (Harriet Payne), Cy (Jordan Laviniere), Becca (Lauran Rae) and Vicki (Kirstie Skivington). The terrific Music is by Dan Gillespie Sells and the engaging Book and literate Lyrics are by Tom MacRae. It was excellently Directed by Jonathan Butterell, with superb Set and Costume Design by Anna Fleischle, truly rousing Choreography by Kate Prince, Music Direction by Theo Jamieson, Lighting Design by Lucy Carter, Sound Design by Paul Groothuis, and Video Design by Luke Hall.

The Cast of "Everybody's Talking about Jamie"

Nominated for five Olivier Awards, Jamie won none (this being the year of Hamilton in Britain), but it's already been extended on the West End stage and rumored possibly to be made into a film. As a documentary, stage production and live broadcast, this show has on several levels proven to be a winner. And when did you last see a show whose second act was even better than the first. We'll surely be talking about Jamie for some time to come.

For movie theatre information and ticket purchase, visit JamieinCinemas.com. or the box office at Regal Cinemas in Kingston, MA or at a theatre near you.  The encore dates at Kingston are Sunday Nov.11 at 12:55pm and Wednesday Nov.14 at 7pm.


National Theatre Live & Bridge Theatre's "Allelujah!": Amen!

The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)

A new play by British playwright Alan Bennett (of History Boys fame) is cause for celebration (and cerebration), especially when it's on the extraordinary level of his latest, Allelujah! by name, produced at Bridge Theatre, now being presented by National Theatre Live (this past week at Cape Cinema in Dennis, and next Monday November 5 at Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline). On its surface it's a very funny and uplifting treatment of a dozen patients in a geriatric ward (in Bethlehem Hospital, no less) where there too often seems to be no room at the inn, since its “patients” have become “residents” in a rather open-ended prolonged purgatory. Underlying all the humor, as is often the case with the works of Bennett, there is a much darker side that puts the spotlight on the political pawns that these poor people devolve into when authorities fixate on numerics, prizing not recovery but discharge. At the heart of this mind-blowing play is the insidious and callous calculation of “heads in beds”.

The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)
Central to the community at “The Beth” is the twenty-five-year veteran nurse, Sister Gilchrist (Deborah Findlay), whose final solution to the problem is managing to achieve her ideal: an empty bed. That may also be said for the unctuous Hospital Chairman Salter (Peter Forbes), the newly migrated Dr. Valentine (Sacha Dhawan), and even the ambitious young administrative government inspector up-and-comer Colin (Samuel Barnett), son of one of the more outspoken elderly occupants, Joe (Jeff Rawle). As the play progresses, much is revealed about who these folks are (and were), and just how deceptively powerful and transformative “old age” can be when in the hands of a still-creative and cleverly inventive bunch like these seniors, especially the alert and oriented Mavis (Patricia England), Mary (Julia Foster) and Hazel (Sue Wallace). There are sad moments, such as the perennial waiting-for-Godot patience of former teacher Ambrose (Simon Williams) whose former student promises to appear at any moment (but never does), or the plaintive cry by Mrs. Maudsley (Jacqueline Clarke): “It was my house!”. There is talk about the tenacity not of “the jaws of death but the jaws of life” as some look forward to their own idea of peace, or closure.

The Cast of "Allelujah!"
(photo: Manuel Harlan)

If this sounds serious, it's because it is. But it's also relentlessly hilarious at heart (and there is much heart), not least because this incredibly orchestrated cast can effortlessly punch a line and join in a rapturous kick line that belies their years. Director Nicholas Hytner manages to hit all the right notes that Bennett provides, beginning and ending with sung “Allelujahs”, the former from an old hymn, the last from film (“Sing Hallelujah, come on get happy, get ready for the judgment day!”). Choreographer Arlene Phillips assembled a cast of primarily amateur dancers (though most are life-long acting professionals) who truly make the show sing. The other creative elements (Design by Bob Crowley, Music by George Fenton, Lighting by Natasha Chivers and Sound by Mike Walker), as well as the Direction for the Screen by Robin Lough, are all fabulously integrated.

Like the recent musical Fun Home (set in a funeral home), this production takes a situation steeped in gravitas to a plateau overflowing with soaring spirits. It's fundamentally impossible to describe (especially some sudden twists that would qualify as major spoilers) this curiously engaging amalgam; it's basically sui generis, wonderfully one of a kind, positively unique. It's arguably the best work in the career of its eighty-four-year-old playwright, and merits being given many an encore. Bennett has surely come a long way since his efforts (as writer and performer) in 1960's Beyond the Fringe. This work could easily deplete one's thesaurus of positive adjectives, so let's just call it positively brilliant, with a heartfelt, heart-rending and hearty “Amen!”.

Encore HD Broadcast will be presented at Coolidge Corner Theatre (Brookline) on Nov. 5th at 7pm.


Met's "Girl of the Golden West": Minnie and the Miners

The Polka Saloon set for "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

While it is indeed about Minnie and her miners, that's not the name of a punk rock group, but a reference to the characters inThe Girl of the Golden West or La Fanciulla del West , an opera that is far from one of Giacomo Puccini's best-known or frequently performed works. This may perhaps be due to its somewhat outrageous plot, written by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini after a play by American David Belasco (who also wrote the play on which Madame Butterfly is based). The Metropolitan Opera actually commissioned the opera back in 1910 from Puccini himself, and the company has brought back its most recent production in a Live in HD broadcast, certain that its less familiar music will carry the day, despite the undeniable fact that any resemblance to the true American West of 1849-1850, golden or otherwise, is purely coincidental. The plot is also relatively unknown, so a synopsis, even of its simple yet surely outlandish story, is in order.

Millie's Cabin in "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

At the Polka Saloon in the foothills of the Cloudy Mountains of California, miners including Sonora (baritone Michael Todd Simpson), bartender Nick (tenor Carlo Bosi) and the traveling minstrel Jake Wallace (bass Oren Gradus) all share a love for Minnie (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek), the bar's owner, as does Sheriff Jack Rance (baritone Zeljko Lucic), whom Minnie rejects. The Wells Fargo agent Ashby (bass Matthew Rose) arrives to tell them he is after a bandit. A Stranger (tenor Jonas Kaufmann) who calls himself Dick Johnson arrives, whom Minnie recognizes. The miners drag in an outlaw, Jose Castro (baritone Kidon Choi) who pretends he will lead them to the hideout of the gang led by the bandit Ramerrez; he whispers to Johnson (whose real identity is that of Ramerrez) that he let them capture him so that he could trick them. Left alone, Minnie and Johnson are attracted to one another, and she shyly invites him to her cabin. There they proclaim their mutual love, but he hides when they hear shots. Rance enters to tell Minnie he has uncovered Johnson's true identity. After Rance leaves, she confronts Johnson, who says he is giving up the life of a bandit since he met her, but she sends him away. Another shot is heard and Johnson, wounded, staggers in. She hides him in her attic as Rance enters to search for the fugitive. When blood drops down from the attic, Johnson's hiding place is revealed. Minnie challenges Rance to a poker game wherein if he wins, she is his, but if she wins, Johnson will go free. Minnie wins, by cheating, and nurses Johnson back to health. The miners enter, determined to hang him, but she pleads with them, reminding them how much they all owe to her. They release Johnson and the two leave to start a new life together.

Westbroek & Hoffman in "The Girl of the Golden West"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

While the score may not be as familiar to audiences as his other works, Puccini managed to provide some memorable melody, so much so that Andrew Lloyd Webber notoriously was sued by the Puccini estate (and settled out of court) for his use of a theme Puccini repeats half a dozen times and shows up in the music for Lloyd Webber's song “Music of the Night” from his musical The Phantom of the Opera. In this production, the three leads, Westbroek, Kaufmann and Lucic shone (even if Westbroek ultimately stole the show), and the supporting singers, including the male Met Opera Chorus, were all one could ask for. This performance was Conducted by Mario Armiliato. The Production was by Giancarlo del Monaco, with Set and Costume Design by Michael Scott, Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, and Stage Direction by Gregory Keller. The Chorus Master was the ubiquitous Donald Palumbo, and the Live in HD Director was Gary Halvorson. The Live in HD Host was Susanna Phillips.

And there's still gold in them thar hills, with an encore broadcast next Weds. Oct. 31st.


Lyric Stage's "Roommate": Whines of a Certain Vintage

Adrianne Krstansky & Paula Plum in "The Roommate"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

The Roommate, a two-hander by playwright Jen Silverman now being produced by Lyric Stage Company, portrays the complications of sharing one's space with another human being. It's the story of Sharon (Paula Plum), a middle-aged divorcee in (financial) need of a roommate to share her Iowa home. On her doorstep arrives a woman who might provide more than mere company, but also the potential fulfillment of more than this financial need, Robyn (Adrianne Krstansky), a leather-clad lesbian poet from the Bronx whose own needs prove to include a place to hide, as well as an opportunity to start over with her life. While sharing books and music, Sharon uncovers a few secrets held by Robyn as well as her own deep-seated desire to transform herself. These two mismatched (and more than a bit stereotypical) combatants have decidedly differing views on many aspects of their respective herstories. Where Robyn declares “all first poems are bad, but there's a great liberty in being bad”, Sharon opines that “everybody wants to start over, just burn it and start over”.

The women both tend to bitch and moan, sometimes about mutual complaints, sometimes not. Sharon, at first seemingly unimaginative, turns out to have submerged idiosyncrasies of her own that entice her with the concept of being Robyn's “accomplice” if Robyn shares much of her past with her. As opposed to many characterizations of women of a certain vintage and their whines that are typically presented on stages today, these feel like real people, truly complex women who aren't dependent on the presence of any male influence for their own validation. Though they are fundamentally mismatched initially, with Sharon living in stasis and Robyn ever transforming herself, they share a common escape mechanism of putting up barriers that each is reluctant to disassemble. As Silverman has described it, at the most basic level they share feelings of being alone, dissatisfied and even angry, as they face the question of whether a human can truly change and reinvent herself, and to what degree can she do so? What evolves is a subversive tragicomedy about what it means to attempt to rewrite your life and what happens if the effort goes awry. In a brief ninety minutes, Silverman, who has described her play as “naturalism on speed”, manages to convey a wealth of pithy observations, even though they may not be fully developed or realized.

Paula Plum & Adrianne Krstansky in "The Roommate"
(photo: Mark S. Howard) 

Thankfully, with players of a certain vintage and professionalism, talent and experience save the day (and the play). The perils of Paula Plum and Adrianne Krstansky are expertly shown and met with passion that is ultimately transformative, primarily for the better-written character of Sharon. There are funny lines well-delivered, especially by Paula, having found yet another plum role. They are ably directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos, with appropriately fussy Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord and Costume Design by Tobi Renaldi, as well as Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs, and Sound Design and Original Music by Dewey Dellay.

There is a basic question underlying all of this: interestingly, the play is titled The Roommate rather than The Roommates. What are we to make of that? Perhaps the answer is in the fact that Sharon, though the homeowner, is the one more affected by her change in status from a solo to a duet, and the message from this profoundly cynical work is that the worst addiction is breaking bad. As Sharon puts it near the end of the play as she searches for a word to best describe herself, “it's a good word, but no longer right”. She ends up as the one who has been changed. It's about finding that “great liberty in being bad.”

This formidable twosome will be in combat through November 18th.

BSO's "Mahler 2nd": Resurrected with Eternal Light

Andris Nelsons with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
(photo: BSO)

The Boston Symphony Orchestra season continued to provide some much-needed uplift from the current politically charged environment, with a performance of the Mahler 2nd Symphony (a.k.a. the “Resurrection” Symphony) this past Friday afternoon, with the added bonus being the rarely heard brief piece Lux aeterna (for unaccompanied chorus) by the Latvian composer Maija Einfelde.

Lux aeterna is a brief (approximately six minutes in length) adaptation of lines from the Catholic liturgy of the Requiem Mass, composed in 2012 for the Latvian Radio Choir. It was performed by the Boston Symphony Chorus under the direction of James Burton in recognition of the centennial celebration of Latvian Independence (with another Latvian work due to be performed by the BSO next month, Andris Dzenitis' orchestral piece co-commissioned by the BSO, Ma ra) . Per the instructions of the composer, giving a choice of using accompanying percussion, crotales (sometimes referred to as “ancient cymbals”) were used in this performance. With echoes of Gregorian Chant, this work, by a young daughter of a Latvian organ builder, was a moving opener for the program that was to highlight the beloved piece of Mahler.

The BSO performance of the Mahler was beautifully conducted by Latvian-born Andris Nelsons. He and his orchestra gave a fine rendition of the work. Its debut was in 1888 (when the composer was only 28 years old), as audiences were first introduced to its unusual structure of five movements (about which the composer himself said “can no more be explained than the world itself”). The first movement was a twenty minute long piece based on the Tottenfeier (Funeral Rites) with an unexpected combination of discordant stretches and quieter ones, finally quite loud as it portrayed a descent into the void, having included a reference to the familiar Dies irae. The second movement was a lighter and happier piece like a dance, for sixteen minutes. The third movement might then be expected to be peaceful but was anything but, preparing the audience for the fourth movement which featured soloist mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, and the fifth and final movement, featuring both Fink and soprano Ying Fang, as it portrays the longing to escape from pain and need, and from death to resurrection in paradise as the gates of heaven open wide, with accompanying bells and the organ with all its stops out, and the words “I shall die so as to live”. Mention should also be made of the superior performance by the chorus, whose first entrance especially was soto voce, amazingly so, and aptly dramatic.

For lovers of this Mahler work, and they are many (including this critic), this was a much anticipated and ultimately satisfying experience.

Encores of this program will be given on Saturday October 27th and Tuesday October 30th.


SpeakEasy's "Fun Home": Home Run

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

What would happen if we spoke the truth?”

Caption: That is the existential question posed by Alison Bechdel in her graphic novel based on her true-life story of growing up in a funeral home, (hence the title Fun Home), upon which the musical of the same name was subsequently based. This brilliant adaptation, currently being performed by SpeakEasy Stage Company, is faithful to its sources. Its Broadway production in 2015 (after its off-Broadway successful run in 2013), with Book and Lyrics by Lisa Kron and Music by Jeanine Tesori, was nominated for twelve Tony Awards, winning five, including Best Musical, Book, and Score. It holds the distinction of being the first musical in Broadway history to feature an out lesbian protagonist. The entire story is told in non-linear flashbacks by the adult 43-year-old character of Alison Bechdel (Amy Jo Jackson) via numerous songs, some of them quite brief and more like operatic recitative. Never fear, however, for this smart and insightful creation is very approachable, often true to the “fun” in its name, and irresistibly honest. As it was performed in its original productions in New York, this version is presented in the round (or more precisely, three-quarter-round), which is often a treacherous decision in the wrong hands that cannot prevent audience members missing action when faced with an actor's back.

Merissa Simeqi, Amy Jo Jackson & Ellie van Amerongen in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

Fortunately, we're on firm ground and in great hands in this production, as it's directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director, Paul Daigneault, one of Boston's always-dependable creative minds. He meets the challenge of theater in the surround by and large without compromising any seat in the house, keeping his cast consistently alert and oriented. Alison is played by three actresses who present her story at three stages of her life: 19 year old Medium Alison (Ellie van Amerongen), 9 year old Small Alison (Marissa Simeqi), and the adult Alison who provides most of the narration. The rest of the family consists of her father Bruce (Todd Yard), her mother Helen (Laura Marie Duncan) and her brothers Christian (Cameron Levesque) and John (Luke Gold). Also featured are Desire Graham as Joan and Tyler Simahk in several roles, as Roy, Pete, Mark, Bobby and Jeremy. In the space of just one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission, we learn an uncanny amount of insight into this intimate community. Much of the success of this work is due to the extraordinary journey taken over five years by Kron and Tesori as they honed the storytelling and developed the musical medium in which to tell it, as an impressionistic memoir by an artist who rebelled by becoming a lesbian cartoonist.

Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

The story begins with a scene of a father/daughter airplane game. In emotional rather than strict chronology, we come to learn that Bruce is obsessed with renovation of his material world while unable to reconstruct or escape his closeted self, yearning for the courage that his daughter exhibits in her independence in his song Pony Girl: “some folks get the call to go, some folks are bound to stay.”  Helen has spent their married life in virtual denial, as she cries out to her daughter in the song Days and Days: “I didn't raise you to give away your days like me” and “chaos never happens if it's never seen". Small Alison longs to express herself as she becomes aware of another female with a “Ring of Keys” that simultaneously promise and threaten to unlock her developing desires. Medium Alison begins to accept who and what she is as she sings that she is Changing (Her) Major to Joan. The time frame (the 70's and 80's) in part defines how each character comes out or remains closeted. This father and daughter epitomize two very different people, one a prisoner of his times and generation; the other enjoying her new found freedoms and visibility. There evolves yet another existential question: how many times can the members of one cast in one performance break your heart?

The Cast of "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

And this well-knit cast does exactly that, time and again, with their bravery in sharing their perception and enlightened comprehension of what lies beneath the surface of cosmic issues in microcosm. The three Alisons and her parents, and their growth or stasis, are obviously crucial to realizing what's at the core of the story. None of them disappoints, and each gets a perfect aria to reveal what is at stake; Yard, Simeqi, van Amerongen, Jackson, and Duncan each give award-worthy turns, and Graham and Simahk (though discomfortingly looking too young for his various parts) give fine support. And attention must be paid to the exquisitely expressive work in the Music Direction of Matthew Stern, as well as the other creative elements, from the Set Design by Cristina Todesco, to the brief Choreography by Sarah Crane, Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker, Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

Tesori spoke about these characters as real people who “could not find a way to sing, and children who were trying to sing the song of the parents who didn't have the form and structure to sing” but did have “the desire to acknowledge and accept one's truth.” And Kron described both Alison and her father as having “stood on the precipice of becoming the person they wanted to be...but in order to do that, you have to be willing to go through humiliation. If you're going to become a different person...you must become someone you cannot control, and that is humiliating...that's not bearable”. And there remains one last existential question: if one keeps noting that every SpeakEasy production is even more sublime theater than the last, will readers' eyes glaze over and eventually lose their trust, and thus if a review falls on deaf eyes, does it make a noise or any impact? Caption: it must be said that this is SpeakEasy and Daigneault at their best, making this the show you owe it to yourself to see, even as it breaks your heart too many times to count with its fierce and revelatory truth.

Marissa Simeqi & Todd Yard in "Fun Home"
(photo: Nile Hawyer/Nile Scott Shots)

In the end, what does Fun Home have to say to us? Find out now, through November 24th . For, as Small Alison puts it best, remembering the airplane game, at the end of the show: “Caption: every so often there was a rare moment of perfect balance when I soared above him.”